Introducing Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge
From Nivi Manchanda
Cambridge University Press, 2020
History and jail time
In the introduction to After colonialismGyan Prakash specifically emphasized the need to “read the colonialism of th[e] Prison of Historicism “:” It is not only a question of whether former colonies have become free from rule or not, but also of how the history of colonialism and the discipline of history can be resolved by colonialism. The dominance of categories and ideas, who produced it – colonizers and colonized; white, black and brown; civilized and uncivilized; modern and archaic; cultural identity; Tribe and Nation ”(Prakash 1995, 5). This particular expression of the need to recognize the colonialism of history was articulated in the mid-1990s, a time of heightened yet tense sense of Western domination. Not long after, in October 2001, Afghanistan was occupied by a broad international military alliance called “Enduring Freedom”. The “operation” has turned into a permanent occupation of and with Afghanistan. The critical reassessment of historical knowledge only became more urgent than before.
Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and made the creation of an “inventory” the first step for a critical examination of historical processes and their traces in ourselves (Said 2003, 25). Imagine Afghanistan is more than an inventory described in Gramsci’s prison notebooks. Since 2001 in particular, Afghanistan has become a laboratory for 21st century intervention and the use of power. The study of Afghanistan has also expanded significantly. Afghanistan has been the subject of political articulations and has populated publishing catalogs and university curricula as well as coloring books for children. Afghanistan exists in public debate, in the entertainment industry, and in museums. Much thought has been given about Afghanistan and an “idea” of Afghanistan has taken shape in the western mind. Imagine Afghanistan addresses this idea through a rich compilation of materials relating to the work of past and present practitioners of knowledge, including academics, policy analysts, and policy makers – “the scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier [who] was in the Orient or thought about it because he could be there or think about it, with very little resistance from the Orient ”, says Edward Said (2003, 7). The book covers the history of modern Afghanistan from the early nineteenth century, when the country appeared in the minds of the British imperial builders, to the present day. It is a prison break (in the Prakash sense) that liberates the categories and ideas of colonialism from their (false) imprisonment in history so that they can find their intimate place in the community of Western knowledge of Afghanistan.
The imperialism of colonial knowledge cultivation
At the core, Imagine Afghanistan deals with the “hegemonic discourse and its totalizing ambitions” about the history of the Afghan state and its peoples (p. 5). There are three intersecting threads woven into the argumentation of the book. Afghanistan is initially “a place that is inherently violent” in the imagination of the transatlantic Anglosphere (p. 3). “Our” “policy of rejection” claims, however, that “we” have nothing to do with it (p.3). A rich “grammar of differences” separates “us” and the “West” from “them” and “Afghanistan” (p. 3). After all, this discourse is characterized by a “superficial” examination of the history and politics of Afghanistan, especially in times of conflict (p. 4). In order for the argument to close, this affirms Afghanistan’s place in a geopolitical hierarchy, the structure of which enables and sanctions interventions.
In view of the violence inherent in Western knowledge and the widespread, often generally sensual rationalization of its application to Afghan bodies, the importance of this criticism should not be underestimated (Savic 2020). The book is an example of “insurgent science” and an example of the need for a continuous decolonization of imperial / colonial knowledge as a continuous act of resistance in our age of imperialism (p.10). Imagine Afghanistan shows the ways in which the idea and the “history” of Afghanistan emerged and took root. The analysis troubled with a clear aim: “How is Afghanistan thought of in such a way that it is possible to invade and bomb it?” and “What are the sources of authority that sanction the discourses that make this act of invasion permissible and possible?” the first place? ‘”(P.5).
The book stands on the shoulders of studies that have transcended (and continue to remove) the (artificial) disciplinary boundaries between history and international relations in order to make the colonial legacy visible in their combined knowledge systems (e.g. Bayly 2016; Hopkins 2008 ). . Imagine Afghanistan focuses on the intellectual cornerstones of historical knowledge production and how these have been and are being recycled and continue to be cultivated for use in present-day cases of imperialism, racism and war. The analysis reveals the (at best) “lazy” and (at worst) “mercenary” scholarships that have helped reification of Afghanistan as a violent place and failed state, allegedly infused with tribal customs – in short, the scholarship that helps ” make inferior “Afghanistan a legitimate object of” superior “western intervention (p.25). Such as, Imagine Afghanistan is a “decolonization intervention” as well as an exercise for automatic decolonization that induces practitioners of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences to “unlearn the colonizing impulses of knowledge production in the Western academy” (p. 7).
