Three Borders

Lines and Polygons: as this 1985 map produced by Afghan and Polish geographers underscores, Kabul never recognized the legitimacy of its border with Pakistan, to the point where the "international" border was noted only with a dotted line on maps of Afghanistan printed in Warsaw. Scan from National Atlas of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (Warsaw: Geokart, 1985), 27.

Learning from "The Spatial"

One of the most common rejoinders that skeptics offer today to practitioners of the Digital Humanities, or "Digital History," is blunt: what does this do that's different from what we could do, or did, with analog techniques? What unique historical insights does mapping and writing history, as opposed to "just" writing offer? And so on: the variants of this kind of question are endless. Rather than relying on novelty or gimmickry, any DH project today must articulate its specific value-added. What, then, did we learn that was new and unique from Shattering Afghanistan?

As we saw in the opening sections to this exhibit, throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Afghan elites - feeling cheated by the 1947 post-British Imperial settlement in South and Central Asia - strove to reconstruct a Pashtun-majority state, "Pashtunistan," out of the territory that comprised western Pakistan and (arguably) southeastern and eastern Afghanistan. Yet if one may appropriate the striking phrasing of Jacqueline Rose (writing about Zionism), for Afghan elites, Pashtunistan was “a homeland where there was none before […] a child of the psyche, a dream, a figment of the brain.” But until foreign engineers, consultants, and statisticians came to Afghanistan to help construct the germs of Pashtunistan’s resurgence, the idea of a Pashtun state remained, to use Salman Rushdie’s words, “insufficiently imagined.” Only with their help could the hardware, so to speak, of Pashtunistan come to life. But the reverse applied, too: for many of the foreigners who came to these “places in between,” Afghanistan constituted a place where they, too, could recover or invent identities that regimes of memory back home had obscured.

Yet for reasons having to with both politics and the history of cartography, our cartographic imagination doesn't always "map on" to these historical imaginaries. It's telling that GIS software today views the world as belonging to one of three classes of objects: points, lines, or polygons. And this fits for most states, countries, or even proposed states. Whether you're standing in the middle of the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula, tracking the former course of the Berlin Wall, or crossing far less charged former or current national boundaries within the European Union today, we still live in a world that thinks, and draws maps, in terms of polygons.


Pashtunistan Map

Pashtunistan, a "figment of the brain": as this irredentist map produced by an amateur Afghan cartographer suggests, the precise contours and justifications of said boundaries for Pashtunistan conformed awkwardly with a world of nation-states, lines, and polygons. In this map, for example, the cartographer accepts as given the problematic post-colonial Iranian and post-Soviet borders, but extends the border with Pakistan (reduced to less than half of its size) almost, but not entirely, to the Indus River. The diversity of these and other proposals for such a state speak to the extent to which Pashtunistan, in spite of the collective intellectual and infrastructural work of so many, remained "under-imagined" throughout the Cold War. Map produced by "Asil Afghan," used under Fair Use Doctrine.

Pashtunistan, The Square With Three Sides

But the idea of Pashtunistan - lacking the benefit that Pakistan had of inheriting British frontiers and the imaginary of the Durand Line as "the" frontier - always remained romantically inchoate, vague, unclear. Where "Afghanistan" would end and "Pashtunistan" would begin, or whether the two would be one state was rarely made unambiguous. Never recognizing the Durand Line, Afghanistan and the idea of Pashtunistan itself remained a square with only three sides, bound by the Soviet Union and Iran on the one side but only by the political imagination and collective will, infrastructure, and funding of foreigners on the other. It failed to conform - romantically so - to the lines and polygons that made up the bones of modern states and modern maps. 

Keeping in mind the imaginary geography of Pashtunistan - and how it intersected with the still-meaningful national and subnational boundaries that form the workaday graphs and lines of GIS software - helps us understand the shifts of the 1980s. In some obvious sense, the people whose lives form the subject of Shattering Afghanistan were subject to massive disruptions. The fact of some 3 million people sent into refugee status in Pakistan and Iran speaks for itself.

By keeping the geographies of Pashtunistan in mind - as the maps in this exhibit seek to highlight - we can see how many people, even as they moved from "Afghanistan" to "Pakistan," remained within the broader collapsing husk of the territory that had once been imagined as a "Pashtunistan" under the dominion of Kabul. This migration of people within Pashtunistan but across national borders had dramatic effects for both Afghanistan as well as Pakistan: the former saw the supposed core territories of a Pashtunistan political project almost totally depopulated by the Soviet invasion, while the latter was forced to cope with a gigantic refugee crisis that increasingly threatened the demographics of the Pakistani state.


If you enjoyed Shattering Afghanistan, I invite you to visit my website and blog, where you can read more about the thinking that went into the project and keep tabs on other projects that I'm involved in.

In short, the quest for development and the dream of Pashtunistan shifted populations to the east and destroyed the very developmental hardware which was supposed to provide bones to that old "figment of the brain." It was thus an ironic fact that the Soviet occupation and the Afghan Civil War, by destroying so much infrastructure and killing so much of the generation capable of remembering this world, obscured the very processes and precedents that had made its destruction possible. We can understand this point through prose and argument - such is the focus of my book manuscript, Developing Powers: Development, Modernization, and Governance in Cold War Afghanistan - but it is through following people and their forced paths within Pashtunistan in the form of mapping that we can visualize and better comprehend its exact dimensions.

Looking Ahead

In the spirit of many other digital history projects, Shattering Afghanistan operates on the principle that it is only the first draft of a larger, international inquiry into the past. That's no excuse for sloppiness: instead, it's a suggestion to users from all backgrounds to reach out and offer suggestions, criticism, or help in refining the project and using it as a launching point to further investigate the history of Central Asia and Afghanistan during the Cold War. 

What do I mean? If you've been interested in this project as a user, there are several ways you can contribute. If there is enough evidence of interest, I'd be interesting in producing a Persian-language version of the site that gives Afghan or other Persian-speaking audiences an opportunity to interact with and comment on the narrative. This story belongs much more to them than it does to me, and it would be important to see that Afghan audiences - normaly people as well as historians or scholars - have the chance to exert an influence on the writing of their history.

This linguistic plea also extends to other materials. While I am aware of Mirwais Wardak's collection of documents, they are in Pashto - which the author of this site doesn't read. If you are interested in cooperating on translating more documents from Pashto into English, or making me aware of other Persian-language (or other language), please contact me via the contact form on my personal website. Given the sensitive, personal nature of some of this documentation, I promise to proceed slowly in those cases where people's personal information may be at stake.

Finally, if you're interested in my other scholarly work, you may find my website and blog helpful. Thank you for taking the time to read through Shattering Afghanistan.