The Great Game: Afghanistan

I returned home from Kabul and Juba last week to three
nights of six one-act plays each evening by twelve playwrights at the
Shakespeare Theater under the title “The Great Game: Afghanistan.” I just can’t
get away from it. I landed at 2:00 Wednesday afternoon and at 7:30 pm the same
day was watching actors play British troops in Afghanistan at the turn of the
century. The second evening of one acts covered to Soviet occupation era and
the final evening the American occupation, which is to say the current era.

“The Great Game,” the plays, isn’t real history. The authors
knew what they wanted to say about “history” from today’s perspective, but it
rings true to me. Basically the large message is that Afghanistan is a complex
place ungovernable by foreigners and no one seems to learn that. The British
ruled it for 90 years then failed, the Soviets for a decade then failed and we
have been at it for almost as long (nine years) and are failing. We did not
really go there in order to rule as did the British or the Russians, but we have
been trying none-the-less to impose our way of doing things, enlightened as
they are, on a reluctant Afghan population. No one seems to have learned the
lessons of their predecessors. The viewing of these plays was very painful at
many levels.

Many of the episodes invite the audience to see Afghanistan’s
many invasions from an Afghan perspective. In the second episode of the first
evening – the British period from 1842-1930—four frightened British Army
buglers looking into the dark for enemies are approached by an Afghan of some
wit. They demand of him “Stop! Who are you? And why are you here?” He stares
intensely back at them and says: “The real question is who are you and why are
you here?”

The opening play of the second evening—the Soviet period
from 1979 – 1989—presents the welcoming speech to his troops by a new Soviet
commander in 1987. He sets out the rather hapless goals for continued Soviet
occupation of Afghanistan that reflect the emptiness and futility of the
undertaking. The next scene is a somewhat more upbeat speech by his Soviet predecessor
as he takes command two years earlier in 1985. This is followed by the opening
addresses of earlier commanders in 1984 and 1982, each more ambitious and
upbeat than the previous (i.e. later) one. The goals of building schools and hospitals
etc., sound remarkably like American goals twenty years later.

The third and final evening—the American period from 2001 –
20??—ended with an American solder watching TV in the middle of the night when
his wife asks him to please come to bed. An intense exchange ensues in which he
speaks of the need to return and protect poor Afghan children from the terrors
of Taliban oppression and his wife speaks of the need for him to look his own
child in the eyes and engage him. This is not just or even one of the many
collateral damages of war politicians too easily and readily forget when
sending our young men to far off wars. This young man suffers deeper problems
having nothing to do with this or any other war. Blaming his dysfunction on the
war is rather like blaming Jimmy McNulty’s neglect of his family to his all
consuming battle against crime on crime in “The Wire.”  There, I found another chance to plug TV’s best series of the last decade.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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