Great Game Theory
On 4 July, across the world from all the hotdogs, beer and fireworks, America’s Afghan allies wandered incomprehensibly through the abandoned equipment left at the Bagram air base, about an hour’s drive north of Kabul. After 20 years and $2 trillion dollars, the Americans had actually done it, making good on President Joe Biden’s promise to withdraw US troops completely from Afghanistan. The UN backed Afghan government never really thought we’d do it. Neither did the Taliban.
When asked about the withdrawal, President Biden replied, “I want to talk about happy things, man.” Don’t we all. Both President Biden and the Afghan government have expressed “confidence” that the government will withstand the Taliban’s recent surge over, depending who you ask, between 50 and 80% of the country (although it’s the mostly empty part). The Taliban controls the Ring Highway – repaved with US tax-dollars – that circles the country, as well and the main trade route into Pakistan. Leaving in government hands a scattered archipelago of isolated urban areas. The prevailing unofficial thought of US intelligence is that government will be lucky to last 6 more months.
For the people of that beleaguered country this is, and I mean this literally, a crying shame. In defense of US Afghan policy, it wasn’t the US invasion or a lack of trying for 20 years that turned Kabul into the “Port au Prince of Central Asia." In the words of P.J. O’Rourke, “Some things you ignore at your peril, Central Asia you pay attention to at risk of your own life.”
The Taliban rose to power out of the chaos reeked by the Soviet nation-building exercise in true socialist style: Pummel the urban areas into rubble just like the rural ones. They threw in the towel in 1989 to oversee their own collapse. And in that power vacuum, the Taliban rose to power to create a theocratic narco-state over a people so desperate for stability they didn’t care where it came from. Women were confined to bedrooms and kitchens and Afghanistan became a pariah state. The aid money dried up and the terrorists came in.
That uneasy social contract with the over throw of the Taliban and founding of the US backed Afghan Republic in 2001. With NATO help, Kabul has resisted the growth of the militias. Which was the smart bet: In Libya, the Queen Mother case study on the fractalization of once untied militias was unfolding in real time. Now, with the US & NATO trained and supplied Afghan army surrendering in droves to the encroaching Taliban, the government is facing a desperate problem: The militias under old mujahedeen command are the only thing keeping the Taliban at bay – for the moment.
So we say good-bye to all that: to a quagmire that looks remarkably like the one Soviets left behind. Which is pretty on-brand for these parts, even the British Empire had to satisfy itself with a policy of containment. In one of those strange time-value of political platform moments, Biden’s tack on Afghanistan is closer to Trump’s than that of his former boss. Before Obama lost political interest in the war, his 2009 surge in the country was a doubling down of George W. Bush’s “invade-o-rama” policy after 9/11.
The pivot on which the fate of Afghanistan rests is how the Taliban reacts to being left in the same position as in the last withdrawal. Intelligence on the ground suggests that locals think that the Taliban is actually less corrupt than government forces. The merchants say that the main difference between the army checkpoint and Taliban check points is that the Taliban will issue a receipt, and so only shake you down once.
The Taliban wants to run the whole country, but not 90’s style. For one thing, some 75% of the government budget comes from foreign aid, which will dry up in the face of brutal repression or again cornering global market for heroin. Streaming images of looting and burning American flags as our diplomats scramble to safety in helicopter lifts will only invite the US back to unseat them - again. Better then, to simply hold the countryside, the highways and the trade border with Pakistan and wait in out as the cities starve and atrophy. Then strike a “power sharing” deal where they dictate the terms.
The trick is whether or not the Taliban leadership can sell this patient approach to their generals and fighters. You know how True Believers get when their blood is up.
Geez, this is grim – onward to Biden’s happy thoughts, man! You can tell a lot about a culture watching its national game – which the Taliban banned as immoral the last time they were in power. It’s a quirky amusement called buzkashi and is a cross between polo and rugby with fists and boots for mallets and a decapitated calf or goat for a ball. Travelling is allowed. The teams of horsemen number, well, it’s enough to fill the pitch which is large enough to accommodate two teams of… it’s pretty fluid, really.
At far end of this ill-defined expanse of mud is a flag, and at the other are three circles. The one is the center is where dead calf is lain at the start of play. To each side is another circle that is each team’s goal. The point is to snatch up the dead body from your horse, go hell for leather round the flag at the far end, return and drop the carcass in your team’s circle. The other team, of course, tries to stop you from doing this with a potpourri of punches, kicking and biting.
At this point the modern, Westernized sport fan will be thinking, “Okay, I get it. A bit indelicate, sure, but I understand.” Except that he doesn’t. The game is played for cash prizes, not for the team, but for the individual players (Incidentally, this is the aspect the Taliban object to, not the violence and the dead body). The end result being that not only are the riders on the other team trying to take the calf away from you, so are your teammates.
I trust I don’t need to flesh out the buzkashi metaphor in Central Asian politics?