I sometimes think about what I'll say when my kids ask me about the history I've lived through- especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You'd think that seeing news reports every night and hearing about battles and strategies from presidents and politicians would make all of us well-informed citizens, but often it seems like the opposite. So much information is thrown at us, so many contradictions and arguments swirl around us, until we realize that only after a few decades, when we can look back more calmly on previously volatile situations, might we be able to understand the whys and whos of our own era and its conflicts.
This is partly why I started listening to Tamim Ansary's book about the history of Afghanistan. I don't remember learning anything about the country when I was in school, and news anchors only talk about its mountains and our troop surges and the Taliban and caves, etc. etc. I wanted to learn about the real Afghanistan, not the one that's portrayed as backward and hostile. I knew vaguely about the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, but that's about it.
Games Without Rules was gratifyingly enlightening, but also depressing and even, at times, entertaining. Focusing on the Afghanistan of the early-19th century through the present, Ansary describes the rise and fall of various Afghan leaders, like Ahmad Shah and Dost Mohammed, and how they dealt with interfering foreign powers and a constantly-evolving and diverse Afghan culture. Because of its location, Afghanistan has been under constant pressure from such superpowers as Great Britain (because of Afghanistan's closeness to India), the former Soviet Union (because of the Cold War tug-of-war with the U.S.), and Pakistan.
Each time a strong Afghan leader looked like he might successfully bring together a complicated country and solidify its position in the world, thereby proclaiming that Afghanistan was not to be messed with, one swaggering superpower or another would crash in and mix things up again. For instance, the Soviet Union's brutal invasion upended centuries of Afghan traditions and sent many of its people into refugee camps, thus breaking up families and encouraging the rise of militancy. The number of ethnicities and religions in Afghanistan made (and still make) it difficult for Afghans to form a solid front against "infrastructure development" and aggression from one foreign power or another.
Mixing historical facts with anecdotes, old Afghan jokes, explanations of terms like "mullah" and "sharia," and his own experiences as an Afghan-American writer and speaker, Ansary offers us an important and fascinating view into the country of his birth, its tumultuous history, and his hope for its future.