Book Review: Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History


Book: Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Author: Thomas Barfield

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Year: 2010

SAU Library Bar Code: 5577

Thomas Barfield Book

Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, makes an effort to sketch the bewildering diversity of tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the country which been experiencing the maelstrom of politics and history from the Mughal Empire in the 16th century to the present ‘new member of the SAARC family’.

The book is the outcome of the adventure of Thomas Barfield in explaining what unites the diversified people of Afghanistan as Afghans despite the political, cultural and regional diversities that make a dragging line among them. The relationship between Thomas Barfield and Afghanistan started four decades back in the 1970s when he was a young student.

Early 1970s was the heydays of Afghanistan; a moment of peace and security when roaming the breadth of the country was not a dauntless thinking for foreigners like Thomas Barfield. The book is the memento that Thomas Barfield, in 1970s, utilized this unique opportunity to experience political as well as cultural life in Afghanistan. However, Thomas Barfield was also there to see the throe of downward declination of Afghanistan. He was also the witness of the day when Zahir Shah, who ruled the state for 40 years, was ousted in 1973.

Thomas Barfield stratified his book into six chapters to envisage the political and cultural backdrop of this landlocked country lying in the heart of Asia. The book is very unique in contents and focus. Unlike the rest of the tomes related to Afghanistan. Thomas Barfield’s book views the Afghans themselves as the pivotal players to understand the country and its political dynamics.

Afghanistan is the platform where three cultural and geographic regions meet:

1. The South Asia region to the south east;

2. Central Asia to the north; and

3. The Iranian Plateau in the west

Afghanistan was also the battle stage for belligerents like Alexander the Great, Chingis Khan, Babur as a waypoint for exuding from Iran and switching into India. It is very astonishing that the country which was the battle station for cold war fray in 1980s; a victim state of negligence in 1990s and a key state that has been brewing debates into the present world politics, that same state Afghanistan was remained peacefully neutral during the first and second world wars. To measure the position of Afghanistan in the orb of international relations, Thomas Barfield aptly opines in the introductory  part of the book:

“… Afghanistan itself remains just the vague backdrop in a long running international drama where others hold the sparking parts. ”

The six chapters of the book scour through to find to make answers of some major question with an aim to understand the country and it’s faltering lines.

Chapter 1 refers a basic outline of the diversified land and people of Afghanistan. The first chapter of the book is a gold mine for those who have a zeal for learning about it. Thomas Barfield tries to prove that the modern afghans are no more like ‘timeless’ people- rather they are now fond of iphone and bollywood movies as anyone else on the earth.

The rural Afghanistan is an apt place where tribal and ethnic groups have the clout over individual. The Local tribal and ethnic divisions are the salient features of the life in Afghanistan. However, the ethnic groups frequently overlap in areas with mixed populations, hiding the crosscutting patterns. To insulated the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan from that other parts of the world, Thomas Barfield remarks (p.20):

“Unlike other parts of the world, no group in Afghanistan makes mythical claims of having always on the same plot of land since creation.”

Thomas Barfield stratified the ethnic groups into large and smaller groups. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Ujbeks-Turkmen, Aimaqs fall into the former group whereas the Nuristhanis-Pashai, Qizilbash, Baluch, Arabs, Pamiris are confined within the ambit of latter groups. Moreover, there are even smaller groups like- Jugis & Jats, Kirghiz and Non-Muslims.

Non-Muslims mainly refers to Sikhs and Hindus who are pivotal for Afghanistan’s international trade and playing a key role in currency market.

Chapter 2 deals with conquerors, rulers and their relationship with peoples. Till 18th century the region was ruled by foreigners like Turko-Mongolian. Only the Durrani Empire was ruled by Pashtuns. Again, it’s the Pashtuns who became the exclusive governing elite after 1747.

It is pertinent to mention the statement of Thomas Barfield regarding ‘Pashtun’, ‘Afghan’ and ‘Non-Pashtun’ (p.24):

“Historically, ‘Afghan’ was so synonymous with ‘Pashtun’ that Afghanistan could be equally glossed not only as the ‘land of Afghans’ but the ‘land of Pashtuns’ as well. More recently, Afghan has acquired a more national character, especially because this is how the outside world labels its people regardless of ethnic origin. Yet the use of Afghan in this national context is still contested. Some non-Pashtuns argue for the use of ‘Afghani’ (formerly used only to denote the country’s unit of currency) or ‘Afghanistani’ as a national label on the grounds that Afghan still implies Pashtun identity inside the country.”

A major portion of chapter 2 deals with the Pashtuns under the heading of ‘The Rise of the Pashtuns’ which covers the pre-hitory of Pashtuns; roots in Persa and India; the emergence of Durrani  empire and Pashtun tribal relations.

