Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge
By Nivi Manchanda
Cambridge College Press, 2020

Historical past and the prison-break

Within the introduction to After Colonialism, Gyan Prakash was specific about the necessity to “pry open the studying of colonialism from th[e] prison-house of historicism”: “For at stake shouldn’t be merely the problem as as to whether or not former colonies have develop into free from domination, but additionally the query as to how the historical past of colonialism and colonialism’s disciplining of historical past may be shaken unfastened from the domination of classes and concepts it produced – colonizer and colonized; white, black, and brown; civilized and uncivilized; trendy and archaic; cultural id; tribe and nation” (Prakash 1995, 5). This specific expression of the necessity to recognise the coloniality of historical past was articulated within the mid-Nineties, a time of a heightened-yet-tense sense of Western supremacy. Not lengthy after, in October 2001, Afghanistan was occupied by a large worldwide navy alliance by the identify of “Enduring Freedom”. The ‘operation’ has morphed into an everlasting occupation of, and with, Afghanistan. It made the important re-evaluation of historic information solely extra pressing than it had already been.

Imprisoned by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, Antonio Gramsci made the compilation of an ‘stock’ step one for a important confrontation of historic processes and their traces in ourselves (Stated 2003, 25). Imagining Afghanistan is greater than a list described in Gramsci’s Jail Notebooks. Since 2001 particularly, Afghanistan has been changed into a laboratory for twenty-first century intervention and its utility of energy. The examine of Afghanistan, too, has vastly expanded. Afghanistan has been the topic of coverage articulation, and it has populated publishers’ catalogues and college curricula, even colouring books for kids. Afghanistan exists in public debate, within the leisure business and museums. Afghanistan has been considered loads, and an ‘concept’ of Afghanistan has taken form within the Western thoughts. Imagining Afghanistan engages with this concept via a wealthy meeting of supplies referring to the work of previous and current information practitioners, together with teachers, political analysts and policy-makers – “the scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the dealer, or the soldier [who] was in, or considered, the Orient as a result of he could possibly be there, or may give it some thought, with little or no resistance on the Orient’s half,” in Edward Stated’s (2003, 7) phrases. The e-book spans the historical past of contemporary Afghanistan from the early nineteenth century, when the nation was rising into the consciousness of British empire builders, to the current. It’s a prison-break (in Prakash’s sense) that releases colonialism’s classes and concepts from their (wrongful) captivity in historical past to ensure that them to search out their intimate place in the neighborhood of Western information on Afghanistan.

The imperialism of colonial information cultivation

At its core, Imagining Afghanistan engages with “the hegemonic discourse and its totalising ambitions” about histories of the Afghan state and its peoples (p.5). Woven into the e-book’s argument are three intersecting threads. To start with, Afghanistan represents “an intrinsically violent place” within the creativeness of the transatlantic Anglosphere (p.3). However, ‘our’ “politics of disavowal” preserve that ‘we’ don’t have anything to do with it (p.3). A wealthy “grammar of distinction” segregates ‘us’ and the ‘West’ from ‘them’ and ‘Afghanistan’ (p.3). Lastly, this discourse is marked by a “superficial” engagement with Afghanistan’s historical past and politics, notably so in instances of battle (p.4). This, to deliver the argument full circle, reaffirms Afghanistan’s place in a geopolitical hierarchy whose construction permits and sanctions intervention.

Given the violence inherent in Western information and the widespread, usually common-sensical, rationalisation in its utility on Afghan our bodies, the significance of this critique can’t be underestimated (Savic 2020). The e-book is an instance of “rebel scholarship”, and an illustration of the necessity for the persevering with decolonisation of imperial/colonial information as a steady act of resistance in our very personal age of imperialism (p.10). Imagining Afghanistan exhibits the pathways during which the thought and “story” of Afghanistan have come about and brought root. The evaluation unsettles with a transparent objective: “‘how is Afghanistan considered in a approach such that it’s potential to invade and bomb it?’ and ‘what are the sources of authority that sanction the discourses that make that act of invasion permissible and potential within the first place?’” (p.5).

