Coalition forces perform a massive sweep, working with the local populace and enacting COIN doctrine to locate and identify Taliban guerillas in and around the provinces of Helmland, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Ghazni. Local government police prove invaluable in identifying the few concealed insurgents remaining underground.
A joint operation between the United States and the Afghan government leads to heavy losses sustained by Taliban forces. The coordinated insurgent presence is snuffed out in a matter of days as ground troops with supporting airstrikes devastate the opposition.
Afghanistan goes quiet. In the North and West, local drug lords expand their poppy fields resulting in rapid economic progress for the few and wicked.
While the people of the country cautiously enjoy a moment of peace, the Coalition military presence begins to draw down. What starts as a slow trickle of manpower and equipment quickly cascades into rapid mobilization out of country. The Afghan government holds its breath.
Terror fills the void. The Taliban, with Pakistani support, flood across the border. Afghan troops cannot hold the wall and cries are heard in the streets of Kabul.
Is that timeline a product of a game or reality? Is it both?
Does it matter?
I had forgotten about Afghanistan.
I can remember where I was and what I was thinking on September 11th, 2001. I remember feeling vulnerable, on a cosmic level. I remember not comprehending those emotions at the time.
And in the 20 years since that day, while thousands of soldiers have given their life and countless Afghans have been slaughtered on both and neither side, I have thought very little about that isolated wasteland that’s been under perpetual invasion.
All of that has been shoved to the back of my consciousness. It was buried in moribund silence somewhere between 1995 Star Wars CCG theory-crafting and how to make a paper football.
That is profoundly fucked up.
Much of this changed August 15th, the day Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul and the United States began its final withdrawal in earnest. It was failure on a massive scale. Now the media remembered. Now I remembered.
Since then I’ve been completely swallowed by this war. I’ve watched documentaries and read essays. I’ve mourned the death of Juan Restrepo a second time. I’ve revisited Katherine Bigelow’s filmography. And I acquired A Distant Plain.
I’m writing about this game now because it’s as present and unsettling in my mind as that disturbing image of an Afghani sympathizer dangling from a Chinook.
Three days ago I spent the better half of a weekend wargaming Afghanistan. Four of us engaged in this remarkable experience across two separate plays. I’m still recovering.
I’ve been engaged in a long internal battle the past few months as I’ve wrestled with my own sense of morality and purpose. Some of that struggle culminated with the second play of A Distant Plain. That was over 50 hours ago now and it’s still picking at the scabs of my being.
I have a sense of guilt, not just in my nationalized ambivalence of our nation’s longest conflict, but in now using this vast expanse of misery as a tool in my hobby, as well as a self-serving platform in my writing. The fact that this is topical means more of you are here reading it, and I’m profiting off that in a narcissistic sense. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’m still unsure if there’s any ethical basis for this exploration.
But I wanted to share the horror and brilliance of A Distant Plain. I felt compelled.
This game was a significant milestone in GMT’s COIN series. It’s the third volume in a collection that now numbers 10. It’s the first of its kind to include two factions joined in alliance while still fighting for individual victory conditions. This relationship, born of necessity and friction, defines the experience of play.
The Government is the first counterinsurgency faction. They’re not particularly effective but they are many. From one point of view they’re the backbone of the game, forming structure and boundary to the countryside and struggling with both systemic failings. They’re a reflection of the external forces and internal pressure of Afghanistan.
The Coalition is strength. This is the United States, Great Britain, and additional NATO allies all grouped under the umbrella of super power. They’re capable of unleashing air strikes anywhere in the country, and even out of country in Pakistan. They push the Afghan forces to fight harder and more effectively as they may take control of their pieces during key operations. In practice they can crush the two insurgent factions if given enough time and space.
But they don’t want to be there.
While the Afghan Government desires control of the population, the Coalition wants to win the people’s hearts – denoted as support – while also leaving the bare minimum of troops in this forsaken land. It’s a tightrope that was brilliantly devised for Plain and then utilized even more substantially in the follow-up title Fire in the Lake. In fact, several elements of this game would provide the foundation of that exceptional Vietnam-era COIN release.
Of those, I’m particularly enamored with the concept of Patronage. This is a measurement of the Government’s raw monetary corruption. This waste, vis-a-vis bribes and kickbacks, is combined with control of the countryside to form their victory condition. Siphoning foreign aid from the battlefield to the crooked actors of the local military is an absolutely stunning display of thematic insight.
The Taliban are the most typical of insurgencies. They operate in the fringe, fighting at great length to carve out a stronghold farther inland. They utilize guerillas, IEDs, and suicide bombers to strike terror in the populace and strongarm their cooperation.
The most striking element is their ability to amass in Pakistan and flood across the border at reduced cost. Pakistan’s involvement is abstractly represented by the Islamabad track, and provides for a practical level of support in running an insurgency on a shoestring budget. As a safe-haven it’s infuriating to the Coalition player as running drone strikes against these encampments only further solidifies terrorist support.
The Warlords are the most interesting of factions. They perform similarly to Cuba Libre’s Crime Syndicate, functionally existing as a solitary entity with their own set of principles. The goal is to funnel out as much opium as possible while funneling in an equally large amount of wealth. Secondly, they want Afghanistan to remain devoid of a power structure and splintered into a series of fiefdoms. They seek to provide balance by relinquishing control of the countryside from both the Government and the Taliban. They also embody a reflection of the United States war on drugs, a war which is impossible to win.
