The Great Game: Afghanistan

The Great Game: Afghanistan

The Great Game: Afghanistan

Directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham
Limited Season · Roda Theatre
October 22–November 7, 2010
West Coast Premiere

Running times:
Part One—2 hours and 5 minutes
Part Two—2 hours and 30 minutes
Part Three—2 hours and 30 minutes
(all parts include one 15-minute intermission)

Whether you know it or not, you’re part of The Great Game. A sweeping cycle of short scripts by 12 top playwrights, this unprecedented show explores Afghanistan over the last 150 years. Direct from London, where it debuted to rave reviews, The Great Game makes its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep. It’s a captivating collection of stories performed by Britain’s finest actors. Presented in three parts—on different days or in one impassioned marathon—The Great Game explores the eternal struggle to control Central Asia. World powers and warlords, diplomats and activists, opium farmers and ordinary people…all of them tangle with the tribes and traditions of Afghanistan. It’s an emotional event that illuminates the complex culture of another land.

See one part or see them all. See them in any order—or as part of an impressive marathon. Get into The Game!

Part One: Invasions & Independence (1842–1929)
The saga begins with Bugles at the Gate of Jalalabad by Stephen Jeffreys. After a devastating defeat, four British soldiers struggle with passionate questions about their purpose in a distant land: Are they following God’s will? Spreading civilization? Or just following orders? Then, in Durand’s Line by Ron Hutchinson, a British diplomat and the amir of Afghanistan engage in a stunning duel of wits. Can the simple act of drawing lines on a map impose order on a “lawless” culture? Or is it folly to forge a nation from competing tribes? Finally, Campaign by Amit Gupta and Now is the Time by Joy Wilkinson examine the legacy of Afghanistan’s first president. Can one man with a glorious vision throw off British rule and create a secular democracy? Or will warlords enforce a new agenda? Questions that haunted history in 1842 continue to resonate in ways we can’t help but hear today.

Part Two: Communism, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban (1980–1996)
A pair of provocative plays, David Edgar’s Black Tulips and Lee Blessing’s Wood for the Fire, burn up the stage when Soviet troops enter Afghanistan. Are the Russians invited guests or invaders? Who is the actual enemy, and where do they get their weapons? As victory proves elusive, the mission—and the meaning of success—must be redefined. Then, in Miniskirts of Kabul by David Greig, a journalist interviews the country’s deposed Communist leader. Their hilarious and horrific conversation covers everything from hemlines to the Kremlin as the Taliban lay siege to the capital. Finally, in The Lion of Kabul by Colin Teevan, two men hired by the United Nations disappear—and only a midnight meeting can reveal their fate. Two decades of turmoil ignite your curiosity and compassion in this thrilling series of shows.

Part Three: Enduring Freedom (1996–2009)
America blithely rides an economic boom in Ben Ockrent’s Honey as an anxious CIA operative tries to buy back missiles that landed in the hands of militants. Next, in The Night is Darkest before the Dawn by Abi Morgan, a teacher invites girls to a free school—but fearful families of poppy farmers recall all too well the harsh justice of the Taliban. In On the Side of the Angels by Richard Bean, employees of a British nonprofit struggle to retain their integrity while raising funds at home and brokering deals abroad. Then Simon Stephens’ Canopy of Stars captures a soldier in two intense encounters: one with a buddy before battle and the other when he returns to his wife. Has anything changed? What have we learned? The Great Game goes on in Afghanistan, yet the conclusions are up to you.

Creative team

Richard Bean · Playwright
Lee Blessing · Playwright
David Edgar · Playwright
David Greig · Playwright
Amit Gupta · Playwright
Ron Hutchinson · Playwright
Stephen Jeffreys · Playwright
Abi Morgan · Playwright
Richard Norton-Taylor · Playwright
Ben Ockrent · Playwright
Siba Shakib · Playwright
Simon Stephens · Playwright
Colin Teevan · Playwright
Joy Wilkinson · Playwright
Nicolas Kent · Director
Indhu Rubasingham · Director
Pamela Howard · Project Designer
David I. Taylor · Lighting Design (based on original lighting by James Farncombe)
Tom Lishman · Sound Design
Miriam Nabarro · Associate Designer
Rachel Grunwald · Assistant Director
Jack Morocco · Pyrotechnics
Jeff Stitt · Pyrotechnics


Daniel Betts
Sheena Bhattessa
Michael Cochrane
Karl Davies
Vincent Ebrahim
Nabil Elouahabi
Shereen Martineau
Tom McKay
Daniel Rabin
Danny Rahim
Raad Rawi
Jemma Redgrave
Cloudia Swann
Rick Warden

The Great Game: Afghanistan is one of the theatrical events of the season…This is no polemic. It’s a timely history lesson, an animated primer to add context to one of the era’s most pressing issues. It’s also strikingly staged by Tricycle director Nicolas Kent, who created the project, and co-director Indhu Rubasingham…Jemma Redgrave, of the great English acting dynasty, is riveting…It’s performed by 14 fine actors in three parts, separately or in all-day weekend marathons. Go for the marathon.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“The war in Afghanistan as you’ve never seen it”—Napa Valley Register

“A masterwork…A stunning, epic look at Afghanistan’s turbulent history…This complex and engaging play, directed by Nicholas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, will give you a better understanding of the situation in Afghanistan and how we got there. But not to be overlooked is the wonderful theatrical ride that is provided by just 13 actors performing a multitude of characters in the plays and scenes that make up the work.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Three years ago, Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre in London, was sitting at home watching the nightly news. The broadcast featured a story about Afghanistan, one small story in a series of seemingly endless stories focused on military skirmishes in an unfamiliar part of the world. The report was typically perfunctory—it featured nameless casualties, unseen danger and the overwhelming feeling that there was no political or military solution in sight. The report left Mr. Kent feeling completely numb. He knew that the subject of Afghanistan was important, but he had lost all emotional connection with the country or any deep understanding of the situation.

