Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Thomas Barfield is one of the few Westerners who know a great deal about Afghanistan. Since 1981, when he published an ethnographic study of Arabs in Afghanistan, his peers in the small community of Afghanistan scholars and policymakers have considered him a consummate expert. In his new volume, Barfield writes that Afghanistan is “one of those places in the world in which people who know the least make the most definitive statements about it.” Indeed, Afghanistan enters a public domain marked by a shockingly low level of knowledge about the country and a debate often dominated by those who shout the loudest, rather than those who know the most.

Barfield’s work presents a history of modern Afghanistan from the eighteenth century to the present day. The book targets a broad audience, focusing on the informed public — those familiar with the basics of Afghan geography and history, but not its nuances. From the outset, Afghanistan challenges the staid narrative of an invented and inherently untenable nation with a history of the long stability of the country’s political compact that has only recently broken down. Barfield’s central thesis is that “the most fruitful way to approach these questions is by examining the changing notions of power and political legitimacy in Afghanistan over a long period to understand how participation in national politics came to encompass an ever wider circle of people.” He contends that the continual expansion of the public sphere eventually undermined the social contract on which the Afghan state was founded in 1747.

Afghanistan contains six substantive chapters, prefaced by an introduction that lays out the basic argument. Chapter one is a primer on physical and demographic geography. Chapter two provides a longue durée perspective on the Afghan political community, narrating its rise from the ruins of the Safavid and Mughal empires, as well as identifying the Afghans’ political inheritance from the Turko-Persianate culture that dominated Central, South and much of West Asia for nearly a millennium. This chapter is particularly important as it explains the underlying language of political culture defining the Afghan state. Chapter three turns its attention to a familiar episode that remains largely misunderstood: the British interventions in the nineteenth century. Barfield portrays the state as beholden to the vision of its rulers, who continually look for opportunities to expand the reach of the state further in territory and deeper into the lives of subjects. Chapter four, the longest and the heart of the book, examines the development of the Afghan state and society through the twentieth century, from the death of Abdur Rahman Khan, the so-called Iron Amir, in 1901, until the rise and subsequent fall of the Taliban in 2001. The discussion of Daud’s rule from 1973–1978, the period of Barfield’s original fieldwork, is particularly rich. Chapter five analyzes the US-led efforts in Afghanistan, taking the book up to the 2009 reelection of Hamid Karzai, whose victory was purchased with widespread fraud. Chapter six, the epilogue, offers some concluding thoughts on the major themes explored in the text and their relevance to the current and future trajectory of Afghanistan.

Barfield cannot be faulted for ambition. Whether self-consciously or not, Afghanistan attempts to follow in the footsteps of Vartan Gregorian’s The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan (1969) and the anthropologist Louis Dupree’s Afghanistan (1980), two scholarly books that have served as the standard reference works until now. This corpus of knowledge has been sorely in need of updating to account for the Soviet occupation, the civil war and the dark days of the Taliban. In keeping with the book’s aim for a broad audience, Afghanistan relies heavily on other publications for material. Barfield does a commendable job condensing a substantial body of scholarship into a digestible portion for the general reader. A notable absence, however, is the recent historical research that challenges many of the standard tropes Barfield repeats. In particular, what is missing is discussion of the writings of Shah Hanifi on the formation of the Afghan state in the nineteenth century and my own work on the same subject. These works position Afghan state formation as part of a wider process affected by global interconnections, rather than an autarkic, or even simply colonially enforced, development unique to Afghanistan.

Barfield’s writing is full of analogies designed to render familiar the complexities of an alien and variegated political culture. This device can be somewhat jarring, as he moves abruptly from smooth, polished academic prose into a more conversational style. One such analogy likens the Afghan vision of the legitimate remit of state authority to Swiss cheese and the Western vision to American cheese. According to Barfield, the former is pocked with holes of differing sizes, representing the spaces the Afghan state has historically refrained from trying to control. The latter, by contrast, is of uniform texture, representing the unity and uniformity of the modern state. Laying aside aesthetic sensibilities, the cheese comparison oversimplifies the facts, as multiple visions of state competence have historically competed for influence within the Afghan political community.

Ultimately, Afghanistan is a solid popular history. It dispels several myths about this poorly understood country and reaches out effectively to a wide audience.

How to cite this article:

B. D. Hopkins "Barfield, Afghanistan," Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).
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