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Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Thomas Barfield
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    Book Description:

    Afghanistantraces 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.

    Afghanistanis 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3453-2
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  2. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Landlocked Afghanistan lies in the heart of Asia, and links three major cultural and geographic regions: the Indian subcontinent to the southeast, central Asia to the north, and the Iranian plateau in the west. Geography may not be destiny but it has set the course of Afghan history for millennia as the gateway for invaders spilling out of Iran or central Asia and into India: Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Chinggis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur, to mention some of the most illustrious examples. During this period, Afghanistan was part of many different empires ruled by outsiders...

  3. CHAPTER ONE People and Places
    (pp. 17-65)

    Political scientists often give primacy to individuals, political parties, and ideologies in their studies. Those that employ models of “rational choice” assume that individuals always try to maximize their interests or minimize their pain when it comes to making decisions. When people are presented with same the alternatives, they will respond in the same way whether you are in Kansas or the Qandahar. Anthropologists are less keen on this approach and its assumptions, not because they believe people to be less rational, but because they are familiar with societies in which group interest regularly trumps individual interest. That is, individuals...

  4. CHAPTER TWO Conquering and Ruling Premodern Afghanistan
    (pp. 66-109)

    During its premodern history, the territory of today’s Afghanistan was conquered and ruled by foreign invaders. Indeed it had a positively magnetic attraction for conquerors, not because they coveted the wealth of Afghanistan, but rather because control of Afghan territory gave them access to more prosperous places like India or central Asia, or because it gave them control of regional trade routes. Located on a fracture zone linking Iran in the west, central Asia in the north, and south Asia in the east, it was the route of choice for armies moving across the Hindu Kush (or south of it)...

  5. CHAPTER THREE Anglo-Afghan Wars and State Building in Afghanistan
    (pp. 110-163)

    At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Afghan concepts of political legitimacy were still firmly rooted in the past. Competition for state power was restricted to a small Durrani elite, and their replacement meant little to the ordinary people on the ground. The government structure was decentralized and fragmented, dependent largely on the feudal levies of troops and plagued by a shortage of resources. Much would change by the end of the century, however. Afghanistan became a nascent national state. A regular army replaced tribal levies and mercenaries. A centralized government with a national bureaucracy displaced formerly autonomous regional leaders...

  6. CHAPTER FOUR Afghanistan in the Twentieth Century: State and Society in Conflict
    (pp. 164-271)

    Abdur Rahman’s successors found it difficult to maintain the fearful degree of state supremacy that he had imposed on Afghanistan. Although every Afghan government aspired to achieve the same level of power and centralization attained by the Iron Amir, few succeeded. While twentieth-century technology provided them with better weapons, communications, and transport, none were able to similarly impose their will on the people of Afghanistan. Those Afghan leaders who would best succeed during the next century employed a “Wizard of Oz” strategy. They declared their governments all-powerful, but rarely risked testing that claim by implementing controversial policies. Conversely, the leaders...

  7. CHAPTER FIVE Afghanistan Enters the Twenty-first Century
    (pp. 272-336)

    The arrival of the United States in Afghanistan to expel the Taliban marked the fourth time in 160 years that a foreign power put troops on the ground there. But while the British in the nineteenth century invaded with plans to replace the existing regimes, and the Soviets invaded in the twentieth to preserve the one they supported, the United States invaded Afghanistan at a time when the state structure had ceased to function. It would need to create a new state to restore stability in the country. In the past this was done by supporting a client political elite...

  8. CHAPTER SIX Some Conclusions
    (pp. 337-350)

    Both Afghans and foreigners remain tied to visions of what they wish the country to be that obscures its present reality and possible futures. The long view of Afghanistan and its history present possibilities for resolving the country’s current problems, but it also presents warnings about how even the best planned policies can fail. One aspect missing from most projections for the country’s development are the surprising number of new conditions that may set Afghanistan on a different and more positive course.

    The belief that Afghanistan and its people are inherently ungovernable has become an unfortunate conventional wisdom that drives...