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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013

Where Only Fools Dare Invade

Afghanistan, a country without rules

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Afghanistan has often been called unconquerable, the “graveyard of empires,” but as Tamim Ansary argues in his witty overview of that country’s history, truisms aren’t always entirely true. Ansary reminds readers that Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan, as did Turkic tribes and Mongol hordes, all of them leaving some mark on the rugged landscape or the people who dwell there. Recent centuries, however, have given rise to the legend of Afghanistan as the land only fools dare invade.

As Ansary shows in Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan (Public Affairs), fools have inevitably led every invasion since the 18th century. And that’s been the problem for would-be reformers and wannabe empire builders alike. The author finds remarkable continuity in the professed goals, strategic objectives and battlefield tactics of the British, Soviet and American forces that attempted to subdue this often lawless land. In each case, the invaders claimed to be rescuing the Afghans from tyranny; they dealt with local leaders who commanded limited loyalty and underestimated their foes through a lethal mixture of arrogance and ignorance. History doesn’t precisely repeat itself, but like an old-fashioned poem, it often rhymes.

Ansary brings a unique perspective to his subject. A U.S. resident since 1964, he is related to several of the historical figures in Games Without Rules, especially the Western-educated circles surrounding the country’s last king, Zahir Shah. He is sometimes sloppy with the larger history surrounding Afghanistan. Example: The Ottoman Empire was not part of the Axis in World War I, an alliance that didn’t exist until World War II. But Ansary is cogent within his area of focus, and if he writes with a humor many scholars would find glib, he is trying to reach a wide audience at a time when his homeland remains an unresolved international problem.

In Afghanistan’s tragedy and tradition, Ansary finds material for dark humor. He paints a lively panorama of a rural population whose axioms would be understood by the National Rifle Association, the Tea Party and religious fundamentalists in our own country. They are heavily armed, distrustful of central government, opposed to paying taxes and uninterested in new ideas. Afghans primarily honor family, clan and tribe, but here it gets tricky: leadership within those groups is not necessarily immutable but shifts depending on an individual’s status and perceived merit. Often, foreign invaders thought they were negotiating with a supreme warlord when they were actually talking to yesterday’s man or an interloper telling them what they wanted to hear.
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