Posted by: Christian | June 16, 2009

Afghanistan and the Lessons of History

I don’t know why, but I’ve never fully written about my extreme annoyance at those writers and commentators who always bring up Afghanistan’s history (and the history of the land on which the contemporary state is located). First, there’s the Euro-centric perspective that always bring up defeats of European forces. This includes the Soviet-Afghan war, the Anglo-Afghan Wars and, for the historically challenged, Alexander the Great (there is a little history in between these events worth reading). And then there is the perspective that claims Afghanistan is, and has throughout history, been “backwards.” And then there are people from all other parts of the political spectrum who have read a couple of books (probably “popular” histories) and then decided they should expound on Afghan history to bolster their arguments. To emphasize, one is missing massive chunks of history if confined to the narrow perspectives above.

With so many people talking about Afghan history, and with a surge in commentators overs the last year that will likely intensify, will the discourse on the history of Afghanistan improve? Absolutely not. It will remain as it is: wretched.

OK, self-righteous finger-wagging over. What to do about it? How about some historical reading recommendations? Ignore popular histories, as most of them are uncited works of quasi-plagiarism that can’t even be bothered to properly plagiarize. As for academic press books (defined broadly to include publishers whose publications are reviewed and of equivalent quality), there are a few new books out in the last couple of years, and I have yet to check them out. So I exclude them from the discussion (i.e., Ben Hopkins and Shah M. Hanifi, both of whose books I look forward to reading).

I will focus mostly on the modern Afghan “state” in its various forms (modern defined broadly). I’ll start with the historian whose work Louis Dupree gently insinuated had been lifted by numerous writers, Mountstuart Elphinstone. The work is obviously flawed by today’s standards. Elphinstone was not a disinterested observer, and there is much in the text to criticize, along with outright errors. But he was “the man” back in the day, and he was the scholarly pioneer: there was nothing before him as far as the West was concerned. So he can’t be ignored:

Mountstuart Elphinstone. 1815. An account of the Kingdom of Caubul and its dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India, (comprising a view of the Afghaun nation, and a history of the Dooraunee monarchy). Worldcat.

Coming forward historically we arrive at Dost Muhammad, a towering figure in the history of Afghanistan. Thankfully we have Christine Noelle’s superb book (to search for her newer work you will need to search for Christine Noelle-Karimi). I admit to having skimmed Elphinstone, but I definitely have read Noelle closely. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how good this book is:

Christine Noelle. 1997. State and Tribe in Nineteenth-century Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir Dost Muhammad Khan (1826-1863). Worldcat.

When I say Dost Muhammad is a towering figure, I neglected to mention the mountain behind the tower: Amir Abdurrahman Khan. Thanks to Hasan Kakar, who at the time accessed Afghan sources in a way others had not adequately done, we have an invaluable account of the man who made Afghanistan what is it today (interpret what I just said in many different ways):

M. Hasan Kakar. 1979. Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir ʼAbd al-Rahman Khan. Worldcat.

Moving away from the “center” we go to the “periphery” with Jonathan L. Lee’s study of Balkh. I reviewed it here. If, by the end of my career, I could be considered half the historian J.L. Lee is, I would be quite satisfied.

Jonathan L. Lee. 1996.  The “ancient supremacy”: Bukhara, Afghanistan, and the battle for Balkh, 1731-1901. Worldcat.

And going back to the focus on personalities, there was the man that attempted something “new”: Amanullah. So many unfortunate writers have stressed symbolic reasons for the failures of Amanullah, such as his wife going sleeveless in a photo. This is ridiculous, and Leon B. Poullada brings a competent analysis to this era:

Leon B Poullada. 1973. Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929; King Amanullah’s Failure to Modernize a Tribal Society. Worldcat.