The emptiness of this experience started him thinking. What would it be like, he thought, if artists were to respond to the subject? What if he were to gather a group of writers who had an appetite for history and turn them loose on the topic of Afghanistan? How would they respond? What measure of creative insight could they provide? Could they offer a fresh perspective on a subject that was being endlessly worn down by the media? Could they catalyze a new public discourse, one that enabled people to think a bit differently? And what would a collision of different creative approaches to such a complicated subject end up looking like?

The answer is The Great Game: a series of 12 short plays covering the history of Afghanistan from 1842 to the present day. Bringing together a dozen leading playwrights, Mr. Kent has fashioned a three-part, eight-hour excursion that plunges the audience into one of the world’s most mysterious countries. The backdrop, of course, is the never-ending lust of competing empires to control Afghanistan and its fierce, tribally based resistance to foreign domination.

Seen through the prism of this extraordinary theatrical event, the inert past is reawakened. Through a myriad of imagined human relationships, presented in wildly different styles, we are invited to see Afghanistan through a collection of stories rather than a list of facts. The result is a terrifically entertaining show in which a world that was removed from us is suddenly made intensely real and immediate. And while there is no single, overriding point of view and no easy answers, we find ourselves reconnected to the subject.

Don’t take my word for it—ask General Sir David Richards. Recently appointed Chief of Defense Staff in Great Britain, he sent a flurry of new army recruits to see The Great Game in London. Talk about changing the dialogue around a contentious issue! It is a testament to Mr. Kent’s extraordinary vision that he has found a way to tackle such a complicated subject and deliver a show on distinctly human terms.

If you haven’t bought tickets for all three parts, I encourage you to do so. The full ride is really the best way to go.


Tony Taccone

Director’s note

In 2008, when I commissioned the plays that make this trilogy, Iraq had been the big story for the world’s media for most of the preceding 15 years. For a short period in the autumn of 2001, just after 9/11, Afghanistan took center stage. But after the fall of the Taliban both Bush and Blair ensured that the world’s attention moved swiftly back to Iraq.

Almost every day in those past 15 years, Iraq was in the headlines, and artists, writers, filmmakers and theatres produced much work about the invasion and its aftermath. The Tricycle, in common with many other London theatres, mounted a number of plays on the subject—indeed, in 1993, the first of our “tribunal plays” was a dramatization of Lord Scott’s Arms to Iraq inquiry.

Even four years ago, no one was paying much attention to the war in Afghanistan, and the British Defense Secretary was committing more troops to the ISAF force in Helmand to protect the reconstruction. However, two years later, the world’s political focus was very slowly but inexorably swinging back towards Afghanistan. The insurgency was strengthening, increasing numbers of British soldiers had been killed and injured and the West looked dug in for the long haul.

It was becoming clear Afghanistan was going to be the main focus of British, European and American policy for at least the next decade. But still two years ago, not only was there almost no public debate about this, there was very little reporting and almost no artistic response—except a handful of novels, including the work of Khaled Hosseini.

I knew vaguely about the three Anglo-Afghan wars, the British and Russian imperialist “Great Game” maneuvers, and something about the factions of the mujahideen fighting the civil war after the Soviet withdrawal. But there were huge gaps in my knowledge of Afghanistan’s history, and the causes of where we are now. And I was sure I was not alone in this ignorance.

Information sparks debate, and theatre can often be the catalyst, but how to tackle Afghanistan?

Well, two experiences came to my aid. Some years ago the Tricycle had produced a trilogy, Love Song for Ulster by Bill Morrison, which looked at Northern Ireland’s politics, and from that experience I knew that day-long theatre events could be both exciting and stimulating; this feeling was reinforced in April 2008 by seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Histories” season at the Roundhouse. The other experience was a response we had to the Darfur crisis when, three years ago, the Tricycle commissioned six dramatists from our Bloomberg Playwrights group to come up with ten-minute plays, and all the writers rose enthusiastically to the challenge. The resulting evenings played to a week of full houses.

So I had my template—a day-long event using a number of playwrights, but where to start? Initially I did a trawl for writers, including novelists, from the subcontinent, but apart from Siba Shakib I met with little success. Next I turned to “political” writers working here or in America. David Edgar’s play Testing the Echo was on at the Tricycle at that time, so who better to get the ball rolling? Ron Hutchinson’s play Moonlight & Magnolias had just played the Tricycle and a new political play of his was about to open with us, so he too was quickly enlisted. Some of the other writers already had associations with the Tricycle; for the rest, I must thank Jack Bradley, the Tricycle’s literary consultant, who as well as deploying his excellent dramaturgical skills suggested further names, as did Purni Morell of the National Theatre Studio. Literary agents Mel Kenyon, Rose Cobbe and Alan Brodie were all important keys to the project.

All the writers have embraced The Great Game with huge enthusiasm—some of them have chosen their own subjects, and some have been “coerced” into periods of Afghan history about which they knew nothing and have now become expert. I am incredibly grateful to them for collaborating on this project and to the brilliant production team led by Indhu Rubasingham and Pamela Howard.

In the autumn of 2008, between commissioning and receiving the plays, I visited Kabul. My time there was invaluable. The warmth of the welcome I received from my Afghan hosts, British aid workers, Afghan politicians, journalists, Afghan filmmakers and craftsmen, as well as many, many others that I met, contributed greatly to this program of plays and the events surrounding them, as did the invaluable help of two of the BBC’s foremost correspondents—Lyse Doucet and David Loyn. Lyse and David, together with Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian, all helped by making the connections or doing the interviews with most of those people who are represented in the verbatim parts of the trilogy.

As I write this, British deaths are 322 and those injured have reached in excess of 1,282. US fatalities are 1,188 with over 6,468 injured. The situation in Afghanistan is constantly changing, and we have tried to keep abreast of these changes during the run of The Great Game. Sometimes events have conspired to make this difficult—for instance, we did manage to get an exclusive interview with General McChrystal just seven days before his resignation, and as I write I am uncertain whether this will be included in the version of the trilogy that you see.

