How To Write the History of Afghanistan

Watercolor Map of Southwest Asia

How we impose historical narratives and stories on Southwest Asia and its nations - while not totally arbitrary - matters for the way it generates certain narratives. Being mindful of the way that we narrate the history of relatively new countries like Pakistan and even Afghanistan is crucial in order to reach a mature historical judgement on events.

Geographical Frames of Mind

Writing the history of Afghanistan, all the more so in the twentieth century, presents special challenges for historians. Even a question as simple as where Afghanistan is located gets to some of the contradictions and difficulties involved. Whereas regional monikers like "South Asia" (for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and so on) or "Central Asia" (the five former Soviet republics) have some mental traction, terms like "Southwest Asia" or "Middle Asia" don't stick so strongly in the Anglophone imagination. When it is grouped with other countries at all, Afghanistan often gets shuffled into an enormous "Middle East" that stretches to the Atlantic Ocean. Why do we have such a hard time slotting this country into any geographical imaginary (presuming that the exercise makes intellectual sense at all)?

One possible answer has to do with the blinders that Cold War-era area studies imperatives imposed on the region. If you went to most large American research universities before the mid-1950s and wanted to study the history of the non-Western world, you might have done so through a German-inherited philological tradition - studying linguistics - or by taking more general history courses, usually offered in a history department. If you were lucky, you might have also had exposure to the philosophy or archaeology of the region in question, too. But generally speaking, only during the first decade of the Cold War did American universities consciously begin to re-shape the study of the world along the lines of "areas" - "the Middle East," "East Asia," and so on.

This approach had definite benefits: bringing scholars together under one roof resulted in intellectual synergies. Language programs, particularly in Russian during the Cold War and in Arabic after the events of September 11th, became more professionalized, and the quality of teaching material went up. However, in grouping countries into hard-and-fast categories, massive differences between, say, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (the one a secular republic, the other an Arab absolute monarchy that declares the Quran the Constitution) became obscured. Even more of a historiographical and intellectual blur was imposed on "marginal" countries - say, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia - that may have had populations of tens of millions of individuals, yet sat on the margins (geographically or intellectual) of "regions" defined by scholars not from the actual region. In part because Afghanistan was seen as (relative to Iran, Pakistan, or India) relatively insignificant, the study of the country was confined to scholars with a weaker institutional base - Louis Dupree, for example - when compared to countries like Egypt, India, or the Soviet Union. While non-Anglophone academia had its own boundaries (Soviet scholars grouped Afghanistan with Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan into a unit called "the Middle East" as opposed to an Arab "Near East"), the basic problem remained the same.

This intellectual inheritance demands that we inspect our own scholarship - digital and non-digital - on Afghanistan and its broader region with care. Even though Afghanistan bordered three republics of the Soviet Union, the divide between "the Soviet Union" and a non-Soviet world in the intellectual imagination of scholars working in the 20th century. Doing good scholarship means remaining mindful of a shared "Persianate" inheritance across the Amu-Darya river boundary, indeed, well into Iran, Pakistan, and northern India, too. Still, rather than just substituting one unsatisfactory "area" for another, it is probably wiser to rethink the concept altogether; for some scholars, the very idea of "area studies" seems not only intellectually but ideologically discredited, as the concept partly reflected the belief that the planet could be divided into different "theatres" of conflict management and bipolar confrontation with the Soviet nemesis. 

Focusing on trans-national themes, like development or migration, may be part of the solution. As Developing Powers argues, Afghanistan was always tied up in global, trans-regional networks of expertise and capital in the 20th century. For reasons that went beyond mere geography, not just neighbors like the USSR, Iran, or Pakistan but also far-flung geopolitical competitors like the United States had a strong interest in "developing" Afghanistan and, more than that, making the Afghan bureaucracy and economy inter-operable with American concepts of economic knowledge and expertise. This explosion of the old container-state ideal common to mid-century scholarship is even more vivid if we think of migration: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggered one of the largest refugee crises in human history - not just into Pakistan but also into Iran, as well. Focusing on these themes - while not forgetting the hard-won toolkit of languages and erudition that the old area studies education offered - allows the scholar to re-locate Afghanistan both into its regional context while also finding Afghanistan's relationship with what some historians call "the global." 

1893 Map of Afghanistan

As this 1893 map of Afghanistan and South & Central Asia shows, the country's boundaries were in flux for much of the late 19th century. More to the point, however, "Afghanistan" itself remained insufficiently imagined as a country throughout much of this period. What "Afghanistan" meant or implied was always changing.

Afghan Nation, Pashtun Nation?

Yet getting beyond thinking in terms of Afghanistan as part of a hard and fixed area represents just one of the intellectual challenges we have to keep in mind. As Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, a scholar of the history of Afghanistan in the 19th century and a professor at James Madison University argues in a recent edited collection, Anglophone scholars of Afghanistan and its broader region too often labor within an intellectual framework pioneered by British scholar and adventurer Mountstuart Elphinstone in his 1839 account of a journey beyond the Indian frontier, An Account of the Kingdom of Cabul and its Dependencies in Persia and India. Elphinstone, who spoke no Pashto and largely confined his journey to the capital of the Kingdom, created a framework for scholars to understand the lands beyond the possessions of the East India Company: Persianized Pashtuns ran the country from Kabul, yet existed in what Hanifi calls "a permanent state of discord with a rural-Pashtun-Afghan nation." Accurate or not - and certainly uncritical of the ways in which the ruling elite in Kabul has used the Pashto language in its own self-depiction to fellow countrymen and foreigners - this framework continues to influence writing about the 1929 uprising that toppled Amanullah Khan, as well as, although to a lesser extent, the 1992 sack of Kabul by anti-Soviet mujahideen forces.

Beyond this first point, the terms "Afghan" and "Afghanistan" themselves are notoriously historically malleable. Soviet scholars V.M. Masson and V.A. Romodin argued that the term "Afghanistan" does not appear with any freuqency in written sources until the late 13th century, and only began to take on the meaning of a state inhabited by "Afghan" tribes in the alte 18th century, following the conquests of Ahmad Shah Durrani. Even then, as Hanifi notes, the founder of this "Pashtun empire" was born in Multan, educated in Shi'a Afsharid Persia, and was coronated in Kandahar - all facts difficult to square with notions of Kabul as the seat of a Sunni Pashtun nation. Extend one's gaze into the 20th century, and dates like 1919 and 1947 raise questions of whether we depict the history of Afghanistan as that of an independent state operating in the international system (something that changed in key ways in the 1920s), or as of a nation divided by the Afghan-Pakistani border, in the same way that one might write Kurdish or Palestinian history. And these questions barely scrape the surface of how to integrate the historical role of Afghanistan's non-Pashtun nationalities into a broader national(ist) historiography.

In focusing on how the quest for a (Pashtun) Afghan state ironically led to the reconfiguration of the regional possibilities for a Pashtun-dominated polity, Shattering Afghanistan cannot but engage with some of these questions, even as it may stop short of providing a definitive answer to these methodological quandaries. The point, as we seek to fuse the digital with more traditional forms of scholarship, is never to lose sight of the hard-hitting intellectual and political problems that are always present in any form of historical scholarship.

Documents & Sources
How To Write the History of Afghanistan