Book Review: Afghanistan Post-2014: Power Configurations and Evolving Trajectories
The colonial and postcolonial writings about Afghanistan are marked by the absence of a systematic and critical awareness about the country as an offspring of and dependent on Western colonialism. The ethnographic, historic, and political realities of Afghanistan provide extensive evidence for the country as a crypto-colony—an invisible and disguised, but real and ongoing colonial space with continuous political and material dependence on Euro-American metropolitan powers. The historic and contemporary political configuration of Afghanistan is a stark representation of crypto-colonialism—a heuristic device rather than a typology—in which
the curious alchemy whereby certain countries, buffer zones between the colonized lands and those as yet untamed, were compelled to acquire their independence at the expense of massive economic dependence, this relationship being articulated in the iconic guise of aggressively national culture fashioned to suit foreign models. Such countries were and are living paradoxes: they are nominally independent, but that independence comes at the price of a sometimes humiliating form of effective dependence. (Herzfeld 2002: 900-901)
Afghanistan’s titular and imaginary “independence” and “freedom” have veiled the country’s perennial dependence on colonial powers. All rulers of Afghanistan have been directly or indirectly selected by colonial powers. The U.S. occupation machinery directly and openly selected the two most recent “presidents” of Afghanistan. The state apparatus of Afghanistan and its operators have been controlled with material tools in the guise of “foreign” aid, humanitarian assistance, gifts, grants, and subsidies. Some of these hegemonic material tools have been accompanied by instances of enraged, destructive, and degrading colonial military intervention.
Afghanistan was born during the first half of the nineteenth century as a crypto-colony of Great Britain. Visible and invisible British colonial presence in Afghanistan continued through the first half of the twentieth century. The colonially imposed borders of Afghanistan and the subsidization of the structure and operations of its state apparatus are manifestations of its crypto-colonial genealogy. After WWII the U.S. replaced Great Britain as the colonial master of Afghanistan. During the Cold War, Afghanistan became a playground for global economic and political domination by the Soviet Union and the U.S. During the Cold War period and the continued intervention of the U.S. from the 1990s through the present, Afghanistan became increasingly the subject of Western scholarly and popular writings dealing with the culture, history, and politics of the country. With virtually no exception, these texts are uninformed by (or indifferent to) the reality of Afghanistan as a Euro-American crypto-colony and are clouded with the imaginings of the country as an independent, sovereign, and self-governing state. The contents of Afghanistan Post-2014 (Harshe’ and Tripathi 2016) reflect this clouded effect.
The book is divided into four parts, with each part consisting of three chapters. The introduction to the volume by the editors provides cogent summaries of each chapter. Part I is titled “Locating Afghanistan in a globalized world and testing theories of international relations.” Rajan Harshe’s chapter positions Afghanistan in its globalized context, highlighted by the colonial imposition of the Durand Line by Great Britain and the competing interventions of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The author properly locates the cradle of terrorist groups—al-Qaeda and its offspring, the Taleban (Hanifi 2002)—in the destabilization of Afghanistan by outsiders, especially the U.S. In his chapter, Siddharth Mallavarapu attempts to situate writings about Afghanistan in the intersection of various colonial and postcolonial cycles of intervention and the steadily increasing and destabilizing international presence in the country. Omar Sadr’s chapter addresses the failure of the various international attempts at the resolution of conflicts in Afghanistan. Sadr suggests that effectively addressing the political conflicts in Afghanistan requires placing the country in the custody of its surrounding regional (Central, South, and West Asian) international consortiums. He convincingly argues that the stabilization of Afghanistan requires “a common external threat” (ibid.: 67) from the surrounding regional powers in order to acquire the ability to peacefully integrate its center-less polity. Sadr proposes a regional version of a global model proposed elsewhere (Hanifi 2000) where it is argued that Afghanistan be declared a political and economic bankruptcy and, for its rehabilitation and reconstruction, placed in the receivership of the global and not regional international community for about fifty years—four K-12 cycles (Hanifi 2011).
