Terrain Map of Central Asia

A terrain map of South and Central Asia. Produced using Stamen Mapstack.

Welcome to Shattering Afghanistan: Mass Murder and State Destruction in Afghanistan! This Omeka site constitutes both the final project for a seminar on Digital History conducted at Harvard University in the fall and winter of 2013-2014, as well as the initial foray into a digital presence for Timothy Nunan's ongoing book manuscript project, Developing Powers: Development, Modernization, and Governance in Cold War Afghanistan.

In this introductory page, I'dd like to offer a bit of background on the project; my hopes for how it relates to the book manuscript (and perhaps one day, a real, live, paper book); and a brief schematic overview of the site.

This exhibit was produced primarily by Dr Nunan, with some technical assistance from Jeff Howry and Jeffrey Blossom, while Nunan was supported by a fellowship from the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. All mistakes, however, are Tim's.

The Background for this Project

This project emerged out of conversations and assignments for a seminar on Digital History conducted by Professor Kelly O'Neill at Harvard University in the autumn semester of 2013-2014. During our seminar, which both focused on theoretical approaches to the Digital Humanities (DH) and demanded of us that we acquaint ourselves with concrete tools and techniques to integrate our own historical scholarship with "the digital," several graduate students, Harvard librarians and I began to conceive of digitally aware projects that could serve as a platform to practice what we had learned. Some students worked on network analysis of early modern cloisters and networks of Catholic patronage; others, on the transformation of Winston, NC and Salem, NC into one unified city. Still others combed the State Archives of Massachusetts to produce a spatial, digital history of abolitionism in the state. The projects varied greatly in temporal and geographical focus, then, but were unified by a drive to integrate our scholarship more tightly with the possibilities that digital platforms offered.

Body Symbology

Developing maps like this one, which vividly depicts the gepgraphy of killing in Afghanistan in 1979, help us ground our prose and written histories in space, place, and time.

In my own case, what started as a lark - a seminar with which to distract myself as I threw myself into the conventional (and luxurious) post-doctoral work pattern of furiously editing and re-writing my doctoral dissertation into a book - began to stimulate more thinking about whether I had originally neglected spatial or cartographical dimensions in the work I had done as a D.Phil. student in History at the University of Oxford, where I defended my dissertation in the summer of 2013. Maybe, I thought, thinking in terms of the dynamics of development, Pashtunistan, and states in Central Asia in more spatial terms - as much through maps as through prose - could help me articulate the story I wanted to tell in the book manuscript? 

A Digital Spine?

More than coursework, however, Shattering Afghanistan seeks to complement my in-progress book manuscript, Developing Powers: Development, Modernization, and Governance in Cold War Afghanistan. During the Cold War, Afghanistan was one of the largest recipients of developmental aid, yet by the end of that conflict, it stood among the most impoverished countries in the world, devastated by the Soviet invasion launched in 1979 and about to be plunged into decades more of conflict. Developing Powers explores this apparent paradox through an international history of development and modernization in Afghanistan from approximately 1955 to 1991. It argues that the Cold War practices and policies designed to facilitate the development of the Afghan state also helped create the conditions for its collapse. We can best understand the history of Afghanistan during the Cold War as a symptomatic case of the transition from a developmentalism obsessed with the idea of the territorial state to a post-developmental regime concerned more with policing “failed states” and the internationally-led “governance” of those spaces through NGOs rather than the state. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an attempt by a territorial power to build a territorial Afghan state that was eventually replaced by various forms of transnational governance (NGOs and militias), represents a vivid case through which to understand this shift from government to governance.

Stamen regional map

South and Central Asia: an awkward geonym at best, but can its history be better knit together through history and the digital humanities? Produced using Stamen Mapstack.

Developing Powers makes use of new sources in Persian, Russian, German, and English drawn from archives and special collections in the former Soviet Union, Germany, the United Kingdom, North America, and several substantial collections of Afghan documents and books. The book is the first to make extensive use of Soviet economic and Party archives concerning development in wartime Afghanistan, and it also draws upon some thirty interviews conducted with former advisers in Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan  in 2012. In addition to this new source base, Developing Powers goes beyond similar works like L.W. Adamec’s 1974 Afghanistan’s Foreign Affairs, or Jay Robinson and Paul Dixon’s 2013 Aiding Afghanistan,  in its engagement with the work of historians like James C. Scott, Charles Maier, James Ferguson on the state in the 20th century and with the writings of theorists like Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben. The book contributes to the literature of several fields, but especially the history of the Soviet Union, the history of South and Central Asia, the history of modernization and development, and the history of the Cold War. 