I am extremely grateful for the enthusiasm and support of the directors and staff of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley and The Public Theater in New York, who have given us the wonderful opportunity of bringing these plays to America. Meanwhile, I hope this trilogy of plays on Afghanistan is an educational, rewarding, stimulating and exciting experience for you.

Nicolas Kent
July 19, 2010


A land of high mountains and desert-like plains, Afghanistan occupies the heartlands of Eurasia. Bordering some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, to the east lie the Karakorams, the Hindu Kush and the Wakhan range, with the bleak landscapes of Waziristan beyond the Pakistan borders. High passes link eastwards to Pakistan, and neighboring China, Russia and the republics to the north, with Iran to the west. No wonder it is a place where cultures have intermingled as invading bands and armies arrived from different directions.

Its areas of high mountains or lower desert plains provide little land and poor conditions for agriculture; traditional herding dominated with small-scale intensive cultivation of vegetables or tree crops: almonds, apricots, pomegranates and vines.

Afghanistan is a mix of ethnic groups, with cultural ties and allegiances that spread across its borders. Today Pashtuns make up 42% of the Afghan population, living in a swathe across the south and separated from Pashtuns in Pakistan by the Durand Line. In the north live Tajiks (27%), Nuristanis (14%) and Uzbeks (8%), while in the west, making up 9% of the population, the Hazaras. Sunni Islam predominates, with Hazaras as the only Shia grouping.

In the ancient world, cities were important trade centers. In northern Afghanistan, Balkh, reputed to be one of the earliest cities in the world, lay on the route linking India and Samarkand. The birthplace of Zoroaster, it was briefly taken by Alexander’s Greeks in 329 BC. In AD 645, it was conquered by Arab invaders, who introduced Islam. Bamiyan, on an east-west route, was the center of an important and quite remote Buddhist kingdom, which until the ninth century had a Buddhist king. In AD 970, a Turkish governor from Balkh seized Bamiyan, and the whole Afghan area became Muslim, apart from Nuristan.

In 1220 Genghis Khan, with 100,000 horsemen, crossed the River Oxus in the north and destroyed Balkh. Fifty-three years later, Marco Polo passed through on his way to China. In 1359, Tamburlaine was proclaimed king. Babur, a descendent of Tamburlaine and founder of the Moghul dynasty, reached Kabul in 1504. After conquering northern India, he returned to Kabul for the summer cool, with its trees and gardens. On his death he had wanted no monument but wished to be buried in a tomb open to the sky.

Herat in the east was another important center, offering an example of the humane and liberal tradition of Islam, and a flourishing artistic community.

Afghanistan was ruled by different tribal leaders. However, traditional gatherings of the tribal leaders, Loya Jirgas, were called to decide on matters of substance. In 1747, a Loya Jirga declared Ahmad Shas Abdali to be their amir (ruler). Changing his name to Ahmad Shah Durrani, he ruled until 1773 and conquered areas as far as Tibet. The future amirs of Afghanistan were descended from this family.

Part One · 1842–1930

Invasions & Independence

Throughout the early 19th century, Russia was conquering areas of Bokhara and Tashkent, territories close to the north of Afghanistan. This alarmed the British, aware that any further move could be targeted on India, their “jewel in the crown.”

The “Afghan Crisis” developed in the 1830s. Upon hearing the Russians were attending the Persian and Afghan courts, and Persian forces had besieged Herat, the British decided to remove the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, to install someone more loyal to them: Shah Shujah. The Afghan War was one of the first major conflicts in the “Great Game,” the competition between Russian and Britain for power and influence in Central Asia.

The “Army of the Indus” set off from India in 1839, under Lord Auckland, with 16,000 British and Indian troops and 30,000 camp-followers. What quickly became clear was they had chosen the wrong man; Shujah was deeply unpopular. During the expedition Shujah had ordered some prisoners to be brutally executed. There was an outraged response against Shujah and the British. When the expedition arrived at Kabul they found Dost had fled, but because of Shujah’s unpopularity there would be no peace.

Kabul became the pleasant residence for the British officers and their wives, who ignored Shujah’s brutal methods in suppressing opposition. They also ignored the impact of huge bribes used to buy support; food prices rose because of the troop numbers, and Shujah imposed high taxes to pay for his court.

In 1841, the cabinet in London, requiring savings, ordered the British troops to leave. Bribes made to border tribes were to cease, which increased their anger. In November Sir Alexander Burnes, a British officer, was attacked near Kabul, no aid arrived from the garrison despite his request and he was hacked to death. As one British officer wrote, “The unwelcome truth was forced upon us that in the whole of the Afghan nation we could not reckon on a single friend.” A large and well-organized rebellion developed under the command of Dost’s son, Mohammed Akbar Khan, leading 30,000 foot and cavalry, seven times the size of the British force, and immediately the garrison prepared for a siege.

In the following months, many outlying forts fell to local Afghan chiefs, while in Kabul British forces were attacked and routed, with 300 killed. The British were offered a negotiated settlement: to surrender Shujah and reinstate Dost. They refused, arguing they would take Shujah to India and release Dost there too. The Afghans seemingly agreed, but Mohammed Akbar Khan believed the British to be scheming and had four of their officers killed. In terrible January weather, the British departed Kabul, leaving weapons and hostages, one of whom was the intrepid Lady Florentina Sale. Having no fuel, tiny rations and suffering from frostbite and hunger, the British were constantly attacked from all sides. Over 3,000 died in two days out of Kabul. The slaughter continued, and eventually only one man out of the 16,000 who had left Kabul, Dr. Brydon, reached Jalalabad. It was the worst defeat ever for the British, often called Auckland’s Folly. Retribution was immediate. British troops returned. In Kabul they found Shujah had been killed, and Akbar had left with 22 British officers and 70 other ranks, wives and children. Shujah’s son was made Amir, but Kabul was badly looted and many areas destroyed, and when the British left a month later, the Amir was killed, and Dost returned.

