Imperialism's Afghanistan legacy

Jim Moody reviews The great game (directors: Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham) : Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn until June 14

The Tricycle is to be commended for having commissioned a series of short plays under the umbrella title of The great game. While the interface between art and politics is frequently problematic, the overall impact of this endeavour is excellent in both respects.

One person who has seen the whole series of plays commented that, although Britain oppressed Afghanistan, it also has the talent to produce this kind of drama - one that tries honestly to understand what has happened and is happening in that country. Certainly in these 12 pieces, each around half an hour in length, the 13 writers, two directors and cast of 15 actors have turned out engaging works whose cumulative effect gives emotional force to historical fact.

Here, then, is a sweep of history encompassing nearly 200 years of imperialist attempts to oppress Afghanistan, all but the most recent of which (so far) having led to withdrawal. There are three parts to The great game: Part 1 deals with ‘Invasion and independence’ from 1842 to 1930; part 2 covers ‘Communism, the Mujahedin, and the Taliban’ over the period 1979-96; and part 3, entitled ‘Enduring freedom’, takes us from 1996 to the present year.

This, though, is far from a dry recitation of history with polemical overtones. While there is a variation of intensity and impact, piece by piece, the great ensemble playing of the cast, directed so ably by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, brings out the inner workings of the historical players at the particular junctures. We get to understand somewhat the motivations and ideas carried within the figures who lived and died at all levels during these events.

The title of the collection of plays originates, of course, from the first playing out of the 1830s diplomatic, military and often secret struggle for influence over Afghanistan, initially between Russia and Britain. Russia’s early 19th century annexations of the contiguous territories around Bokhara (now Bukhara, in Uzbekistan) and Tashkent (now capital of Uzbekistan) prompted a British military expedition to secure Afghanistan and safeguard India, the jewel of the empire.

So it was that soon after the First Afghan War and following British duplicity and the loss of several forts, Lord Auckland’s Army of the Indus, consisting of 16,000 men and camp followers, evacuated Kabul in January 1842. Setting off for Jalalabad, their column was set upon by Afghan forces and all but a few killed. One of a handful of the Brits captured, Lady Sales (Jemma Redgrave), kept a secret journal. Stephen Jeffreys’s Bugles at the gates of Jalalabad marries excerpts from this journal with the conversation of four buglers, McCann (Daniel Betts), Dickenson (Tom McKay), Hendrick (Rick Warden) and Winterflood (Hugh Skinner). Their vain playing from Jalalabad’s fortified ramparts was supposed to call any of Auckland’s stragglers to its safety. In fact, only the regimental surgeon, Dr Brydon, ever reached Jalalabad.

And Britain’s imperial mission is played out in miniature when one of them murders a literate and mannered Afghan, Afzal (Nabil Elouahabi), who comes to the fort while they await their missing comrades. True to its source, Lady Sales’ journal, and the well-observed dispiritedness of British soldiery at this crushing defeat, Bugles at the gates of Jalalabad expresses an anger toward the politicians who had overseen this catastrophic start to British imperialist adventures in Afghanistan.

Ron Hutchinson’s Durand’s line depicts foreign secretary of India Sir Henry Mortimer Durand (Michael Cochrane) in frustrated negotiation in 1893 with Abdur Rahman (Paul Bhattacharjee), whom the British had made amir in 1880, establishing Afghanistan as its client state. Durand’s overbearing insistence forces the brutal Rahman to accept the division of Pashtun territory. Still disputed to this day for dividing the Pashtun people, Durand’s line sliced the Pashtun heartland of Waziristan from Afghanistan and made it part of what was then British India. Divided into North and South administratively, Waziristan is currently one of the politically wildest parts of Pakistan.

Skipping forward to the present day for a short while, Amit Gupta’s Campaign lays bare the way the British state recruits academics as its intellectual prostitutes. An ignorant parliamentary private secretary, Harry Hawk MP (Tom McKay), milks professor Tariq Khan (Paul Bhattacharjee) of his deep knowledge of Afghanistan in order to further the New Labour project. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of the princes of spin, especially not the facts of history or the rights of the Afghan people. McKay has the modern Labour politician down to a T.

Back in post-World War I Afghanistan, Joy Wilkinson’s Now is the time grapples with the reforms of king Amanullah Khan (Sagar Arya). Set during his flight from Kabul in a snowstorm in 1929, the play shows Amanullah accepting that he was not going to get help from either the west or the new Soviet regime. Having toured Turkey as well as Europe and Russia, Khan was impressed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, instigating infrastructural changes and opening girls’ schools.