Part II of the book is titled “The USA, NATO and Afghanistan.” Dhananjay Tripathi’s chapter provides a discussion of the post-Cold War rise of the U.S. as the sole, but confused, super power. The intervention of the U.S. in Afghanistan and the American role in the rise of al-Qaeda and Taleban are addressed as well as the prospects of Afghanistan after the recent reduction of occupation forces from the U.S. Although it is unlikely that the U.S. will totally withdraw from Afghanistan (three thousand additional U.S. troops have been sent to Afghanistan during 2017), the author misreads the prospects of a stable Afghanistan by asserting “no plan for a stable Afghanistan is conceivable and even sustainable without the active participation of the US” (ibid.: 74). This starkly contradicts the reality of the destruction, fragmentation, division, and instability that has resulted from the U.S. intervention, especially in the Middle East, including Afghanistan and elsewhere. Chapter 5, by Jayant Singh narrates the role of the U.S. and NATO in the creation of the “Afghan National Security Force” and its dim prospects for providing adequate security for the country. In Chapter 6 Mirwais Balkhi, a Kabuli intellectual and government employee, airs out a hyper-realistic (and probably wishful) advocacy for the membership of Afghanistan in NATO. Balkhi’s proposal enjoys popular support in the U.S.- subsidized Kabul government bureaucracy, the Afghan political elite, and much of the Afghan urban civil society trapped in Occidentosis (“Westoxifixation”) longing for migration to Euro-America. Everyday thousands of Afghans migrate to Iran and Pakistan hoping to find their way to a Western country (citation).
Part III deals with the presence of Germany, Russia, and India in attempts at stabilization and development of Afghanistan during its occupation by the U.S. Sandra Destradi’s chapter provides an account of the participation of the German armed forces in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Destradi concentrates on the role of Germany in establishing the security forces of Afghanistan and some development projects in the country. Nikolay Gudalov’s chapter narrates the Soviet and post-Soviet era Russian involvement in Afghanistan. Gudalov offers a discussion of the Russian imagery of Afghanistan as part of Muslim Central Asia where it has substantial influence. Gudalov notes the Russian concern about the flow of drugs, migrants, and Muslim fundamentalists from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Russia. Shaji S.’s chapter provides an overview of the history of India’s relations with Afghanistan and ideas about the aftermath of the withdrawal of the NATO forces from Afghanistan. The prospects of the involvement of India in the security, development, and reconstruction of Afghanistan are briefly discussed. Shaji S.’s chapter includes a brief analysis of the consequences of closer Indo-Afghan relations for the stressful relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Part IV provides essays dealing with “Regional Perspectives on Afghanistan.” In his chapter, Stephen Kingah argues for locating the prospects for peace and security in a regional context with Afghanistan’s neighbors—the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Obviously India will play a prominent role in this alternative. In chapter 11, Arpita Basu Roy, while agreeing with Stephen Kingah’s emphasis on security, underscores the importance of “human security…health, food, environment, education, and political security” (ibid.: 211) in placing Afghanistan in the custody of SAARC. Athar Zafar and Dinoi K. Upadhyay’s chapter addresses the consequences of the withdrawal of NATO from Afghanistan for the economic and political relations of India with Central Asia. These relations are three tiered (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Qerghestan and Qazaqistan, Turkmenistan) and are dependent on the physical proximity of Central Asian spaces to the economic, political, and social terrain of Afghanistan.
