Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival

By Smith, Anthony | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival


Smith, Anthony, New Zealand International Review


Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival

Author: Amin Saikal

Published by: I.B. Tauris, London, 2012, revised edition, 389pp, 13.99 [pounds sterling](pb).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Professor Amin Saikal, as the director of Middle East and Islamic studies at the Australian National University, is a highly regarded scholar. He is also originally from Afghanistan. In the voluminous literature on Afghanistan that exists now, what does Saikal offer in this volume? The particular contribution here is to make sense for a general audience of the highly complex world of Afghanistan's politics since the middle of the 18th century.

Saikal starts his narrative with the founding of Afghanistan in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, running through the establishment of the Mohammadzai dynasty created by Dost Mohammad in the 19th century (whose own powerful brothers would spawn rival families for influence), which in turn gave way to Nadiri rule from 1929. The last king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, engaged in a long power struggle with various relatives who functioned at times as regents, and was eventually deposed by his cousin (and former premier) Daoud in a coup in 1973. Daoud's coup, which incorporated leftist elements, would spark a spiral of events that would culminate in yet another coup (the communist coup in 1978), the subsequent Soviet invasion to save an allied regime in 1979, a period of civil war following Soviet withdrawal and international neglect, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and the post-9/11 US-led intervention. That intervention would lead to the rise to power of Hamid Karzai, a Durrani Pashtun by background, whose family had been associated with the royalist camp of Zahir Shah.

The machinations of Afghanistan's ruling families and factions are bewildering, full of intrigue and infighting, and Saikal does an excellent job of making sense of a world that would otherwise be opaque to most onlookers. This is a book about elites and their struggles. Saikal makes three broader observations about what this has meant for Afghanistan, which, as he notes, has taken harder blows in modern times than most countries. First, Saikal identifies royal polygamy as a destabilising factor in the Middle East, but notably so in Afghanistan. The multiple and complicated families of the Durrani kings, and the absence of mandated primogeniture, made for numerous power struggles between siblings (particularly half-brothers) and cousins. Political dualism was not confined to the royals, as the communist movement was irrevocably split between two factions, resulting in periodic purges. Second, although Afghanistan was a 'graveyard of empires', for the people of the country this has meant a constant succession of foreign interventions. In fact, royal polygamy compounded the ability of external powers, notably Russia and the United Kingdom during the 'Great Game', to support rivals and pretenders. Notably, the invasion by the Soviet Union in support of one particular government faction would throw Afghanistan into a traumatic dislocation, the results from which it is still suffering. …

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