Leaping forward several decades, we arrive at the April Revolution that ushered in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, run by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). David Edgar’s Black tulips is set in a briefing room for new conscripts to the Soviet Union’s 40th Army in the years 1987, 1985, 1984, 1982 and 1981 respectively. By means of this reverse chronology we get to think more about the Russian chauvinism that was the ideological fuel behind this attempt to protect the Soviet Union’s southern border in its great power play. Edgar demonstrates how terminology changed according to what needed to be inculcated in raw troops and build credibility in what they were fighting for.

Once the Soviets became involved, the USA went overboard via the CIA in recruiting Mujahedin warlords to its side. JT Rogers’ Blood and gifts shows up some of the early inconsistencies in the US approach, given it did not want to appear as the source of the weaponry the Mujahedin were using: initially they could only supply Lee Enfield rifles, not semi-automatic weapons. One of the Mujahedin, Abdullah (Vincent Ebrahim), when first solicited by CIA man Jim (Rich Warden) in his camp in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan in 1981, is incensed at being fobbed off. Five years later, Abdullah and his sidekick, Saaid (Danny Rahim), give evidence to a Congressional committee in Washington DC, still carrying on heated arguments with Jim about their lack of weapons outside its very doors. In 1988, Jim travels to Jalalabad to ask Abdullah for the return of Stinger missiles, but the latter is having none of it, and in fact abandons his previous secularism to embrace his erstwhile enemy, Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Over 20,000 were killed in two and a half years of civil war that ended in 1994 - more than died during the whole of the Soviet occupation. In the UN compound, where David Greig’s Miniskirts of Kabul is set in 1996, the Taliban are coming into their own. Colin Teevan’s The lion of Kabul ranks Taliban morality against a western manifestation of it.

Operation Enduring Freedom is the US’s misnomer for its war on Afghanistan, part of the mendacious ‘global war on terror’. So it is that the ‘Enduring freedom’ segment of plays brings us up to the present.

Whether under Bhutto or Musharraf, Pakistan continued to supply the Taliban through its security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But by 2001 UN sanctions against the Taliban had been agreed. US discussions about this are well encapsulated in Ben Ockrent’s play Honey, in which Robin Raphael (Jemma Redgrave), assistant US secretary of state for south Asia, interrogates CIA operative Gary Schroen (Michael Cochrane) as to the best way forward. Ockrent develops the plot (in both senses) in four scenes: in 1996 in both the Islamabad US embassy and the office of the Northern Alliance’s Ahmad Shah Massoud (Paul Bhattacharjee); and then in early September 2001 at Massoud’s house in northern Afghanistan, to where he has called his adviser Masood Khalili (Vincent Ebrahim), just prior to the 9/11 attacks in New York.

In Abi Morgan’s The night is darkest before the dawn, the difficulty of getting girls educated even where there is no Taliban is illustrated through the whim of a local warlord, Elmar (Sagar Arya), who decides to send his daughters to the school run by Minoo (Jemima Rooper). This means that local villagers have to follow suit. Until Elmar’s visit to the village puts him straight, Omaid (Ramon Tikaram) refuses to countenance his daughter being educated for fear of what would happen were the Taliban to return. No-one can easily go against the warlord, however.

Non-governmental organisations have become involved again in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban. Richard Bean’s On the side of the angels pits NGO field worker Jackie (Jemma Redgrave) against office administrator Fiona (Jemima Rooper) and then another field worker when her pragmatism in delivering the NGO’s mission comes up against his objections to her ‘ends justifies the means’ approach. Both field workers die when he tries to stop a betrothal of 11-year-old girls.

Finally, in this arc of historical plays, Simon Stephens’s Canopy of stars peeps into a world of squaddies in Helmand and what can happen when they get home. Brit sergeant Jay Watkins (Tom McKay) and private Richard Kendall (Hugh Skinner) chat in a bunker about why they are there. Watkins feels he is on a mission against Taliban barbarity; Kendall is only fighting to avenge dead mates. Back home in Levenshulme, Watkins’ reasons fail to win over his wife: she wants him home with her and their son, but he is psychically and emotionally battle-scarred.

Tricycle Theatre: 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR; www.tricycle.co.uk; 020 7328 1000.
The Tricycle is also hosting the Afghanistan Film Festival (May 1-10), and an exhibition of contemporary Afghan photography (May 12-31).