Lady Sale wrote a journal of her experiences during the first Afghan war. She was held in captivity for nine months before being rescued by British troops. Her journal was published in 1843 and became a bestseller in Britain.

After 1842, the British continued to consolidate control over the western frontiers of British India while relations with Russia remained wary. Apart from the mutiny of the Indian troops in 1857, everything appeared calm, until in 1878, Amir Shir Ali (Dost’s successor) received a Russian emissary in Kabul. The British declared war, and a British force of 35,000 captured Jalalabad and Kandahar. The Amir died while trying to get Russian support.

The peace terms for the new Amir, Yakub Khan, were immensely harsh. While the Treaty of Gandamak (1879) formally established the country of Afghanistan, he had to relinquish West Baluchistan, Quetta and much of the North-West Frontier to the British. All foreign affairs were to be conducted through the British and a British resident, Sir Louis Cavagnari, was installed.

On September 2, 1879, a message was received from Cavagnari: “All well.” Nothing further was heard until three days later, when Delhi was informed that the British mission had been attacked and all killed. In October, General Roberts led a retaliatory force which fought its way to Kabul. The Amir was found to be “culpably indifferent” and was sent into exile, while 100 Afghans, found guilty on hearsay evidence, were publicly hanged.

In February 1880, Abdur Rahman, the grandson of Dost, armed with Russian weapons, crossed the River Oxus, and became Amir with British agreement.

However Ayub Khan, Abdur Rahman’s cousin who ruled Herat, announced he would remove the British. With a force of 28,000 he advanced to attack the small British contingent at Kandahar; the battle took place at Maiwand, a village close to Kandahar. Underestimating the size of the opposing forces and the experience of Ayub Khan, the British were “outnumbered, outmaneuvered and outgunned.”

In the battle a young woman, Malalai (now a national heroine), seeing that the Afghans were under pressure and their flag bearer had been killed, used her veil to rally the troops. Over 1,000 British and Indian troops were killed and the rest sought refuge in Kandahar, which was besieged. After 35 days, Roberts lifted the siege and defeated Ayub Khan, who fled to Persia.

Afghanistan became a client state of Britain, and the new monarch, Amir Abdur Rahman, was provided with weapons. He set up a state bureaucracy similar to that in India (although smaller and far less efficient), a secret police force and a standing army, and he ruled with great brutality.

In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand, the British India Foreign Minister, arrived in Kabul to negotiate the borders of the “buffer state.” He insisted on dividing Waziristan—the Pashtun homeland—along an arbitrary line between Afghanistan and India and gave India the strategic advantage of high ground for its defense. Set to run for 100 years, the treaty is still the cause of endless disputes. The strategic advantages given to the British in the 19th century are proving to be less than useful for British forces in the 21st century. Opposed by Abdur Rahman in 1893 on the grounds that it divided the Pashtuns, in 1947, when Pakistan was formed, the Loya Jirga again refused to confirm the boundary.

In the early part of the 20th century, Afghanistan was still at the mercy of the two European powers, Britain and Russia. Fear of the latter ensured that Amir Habibullah, ruling from 1900, would reluctantly accept British protection. But under the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907 (because of British fears of dangers to India from Russian influence in Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet) it was agreed that Afghanistan would be a semi-protectorate of Britain.

Poverty was endemic and peasant agriculture dominated throughout Afghanistan. But in the cities, an educated wealthy elite developed that had connections throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The family of Mahmud Tarzi was part of this class. His family left in 1882 for the Ottoman Empire and lived in Damascus for 20 years, where the young Mahmud was educated. Influenced by the thinking of al-Afghani and the emerging nationalist and modernist movements, he returned to Afghanistan convinced that a progressive form of Islam could be integrated into modern politics. Determined to move Afghanistan towards real independence and social progress, he quickly became influential in the court, but his real impact came through his close relationship with Amanullah, a son of the king, who married his daughter, Soraya.

Amanullah was aware of the backwardness of Afghanistan; in part, he believed it was caused by Afghan society itself, but he felt it was also a consequence of British control. Both men were influenced as young men by the radical developments through the Middle East, especially the “Young Turk” movement under Ataturk. They too wanted modernization, mass education and social rights for women.

In 1919, Amanullah became king after Amir Habibullah was assassinated—there were rumors that Amanullah was involved in the assassination. Tarzi became his foreign minister. Immediately they demanded an unconditional independence from Britain. A short Third Afghan War followed, ending in a treaty with Britain agreeing to full independence. Meanwhile the British began supporting any tribal unrest in the south. The young Soviet government in 1921 offered to help in the “anti-colonialist struggle” and built a telegraph line between Kabul and Kusht, as well as sending engineers to establish the nucleus of an airforce.

While accepting Western ideas, the new rulers maintained a clear view of Afghan national sovereignty, and in 1924, the first Afghan constitution was written. Gravelled roads were built, post and telegraph offices established and a radio station opened. Education for girls was encouraged, and the first girls’ school opened. Amanullah returned from a tour of Europe, Russia and Turkey and demanded urgent progress on the women question. Impressed by Ataturk’s Turkey, he pressed for changes in dress, forcing tribal leaders in Kabul to wear suits and cut off their beards. He was, however, becoming defenseless against the tribes and religious movements that opposed him. In 1928 a rebellion of the Pashtun chieftains in the south, instigated by the British, demanded that he withdraw his reforms. With dwindling support, he knew he would have to resign, and after hoping in vain to regain his throne militarily, both he and Tarzi were forced into exile in Europe.

Later with British support, General Nadir Khan became Amir. Assassinated in 1933, his son Zahir Shah ruled until 1973, but with none of the vision or determination of Amanullah. Whatever was to follow, there was now both national and international recognition that Afghanistan had become an independent monarchical state, albeit dependent on the goodwill of its neighbors.

