#201: HISTORY INTERRUPTED, OR THE HAVOCS OF EMPIRE. In the long and unedifying history of invasions, military interventions, the glories of empire or whatever you want to call armed peoples’ habit of putting their noses in where they don’t belong, Afghanistan is top of the list for repeated mistakes and guaranteed failure. In the 1840s, England invaded Afghanistan and had their asses handed to them in a paper bag. They came back some time later, failed signally to govern or control the place, and had their asses handed to them again, this time in a cardboard box with a tasteful pink bow. In the 1970s, Russia sent in an Army, failed to govern or control the place, and had their asses handed to them, in a box wrapped in coarse toilet paper with a rude emoji face taped to it. A few decades later, the United States sent forces into Afghanistan, expending 2900 American lives over twenty years to avenge the 2500 lives lost in the 9-11 attacks, and finished off the one hundred and fifty year job of reducing an imperfect but functioning civilization to rubble. The last American was evacuated in August 2021; he was a two-star general and when boarding the plane appeared to be carrying something in a sling. Next?
This succession of repeated mistakes will probably remain forever inexplicable, but in his book Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan (Public Affairs, 2012) Tamim Ansary goes a long way to demystifying why Western attempts to rule Afghanistan have failed so completely and destructively. He is Afghani-born and has lived in the United States since 1964; his splendid book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes gave him plenty of practice in explaining this part of the world that we find so baffling. The title metaphor in this newer book is of a local game, buzakshi, in which men on horseback try to get a goat carcass to a goalpost. No teams, no set number of players, no boundaries, no referees. Simply: “If you need the protection of an official rule-book, you shouldn’t be playing.” Ansary introduces us thus to the complex of tribal/clan/region/family loyalties that form the hierarchies and situations of traditional Afghani life. Kings and governments are acknowledged, but they exist at an almost Martian distance from the everyday running of things. Knock off one top dog, make a deal with his successor, and you find dozens, hundreds of other dogs not in the least interested in falling into line. America is an eagle, China a dragon, Tibet a snow-lion. Afghanistan is a hydra.
The other obstacle facing even the well-intentioned is the division within Afghani sympathies. Islam is a powerful conservative force, very much part of the rural and village life that has constituted the Afghani majority for centuries. Modernization, especially in the role of women, tends to threaten the power structures of the villages, and is seen as something being imposed by the city-folk, both sides being liable to the manipulations of the people in power. In a way that will remind any Irish reader of the old divisions within Ulster, either side’s gain is the other side’s perceived threat, and you will begin to see the dead ends, ironies and challenges that strew the landscape of Afghanistan’s future. Someone somewhere in the book finally twigs: you can change a ruling government but you can’t change a civilization. At least not quickly, and certainly not easily.
The best possible book anyone could write on Afghanistan is one meant for the intelligent common reader, and this is precisely and wonderfully what Ansary has done. The chapters are brief, he keeps the cast to a comprehensible number, the prose is vivid and personal, and he is himself unerringly intelligent. He has the historian’s best gift of irony, sometimes a very pungent irony, but when he reaches the long passages of merciless violence and death he knows there is no room there for humor, and those passages are harrowing and moving. Afghanistan is the country no one has known what to do with, at the crossroads of many other countries’ wants and hopes. Perhaps, for a bit of the near future, they’ll be left to decide what to do by and for themselves.
Ed Douglas’s 2020 book Himalaya: A Human History (W.W. Norton) provides readers with a similar chance to understand something of an area every bit as remote (to us) and mysterious as Afghanistan. Here too we find a civilization set in an area long under the eye of neighboring powers: the British rulers in India, well into the twentieth century; Russia, Britain’s main period competitor in what was christened the Great Game; and, most tragically and intrusively of late, China, who views Tibet as its own—a view with historical roots right up there with those of Birnham Wood. Douglas’s prose is denser that Tamim Ansary’s, but he’s pulling you into the depths of the area’s physical and historical gifts as well as its culture, and he too knows how to dramatize a large political situation in its particular players, each with their own personality, assumptions (often mistaken) and lookout for the main chance. I sometimes regretted the space in the book given to the area’s interruptions over their native accomplishments—Tibetan culture has been well covered of late but there is still distressingly little about Nepal—but this is merely a matter of taste, a mild quibble. There are chapters on the mountaineers, inevitably, who have never (I admit) interested me much, brave as they may be; but I found his chapters on the botanical explorers absolutely charming and captivating (it’s a kind of wonky I can understand). Himalaya is an ambitious book that seems to come out of a long time on the ground there: its erudition wears hiking boots. The Himalayan region is home to ten of the fourteen highest peaks in the world, and reading Douglas’s book, you can feel the wind coming down off them.
