Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Synopsis


Afghanistan traces the historic struggles and the changing nature of political authority in this volatile region of the world, from the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century to the Taliban resurgence today. Thomas Barfield introduces readers to the bewildering diversity of tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, explaining what unites them as Afghans despite the regional, cultural, and political differences that divide them. He shows how governing these peoples was relatively easy when power was concentrated in a small dynastic elite, but how this delicate political order broke down in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Afghanistan's rulers mobilized rural militias to expel first the British and later the Soviets. Armed insurgency proved remarkably successful against the foreign occupiers, but it also undermined the Afghan government's authority and rendered the country ever more difficult to govern as time passed. Barfield vividly describes how Afghanistan's armed factions plunged the country into a civil war, giving rise to clerical rule by the Taliban and Afghanistan's isolation from the world. He examines why the American invasion in the wake of September 11 toppled the Taliban so quickly, and how this easy victory lulled the United States into falsely believing that a viable state could be built just as easily.



Afghanistan is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how a land conquered and ruled by foreign dynasties for more than a thousand years became the "graveyard of empires" for the British and Soviets, and what the United States must do to avoid a similar fate.

Excerpt

I first entered Afghanistan traveling overland as a young student almost forty years ago. Like many travelers, I was awed by the country's scenery and fascinated by its people. Unlike most others I returned to learn more. That journey never ended but has often been detoured. It first encompassed years of ethnographic fieldwork among nomads in northern Afghanistan in the mid-1970s. I had a unique opportunity to experience life as it is actually lived in rural Afghanistan—something that seemed so easy to come by then and is so difficult now. It was a time of peace and security, when foreigners could travel the breadth of the country alone, armed only with a bit of common sense to ensure their safety. Political changes in Kabul rarely had any serious impact outside the capital. I was in Kabul the day that Zahir Shah (r. 1933–73) was overthrown in 1973. The biggest change was how quickly his pictures disappeared and how soon they were replaced by those of his cousin Daud.

This calm was deceptive, however, because others seeking power in Kabul, Communists and Islamists, sought to transform the country in radically different directions. The leftists had the first go in 1978 and provoked an insurgency, which the Soviet invasion in late 1979 was designed to quell. During the t en-year Soviet occupation I observed the country from the outside, informed by occasional trips to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees. The Russian withdrawal in 1989 proved to be a false dawn of optimism. None of the great powers was willing to provide the necessary political and economic investment to forge an agreement between the Pakistan-based mujahideen (holy warriors) parties in Peshawar and the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. The Russians wanted nothing more to do with the country, and the Americans lost all interest in it when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This opened a ten-year civil war in which the Islamist leaders became dominate, and proved they could be every bit as ruthless and power hungry as the Communists they replaced. The nadir of this period produced the Taliban in the late 1990s.

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