Over the last weekend I participated in the 62nd Harvard National Model United Nations, as the culmination of the United Netherlands course I’ve taken this last semester. While others from my delegation participated in simulations of UN debate, I took a slightly odder role – that of Minister of Health in the Cabinet of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, 1978. The simulation covered the two years between the communist coup in April ’78 and the Russian invasion in ’79, and was essentially a kind of war game. My fellow communist cabinet members and I took actions on social reform and security, and then received updates from the Harvard staff on the new situation based on what we’d done. While the simulation ended with us all dying in a Soviet invasion, it was a useful reminder of just how tricky it is to run a country.
You lack a lot of information
Through the weekend we kept running into the problem of not having the information we needed to make decisions. Confronted by numerous rural rebellions, we weren’t entirely sure what they wanted or who they were led by. Our intelligence services dug up some information, but even they couldn’t give us everything we needed to know. It’s easy to imagine the government being all-knowing and all-powerful, especially in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. However, even US intelligence was taken completely by surprise when Islamic State took over Mosul in 2014. No matter how hard you try, you can never have enough information.
You can’t always trust your fellow government officials
This one is mainly relevant for dictatorships like the one we were modelling. All the ministers in our cabinet also had individual responsibilities and could take actions without informing the others. I used this secrecy to start refining opium into morphine and heroin to finance my ministry, but others used their power more to undermine their rivals in the cabinet. In this case we were still almost kinder to each other than the real Afghan cabinet, who hated each other’s guts and the majority of which ended up dead or imprisoned. This complex game of rivalries is a real problem in dictatorships, and it often makes it hard to understand their policies. What may seem like a highly irrational invasion of another country may have been a very rational plan by the dictator aimed at keeping his personal rivals off balance. When you can’t trust the people you’re governing with, actual governance tends to suffer.
Escalating is easy
Over the simulated two years our government’s relations with Pakistan worsened dramatically. Every time we received the information that they had made some threat or moved troops, we could either decide to try and calm things down, or make our own move in return to protect ourselves. As soon as we moved troops to defend our border, they saw that as hostile and took action in return. It’s the classic security dilemma – when no one trusts each other, any action to defend yourself will be seen as hostile by your neighbours, and lead to a reaction which demands yet more defensive action. It’s sobering to see how quickly this process can go even when everyone is well aware of the dilemma.
Sometimes nothing you can do will work
Towards the end of the weekend it became clear that we were completely screwed. We were heading to war with Pakistan, the US had cut ties, we had severely annoyed the USSR, and our only ally India had extremely dubious motivations. The numerous domestic rebellions didn’t help matters.The realisation that there was nothing we could do to fix any of our problems without exacerbating the others was a painful one. It was also a useful reminder that there isn’t always an answer to a conflict or political issue. Not every situation has a policy that can fix it. The Syrian Civil War is an example of this, where despite what some may tell you, there is no real good policy for the US to follow.
In the end I did take away some personal success from HNMUN, winning an Honourable Mention in my committee, and I had a very fun and intense time. However, it was also a chance to put into practise everything I’ve learnt about Afghanistan and the Middle East, and a chance to discover that even the best policies can’t always save you. Everybody may want to rule the world, but that doesn’t mean they can.
With this post, Your World Explained is back to updates twice a week! With my last semester of university starting, I’ll be back to writing on all the big headlines.