Chapter 3 analyses the consequences of war that transformed the Afghan state and society, Chapter 4 may be considered as the second sequel of the previous chapter. The chapter deals with the fate of Afghan rulers and their regimes in the 20th century.

Chapter 5 casts upon the first decade of 21st century in a ‘betwixt and between’ position which is more prone to optimism. He states (p.274):

“Depending on how you looked at it, Afghanistan was either once again on the verge of chaos as a failed state or was surprisingly stable given the problems it faced. …what was more surprising was the patience that the Afghans displayed in dealing with outsiders who had little or no understanding of Afghan culture or values.”

After 2001, in post-conflict Afghanistan the most positive incidents were the repatriation of approximately three million (p.275) refugee by mid- 2003 and last, but not the least, no faction in Afghanistan moved to divide the country in spite of the fragile helm of centre. Thomas Barfield explains these surprises in following words:

“… Afghanistan had always been more complex than the simple picture painted by the press.  Nor was Afghanistan in 2001 the same place with the same attitude that it had been 200, 100 or even 25 years before.”

Thomas Barfield cites the inkling of popular support with Afghanistan for the US intervention, especially among non-Pashtuns. (p. 275)

The chapter discusses elaborately as to the massive out flux of internally displaced people and refugees. The repatriation those people in post- Taliban stage is regarded as ‘vitally needed addition to the country (human resources)’. This chapter delineates a variegated map of social and economic structures of Afghanistan. The eastern Pashtuns of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) or Eastern Afghanistan are entwined (p. 286) with poverty, isolation, deficit of economic development in tandem with poor education and minimal services. However, the situation of Durrani Pashtuns of the southern Afghanistan is just the otherwise. They have much more developed hierarchical, social and political structures. The territories of Durrani Pashtuns are arrayed within the vicinity of state controlled zone and thence, they have comparatively better access to trade, cities as well as better irrigated agriculture. However, the Durrani also faces from other equally well established clans like Popalzais (Karzai’s Clan) and Barakzais (Zahir Shah’s Clan). However, the dramatic fray’s to make the hegemony (p. 288) among variegated clans and leadership would become evident, if we would focus on the episodes of the ‘Bonn Talk’.

The political and economic condition of Afghanistan is patched with so variation that Thomas Barfield hypothetically presented the situation as Two Afghanistan (p. 322). In his words:

“Within Afghanistan, political and economic conditions varied so much by region that it often appeared there were two different countries:1)the north, west and center, which were relatively stable; and 2) the south and east, which were not. Since the south and east were predominantly Pashtun, this division had an ethnic component as well.”

Thomas Barfield elaborates the conditions with some specific facts as follows:

“Stability in the non-Pashtun north and west rested on more adequate security and a rising standard of living… North Afghanistan had reached out internationally to tie itself into central Asia’s electrically grid and was poised to take advantage of new bridges across Amu Darya … … Their domestic economies were stronger as well because the north and west had been blessed with Afghanistan’s most productive irrigated agricultural land. Although much poorer, Hazarajat was also a zone of stability … … By contrast the Pashtun south lacked security, had stringent and declining standard of living … …It bordered Pakistan, … from where it could stir up trouble. As a result, the foreign funded development projects … moved slowly or were abandoned because of the poor security situation. The south also had difficulty adjusting to its reduced political significance at the national level … … The east was a paler reflection of the south, … It’s Durand Line border with Pakistan was outside state control …”

Although chapter 6 is the most tiny portion of the book, it’s the magnetic portion of the book. Thomas Barfield reveal his optimism as to Afghanistan in tandem with the forecast about how even the best planned politics can have the possibility to meet fiasco in Afghanistan.

Thomas Barfield scoffs at the unwise conventional wisdom that Afghanistan and its people are inherently ungovernable. Rather from the outset of this book he maintains the real image that the majority of the populace and economically most productive regions of Afghanistan historically accept the legitimacy of state rule and rarely rebelled against it. It would be a failure of one’s intellectual analysis if one tends to whisk Afghanistan to pessimism. The region that survived over the millennia; even long outlived the throe of states and empires, can’t fall into downward spiral with thud. The last sentence of the book mirrors the vista of Afghanistan:

“It … stands as a challenge to the Afghans themselves to take the lead in breaking the cycle of violence that has generated so much suffering for so little benefit for far too long.”

MOHAMMAD RUBAIYAT RAHMAN is studying LL.M at South Asian University, New Delhi, India


One thought on “Book Review: Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

  1. sai ramani garimella says:

    lucid and well-written review. It is pessimistic, to say the least, to comment that the people of Afghanistan are ungovernable. Barfield’s book is a welcome contribution to dispel notions such as the one above, and goes much further in promoting an academic interest for research in this region. The reviewer has done much to invite the reader to this book on a journey through time in Afghanistan.

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