Among the latest WikiLeaks documents is this passage from an April 2009 diplomatic cable, summarizing a conversation between Vice President Joe Biden and Britain's then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown:
Vice President Biden described the complex nature of the security problem in Afghanistan, commenting that besides the demography, geography and history of the region, we have a lot going for us.
Biden's shrewd assessment might serve as a fitting epigraph for The Great Game: Afghanistan, a three-part play produced by London's Tricycle Theatre Company, now playing at New York University's Skirball Center, under the auspices of the Public Theater, through Dec. 19.
It's an ambitious play, spanning 168 years of foreign powers trying to impose order on the country's bleak and tribal frontiers—from the skirmishes for empire between Britain and Russia in the 19th century (which inspired the phrase "the great game," in Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim) to the Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States in the late 1970s and '80s, to NATO's counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban today. And its theme is in line with Biden's: seemingly sound strategies, waged with sometimes-good intentions, but on landscape that might be impervious, or hostile, to armed foreigners bringing change.
The play—or, actually, it's a series of mini-plays, 12 of them, by as many playwrights, hammered together by directors Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham—begins with Lady Florentia Sale, the real-life wife of a British army officer in the First Anglo-Afghan war of the 1840s, reading a line from the journal she kept while held prisoner by the Afghans for nine months before she bribed her way to freedom: "It is easy to argue on the wisdom or folly of conduct after the catastrophe has taken place."
It ends, six hours or so later, in the present day, with a British soldier on home leave, explaining to his wife why he keeps going back, to protect the Afghan children, while she protests that his own family needs him more, interrupting his story about one Afghan girl with the cry, repeated five times, "Can we have him back now please?" Finally, he replies, "If we leave now, then that'll be everything fucked." She says, "Everything's already fucked. There's nothing you can do about that. … It's gone on for too long. We're not helping. We're just smashing it all up."
In the context of what has happened on stage up to this point, it's clear that the phrase "It's gone on for too long" refers to nearly 200 years of fighting, and, if past is precedent, the wife is right.
But The Great Game is not anti-war agitprop. Several of the plays within the play show the Taliban's monstrousness and the Afghan people's (or some Afghan people's) desire for a better life. A few interludes, featuring actors playing real officials or experts (Hillary Clinton, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, journalist Ahmed Rashid, among others), reciting lines they've really said or written, suggest (without irony) that there might be something to the new NATO strategy, that this time things might end differently—or that, in any case, it might be worth hoping that they do.
In other words, the play, taken as a whole, conveys the same anguished ambivalence as a perusal of news stories, columns, and military briefings about the war—that failure would be disastrous but success might be impossible. And so we persist in retracing the steps of past occupiers and idealists, with calculated risk, blithe confidence, moral righteousness, strategic folly, or a mix of all the above.
It's a shame, then, that The Great Game is not a better play, though it's hard to see how it could have been a great work—or even a dramatically coherent one—given that the dozen playwrights who wrote its bits and pieces devised their stories, themes, and characters without so much as consulting one another.