The theoretical and methodological frameworks of the chapters in Afghanistan Post-2014 are not meaningfully informed by the reality of Afghanistan as a crypto-colony. The book’s generally informative texts are marked by frequent episodes of ambiguity and strain caused by decorative, unnecessary, and confusing poetic profundity. Instances of the distortion and misreading of the cultural and social complexities of Afghanistan are scattered through the book. Here are two examples. In the introduction to the book the co-editors uncritically re-write an ethnographically unfounded allegation of a Western-educated Kabuli writer about the socio-cultural configuration of Afghanistan: “[l]ocally, in nearly every province, different ethnic groups intermingled, some over centuries and others relatively recently” (ibid.: 3). In reality one will not find Hindus, Hazaras, Turkmens, or Aimaqs intermingling, in meaningful economic, political, and social terms, with Nuristanis in Nuristan (or elsewhere) or Nuristani, Hindus, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Jews, and Tajiks interacting with the Aimaqs in northwestern Afghanistan. The local economies and politics of Afghanistan have never been integrated with their counterparts throughout the country. Production and consumption have essentially remained local in Afghanistan. A person living in Gardaiz or Khost has no idea about what or where Maimana, Sheberghan, or Baghlan are, and vice versa. This is largely the result of the frailty of a center-periphery relations in the country (Hanifi 2000, 2004, 2009). In chapter 5, Singh states “[t]he Taleban have often proclaimed that ‘the Americans have all the watches, and we have all the time’”(ibid.: 93). The specific local source and language (Farsi or Pashtu) of this quoted phrase is not provided. It is quite paradoxical for the Taleban to expatiate such an industrial conception of time—and to do so in English! Nowadays, due to exposure to trashcan modernity, virtually all Taleban have watches and are able to keep and set time, especially for producing industrial tools and techniques for explosive resistance to the unwelcome and defiling presence of the West. In the West this idea is usually phrased as “you have the watches we have the time” (Benbow 2015). This phrase and its variations articulates the popular Euro-American condescending Orientalist view of the encounter between pre-modern and pre-industrial “Them” with the modern industrial “Us” (Fabian 1983).
Nevertheless, despite such misreadings, the essays in Afghanistan Post 2014, with varying degree of adequacy, provide useful discussions about the local political and economic conditions and processes in Afghanistan and the global hegemonic interventions that have produced destabilizing political and social effects in the country during the past few decades, especially the years following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The idea of “Post 2014” in the title of the book remains ambiguous and its use varies from chapter to chapter. Only a few chapters concentrate on the period marked by the reduction of U.S. occupation forces in 2013. A more useful benchmark for the current disintegrating conditions in Afghanistan is 2010 when Ashraf Ghani (an American-educated U.S. citizen) formally became the political advisor to General David Petraeus, then commander of the International Security Assistance Forces and commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan from July 4, 2010-July 18, 2011. This partnership triggered the U.S. support for the political momentum that led to the U.S. installation of Ashraf Ghani as the “president” of Afghanistan and everything that has followed as a result.
M. Jamil Hanifi, Michigan State University
Reviewed in this essay:
Harshe’, Rajen and Dhananjay Tripathi, eds. Afghanistan Post-2014: Power Configurations and Evolving Trajectories. New Delhi: Routledge, 2016. 248 pages.
Benbow, Ross J. 2015. You Have the Watches We Have the Time. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press.
Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hanifi, M. Jamil. 2000. Anthropology and the representation of recent migrations from Afghanistan. In E. M. Godziak and D. J. Shandy (eds.), Rethinking Refuge and Displacement: Selected Papers on Refugees and Immigrants. Washington D. C.: American Anthropological Association, 291-321.
____2002. Taleban-Not Taliban. Anthropology News (January), 3.
____2004. What Caused the Collapse of the State Infrastructure of Afghanistan? Anthropology News (January), 6-7.
____2009. “Causes and Consequences of the Destabilization of Afghanistan” In Afghanistan, 1979-2009: In the Grip of Conflict. Washington, D. C.: Middle East Institute, 20-23.
____2011. An Alternative Approach to Afghanistan. Zero Anthropology blog. https://zeroanthropology.net/2011/01/29/an-alternative-approach-to-afghanistan/
Herzfeld, Michael. 2002. The Absent Presence: Discourses of Crypto-colonialism. The South Atlantic Quarterly 101(4): 899-926.