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Reviewed: Tamim Ansary and William Dalrymple's books on Afghanistan

Repetitive strain.

Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan
Tamim Ansary
Public Affairs, 416pp, £17.99

Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan
William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, 608pp, £25

In The March of Folly, her analysis of unforced error in statecraft through the ages, the American historian Barbara Tuchman tried to answer the question that lies at the heart of both these books: why, when faced with a clear choice between the self-evidently catastrophic and the merely unpalatable, do we so often opt for the former?

In style and substance, these latest additions to the already huge library of books inspired by the first Afghan-American war could hardly be more different. William Dalrymple is a scholar. Tamim Ansary is a storyteller. Dalrymple’s focus is narrow, covering in careful detail the sad sequence of the events of 1839-42, later known as the first Afghan war. Ansary paints a wide-angle, soft-focus picture of Afghan history from the middle of the 18th century to the early 21st.

Dalrymple’s book is a major contribution to the historiography of south-west Asia and of the British empire. No Afghan field trip, no excursion along the highways and byways of the archives of Britain, Russia, India and Afghanistan, has been too much for Dalrymple. Mixing primary and secondary sources and taking the trouble to acquaint himself with the terrain on which the tragedy was played out, Dalrymple has resurrected an oft-told tale and brought it convincingly back to life. Even in describing events as they might have been, his style is factual rather than flowery. Return of a King will come to be seen as the definitive account of the first and most disastrous western attempt to invade Afghanistan, occupy it and then, in short order, remake it on lines mapped out by foreigners.

Ansary’s slimmer volume is more appetiser than main course. Although it purports to be written from the inside out, as an Afghan perspective on the wars outsiders have inflicted on Afghanistan over the past three centuries, it is in reality a personal view of those events from a member of the California- based Afghan diaspora more gifted as a raconteur than as a researcher. The organising principle of the book is that foreign irruptions in the flow of Afghan history have done little more than divert and delay Afghanistan’s search for its new self. In this, Ansary is surely right. What was going on in Afghanistan when the Americans and the British arrived there in autumn 2001 (and the Russians before us) and will be going on when we leave is a multi-dimensional, multi-decade conflict: a struggle between modernism and tradition, secularism and religion, capitalism and communism, town and country, Pashtun and Tajik, Sunni and Shia, Sufi and Salafi, north and south. Unwittingly, the west has taken sides in that struggle, aligning itself with the urban against the rural and, usually, with the modern against the ancient.

Such efforts to drag Afghanistan into a new future have always been bound to fail. As successive Afghan leaders have found to their cost, only the brave or foolhardy try to accelerate change in one of the world’s most conservative societies. Those who want to make a lasting difference must do so by patiently and painstakingly taking the people with them.

What makes Ansary’s book attractive is that it offers what might be described as a western idiot’s guide to modern Afghan history. His is an authentically Afghan voice, offering not an authoritative account of the ebb and flow of foreign entanglement in Afghanistan but a personal account of how an intelligent Afghan observer sees the course of events from the outside.

Both Ansary and Dalrymple make the point that the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan has a habit of repeating itself. Naturally, in each cycle, the details are different but, as Dalrymple suggests in an afterword that should be put on college syllabuses on both sides of the Atlantic, the similarities between the British intervention of 1839 and its western successor 160 years later are striking. Then, as now, the root of the problem lay in what Dalrymple describes as “delusionally optimistic despatches . . . about the ‘perfect tranquillity’ of Afghanistan in the face of the anxious reports . . . officials were sending in from across the country”. Then, as now, ambitious advisers, eager to please their masters, failed to lay out the scale of the almost impossible challenges confronting the western interlopers. Then, as now, defective leadership focused on tactics, not strategy.

What neither book does, however, is explain why leaders faced with the prospect of catastrophe obvious to any objective observer chose that rather than the lesser evil of accommodating ambition to Afghan reality. It was not as if nobody warned the British in 1839 or the Russians in 1979 or the Americans in 2001 of the perils of trying to govern Afghanistan. Yet, as both Dalrymple and Ansary make clear, time and again hope has triumphed over experience. As a Soviet diplomat once assured a sceptical Foreign Office official, “This time it will be different.”

This conundrum – why, when we know history, we still choose to repeat it – was what Tuchman’s study of folly was really about. Her answer was “cognitive dissonance”, which was, I suppose, a modern way of settling the question Thucydides posed at the start of his history of the war between Athens and Sparta. He was, he said, recording the mistakes that men made in the hope that, having read his account, those who came later would learn the right lessons. But then, rather disarmingly, Thucydides confessed that, human nature being what it was, men would probably make the same mistakes all over again. And so it has been, in Afghanistan at least.

Yet who could say that no good has come out of these Afghan adventures? As Dalrymple points out, the first Afghan war gave birth to the country we now know as Afghanistan. Only the most determined pessimist would say that, as the tide of the present intervention recedes, there will be nothing of long-term value to the country left among the jetsam.

Moreover, as Prince Harry has reminded us, for tens of thousands of western soldiers and security men, diplomats and development workers, writers and journalists, this Afghan adventure has been the experience of a lifetime. In myriad ways, they have had the privilege of being part of the modern history of one of the most fascinating countries on earth. What is so sad is that, if those who have directed this vast project had applied the lessons that leap from the pages of both these books, the Afghan people might have harvested a more enduring dividend from the spilled blood and squandered billions of the last, lost decade.

Sherard Cowper-Coles’s account of a life in diplomacy, “Ever the Diplomat”, is published by HarperPress (£20)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide