April 14, 2009 / 5:15 PM / 10 years ago

UK plays on Afghan history hold lessons for today

LONDON (Reuters) - An ambitious series of 12 new plays about Afghanistan opening in London this week underlines how history has a habit of repeating itself for foreign powers seeking to impose their will on an often forbidding country.

The Tricycle stage, which has a reputation for political theater, has commissioned the works which will be performed in three parts made up of four short plays each.

Tricycle director Nicolas Kent said it was time that theater in Britain, which has had a long and sometimes difficult relationship with Afghanistan and has about 8,000 troops stationed there now, tackled the topic properly.

“When I set off on this trip (to Afghanistan) I suddenly thought, ‘Here we are in the middle of a war in Afghanistan and we’ve done umpteen plays about Iraq ... (and) there’s very little coverage about Afghanistan,” Kent said.

“Somehow there wasn’t a debate on why we (British forces) were there and whether we should be there,” he told Reuters during a break from rehearsals at the theater in north London.

For Kent, the plays combine entertainment, thought-provoking debate and a history lesson about Afghanistan.

The first group of plays, which opens on Friday, is entitled “Invasions and Independence” and covers Afghanistan from 1842 to 1930. The second is “Communism, The Mujahideen & The Taliban” (1979-1996) and the third “Enduring Freedom”


They will be played individually or together over the course of a day, and form part of an Afghan cultural festival at the venue including films, documentaries and exhibitions.

There will also be monologues between plays based on interviews with key players in Afghanistan, including a senior British general, an Afghan writer and a Taliban commander.


Kent says several of the plays about Afghanistan’s past hold lessons for policymakers today.

The opening drama, “Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad,” dates to 1842 when 16,000 people — British and Indian troops, families and servants — left Kabul for the Khyber Pass.

After Afghan promises of safe passage were broken only one Briton, doctor William Brydon, made it to the British fort at Jalalabad after virtually the entire column was killed, captured or died of exposure in bitter winter conditions.

In “Black Tulips,” Soviet officers brief soldiers about to enter Afghanistan in 1987, less than two years before the military superpower suffered ignominious defeat.

“We were welcome there. This country would be worse without our presence here,” one officer says. But another adds: “Everything we do just seems to make the rebels stronger.”

Both reflect debates held among generals, politicians and the public in 2009 as the United States and its allies seek to balance their desire for a Western-friendly democracy with the reality of a growing Taliban-led insurgency on the ground.

“You saw the failure, I think very graphically illustrated, of a world power coming to grief and not being able to deal with holding Afghanistan,” Kent said.

“That seems to be the big problem, and some of those lessons haven’t been learnt and they are very important to the future.”

Despite a bleak prognosis based on Afghan history, Kent said his involvement in the plays changed his views on Britain’s military role there.

“I started off going into this absolutely certain we should not be in Afghanistan and against the war and I’ve come out of the whole process feeling that we need to be there,” he said.

“We’ve created a lot of problems and we’ve got to solve them. We can’t just walk away.”

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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