Part Two · 1979–1996

Communism, the Mujahideen & the Taliban

From the start of the Cold War in the ‘50s, aid was used by the Big Powers to extend political influence. The USSR provided Afghanistan with $2.5 billion, while $0.5 billion was allocated from the USA. It was in this relatively stable period that the country became a destination on the hippie trail.

In 1973, the Durrani dynasty ended. Amir Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud, who had the support of the small Communist party. Afghanistan became a republic. Opposition to the government grew, and in 1975 a small Islamist movement, under Burhanuddin Rabbani, together with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud, began to gain influence. However, under pressure from the government, they moved to Pakistan where they forged alliances with the Jamiat-e-Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. Guerrilla training was provided for them by the ISI, the Inter-Services Institute (the Pakistani secret services).

This incipient insurrection continued to develop, and when Iranian followers of Ayatollah Khomeini moved into Herat in early 1978, Marxist army officers used the opportunity to overthrow Daoud and install Nur Mohammed Taraki in the “April Revolution.”

Taraki was the first communist president. The new communist government moved to immediately modernize the country, demanding secular education, education for girls and young women and land reform. However, the pace of change was far too rapid and too radical, and the insurgency increased.

Taraki was overthrown, and Amin, the new communist president, requested military support from the Soviets. The old Soviet leaders were alarmed at developments and initially resisted getting involved, but as the mujahideen increased their activities, 100,000 Soviet troops crossed the River Oxus on December 24, 1979, and under Soviet occupation Amin was deposed and Babrak Kamal installed.

The entry of Soviet forces fundamentally changed the situation. Immediately Pakistan received US aid to support the mujahideen and to ensure war in Afghanistan would not spread eastwards. William Casey, Reagan’s head of the CIA, described the insurgency in Afghanistan as attacks on “the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union.” Under US direction and with Saudi funding, Pakistan’s ISI established camps along the border to train the mujahideen in all forms of terror and insurgency warfare: missiles, plastic explosives, precision weapons and car bombs. The operations were run under the banner of Islam against the “godless communists,” with no funds going to secular or democratic Afghan movements. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party, Hizb-e-Islami, was the one most favored by the Pakistanis, and the most extreme. (He is still fighting today.)

Some 620,000 Soviet troops fought in Afghanistan during the decade of occupation, with a peak force of over 110,000. But eventually Soviet forces were massively overwhelmed by the mujahideen, with Soviet troops often embattled in makeshift hilltop forts. The Soviets claimed 14,453 of their soldiers were killed, whilst others estimate as many as 75,000. Half a million were wounded, and many returned to face poverty in a Soviet Union undergoing its final crises. Around 1–1.5 million Afghans were killed and two million displaced. In the 1980s, one in every two refugees in the world was an Afghan.

As the Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, the US continued to ensure allocated funding went to the Islamists or to the Pakistani ISI, and in the following ten years the ISI became immensely powerful, almost a shadow state in Pakistan.

Between 1982 and 1990, over 35,000 Islamic militants had been trained in the camps near Peshawar to fight the Soviets. Many were from the huge refugee camps that had grown up along the Afghan-Pakistan border; others were poverty-stricken young men from the madrasas in northern Pakistan. In a program supported by the US, an international brigade of so-called “Arab Afghans” flocked from around the world to join the jihad, idealistic young men from countries including Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Egypt, many with their own radical agendas at home. Amongst these fighters was a young Saudi with a talent for fundraising, Osama bin Laden.

The training, supervised by the ISI, was designed to inflict the maximum terror and create complete social breakdown. As Ahmed Rashid states, “This global jihad launched by Zia [President of Pakistan, 1978–88] and Reagan was to sow the seeds of al Qaeda and turn Pakistan into the world center of jihadism for the next two decades.”

The effectiveness of the training of the mujahideen was evident in Kabul towards the end of the 1980s when car bombs and explosions were rife. This terror intensified in the year the Soviets were withdrawing, when an extremely large bomb was used in an attack on President Najibullah’s compound, and 22 people were killed. Najibullah begged President Bush to put a brake on these actions.

When the Soviets decided to leave, the Geneva Accords, signed in 1988, laid out the withdrawal procedure to be completed within 12 months. The US agreed to close its operations and to scale back aid to the mujahideen, but both sides still wanted to maintain influence. The Soviets supported Najibullah’s government, and the US supported the mujahideen. There was no agreement on any form of interim government.

With the sudden and dramatic break-up of the Soviet Union in late 1989, backing for Najibullah’s government diminished, and he was asked by the Russians to step aside in favor of his prime minister, Khaliqyar. With no international agreement about the future of Najibullah himself, a diminished Afghan national army (down to under 30,000 troops) and a worsening economic situation, Najibullah faced mounting difficulties. He was losing support, and pressures mounted as six of the 31 provinces fell to the mujahideen.

Throughout 1991, the mujahideen warlords were fighting to enlarge their areas of power, and ethnic differences undermined any possible unity. By the end of 1991, both Russia and the US had stopped arms shipments. Becoming increasingly desperate, Najibullah tried to find the basis for an interim national government, even offering to permit the king to return and offering an agreement with the mujahideen. These offers were refused. While Najibullah was still in control of the army, it was demoralized, poorly equipped and under attack from the mujahideen throughout the country. In 1992, when the new Russian government refused to sell him oil, he was severely weakened. In April 1992, General Dostum and his Uzbek militias entered Kabul, and Najibullah was arrested. Burhanuddin Rabbani was installed as president with Ahmad Shah Massoud as minister of defense and the Islamic state of Afghanistan declared.

Immediately any alliance between the warlords fractured, and warring factions jockeyed for power in Kabul.

Each had overlapping spheres of influence, different and yet similar external backers and all had income from drugs and local taxes. With the complete breakdown of any form of centralized state, and no external power interested in the Great Game, warlords replaced the proxy powers.

Under a plan devised by the UN, power would have transferred from the pro-communist president to a wider grouping, but the proposal failed.

