September 17, 2010 / 1:20 PM / 8 years ago

New London play looks at roots of Afghan conflict

LONDON (Reuters) - A new play uses the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Cold War “Great Game” it triggered, to look at why the West is mired in seemingly endless conflict there today.

“Blood and Gifts,” by U.S. playwright J.T. Rogers, has opened at London’s National Theater and won strong early reviews for its dramatic analysis of what has gone wrong in Afghanistan.

Rogers, who wrote Rwandan drama “The Overwhelming” which appeared at the same theater in 2006, said he opted for a behind-the-scenes look at the 1980s conflict, rather than a recreation of the fighting.

“It is more about safehouses, embassies and CIA headquarters in Washington DC,” Rogers told Reuters in an interview just before the play opened.

“As a drama, the encroachment of doom and gloom off stage is always more interesting than showing the actual conflict.”

Rogers said his latest play was deliberately political, but he did not see it as a judgment on superpowers’ foreign policies in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion or the West’s military intervention since September 11, 2001.

“I love to write what we call political plays — a ripping yarn set against real political events.

“People kept saying how it reflects the situation today, but of course I don’t want it to be blindingly obvious. I’m not writing a play to tell people how bad the West is. I wanted to ask myself — would I have done anything differently?”


Blood and Gifts follows three characters, each of whom represents a major intelligence player during the 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan as the United States sought to influence events by funding anti-Soviet mujahideen rebels.

Jim Warnock is a CIA operative, Simon Craig works for British intelligence under diplomatic cover and Dmitri Gromov is a KGB spy. All are based in Islamabad in neighboring Pakistan. Saeed is an Afghan mujahideen fighter.

“All this ... it is chess, Jim,” Craig says, underlining how superpowers sought to manipulate events inside Afghanistan. “Never good to get attached to one particular piece,” he adds, a reference to constantly shifting loyalties in a chaotic theater.

For critics, one of Blood and Gifts’ strengths was to put today’s security problems into perspective — many believe that covert U.S. support for Afghan rebels in the 1980s can be directly traced to the roots of the Afghan war today.

“Anyone who reads the news from Afghanistan and wonders how we got into this mess in the first place would do well to see this outstanding new work from American playwright JT Rogers,” wrote Fiona Mountford in The Scotsman in a five-star review.

The Guardian’s Michael Billington called the play “a compelling political thriller that exposes the naivety and arrogance that contributed to the current tragic impasse.” He awarded it four out of five stars.

Rogers said he had yet to visit Afghanistan, although he planned to.

“It is a similar experience to ‘Overwhelming’, when I didn’t go (to Rwanda) until after I’d written the play,” he explained.

“In a way if I had gone to Rwanda (beforehand) I could never have written the play. There needs to be significant distance.”

Blood and Gifts runs until on November 2.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato

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