Chapter 1 lays the foundations for discussing, exposing and analyzing the main components of how Afghanistan was “understood” and “made readable” in a geopolitical sense. Chapter 2 describes the history of “Afghanistan” as a “spatial formation” and also examines its various configurations as “border”, “buffer”, “failed” and even “non-state” or “AfPak” (p.66). . In the course of time, the palimpsestic space of Afghanistan in the age of colonialism was redefined with arbitrary notions of marginality. These Eurocentric lenses of geopolitical organization make Afghanistan appear “different” and continue to exercise their power on “our” imagination, in which Afghanistan is described as an “arbitrary slip on the world map”, its re-registration as an exceptional area on the edge of humanity, which requires “special treatment.” “Requires” (p.102). Chapter 3 deals with the “tribalization” of Afghanistan. It meanders from Mountstuart Elphinstone’s inspiration through Scottish clans through increasingly racist registers to Olaf Caroes The Pathans. While Soviet intervention in the 1980s spawned independence-loving freedom fighters, more recently Afghanistan has been reduced to tribal gatherings of chauvinistic men with a penchant for terrorism and the submission of women. According to many Western readings, the Afghan tribes have always been “inward-looking” producers of warriors, patriots or terrorists. Chapter 4 is a nuanced critique of Western feminist writing that has helped to reduce “Muslim culture” through “overlays”[ing] the cultivated picture of a medieval country of barbaric men and tyrannized women about the chaotic history of the region ”(p.175). The drive to “save” Afghan women is closely linked to the same global structures that legitimize patriarchy at the local level. Chapter 5 supplements this discussion with a representative overview of Afghan masculinity, in which representations by Hamid Karzai and the Taliban are singled out. The need to classify, label, categorize and ultimately deal with Afghan men is a historical trace that is deeply rooted in colonial entrepreneurship and “has remained true to the broader orientalist discourse” (p.218).
Imagine Afghanistan is a conceptually brilliant, thoroughly researched, richly commented, finely articulated and thought-provoking “inventory”: It is decolonization as criticism. In its challenge to the cultivation of colonial knowledge as a supporting function of imperialism, the book has both scientific and political relevance. His rebellious path is drawn in direction a re– Presentation of “Afghanistan”. There is still much to be done, however, and Nivi Manchanda reminds us of the need to rethink “border” or “border areas” and their constructions as imperial “peripheries” (p.103; see e.g. Hopkins 2020). This process of re– Centering requires the production of suitable intellectual tools that are not rooted in the centers of colonialism like India. There is also a need to put the Anglospherical Afghanistan of this book into a comparative framework with other imperial imaginaries such as Russia’s.
Self-decolonization / decolonization
In addition, the book has an important message for all knowledge practitioners: we cannot escape the past, but we must change the way we think about its knowledge systems. True to his frame of mind Imagine Afghanistan is explicit about his preoccupation with “storytelling” and “sensory perception”. It integrates the dialogical design of the modern empire and the “borders”, the center and the “periphery” firmly into its larger composition (p.10). At a critical historical moment Imagine Afghanistan it is also about the stories that “we” tell about ourselves and about the role of science in times of increasing “cultural wars” and “post-truth”. In this sense, the book is as much about what makes war, “(un) lawful killing” and murder in “our” name possible on a global level, as it is part of a discussion about racism in the local area. As strong as the desire to lock history in – or the urge to throw away the keys – may be in the present, we need to be more concerned with colonial history. Orientalism means the power of the self to create constitutive knowledge about the other. What is too often and conveniently forgotten is that power creates responsibility and accountability. This book is essential read for any knowledge practitioner, especially those studying or working on Afghanistan. Since we have the power to construct ideas and to tell stories to which people react, we also have the responsibility to recognize the colonial nature of our knowledge as the basis for its sustainable deconstruction. We can balance the power of imperial knowledge by criticizing one colonial woven idea at a time. This process requires all of us to act in automatic decolonization if we are to avoid conscious or other forms of complicity in physical or epistemological acts of imperial violence.
Bayly, Martin J. 2016. Taming the Imperial Imagination: Colonial Knowledge, International Relations, and the Anglo-Afghan Encounter, 1808-1878. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hopkins, Benjamin D. 2020. Ruling the Wild Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Emergence of the Modern World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Hopkins, Benjamin D. 2008. The emergence of modern Afghanistan. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Prakash, Gyan. 1995. “Introduction: After Colonialism”. in the After Colonialism: Imperial Stories and Post-Colonial Displacements3-17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Said Edward W. 2003. Orientalism. London: penguin.
Savic, Bojan. 2020. Afghanistan Under Siege: The Afghan Body and the Post-Colonial Border. London: I.B. Tauris.
Further reading on E-International Relations