In August 1991, Gorbachev had told Najibullah, “The impression is being created that the Americans are actually concerned about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. They think, and they frankly say this: that the establishment today of fundamentalism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran would mean that tomorrow this phenomenon would encompass the entire Islamic world. And there are symptoms of this, if you take Algeria, for example. But the Americans will remain Americans. And it would be naive if one permitted the thought that we see only this side of their policy and do not notice the other aspects.“

Najibullah was arrested in April 1992 when mujahideen forces entered Kabul, and he managed to live under house arrest in a UN compound. Neither President Rabbani nor Massoud were prepared to bring him to trial, nor to let him go into exile. At the same time, Hekmatyar and the Tajiks, supported by Pakistan’s ISI, started to battle against the government of Rabbani and Massoud to seize Kabul.

During this period, hundreds of tons of refined heroin were transported from the poppy fields and the laboratories to Karachi. The opium poppy could be grown easily in the conditions found in the southern areas of the country. It was a crop requiring tending and watering during its growing season, and although the farmer received about one percent of the total profits generated, it was a crop for which there was increasing demand. Other new overland routes to the north opened up after the fall of the Soviet government and were controlled by the Russian mafia. By the early 1990s, Afghanistan was competing with Colombia and Burma as the main source of the global heroin supply. Production of the drugs was largely controlled by the warlords at this time, and was increasingly the basis for financing their militias and wars.

From the middle of 1992, the civil war flared up into a terrible confrontation for power, with Pashtuns, under Hekmatyar, fighting the alliances of non-Pashtuns. Kabul was constantly under bombardment and almost totally destroyed. It was during this time that most damage was inflicted on the city; it became the scene of a massive series of battles and attacks. The civilian population fled in huge numbers and government buildings and property were looted and destroyed. Between April 1992 and December 1994, about 20,000 people were killed, more than during the whole of the Soviet occupation. Rabbani and Massoud refused to relinquish the presidency, and controlled Kabul and the areas to the northeast. Ismael Khan created an almost independent state around Herat in the west, whilst to the north Dostum ruled six provinces. Meanwhile Hekmatyar constantly bombed and attacked the city with rockets from areas to the northeast.

The ensuing battles were devastating and continuous, but there was no pressure to negotiate. There was no international aid or pressure on the warlords to relinquish any of their power, and no support for the five million refugees.

Najibullah was incarcerated in the UN compound for four years, with no possibility of leaving. It was in late 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul, that he was dragged out and brutally murdered. His body was left hanging from a pole at a roundabout.

The Taliban, ferocious adherents from the Deobandi tradition, a strict and fundamentalist form of Islam, had become active in the south, around Kandahar. General Babur, a key backer and favorite uncle of Benazir Bhutto, then president of Pakistan, had suggested that an oil and gas pipeline could be built between Pakistan and the states to the north. In October 1994, 30 Pakistanis in a convoy reconnoitering a route to Turkmenistan were kidnapped by some local mujahideen. Held for ransom they were only released after intervention by a group of Taliban.

Following this incident, and allegedly with the tacit and grateful support of Babur, the Taliban captured Kandahar. Well-armed from stores of weapons left over from the mujahideen’s conflict with the Russians found along the Pakistan border, within a year they took Herat. They were evolving into a highly political movement with the goal to seize the whole of the country and establish a truly Islamic state. Using Japanese pickups in order to speedily attack or retreat, they became an efficient fighting force.

Throughout the next two years the war continued, with the Pashtun forces of the Taliban pitted against the warlords, but in 1996 the victorious Taliban entered Kabul. Massoud, who had assumed leadership of the Northern Alliance, retreated north with the Tajiks, whilst Dostum remained secure in Mazar in the north. Hekmatyar sought refuge in Iran.

In 1996, Osama bin Laden arrived in Kabul. The CIA had just opened a new office to track him down, and he realized that there would be both security and support amongst the Taliban, which controlled most of Afghanistan. In 1998, al Qaeda had mounted major operations in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 391 and wounding 5,077 people in total. By 2000, al Qaeda was effectively supporting the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, and Massoud’s stronghold at Taloqan was captured by a force of “foreign fighters.” The entry of al Qaeda marked only one part of a wider movement of armed radical Islamists entering Afghanistan. Pakistani and Arab intelligence agencies operated there, but most of the fighters were refugees or young men from Pakistani madrasas.

For many Afghans whose religion had been influenced by elements of Sufism, the Taliban’s intolerant outlook on Islam was unwelcome. But as they quickly took over towns and controlled areas, the Taliban began to radically alter lives, instituting order, stability and a sense of justice, though with harsh punishments speedily enacted. They removed checkpoints and opened many roads which had previously been impassable because of warlords exacting tolls. The Taliban were accepted by many who had been subjected to war and banditry for over 16 years and had almost forgotten stability. However their strict rulings meant that women were removed from public life: women in any public office lost their jobs, schools for girls were closed, women teachers were sacked and universities were closed to them. Traditional pastimes, like playing marbles or flying kites, were no longer allowed, music and dancing prohibited. Televisions were removed, cigarettes banned and Mohammed Mashal’s mural in Herat was destroyed.

Part Three · 1996–2010

Enduring Freedom

In 1997, with much of Afghanistan under Taliban control, the UN appointed Lakhdar Brahimi as the UN special representative to try to bring the civil war to an end. A Six-plus-Two group was established—US and Russia, with Afghanistan’s neighbors of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and China—to bring influence on the warring groups. It too came to nothing.

The impact of the Taliban was of increasing international concern, especially given its relationship with al Qaeda. In 2000, Iran and the US for the first time held secret negotiations about how to undermine the Taliban. A general initiative was formed with the US, Iran, Germany and Italy but met little success.

Pakistan continued to play its own game. Following a coup in 1999, General Musharraf had become president. He insisted that they were persuading the Taliban to stop fighting the Northern Alliance. Brahimi resigned, and in January 2001 with mounting pressure on the UN, the Security Council passed a resolution instituting sanctions against the Taliban, in an attempt to stop the arms flow from Pakistan. Pakistan remained loyal to Kabul, and there was little public questioning about the extremism that was developing within Pakistan itself. UN sanctions were then instituted against Pakistan.

