Blood and Gifts or Why America is in Afghanistan

“Great men are almost always bad men.” That’s the tagline to the wonderful play, Blood and Gifts, about US involvement in Afghanistan from 1981-1991. I’ve just seen it.

That depressing opening sentence is also the missing third line from the famous and much cited quotation from Lord Acton (aka John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton):

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

I’m not sure it’s the appropriate label for this play. Something about the road to hell being paved with good intentions might be nearer the mark.

The drama, written by J T Rogers, puts the current conflict in Afghanistan in an interesting context. It’s one of those stories where “I wouldn’t start there if I were you.” The tale is packed with whataboutery (also explained here) – as in: “Yes, OK, that’s true, but what about before that when you yadda yadda yadda…”

So, according to Blood and Gifts, the answer to the question, why is America in Afghanistan, is definitely not because of 9/11. But nor is it because the United States backed, funded, armed or helped develop radical Islamist groups.


Lloyd Owen as CIA agent James Warnock


The historical window of the action doesn’t permit Osama Bin Laden to be accorded chief baddie status. His time has not yet come. The play nods to the likes of him only at the end (the brief and less convincing conclusion to a very very strong drama).

Instead fundamentalist Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a malign presence offstage) and a Pakistani military intelligence colonel (modelled on Hamid Gul perhaps, the head the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence) vie for the title of local villain.

So – go back further. To the Soviet invasion perhaps? Back to Soviet influence was still spreading and Communism was a threat. Arguably the CIA wanted not necessarily to defeat the Soviets, but to make them bleed.

No, don’t start there. Keep going back. And shift the focus west a bit. A bit more. Over the border into Iran and the fall of the Shah. The CIA character James Warnock (beautifully played by Lloyd Owen) is partially driven by the guilt he still feels at abandoning to torture and execution his informants and friends in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. He resolves to not let down his Afghan connection in the same way – regardless of the political consequences.


Demosthenes Chrysan as Afghan resistance leader Abdullah Khan lobbying for funding.


Just think. If the Shah had manged to hold on a couple more years, American-supplied weaponry might have been slipping into Afghanistan over the Iranian border instead of through the Khyber Pass.

Is that where it all began then? At the failure to effectively prop up the Shah? Or was US support for a Pahlavi regime which maintained control through torture and fear was the real first misstep on the road to Kabul?

Nearly there – and there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Kind of.

One more step back in time and one more government overthrown – this time a democratic one. They do occur occasionally. We’re all the way back to 1953 and the overthrow of the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the CIA-backed Operation Ajax. The progressive social reforms he introduced were one thing, but wen he moved to nationalise the country’s oil industry… Well, he was asking for it , wasn’t he?

So there you go. The answer is oil.

But the good news – if you’re American – is this. As well as pointing the finger of blame the Russians for invading, the Pakistanis for intriguing and the Islamists for radicalising – let’s not overlook who it was actually asked you to get rid of the democratically elected PM of Iran back then.

It was the “Little Satan” to your “Great Satan”, Perfidious Albion.  So there you go – blame the British. The Iranians do.To be fair, Blood and Gifts does not go quite that far. And it’s far more than a mere history lesson. It’s moving, funny, full of 80s fashion and music. A mujahideen envoy to Washington (played by Philip Arditti) tries to woo a Congressional staffer by speaking to her the lyrics of Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. Danny Ashok brings the qualities of a perky meerkat to his portrayal of a delightfully amusing and sycophantic Pakistani military clerk. And the CIA and KGB find common ground as they flee from a St Patrick’s Day party in Islamabad to escape the unquenchable Irish ballads.

There’s an element of central casting about some of the characters – the exasperated drunken MI6 man Simon Craig (played by Adam James) who wants to bugger Margaret Thatcher for starving him of funding, and his wily convivial KGB counterpart Dmitri Gromov (played by Matthew Marsh).

But Lloyd Owen gives a towering performance in the central role as the CIA agent struggling to balance family, job and ideology. He’s almost continually onstage.

I saw Blood and Gifts at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. This world premiere run finishes on November 14th. I recommend you see it while you can – or watch out for future performances in your part of the world, perhaps the Lincoln Center Theater in New York which commissioned this full-length play.

If that’s not enough for you, read what these guys say about it: Michael Billington in the Guardian – four stars, Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard, the If I Chance To Talk A Little Wild, Forgive Me blog – and less wholehearted – the Jewish Chronicle (still 4 stars though), Charles Spencer in the Telegraph – three stars, TheatreGuideLondon Review and Broadway World.

For other visions of Afghanistan, try these:

A Beautiful Hazara Boy

Language Wars



Filed under art, history, politics, theatre

8 responses to “Blood and Gifts or Why America is in Afghanistan

  1. Great post. Theatre spreads awareness, doesn’t it?

    Ta for the link. I’ll reciprocate, promise. Glad it’s in the Irish category. Cool with me….

  2. WOW. Can’t wait to see it. You wrote a wonderful piece on it you did.

  3. Barbara

    Will have to keep my eyes open to see if “Blood & Gifts” will play near here some day. What a complicated web of motives and interests. My thinking is probably too simplistic, but I can’t help feeling that if we had invested all the time, energy and money that we’ve wasted on oil on developing clean energy instead, we’d be way ahead of the game by now.

  4. I Always Suspected That Tina Turner Must Be Guilty Of Something……..!

  5. TaylorGooderham

    As Barbara said, I’ll have to keep my eye open for it. It sounds rather interesting. Curse being on the other side of the ocean!

    And I knew the war was for oil, but I didn’t know it went THAT far back.

  6. blackwatertown

    Tony – Apparently what Tina Turner was guilty of was benefit fraud. £56,000. She got a suspended sentence. Here’s a link to the story

    Barbara – That really is big picture thinking. I suppose every bump up in our renewable energy capacity helps relax our reliance on oil from dangerous places. Though it could lead to the occupation of some sunny country as a site for our solar panels. Look out Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad. OK, I’m getting a bit carried away here.

  7. Great piece Paul. The answer is oil? It’s a very small percentage of Americans who believe that.

    Reason being we get crude oil from: Canada 18%, Mexico 11%, Saudi Arabia 11%, Venezuela 10%, Nigeria 8%

    Other countries, the amount is too small to matter.

    • blackwatertown

      But I wonder what the statistics would be for back then – back when this particular timeline begins.
      Can anyone provide the information?

      I think Britain had first dibs on Iranian oil before the coup (the 1953 coup) – and that it was Iranian oil that kept British motors running. The big British North Sea oilfield discoveries weren’t until the 1970s.

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