Anyone writing the history of Tibet faces the necessity of clarifying for Western readers a culture and mythography—dakinis, termas, tulkus and such—as thoroughly permeated by Buddhism as medieval Europe ever was by Christianity; and then, in an almost reverse task, of desaturating the rosy blur of post-Lost Horizons sentimentality lain onto our sense of the place by pop culture. Sam van Shaik in his book Tibet: A History (Yale, 2011) accomplishes the first task without presumption or ethnocentrism and the second without sniggering or superiority, all the while keeping the bedrock of verifiable fact in view: his Tibet seems to be populated by real and individual people rather than personified ideals or mythic projections. Having myself approached the study of Tibet via an interest in Vajrayana Buddhism, Van Shaik’s simple sense of reality cleansed my notion of Tibet, but didn’t damage it—it was realism without debunking, which if anything makes the current situation of Tibet all the more distressing reading. When Van Shaik gets to the ongoing period of Chinese occupation, he conveys how terrible it all is—the slow dissolution of the native culture, the erosion of respect and humane treatment, the country paved over with a mask of good intent—with an enraging directness.
One of the many virtues of Serhii Plokhy’s book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Basic Books) is its currency: it was published in 2015 and updated for a second paperback edition to 2021, leading us up practically to the door of Ukraine’s most recent and fearsome interruption. It ends not with the usual grand summing up but on a distinctly tentative tone: “Whatever the outcome of the current Ukraine crisis, on its resolution depends not only the future of Ukraine but that of relations between Europe’s east and west—Russia and the European Union—and thus the future of Europe as a whole.” As I write this (March of 2022) Ukraine is undergoing a Russian invasion—military approaches from the north and along the easternmost border--that leaves its existence at threat and relations between Russia and the West at a breaking-point of strain. Plokhy’s book does much to explain where all this has come from, with Ukraine as a twin and an example of the history of so many crossroads countries, with the addition of its being both a grain-rich and mineral-rich region and especially desirable. Its twentieth-century chapters are direct and vivid on the various assaults and suppressions Ukraine has suffered, with vast numbers left dead in their wake. Gates of Europe is a straight-up political and territorial history, with little space given to description or definition of its particular cultural identity; little about the dumas (the Ukrainian folk songs), the iconic art, the religious and literary figures (many of them Jewish: the Baal Shem Tov and Sholem Aleichem, among others). Plokhy has all he can do to keep straight the migrations and squabbles of the various groups that have trod Ukraine’s grounds, but he does it admirably well, and it’s impossible not to feel the author’s apprehension as we begin to understand the long, long historical roots of what’s happening now. And it is happening now, in front of us, all over the news media—Plokhy’s sense of an unfinished story has been more than borne out. But little has gone according to the Russians’ plans. The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has politely refused all offers to escape and has rallied his people around him with courage and a canny use of social media. And the Ukrainians have given us the fiercest and most bracing image of heroic resistance of the twenty-first century so far—stubborn, effective, defiant, cheerfully obscene. As they endure the bombing of hospitals and schools in their major cities, the closing of humanitarian routes for food and medicine, and the continuing denial of their culture and identity, the country’s newest postage stamp is of a lone soldier, flipping off a Goliath of a warship on the horizon, and giving us an image of the Ukrainian people’s response to the vastness of the Russian invading forces: Sic semper tyrannis, or, in the vernacular: go fuck yourself.