Pressure mounted on the Taliban government in Kabul, but the fighting against the Northern Alliance continued—particularly targeting the Hazaras, because they were Shias. In March 2001, the Bamiyan Buddha statues, a major part of the Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan for almost two millenia, were destroyed. The Taliban claimed this was in retaliation against the UN for failing to provide humanitarian aid. A drought had occurred across the whole country, resulting in the death of 70% of the livestock and devastating over 50% of cultivable land. Again huge numbers of people became internal refugees, and the UN was unable to raise the $221 million required for humanitarian aid.

Despite sanctions, Pakistan continued to provide fuel and supplies to the Taliban government, ISI trucks constantly crossing the border. In explanation President Musharraf said, “The Taliban is the dominant reality in Afghanistan, and a unilateral arms embargo on the Taliban government is unjustified, discriminatory and will further escalate the war.” Hundreds of Pakistani volunteers continued to enter Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.

Washington was reticent about giving wholesale support to the Northern Alliance. The leaders were either narcotics dealers themselves or were funded through the opium trade, and it was obvious that many of them had no concept of human rights. However, in 2000, the CIA received the go-ahead to use $125 million to arm Massoud and the Northern Alliance, and to establish a permanent base in Panjshir Valley. Massoud, increasingly seen by the US as a viable leader, was not optimistic about being able to defeat the Taliban, when they were supported by al Qaeda and volunteers from the madrasas of Pakistan. On September 9, 2001, he was killed in northern Afghanistan by an al Qaeda suicide bomber, disguised as a reporter.

The US had withdrawn from any direct involvement in Afghanistan in 1989; however, within ten days of September 11, 2001, Bush announced Operation Enduring Freedom. Deciding the attack on the Twin Towers was the work of al Qaeda, located in Afghanistan, retaliation was to be instantaneous: 110 CIA officers and 316 Special Forces operatives with a budget of $1 billion were to overthrow the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda. No US ground troops were to be involved, and the initial attack would involve large-scale intensive bombing. With worldwide sympathy and support, the US was able to use bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for its operations, and other states permitted overflying.

On October 7, the Northern Alliance commanders were instructed to ground their helicopters, and Taliban military targets were attacked by 50 cruise missiles and laser-targeted bombs. Within two days there were hardly any “targets” left. As the Taliban had around 60,000 troops, including 31,000 Arab fighters and 9,000 others from Pakistan, the US strategy was to pay the Northern Alliance warlords to fight them on the ground. Huge sums were allocated for warlords to individually seize areas of Afghanistan.

Within weeks the Taliban were weakened and retreating. By November they had left Herat. Kabul was taken by Fahim. Thousands of Taliban prisoners were killed, often with great brutality, by Northern Alliance forces. In the aftermath we now know that Pakistan’s ISI got its own men out to Waziristan together with 3,000 Talib fighters. Al Qaeda leaders fled to the caves of Tora Bora, which were extensively bombed. They later moved into northern Pakistan.

“Law” was again in the hands of the strongest local leaders. Extortion, arbitrary arrests, kidnappings and killings were rife. There being no coordination, each warlord controlled his area, seizing any duties for himself. Their finances were increased by control of poppy production and smuggling routes, particularly through Uzbekistan and the northern states. As soon as the Taliban had gone, and with them the ban on production, the farmers again turned to the poppy crop.

With victory over the Taliban seemingly assured, the Bonn Agreement was signed in December 2001 and Hamid Karzai, from an old Pashtun family and a former lobbyist for Unocal, was chosen as interim leader. All the militias were to leave Kabul, but this did not happen. Sanctions against Pakistan were removed in return for permitting around 60,000 secret flights out of its airbases, previous loans were wiped clear and $597 million granted in aid packages. Musharraf later said Pakistan had made millions in selling so-called Taliban suspects to the US and coalition forces.

The “war” had been won by payoffs to the warlords and their militias. After removing the Taliban, the Americans turned their attention to Iraq, and over the next two years large numbers of people continued to be killed as warlords battled for supremacy. With Dostum in power, numbers of Pashtuns living in the north fled south, terrified. Many of the atrocities carried out by the militias against the Pashtun population may have influenced the reemergence of the Taliban. Huge numbers of cluster bombs were dropped, resulting in many people being killed and maimed. No one knows the numbers of civilians who died in this period, but there was great social disruption, and another terrible drought caused many to die from starvation and disease.

In June 2002, an emergency Loya Jirga was called, and an interim government was established. In it, the Northern Alliance held 17 cabinet posts, including defense, interior, intelligence and foreign affairs, with 11 seats for the Pashtuns, eight Tajiks, five Hazaras and three Uzbeks. A constitutional Loya Jirga was to be held in 2003.

In the 2004 UN Human Development Report, Afghanistan was the 172nd most poverty-stricken of the 178 countries surveyed. The infant mortality rate was 165 per thousand, the worst in the world, with a life expectancy for women of 45 and for men of 46.

In 2003, there was a clear disparity of wealth and power between the interim government and the warlords. There was too a great disparity in the offers of aid and the resultant inflow of funds. A US thinktank, the Rand Corporation, estimated $167 per head was required to stabilize a country. Bosnia had received $679. Afghanistan had received a mere $57 by 2003.

There had been some limited success in the reopening of schools: in Kabul there was a 45% enrollment of girls. But in most areas there was no significant change. Unemployment and poverty were rife. Migration increased from the countryside, and all the cities swelled with large numbers of homeless living in shanties and tented cities. Kabul’s population of 400,000 in the 1970s rose in 2005 to 3.5 million. By June 2003, the US had supplied $1.9 billion in aid packages, but the money was often spent on contracts for US firms. There was concern that there was little to show for the large sums allocated. Corruption was rife. US contractors overcharged and were grossly inefficient, unwilling to consider “value for money” while some NGOs and Afghan government ministers were similarly unaccountable.

