SINCE THE END of World War II there has existed in the foreign policy "community" a running battle between the grand strategists, who are primarily concerned with the actions of the Soviet Union, and the area specialists, who concentrate on local conditions. Each perspective carries its own distortions: what one side calls "agrarian reformers," for instance, the other sees as "Soviet puppets." And while the localists say big-thinking know-nothings landed us in Vietnam, the strategists contend that America's seeming unwillingness to respond to the Soviet Union in an organized fashion can only lead to more Vietnams.
The title of Stanley Wolpert's book seems to promise a respite from this rather sterile dispute. Wolpert, a historian at UCLA, is an area specialist, but the title of his book is clearly geopolitical, indicating that what we have here is a synthesis, an insightful mix of the big picture and the illuminating detail.
But no. What we have here is a reworking of Wolpert's 1965 textbook India. The title is new, but the material is old and tired. Like the textbook, Roots of Confrontation begins with a quick overview of the situation today and then moves on to superficial discussions of Hinduism, Islam, the British raj, nationalism, and independence. To be sure, Wolpert has interpolated some material on Afghanistan and "the Great Game" (the 19th-century competition between the British and Russian empires for control of Central Asia), but these sections are less informative than even a good guidebook.
Given the book's title, one would expect Wolpert to place the politics of the subcontinent in a global perspective. But in examining the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, which he holds out as the central point in U.S.-Indian relations, Wolpert damns the United States for supporting Pakistan and for managing to alienate both it and India--as if no greater disaster could befall this country. This interpretation resolutely ignores U.S. aims at the time. Henry Kissinger's view was that maintenance of the balance of power required the United States to respond to increased Soviet strength by seeking a rapprochement with China, even at the cost of angering Indira Gandhi. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with Kissinger. But to do so without taking his argument into account is silly, and to ignore it while purporting to scrutinize the geopolitics of South Asia is something worse than that.
There is much that is irritating about Wolpert's book, from its misleading title, its sloppy map, to its lack of a theme. Most bothersome, however, is that it makes this part of the world seem boring. Many events in India today challenge Wolpert's drearily conventional view of the country as little more than a "distress-plagued population hovering on the edge of starvation." What of the fact that, during the second half of the 1970s, when inflation soared in most poor countries, India achieved what The Economist termed a "minor miracle" by actually slowing its rate of inflation? And what will happen to world trade now that it is cheaper to forge steel in India than in the United States, but cheaper to grow a ton of wheat in Kansas than in Punjab? What does it mean that India, still viewed by many in this country as somewhat pacifistic, maintains the world's fifth largest army? And how will Soviet-Indian relations be affected by the possibility that by the time their friendship treaty expires in 1991, India may well have technologically outgrown its Soviet elder brother? Indeed, what of the fact that a boy born today in Calcutta can expect to live longer than the average boy born today in the Soviet Union?
In Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, G. Whitney Azoy does for that Central Asian nation what Robert Whiting did for Japan in The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style--that is, delve into the mind of a people by examining their national pastime.
Buzkashi is a game of few rules, played on horseback on the plains of northern Afghanistan, where the Central Asian steppe meets the Hindu Kush. Its object is to grab a calf carcass and ride away with it. Traditionally, both spectators and participants are mounted, and definitions of who is which can change instantly, because anyone wanting to play need only charge into the fray.
Azoy, a diplomat-turned-anthropologist, and a perceptive observer of Afghan life, looks at the game as a "metaphor for uncontrollability"--in other words, as a symbol of how Afghanistan works. Many sports are politicized (one need think only of South African cricket or Chinese Ping-Pong) but few are as implicitly political as Buzkashi, which has its origins in the battle tactics of Central Asian horsemen. Buzkashi play often becomes an explicit test of power, for the umpire's decisions take into account both his own standing and that of each rider's backers.
One way of prominently displaying (and, if successful, augmenting) one's authority is to sponsor a game of Buzkashi. Thus, writes Azoy, it was only natural that the central government would seek to assert its sovereignty over the provinces by setting up a bureaucratized annual Buzkashi tournament in the capital of Kabul. The central government has never really ruled the hinterland, as is demonstrated by Azoy's amusing eyewitness account of one provincial governor's attempt to arrest the local Buzkashi team. Yet, even in the midst of the current civil war, with an estimated 85 percent of the country controlled by the resistance, the central authorities have continued, every year, to stage the tournament. One suspects it is a symbol they cannot afford to lose.
Afghanistan, in Azoy's view, may be "medieval," but it is hardly static. Indeed, few societies undergo such constant change as one in which authority is based almost entirely on individual reputation.
From the Afghan point of view, life has been a bloody Buzkashi since the initial Marxist coup of April 1978. We on the outside have used different imagery to describe events there. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example, has recommended that we go back to the poet laureate of the Great Game, Rudyard Kipling. Yet, it would seem that Kipling speaks more to the concerns of today's Soviet Army.
"When you are wounded and left on Afghanistan's
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains."
Or, for the strategic view, we could turn to Byron-- "Whose game was empires, and whose stakes were thrones?/ Whose table earth--whose dice human bones?"
But the word that best describes the situation in Afghanistan today is "stalemate," which is of course borrowed from chess, another great game originating in South Asia.