Thomas Barfield is an anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Princeton whose experiences in Afghanistan stretch back to the 1960s, when he travelled overland through the country as a student. He began ethnographic field studies there in the 1970s and witnessed the overthrow of the Afghan King Zahir Shah in 1973.
In his own words "Critics of the university tenure system undoubtedly put me among those useless faculty who purveyed esoteric and irrelevant knowledge to the young wihtout fear of termination. Wise policymakers had already determined that such remote places and people could be safely excluded from America's New World Order. . . . On September 11, 2001, Afghanistan suddenly became relevant" and Barfield became one of the few Americans who had the intimate knowledge of the country, its people and its history that we so desperately needed.
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History and thinks they know everything, this book was a much needed corrective to my cultural biases, misunderstandings and creative ignorance of the country that we went to war with almost ten years ago. Afghanistan
is blessedly well organized, with a clear goal set out in the introduction: to answer for the reader the following questions:
1. How did Afghanistan, which was overrun and ruled by a series of foreign dynasties for more than a thousand years, become renowned as the "graveyard of empires" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after forcing the withdrawal of both the British and Russians in a series of wars?
2. Why did the U.S. invasion of 2001 that toppled the Taliban not
immediately set off a similar national insurgency (as it did in Iraq), and despite that, still fail to bring stability to the country?
3. Why have foreign attempts to change Afghanistan's politics, social structures, and government proved so ineffective?
4. How did a ruling dynasty established in 1747 manage to hold power over such a fractious people until 1978, and why has the afghan state since them experienced such difficulties in reestablishing a legitimate political order?
5. Why did a country for which the term"Balkanized" appeared ideally suited show so few signs of disintegration as a national state in spite of its many divisions?
6. How and why have splits in Afghan society since the 1920s over the structure of government and its policies led to so many periods of state collapse?
The chapter on the American-led invasion of Afghanistan was particularly enlightening. There are so many cliches about Afghanistan - that it can't be governed effectively because of its warring tribal factions won't allow it, the belief that it would become a new Yugoslavia, fracturing along ethnic lines that its history is one of constant insurgency and the belief that the country is mired in a medieval mindset are all simply untrue. Barfield demonstrates for the reader that Afghanistans long political history gives the lie to these suppositions and shows how a Western mindset regarding political intstitutions might lead us to believe them anyway.
I have two small gripes:1. There are typos. I feel like an academic press shouldn't have any 'teh's in their text. 2. There isn't much cultural history here. While I disagree with other reviewers who say that this is a dry read, I will add that it is an extremely dense one, packed with a lot of information in a relatively small number of pages. With that said, however, I highly highly recommend this book for anyone looking to educate themselves on Afghanistan's history and its current political climate. As Barfield says in his closing, Afghanistan is becoming more than just a backwater where the US fought the Taliban; with its rich mineral deposits and border with Pakistan (a soon-to-be-failed state with nuclear capabilities. Aside: I am scared shitless by Pakistan.
) and other central Asian powers like Iran, Afghanistan will continue to be a focus of international interest for generations to come. I have, through reading this book, gained a tremendous amount of respect for Afghanistan and its people. I wish the country the best and hope that the US, Russia, China, India and whoever else can behave themselves there and work with the Afghan people to achieve the rich future that they deserve.