On the Kilburn High Road in north London last Saturday, I embarked on a journey to Afghanistan.
The Tricycle Theatre was staging all three parts of The Great Game, a series of 12 half-hour plays, of varying quality, which seek to examine that country’s history and the usually disastrous attempts at intervention by foreign powers.
With Gordon Brown having been in Afghanistan just the previous week to announce the deployment of more British troops, the Tricycle’s mission seems especially timely.
Unlike anyone connected with the production, apart from the Tricycle’s artistic director, Nicolas Kent, I have travelled to Afghanistan several times, starting in 1992 when, more through luck than judgement, I happened to be there as a correspondent for the Independent as President Najibullah’s communist regime collapsed.
Consequently, I reacted to some scenes differently from the rest of the mostly grey-haired, Guardian-reading audience.
In David Edgar’s Black Tulips, for instance, there is a briefing on the dangers of landmines by a Soviet soldier, which is presented as a sinisterly comic turn. I attended just such a briefing in Kabul, given by a British ex-officer.
The Soviet sapper warns his comrades of “mines set on top of other mines”; that is how the Briton I heard later died. The old tank he was using for mine clearance detonated an anti-personnel device, as it was meant to do, but beneath it was a much more powerful anti-tank mine, which killed him and his two colleagues.
The story of Marjan, the one-eyed lion in Kabul Zoo who survived all the city’s upheavals, has been told by almost every journalist to have visited. In one of the best plays, The Lion of Kabul, Colin Teevan imagines a confrontation outside Marjan’s cage between a female UN official of British Asian origin and a smugly fanatical Taliban mullah who refuses to address her except through a male translator, even though he speaks English.
She is demanding justice for two murdered Afghan employees. In accordance with the retributive principles of Taliban justice, he proposes handing over the culprits to her, to be fed to the lion. The irreconcilable differences between relativistic western liberalism and hermetic Islamist certainty are expertly explored.
Just as I was thinking that the plot was slightly far-fetched, even for Afghanistan, I remembered a story a British aid worker once told me.
The worker, who was running a project north of Kabul, said he had tolerated a series of petty thefts by his Afghan workforce until his transistor radio, his only means of getting news of the outside world, went missing.
He complained to the local mujahedin commander. A couple of days later the radio reappeared in his room, and he thought no more about it until the following morning, when he found the bodies of two men, shot through the head, in the road outside his compound.
After that he kept any complaints of theft to himself.
The violent deaths of two Afghan leaders – Najibullah, who was dragged from a UN compound by the Taliban before being beaten, castrated and strung up in the street, and Ahmed Shah Massoud, the renowned commander who defied both the communists and the Taliban until he was killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers, two days before the 11 September 2001 attacks – are recounted in two of the plays.
Having tried without success to talk my way into Najibullah’s UN sanctuary in 1994, I wondered if David Greig was drawing on the report of a more fortunate colleague for Miniskirts of Kabul, but he makes clear that the interview it depicts is imaginary.
Having met Massoud, however, I am less sure than Ben Ockrent (or his sources) that all might have been well if the US had supported him during and after the campaign to drive out the Soviet forces who invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Instead, as we are reminded elsewhere, some US aid found its way to Osama Bin Laden.
The persistent failure of the US and Britain to take the right option in Afghanistan is also the theme of Blood and Gifts by J T Rogers, in which the friendship between a CIA agent and a fictional commander is imperilled by the agent’s inability to get his client the same powerful weaponry as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mujahedin leader whose brutal opportunism is all too real.
I nodded as Hekmatyar’s crimes were described – Mirwais Jalil, a BBC journalist I knew, disappeared on the way back to Kabul and was found dead after quarrelling with the warlord at his headquarters – but at the end of the play, in a savage twist, the commander announces that he has formed an alliance with his rival.
Nicolas Kent told me that he was a pacifist before he went to Afghanistan to research what has become the biggest teach-in on the country ever conducted in Britain, the plays being accompanied by talks, a film season and cultural displays.
He returned convinced, however, that western troops should remain there. Nevertheless, nearly all the 12 plays that Kent has commissioned seem to emphasise the futility of intervening in Afghanistan. None of them misses the opportunity for dramatic and historical irony.
“This country is a deathtrap for foreign armies,” says a British soldier in the opening one-acter, Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, by Stephen Jeffreys, which deals with the slaughter of the first British force to invade the country, in 1842.
The second play, by Ron Hutchison, features Sir Mortimer Durand, whose imposition of an arbitrary frontier between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan in 1893 has caused trouble ever since. Amir Abdul Rahman, Afghanistan’s ruler, is forced to sign despite warning of a “recipe for disaster” and “endless conflict”.
The only positive note is struck by Abi Morgan’s The Night Is Darkest Before Dawn, and even in that play the modern-day aid worker whose money will help to reopen a girls’ school is little more than an uncomprehending spectator.
Her message is immediately contradicted by Richard Bean’s On the Side of the Angels, which is also about aid workers. “Wherever we go, we take a virus,” one of them says. “Every time someone just looks at one of us, we change them, maybe even destroy them.”
There is more humour than one might expect. Amit Gupta’s Campaign, for instance, eavesdropping on a Foreign Office spin doctor, gives the term “Whitehall farce” a new meaning.
But, as though anxious to forestall the conclusion that President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan can’t succeed, Kent has injected a dose of the “verbatim theatre” for which the Tricycle is famous.
In between the final plays are two sets of excerpts from interviews conducted by Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian, Kent’s regular collaborator in staging extracts from official tribunals and inquiries.
General Sir David Richards, the British former commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, is among those who assure us that, although there has been a string of failures until now, Barack Obama can find a way through. And when Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, says that the Taliban “must be defeated”, the audience applauds.
We want to believe that it can be different this time, even though we have just spent all day learning that history is against us.
Raymond Whitaker was foreign editor of the Independent on Sunday until March 2009.
The season “The Great Game: Afghanistan” is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6, and runs until 14 June.