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September 26, 2018
The Kabul Times

The Great Game: Snakes and Ladders and the conflict in Afghanistan

Anyone even remotely familiar with the conflict in Afghanistan would have come across the metaphor, Great Game, as a description of the globally and regionally fostered troubles that this country has seen for centuries. Barring a few decades of relative peace, a scramble for external over Afghanistan has made it into a zone of conflict instead of a convergence zone that it once had been. That Afghanistan had been, and to a great extent still is, subject to clashing global and regional rivalries makes the use of Great Game metaphor reduce it to a mere a variable in someone else’s strategic equation; one whose own existence and dynamics are secondary to the requirements of the bigger powers. It is precisely this way of seeing, to use John Berger’s words, that has made attaining peace in Afghanistan a non-starter.
The casualty implicit in the use of Great Game, however, does not render this metaphor useless entirely useless. Notwithstanding the problems associated with its impersonal usage, it is evocative if not representative of the things going right and wrong in Afghanistan; the word ‘game’ in particular. But the situation in this war-ravaged country is reflected neither by the game of chess or draught/checkers – games that are replete with strategies, giving an illusion of grandeur. The game that captures the situation in Afghanistan well is Snakes and Ladders. There are reasons, which in my opinion, make the various dimensions involved in the conflict in Afghanistan look similar to how this simple game pans out. There are moments when things look up, laddering towards something promising. But there, on the other hand, are times when even the best-looking things do not reap the kind of benefits one had expected of them. The movement on that ladder and beyond is small in measure and may at times even lead one into a pit which takes the country back to square one. Or perhaps, it takes a turn towards the worse.
Let us look at some of the features of this game to know how it might shed some better light on the contours of the conflict raging in Afghanistan. In doing so, let me reiterate, that my purpose is to not reduce the tensions in and over Afghanistan to something impersonal and emotionless. Rather, my intention is to look at Afghanistan from the lens of another game-metaphor in the hope that this shall have an impact on how we imagine the situation in this country, and therefore think about the solutions accordingly. This task certainly requires a great deal of imagination and thought, but as it is (rightly) said, “war and peace are in the minds of men” (and women, may I add).
Unlike the games of chess and checkers, snakes and ladders is multi-player. The latter works with a simple rule that there can be multiple players playing on the same board at any given time. What this multi-actor approach yields in the case of Afghanistan is that it does not reduce the conflict into an either-or duel. Where in cases of chess and checkers there can only be two sides, the game of snakes and ladder goes beyond this dichotomy and allows more stakeholders to be a part of the process. One does not have to choose to be on either side, which, as in both chess and checkers, are clearly demarcated. Rather, it allows space to players that may not see to eye-to-eye with either sides but which may still have a stake in the process. The absence of this antonymic character also means that the game of snakes and ladder does not subscribe to the (solid, and wrongly so) distinction between the perpetrator and the victim; between the good and the evil. It permits fuzziness, greyness by giving space to more than two actors. So, with regard to the alliances of foes and friends in Afghanistan, which have often been described as ‘shifting lines in the sand’, the game of snakes and ladders is able to accommodate more than two sides.
What these two-sided games also assume is cohesion within the sides as well, particularly in the game of chess. While chess may have a structural advantage over both checkers and snakes and ladders by having different pieces play different roles, the game looks like a top-driven process where The Hand that moves the pieces is, (i) in control of everything on her side – from the king to the pawn, (ii) imposes a sense of unity within her side. It does not, in this way, give any sense of freedom to the pieces that are in play. These pieces are played by The Hand, where this hand that plays can be a great power as was the case during the Anglo-Russo face off and during the Cold War. The case of checkers, while not imposing a sense of hierarchy and order restricts the imagination of the conflict as it accommodates just two players that play at once. Although it provides more cognitive freedom to the players that are playing, since each is responsible for her own side and there is no difference between pieces, but it blinds itself to the presence of the other actors that are not given space on the same board but are players nevertheless.
The number of players that are permitted by each game also has an impact on what the outcome of the game looks like. In both chess and checkers, the fact that these are played by only two sides implies that the game terminates only when either of the players wins. Both these games work on a zero-sum logic where the victory of one has to mean the defeat of the other. However, unlike both these games, snakes and ladders, by virtue of being multi-player, does not strictly follow this zero-sum logic. There can be more than one winner, although there will be a first among the equals – that is not someone will finish the game before everyone else does but whose victory does not terminate the game. Similarly, the one who finishes last just finishes last; he/she does not lose and the dividends of peace/cessation of conflict are distributed in accordance with the position one comes to hold as the conflict ends (and peace begins).
The importance of language and how it is used to describe the outcome of a game matters especially as being declared a loser does not move anyone! In fact, it is often difficult, and perhaps even counter-intuitive to want to demarcate the winning and the losing sides clearly in a conflict especially when the lines between the victims and the victimisers is often blurry. No one side would like to look like having conceded defeat and this is particularly true in the case of Afghanistan where the different warring parties continue to spar and often so not in the hope to win but to not to lose face in front of their constituency.
Then there are element of surprise, externality and uncertainty, which are introduced in the form of dice, making snakes and ladders provide a more tight expression of the things going right and wrong in Afghanistan. The dice, which determines the number of steps a player can take on the board, is symbolic of those aspects in a conflict that are exogenous and over which little control can be exercised. While mathematical formulae can help one in knowing the probability of a particular number appearing on the up-face of the dice, it cannot tell you when that number will appear. Moreover, those external constraints or impetuses can be many, i.e. more than the faces of the dice (6), making it difficult to know what will happen next. Maybe, it is here that the limits of the game-metaphor, in general, stand exposed. After all, conflicts are more than board games and the players are not just lifeless tokens on that board; they are human beings driven by emotions, interests, desires that equations cannot explain.
For over three centuries, Afghanistan has been placed at the centre of Great Games. These games have been played by different established and ascendant global and regional players, often reducing Afghanistan into a turf where their insecurities and ambitions were/are pitted against each other. The reduction of the conflict in and over Afghanistan into a game has made the plight of this country and its people into something of a distant spectacle – one to which the players of this game are alert but feel little about. In imagining the battles within and for Afghanistan as strategic and political flurries, the human face of the war and the damages it caused has been lost on the world. Having continued for more than four decades now, the most recent conflict in this country has been a moot point for strategic discussions with lofty ideas, arrogant solutions. The fact that there has been little concern for tactics has been demonstrated enough by the inability of the occupying international forces to deliver and hold peace on terms that are relatable to the people of Afghanistan. It is time to replace the pretentious grandeur of strategies, emerging from metaphors like the Great Game, and look at things not from our ivory towers. I guess we can begin this by simplifying our metaphors, and maybe the simple game of snakes and ladders and not the grander chess can lead us in the way.
Chayanika Saxena is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore (Singapore). Her doctoral thesis looks at the interaction between spaces and political subjectivities of selected groups from within the Afghan diaspora inhabiting India. With more than six years of experience of researching on matters concerning Afghanistan, she has published and presents on related matters nationally and internationally. She maintains linguistic proficiency in Hindi, Urdu and has working knowledge of Farsi. She can be reached
at: chayanika.saxena11@gmail.com

Chayanika Saxena

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