Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Thomas Barfield

Princeton University Press 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Having worked in Afghanistan in the early 1970s, Barfield has had a long involvement with the country. With a background in anthropology, he also takes a long-term view of its history, emphasising patterns, trends and structures rather than day-to-day events. (He does not cover "cultural history" in the broad sense, however, only the culture of politics.)

Barfield also approaches his topic from an Afghan perspective. He doesn't pretend to be anything other than a Western academic, but he focuses on the events and processes that have been important for the people and institutions of Afghanistan, not those of importance to outsiders. So the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, which looms vividly in the British historical imagination, is covered in just three sentences, with Barfield explaining: "The well-known story of the destruction of the Kabul expeditionary force has overshadowed the internal changes that the British implemented — changes that would remain even after they had gone."

Barfield's subject is Afghanistan, the modern state, not the geographical area. So the opening chapter offers some geography and a broad history of society and culture and political traditions, not a blow-by-blow account of events going back to Alexander the Great. This surveys ethnic groups, ways of life, and a basic cultural matrix incorporating Islam into a Turko-Persian culture area ("the easiest way to draw this region's cultural boundaries is to include only those peoples who recognise and celebrate the pre-Islamic Nauruz holiday"). Barfield also draws on a typology of "desert" versus "urban" going back to Ibn Khaldun.

When it came to "conquering and ruling" within this region, there were different ways of establishing legitimacy.

"Ruling dynasties originating from egalitarian tribes were short-lived and replaced regularly ... By contrast, ruling dynasties produced by hierarchical tribes could be quite long-lived, and were almost impossible to remove internally even after their rulers became weak and incompetent."
The working out of such patterns can be seen in Pashtun tribal structures and the rise and decline of the Durrani empire. Changes of and disputes within ruling elites, however, had little effect on the bulk of the population.

The nineteenth century saw the creation of a centralised professional army, but the spread of modern weaponry also empowered "troublesome people in marginal areas" who had previously played no role in elite politics; cavalry was no longer a decisive weapon. There was little other state centralisation, however, with regions remaining almost autonomous.

More centralisation came with Abdur Rahman, who campaigned aggressively to crush alternative sources of power. The result was a concentration of power in Kabul, with a narrow ruling class lacking links to rural Afghanistan and dependent on the state. The state in turn relied on foreign money and weapons and did little to encourage economic development.

In 1929 Amanullah's attempts to impose Westernisation exposed the weakness of the Afghan state. The resulting Musabihan dynasty provided some stability for the next fifty years, but did so less by virtue of its strength than by avoiding stresses that might have exposed its weaknesses.

Barfield describes the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan coup in 1978, the Soviet invasion, the victory of the mujahideen, and the rise of the Taliban. The PDPA with Russian support attempted to impose socialism, the mujahideen failed to transcend regional and ethnic divides or provide security, and the Taliban attempted to impose an Islamist ideology foreign to Afghanistan.

"In many ways the Taliban proved themselves a mirror image of the PDPA, intent on imposing radical doctrines of foreign origin on a population that was strongly opposed to them. ... At an intellectual level, it was argued that the Taliban had no business enforcing sharia law because their knowledge of it was rudimentary and flawed. ... Of course the Soviets had voiced similar complaints about the PDPA leadership's deficiencies in Marxist dialectics"

A final chapter covers the events of the last decade: the involvement of the United States, the rapid defeat of the Taliban as their military commanders and local supporters changed sides, the installation of Karzai and his repeated "re-election", the failure to bring security or achieve much in the way of reconstruction, the rise of an insurgency starting around 2005 and the return of the Taliban. This is too recent for much of a historical perspective, but Barfield sets events in the context of persistent political structures and patterns, as well as exploring how those have changed. He examines the use of loya jirga (a reinvention based on fragments of older ideas), the insistence on a strongly centralised state, how Karzai's leadership style compares to that of earlier rulers, how Afghan experience in refugee camps or the diaspora has changed their expectations of the state, and so forth.

Looking to the future, Barfield recapitulates the history to argue that Afghanistan is not a land of unceasing insurrection. His suggestions include distributed and more democratic governance, restraint in forcing modernisation and social change on the rural population, the need for rulers to be perceived as independent of foreign powers, and an acknowledgement of regions. He also touches on the implications of resources, transit links, demographics, and urbanisation. Right at the end he looks back for possible inspiration at one of the more unusual phenomena, Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khitmatgar, a Pashtun non-violence movement.

There are several maps in Afghanistan but none with much detail, and some important place names mentioned in the text (such as Khost) don't appear on any of them. This is a very minor complaint, however. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand either the history of Afghanistan or what is happening there now.

April 2011

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%T Afghanistan
%S A Cultural and Political History
%A Barfield, Thomas
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2010
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691145686
%P 389pp