A Constitutional Loya Jirga was held in 2003, and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established. No law could be passed unless it was seen to be Islamic, but Sharia law was not introduced. Freedom of worship was accepted as part of the constitution, and discrimination on grounds of gender or ethnicity were deemed unlawful. Human rights were to underpin the constitution.

After August 2003, NATO led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as a peace-keeping force, with participation of around 40 countries. A section of the US forces was operating under a separate command of counterterrorism, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. However, security steadily worsened. In Helmand and Zabul, a major Taliban offensive began attacking US bases and compounds. By August, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other NGOs were leaving the southern provinces, and the UN suspended travel for its officials. By winter 2003, over 80% of Zabul province was controlled by the Taliban. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) established to operate outside Kabul were often reliant on warlords, and showed little success. The defense minister wanted an Afghan army of 200,000 soldiers, but the US would only fund 37,000. Many men were illiterate, and desertion rates were high. Policing too was a problem, with similar issues of literacy, training being too short and little essential equipment.

The October elections in 2004 had 10.3 million registered voters, 40% of whom were women, and Karzai was elected president on a 55% vote. The following year, parliamentary elections were held. Despite the political developments, for many life was getting worse. The insurgency was increasing, the warlords maintained power and one of the most intransigent problems was that Afghanistan was developing into the “narco state.” Warlords paid by the coalition to stop the crops pocketed the money while crops increased. In 2003, the yield was 3,600 tons; by 2007 it had reached 8,200 tons (93% of world heroin production).

As of July 2010, the US has almost 80,000 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led ISAF, rising to almost 100,000 by the end of the year. The next-largest contribution in the 45-member coalition is Britain with 9,500 troops, while Canada and the larger European countries contribute between 2,000 and 4,400 each. Currently, counterinsurgency is overshadowing nation-building. For many Afghans it is dangerous to be seen to be close to the occupying forces. Troops have been encouraging Afghan forces to take the lead in fighting the Taliban, but there has been criticism of the quality of the training they have received, with poor equipment and inadequate follow-up. General Stanley McChrystal was recently removed from his post as ISAF commander for publicly criticizing President Obama and the Administration’s conduct of the war, and was replaced by his commanding officer, General David Petraeus.

British policy was the “stabilization” of a “fragile state” and development activity was directed towards this. But with declining security, development projects rely on links with the occupation forces, creating problems for Afghans involved. There is no real political stability. Karzai’s government, originally elected in 2004 and re-elected after a 2009 campaign marred by allegations of fraud, remains dependent on foreign forces, which in the eyes of the population undermines its legitimacy. The government is often seen as corrupt: many close to Karzai are warlords who have profited from drug money. Many with parliamentary positions enjoyed amnesties and maintained their individual power. Meanwhile a grim and difficult economic situation depends almost entirely on foreign donors.

Increasing instability in Pakistan is contributing significantly to danger in the region, and in 2009 the Obama administration announced its new “AFPAK” policy, which re-frames the “Afghan question” as a regional one, focusing more strongly on Pakistan. The Taliban, together with al Qaeda, have become more confident about taking on the Pakistani army in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Increasing numbers of US bombing operations and drone attacks in the border regions have fueled further anger against the Pakistani government and the occupation forces in Afghanistan, and suicide bombings of civilians in Peshawar have increased. Local conflicts in Pakistan indicate a country struggling, much like Afghanistan, with extremist insurgents, weak government and ethnic tensions. In early 2009, the government agreed to implement Sharia law in the Swat valley of the North-West Frontier Province in an effort to persuade Islamist militants there to agree to a permanent cease-fire. Two months later the agreement had broken down after Taliban-linked militants sought to extend their power bases, and the government launched an offensive lasting months to wrest control of the area from militants. In 2010, the name of the North-West Frontier Province was changed to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, satisfying Pashtun nationalists but stirring up resentment and resistance among ethnic groups other than Pashtuns in the province.

Opium production in Afghanistan peaked in 2006–07, and despite a slight fall in 2008 remains a major problem. The UN estimates that the export value of opiates derived from Afghan poppies in 2008 topped $3 billion. In 2009 President Karzai identified it as “the single greatest challenge to the long-term security, development and effective governance of Afghanistan.” Narcotics provide a reliable source of revenue for insurgents, criminals and corrupt officials. Given the demand for this illegal commodity, encouraging farmers to switch to less profitable legal crops is immensely difficult. Previous US counternarcotics policy of uprooting and crop-spraying poppy fields was deeply unpopular, and Karzai was adamantly opposed to it, knowing it would make his fragile government look deeply unpopular. In March 2009, US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke called US drug policy in Afghanistan “the most wasteful and ineffective program that I have seen in 40 years.” The US subsequently suspended funding for opium poppy eradication in Afghanistan.

A further critical problem is the number of civilian deaths. The toll on civilians remains high, despite tightened rules of engagement introduced in 2009 under General McChrystal aimed at restricting American engagement with militants in residential areas. The Taliban operate in mainly rural areas with a measure of support ensuring that military engagements often find civilian targets. It is in the very nature of modern warfare that civilians will be killed, and their deaths have been mounting. Each one ensures increased support for the insurgents.

The future does look bleak without answers to accusations of corruption and to the dominance of the drug trade, unless there are dramatic reductions in civilian casualties, evidence of major reconstruction and development and a radical change in the political situation in Pakistan. For some Afghans, the very presence of foreign troops will not be the answer. The Taliban are reputed to say, “You foreigners have the fancy watches. We have the time.”

Watch now

Production trailer

A sweeping cycle of short scripts by 12 top playwrights, this unprecedented show explores Afghanistan over the last 150 years. Direct from the Tricycle Theatre in London, where it debuted to rave reviews, The Great Game: Afghanistan makes its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep. It’s a captivating collection of stories performed by Britain’s finest actors.

Tricycle Theatre’s preview

See the Tricycle Theatre’s preview of The Great Game: Afghanistan.



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