Like the other volumes, the faction dynamics are incredibly interesting and the heart of the COIN system. Each of the asymmetric entities can find momentary allies as well as momentary foes within the other players sitting around the tables. The mechanisms provide outright coupling which emerges once you begin to understand and interact with the systems.
An example is the Warlord’s ability to traffic. This is a special operation where they can ship drugs out of the country, earning a resource point per base they possess. However, they don’t earn this currency if a Coalition troop is present in the space. Yet, if the Taliban control the region then not only do the Warlords profit, but so do their frenemy. But not only that, the Government can earn Patronage if they control a space the Warlords are trafficking out of.
That little sub-system, jam-packed with vivid theme, illustrates the nonlocality and entanglement of the whole conflict. It also, almost with vulgarity, offers a hint towards the ethical failures at the heart of this design.
This next part is the brilliance of A Distant Plain as a thematic work, so pay attention.
Embarking on this political simulation is an act embodying moral failure. Every single faction is an illustration in abject corruption.
The Warlords are obvious. I don’t need to waste your time defending the claim that trafficking drugs on a global scale while maximizing the inequalities of your nation’s people is heinous. Their Mephistophelian fingerprints can be found among the poppies growing at Government outposts and around the throats of each Afghan tribal elder. I’ve seen it stated in jest that the average Afghani Muslim spends more time doped than in prayer.
The Taliban are terrorists. They harbored Al-Qaeda and they murder innocents in droves. They’re one of the most brutal institutions to women’s rights and practice violence in the name of Allah. They punish apostasy with death and govern with medieval approach.
The Government is perhaps the most virtuously bankrupt of them all. While not overt oppressors, the game’s measurement of Patronage can be taken as a visual measurement of the totality of their affliction. I can’t help but watch Patronage advance upon the track and the Government player cackle in delight, all while my mind attempts to suppress twinges of the well documented and widespread pederasty practiced among the Afghan military.
The Coalition are the good guys. Like any creation this work serves as a collection of ideals, ones inherently possessed by its creators, Westerners Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train. The very title references a foreign land out of sight and mind. The cover shows troops walking towards the mountains and away from the person holding the box.
The entire premise is optimistic and shiny. It wants the Coalition player to feel the savior, able to accomplish significant upheaval of the board state while also earning the locals’ appreciation and approval.
Airstrikes don’t cause explicit civilian casualties or shifts towards opposition – a granularity Fire in the Lake didn’t shy away from – and a United States victory is achieved equally through abandonment as it is through will. Leaning over the board and letting yourself be absorbed by the vast emptiness of a successful Coalition withdrawal is opening your soul to the suffering that attends reality.
I know this from experience. In my second play I executed a concerted extraction, pulling out every last Coalition piece and leaving a war-torn land to fend for itself. My timing was such that there was a solid chance the next Propaganda card would be upturned in short order and I would secure victory. It didn’t happen. Over time, the Taliban began recruiting again. They began terrorizing. The Warlords began shipping opium without restraint. The Government began to flinch. It felt like I was watching my child get bullied on the playground but I was shackled out of reach.
My gut churned. After complete and utter failure, I waffled, surging small quantities of troops and performing Predator drone strikes to assist the re-ignited military campaign. To their credit, the Government did storm back and ultimately secured victory. It was impressive.
But it felt utterly hollow from my perspective. Not because of my loss, but because the country itself was left rotten and beggared. The Government had power, but they were willing to overlook the massive Taliban population that owned the countryside, as well as tolerate the swelling opium trade. In a political sense, everyone won, including the American people.
And there’s the rub; every possible victory state is maddeningly horrid. Every single path leads to atrocity, particularly with the hindsight of the past few months.
Yet intertwined with that unavoidable distress is a quiet comfort that is wholly surprising. It’s impossible not to play this game and sit in appreciation of how prescient its events are at times. As a design, the emergent narrative outcomes intersect and subvert the historical tragedy in absolutely shocking ways. This game was crafted in 2013 and it’s unflinching in its ability to address the geopolitical struggle with immense insight and astounding care. The experience of playing A Distant Plain is one mired in marvel as much as moral dilemma.
Despite this brilliance, or perhaps merely another avenue of it, I find it very difficult to shake the internal strife lingering at the heart of the design. For something that fights with tooth and claw to present an optimistic worldview of complicated conflict, no matter the result you’re left with a withered and impoverished outcome. That transition over the arc of play is shocking. Regardless of what occurs in the three or four hours you spend in this war of ideologies, Afghanistan and its people lose.
The whole thing is Machiavellian. I don’t use that word in the traditional method which seeks to press into service those traits of duplicity and deceit found in his work The Prince. No, I mean in the sense that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that treatise as a ruse to secure his place with the ruling Medici family. It’s thought that Machiavelli himself did not embody the qualities he elevated in his seminal writing; in many ways he lived a philosophical approach counter to those principles.
Playing A Distant Plain is Machiavellian in this revisionist sense. It could be described as a dishonest performance where the actor partakes in a conflict seeking to elevate an ideology not their own. The audience of this drama, our equivalent of the Italian Medicis, are the real-life ideologues of a morally destitute foreign and domestic policy.
Functioning as an interlocutor through the experience of play is oppressive and unnerving, but it’s also something wondrous and captivating.
And this is why wargames can be so profound and significant. They let us interact with complicated situations both internally and externally. They allow us to stare horror in the eye and recoil or stand fast. They teach us something about history as well as ourselves.
I will remember Afghanistan.