The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

If time spent studying Afghanistan brings wisdom, then Thomas Barfield must have the judgment of Solomon: He has been traveling there since the early 1970s as an anthropologist. Any book that he — now a professor at Boston University — writes on the subject deserves to be taken seriously. His latest book, Afghanistan: A Cultural ...

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

If time spent studying Afghanistan brings wisdom, then Thomas Barfield must have the judgment of Solomon: He has been traveling there since the early 1970s as an anthropologist. Any book that he — now a professor at Boston University — writes on the subject deserves to be taken seriously. His latest book, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, also has the ambitious goalof being a comprehensive but readable short history of Afghanistan, with a heavy focus on the last nine years.

It hits the target. Although casual readers may find the early pages hard going, the pace soon picks up; quotations from the poet Sa’di and Ibn Khaldun provide variety. Barfield’s vision of the "longue durée" means looking at Afghanistan’s development over the course of centuries. Not for him the perpetually renewed mantra that "the next six months are critical"; he can instead bring a vision of Afghanistan over the centuries to cut through knott ydebates with easy self-confidence and lapidary sentences.

On Afghanistan’s new ties with its northern neighbors in Central Asia, Barfield asserts: "Turko-Persia is back, and Afghanistan is a part of it."

For those who helped the Afghans design their present Constitution, a scathing epitaph:

"Afghan state-building in the twenty-first century was fatally flawed because it attempted to restore a system designed for autocrats in a land where autocracy was no longer politically sustainable."

For the defeatists, on the other hand, who feel the entire enterprise in Afghanistan was doomed from the start: "In 2001, Afghanistan was a failed state but not a failed nation."

Stripped of their context, such remarks can look superficial; but the good thing about Barfield is that the reader can know these are intellectual icebergs, with a vast amount of research under the surface — and very often a number of implications and conclusions at which Barfield hints, but never states openly.

None of these remarks above are meant lightly. His repeated condemnation of the centralized structure of Afghanistan’s post-2001 government is based on his knowledge of the people of its regions, who wanted a proper say in the way they are governed. Barfield’s remark about Afghanistan not being a "failed nation" is based on some detailed thinking about why, exactly, no Afghan ethnic group wants independence.

What can the busy American policymaker take from this book? Taking lessons for the future involves reading somewhat between the lines because the book is mainly descriptive; its only prescriptions are addressed to Afghans.

First, centralization has been a mistake. Afghans, Barfield says, have been misled by the example of the "Iron Amir" Abdur Rahman more than a hundred years ago — who achieved central rule of a limited kind, but only through massive bloodshed. President Karzai should learn from the decades of peace enjoyed between 1929 and 1978, when the government co-opted local leaders rather than trying to impose Kabul’s direct rule.

Second, reform will come slowly to Afghanistan, starting in the cities and then spreading to the countryside. Abdur Rahman imposed Kabul’s rule by killing more than a hundred thousand of his subjects; but even he "never conceived of the state as an instrument of social and economic change …transforming Afghanistan’s economy, values and attitudes was a task better left to God." And reform must be led by Afghans, not dictated by foreigners.

Third, Barfield takes an upbeat view of Afghanistan’s natural resources and the new overland routes — especially via Iran — which can free Afghanistan from its dependency on Pakistan.

Fourth, donor agencies which have insisted on spending money directly rather than through the Afghan government have "divorced the reconstruction process from the political one, reducing its utility as a source of patronage to build support for the new regime, since NGOs plastered their own logos on projects rather than the government’s insignia." Likewise, they spent their money less effectively by using non-Afghan contractors and labor, so missing out on the chance to provide employment for Afghans.

On the whole, this book is an authoritative and well-written summary of what we might call the majority view. There is a streak in this book, however, of more radical thinking of which the "Turko-Persia" quote is the first sign. Barfield is seeking to shift the reader’s sense of what kind of country Afghanistan is and to what region it properly belongs. He is emphasizing its Central Asian connections and drawing on his own knowledge of its people (where his experience has mainly been in the country’s north); it leads him near the end of the book to some startling predictions forAfghanistan’s possible futures.

For the two final points, tucked away at the very end of thebook, are the most dramatic. Bad news for President Karzai: Reliant on foreign support and lacking real political support within the country, he "meets neither Afghan nor international standards of legitimacy. Afghan history portents an unhappy end for such a ruler."

Bad news, too, for his enemies. The Taliban, "fixated on a past that never existed," offers nothing to a burgeoning younger generation. Pakistan meantime — which, Barfield says, never abandoned its covert suppor tfor the Taliban — has been neatly sidestepped, in a maneuver that appears to owe little to Western ingenuity and a lot to Indian resource: With a new roadlink between Afghanistan’s Nimroz province and the Iranian Chahbahar port, "India now has the capacity to dispatch troops and supplies directly to Afghanistan via Iran if it chooses to do so." Barfield suggests that a U.S.-India alliance against the Taliban, following a U.S. withdrawal, would undermine the basis for U.S. support of Pakistan and would provide a permanent means to keep Islamic militants at bay.

Here is Barfield’s radical streak: With the building of aroad (the first of several which will link Afghanistan with Iran, and with former Soviet republics to the north), Afghanistan is suddenly part of Central Asia — or Turko-Persia, as Barfield calls it. He is right to see these links as opening up new possibilities for Afghanistan’s future, but his next argument is more controversial. The book does not endorse Afghanistan’s breakup; indeed, it gives reasons why Afghans have historically rejected this idea. But it does signal the possibility of it, opened up by these newfound links with "Turko-Persia" Afghanistan could split, it suggests, if no satisfactory accommodation can be found between a weak and overweening government in Kabul, which has failed to deliver Pashtun support and bargains with the Taliban, and strong local (and largely non-Pashtun) communities which are feeling more and more alienated. Mazar, Herat, and Kabul would join to form "Khorasan," while the troubled south and east could be Pashtunistan.

This bombshell is tucked away in the middle of a paragraph,when it really deserves a whole book to itself. Perhaps it will get one; we can only hope that it will be as well written as this one.

Gerard Russell was in charge of the British government’s outreach to the Muslim world from 2001 to 2003. He is now an Afghanistan/Pakistan fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola