Review: Games Without Rules, Tamim Ansary
Disclosure: Tamim Ansary has been my mentor at SF Writer's Workshop and is a friend. I have good taste and judgment. I might not have discovered this book had I not known him personally, but I am better off for it.
Games Without Rules is a much-needed volume delving into the history, Geo-politics and customs of Afghanistan, primarily from the seventeenth century to the present. It is too bad that this book wasn't written ten years ago and read by people in this country with the power to influence our foreign policy. Many lives and limbs, both of Americans and Afghans would have been spared. Many billions of dollars would not have been squandered. Tamim Ansary's book is that thorough, that persuasive.
Tamim Ansary as an Afghan-American. He is a scholar, an outstanding writer and an honest broker when it comes to an analysis of Afghanistan and its people. Games Without Rules reflects his candid assessment of that country and he tells its story with wit, sarcasm and introspection that are hallmarks of the man I know.
Browsing the myriad of footnotes and the bibliography, I noticed a number of articles and news reports that I had read when they were current. (Although not the books.) Then, when I finished the book, I had the feeling that I learned a hell of a lot more than I expected I would. That's because Mr. Ansary gets into the guts of the personalities and the geopolitics in ways that prove insightful and that a casual reader of news reports, such as myself, rarely bother with. Sure, I knew that Babrak Karmal was an incompetent communist lackey, replaced by a thug named Najibullah who ended up swinging from a Kabul lamppost, but that's about it. Yes, I know that Hamid Karzai is corrupt and unstable, but no one before Mr. Ansary put it in context and provided rational explanations for his erratic behavior. I suspected that the Taliban was financed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, the ISI, but no one before Mr. Ansary tied the Taliban's abrupt collapse and subsequent resurrection directly to ISI funding decisions. Nor had I focused on how today's Taliban differs from the one that was the scourge of the country before nine-eleven. On and on it went.
Mr. Ansary is unabashed in his preference for a secular, gender-equal, modern society--he wants Afghanistan to become the Switzerland of Central Asia-- but that does not prevent him from giving the khans, mullahs and impoverished, backward country folk a fair deal. Throughout Games Without Rules, Ansary reminds us that there are plenty of good reasons why the people of Afghanistan behave the way they do, from growing opium, to embracing radical Islam with its draconian gender practices, to selling out the country's resources and heritage for relative pittances. He explains that customs are different between the city folk and their country cousins (a circumstance not all that different from Russia, or which indeed we see hints of in our red state/blue state maps.) His brief provides us with something rarely revealed in the reportage of that country, context.
Ansary reminds us that Afghanistan has always been coveted real estate, despite its sparse population and rugged, unwelcoming terrain. It seems the country is repeatedly deemed strategically essential by one empire after another, be it Greek, Persian, Ottoman, Mogul, Russian, English or American. He gives us a litany of examples demonstrating it is an easy country to conquer yet an impossible country to rule. There are always a myriad of players both within and without its borders, every one eager to foil the designs of someone else. As a result of this constant dissonance Afghans of every ethnicity have developed a long tradition of waging guerrilla wars, peoples wars, some might say, that over time just wear down intruders, invaders and schemers.
Mr. Ansary ends his book on a hopeful note. Perhaps now foreigners will have learned their lesson. Military conquest is not a solution. I am neither as knowledgeable nor as hopeful. Kabul is prepared to sell the country's patrimony to the highest bidder. (Cue the Chinese.) It is also prepared to accommodate the reactionary tendencies of the Islamist/Jihadist/backwater interests. But these two divergent tendencies must clash and despite the patina of piety and fidelity to tradition economic interests will prevail. The outcome will inevitably bring Afghanistan into the twenty-first century, but I'm just not all that sure how the twenty-first century is going to work out.
In the final analysis, Games Without Rules is the gold standard for those who want to understand Afghanistan. You can't beat the writing. The story is compelling, with a full spectrum of dramatic grabbers: heroes, villains, betrayals, revenge, greed, pride, hubris, violence and sex. It has everything but a car chase. And it's all true. Five stars.