Still, while Developing Powers makes use of a variety of sources, the more I delved into the material, the more it became clear to me that my work in DH could complement the story I was writing during my "day job." It is in part through the "Death Lists" (of which more in the Sources section), and especially through the refugee data that I uncovered at Harvard during the autumn of 2013, that we can obtain a more precise picture of how Afghan Communists' crash revolution and the Soviet intervention - while designed to solidify a vision of "Pashtunistan" in Central Asia - did the exact opposite, both emptying the putative core territories of a Pashtun super-state in southern Central Asia and generating a massive refugee crisis in neighboring Iran and Pakistan that continues to this day. While the core thrust of my argument remains in the pages of prose that make up Developing Powers, this project, Shattering Afghanistan, provides a more visually and spatially imaginative illustration of the argument I develop elsewhere.

Hopes and Ambitions

Yet the ambit of this project goes beyond the author's own selfish professional concerns. By 2014, no one can doubt the impact that the idea and practice of "the" digital humanities has had on the historical profession. Like it or not, more and more jobs on the always-challenging job market call explicitly for scholars with expertise in digital humanities. At major professional associations' conferences, panels on the digital humanities draw standing-room only crowds (perhaps linked to the aforementioned factor), while solid scholarly work on traditional subjects may struggle to draw audiences in the double digits. Yet with relatively few graduate students and post-doctoral scholars actually practicing the digital humanities, it is no surprise that some of colleagues whisper - over drinks if not in panel discussions themselves - whether they wonder whether DH "really" means anything. Too often in such discussions, DH is caricatured to promise everything and thus deliver nothing.

Such convictions arise from a number of factors, not least among them ignorance and - arguably - a lack of projects demonstrating what might or could be done. DH is not just "one" thing: it can range from textual analysis to network analysis (neither of which this project does) to more modest attempts like those of Shattering Afghanistan to use GIS software to help us understand the past better. But as Stephen Ramsay reminds us, "Digital Humanities is not some airy Lyceum," an endless series of piebald parliaments and motley meetings centered around talking about digital humanities. DH means doing, designing, mapping, and analyzing. Young historians (and scholars of literature, and anthropologists, and sociologists) must offer concrete projects that show the limits (positively and negatively construed) of DH techniques if they want to contribute to the discussions surrounding the digital humanities, and turn the discussion from the abstract (and too often ignorant) to the concrete, where we can debate the merits of specific projects and specific methodological decisions. Shattering Afghanistan constitutes a modest, and first, intervention into that conversation by a young scholar who - like many, one suspects - is tired of a public discourse that seeks too often to de-legitimize the humanities in the United States and which might - such is the gambit - be re-taken via projects that aggressively combine the digital with the unique critical voice that the humanities at their best offer.

Heat Map - FINAL

A heat map of the state-led mass murder in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, generated with ARCGIS.

Beyond these more parochial, North American or Atlantic concerns, it is also my hope that both Shattering Afghanistan and Developing Powers stimulate historical debate among users and readers from Afghanistan and Central Asia more broadly, or those teaching to audiences from the countries in the region. Traveling through many of the region's countries, and having spent much of the past three years devoted to writing about the 20th century history of Afghanistan, I have often been struck both by how traumatized the histories of the countries in the region are (after Stalinism, Soviet ecological destruction, occupation, civil war, and, last but not least, post-industrialism and economic under-development) - but also by how little the historiographies of the region's countries speak to one another.

Whereas official histories in Uzbekistan, for example, have readily assimilated the performative traumatic voice of post-colonial history vis-a-vis the perceived crimes of the Russian Imperial and the Soviet state, these events are framed largely within the container space frame of the state, and reject any suggestion that the history of the country might be rather deeply linked with that of Afghanistan. In Afghan historical writing, meanwhile, the narrative too often focuses on an uncomplicated, and often tendentious, story of victories over "godless Communists" or Anglophone imperialists, or hagiographies of figures whose participation in massive human rights violations remains unexamined. As an Anglophone historian from the United States - a country that for better or worse has been deeply involved in the region since at least the aftermath of 9/11 - I offer to play a modest intervention into what I hope eventually becomes an autochtonous conversation among scholars, intellectuals, and the public in the region. Central Asia still has a long way to come before its histories and publics resemble that of, for example, Germany or Poland; but one has to start somewhere.

A Look Ahead

This exhibit, Shattering Afghanistan, is divided into several sections. After an introductory section that provides some background into the documents and sources that I used to construct the exhibit, a third section provides some of the historical context that I think is necessary to understand the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the idea of Pashtunistan, and the mass murder and forced migration that befell the country in the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Two follow-up sections go into 1979 (the year for which we have most of the data on mass killing in Afghanistan) and the 1980s in more depth, using GIS techniques to unify data and narrative.

The last two sections, "Aftermath" and a Coda, provide further context surrounding the demographic situation Afghanistan was left in by the early 1990s and thoughts on the utility of mapping and "Digital Humanities" techniques writ large to the writing and telling of history. While this exhibit is largely meant to be consumed as narrative, I have provided as much as possible to annotate the items in the Omeka collection and made the dataset interactive for users.

Dive in and explore. If you have any comments, they may be directed to me via my blog.