Leon Poullada himself is quite an interesting character. Like the anthropologist and fellow Afghanistan expert Louis Dupree he has a military background (unmentioned in the NYT obit). Dupree in the pacific theatre of WW2 with the 11th Airborne (also unmentioned in his NYT obit) and Poullada (a Mexican-American son of an immigrant) in Europe, where at the end he served as a counsel in the Nuremberg trials as a US Army Major before going on to a distinguished career in the Foreign Service. He is also the author of  The Kingdom of Afghanistan and the United States: 1828-1973, co-authored with his wife Leila.

And a caveat for my next recommendation, the author is the head of my academic center. So I’ll keep it short. But I do feel this book is a superior history to those books that attempt to cover the same ground this book does:

Amin Saikal. 2006. Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival. Amazon.

The book was a project that included Ravan Farhadi and Kirill Nourzhanov, giving this book not just a huge range of knowledge, but also a combined linguistic skill-set to go into a range of sources that no one single person could. Go search online for reviews, you will find plenty.

Now, I am embarrassed to admit I have not read Burhanuddin Kushkaki nor Mir Gholam Mohammad Ghobar. I am in the process of remedying that. As for Ghobar, I go on the enthusiastic recommendations of several very knowledgeable scholars:

Mir Gholam Mohammad Ghobar. 1967,1973.  Afghanistan dar Maseer-e-Tareekh (Afghanistan in the Course of History, Volumes 1 and 2.)

Despite being a well-known public intellectual in Afghanistan for decades, his books were banned for “failing to please” the powers that be. Check out his biography here, written by his son. However, a search of good bookstores in Pakistan and Iran should turn up copies as his work was published there. There is even a Russian translation. And luckily for those more comfortable in English, a translation of the second volume has been published, I believe by his son. More info on the man and his work here.

And now on to my über bêtes noires, which rank above even ostentatious uses of foreign terms when English will do just fine: references to Alexander the Great in “Afghanistan.” You would think with the way that people bring this up that perhaps his army made it’s way through Afghanistan somewhere in between the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars. Apparently, Alexander was “defeated” by “Afghans.” If you don’t know why this view is eye-rolling, it’s because he suffered set-backs, but was not defeated. Check out the history of the Seleucids and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. The invaders stayed for a while,” just a little” in terms of centuries. And it is quite a stretch to refer to the people as “Afghans,” unless one if a fan of primordialism or subscribes to the extreme end of that whole Soviet ethnoses thing.

Now, instead of getting deep into scholarship on Alexander the Great, which is really a well-developed specialty, I’ll just point out an accessible books by a well-known scholar:

Frank L. Holt. 2006. Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. Amazon.

I’ve read the book, and I will review it at some point in the future (I loved it, but I had issues with the contemporary work, despite his use of the esteemed Andrew Exum as a source). Holt writes in the intro that the book was a compromise between scholarly standards and readability. I think he did a great job.

And then, in popular discourse, history “disappears” between Alexander and 1839. Parthians, Scythians, Kushans, Huns, Hephthalites, Arabs, Ghaznavids, Mongols, Seljuks, Ghorids, Ilkhans, Timurids, Babur, Safavis, etc… all had a role in what Afghanistan is today.

Yet writers and commentators only want to go to Alexander and the British. It’s “European” and it’s familiar. And quite often they don’t even get it right. There are further misuses of history. Just one example: many say that Afghanistan has never been a state that could exercise effective control over the peripheries. They should probably read about Abdur Rahman Khan and Daoud Khan in order to qualify that claim. I could go on ad naseum. But I think I’ve made my point clear.

As far as all the excellent works that I have neglected to mention, there is a separate history bibliography in the works over at The Afghanistan Analyst.


  1. Thank you. I felt like I was shouting into the void on this one.

  2. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 06/17/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  3. You forgot Sassanids, you bad bad man.

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  5. I did forget the Sassanids. Just part of my deep-seated anti-Sassanid feelings, I suppose.

  6. […] in the intervening years between Harlan’s time and our own, I’m reminded by this blog post I found through this Zenpundit post about something I wrote in Kill the Tribes: No outsider has […]


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