The e-book stands on the shoulders of research which have crossed (and proceed to eradicate) the (synthetic) disciplinary boundaries between historical past and worldwide relations in an try to make seen the colonial legacies of their mixed information programs (e.g. Bayly 2016; Hopkins 2008). Imagining Afghanistan focuses on the mental cornerstones of historic information manufacturing, and the way these had been, and proceed to be, recycled and cultivated for utility in situations of imperialism, racism and warfare within the current. The evaluation attracts out the (at finest) “lazy” and (at worst) “mercenary” scholarship that has contributed to the reification of Afghanistan as a violent place and failed state allegedly riddled with tribal customs – in brief, the scholarship that assists in turning ‘inferior’ Afghanistan right into a authentic object of ‘superior’ Western intervention (p.25). As such, Imagining Afghanistan is a “decolonising intervention” in addition to an train in auto-decolonisation prompting information practitioners within the humanities and social sciences to “unlearn the colonising impulses of information manufacturing within the Western academy” (p.7).

Chapter 1 lays the foundations for the dialogue, unearthing and analysing the important thing constituents of how Afghanistan has been ‘understood’ and ‘made legible’ in a geopolitical sense. Chapter 2 charts the historical past of ‘Afghanistan’ as a “spatial formation”, exploring additionally its a number of configurations as a ‘frontier’, ‘buffer’, ‘failed’ and even ‘non-state’ or ‘AfPak’ (p.66). Over time, the palimpsestic house of Afghanistan was reinscribed with arbitrary notions of marginality within the age of colonialism. These Eurocentric lenses of geopolitical organisation make Afghanistan seem ‘completely different’ and proceed to exert their energy on ‘our’ creativeness, during which Afghanistan options as “an arbitrary blip on the world map, its re-inscription as an area of exception on the fringes of humanity that calls for ‘particular therapy’” (p.102). Chapter 3 forefronts the ‘tribalisation’ of Afghanistan. It weaves its approach from Mountstuart Elphinstone’s inspiration by Scottish clans via more and more racialised registers to Olaf Caroe’s The Pathans. While the Soviet intervention within the Nineteen Eighties created independence-loving freedom fighters, Afghanistan has extra not too long ago been diminished to tribal assemblages of chauvinistic males with penchants for terrorism and the subjection of ladies. Based on many Western readings, Afghanistan’s tribes have at all times been ‘inward-looking’ producers of warriors, patriots or terrorists. Chapter 4 is a nuanced critique of Western feminist writing, which has contributed to a discount of ‘Muslim tradition’ by “superimpos[ing] the neat picture of a medieval land of barbaric males and tyrannised ladies over the messy historical past of the area” (p.175). The urge to ‘save’ Afghan ladies is intently linked to the identical international constructions that legitimise patriarchy on the native degree. Chapter 5 enhances this dialogue with a representational survey of Afghan masculinities, singling out representations of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban. The necessity to classify, label, categorise and, in the end, take care of Afghan males is a historic hint deeply rooted in colonial enterprise and has “remained true to the broader Orientalist discourse” (p.218).

Imagining Afghanistan is a conceptually good, deeply researched, richly annotated, finely articulated and thought-provoking ‘stock’: it’s decolonisation-as-critique. In its problem to the cultivation of colonial information as a supporting perform to imperialism the e-book has scholarly in addition to political relevance. Its rebel path is plotted towards a re-imagination of ‘Afghanistan’. However there’s work to be finished, and Nivi Manchanda reminds us of the need to rethink ‘liminal’ or ‘frontier’ areas in addition to their constructions as imperial ‘peripheries’ (p.103; see e.g. Hopkins 2020). This strategy of re-centring requires the manufacturing of becoming mental instruments that aren’t rooted in colonialism’s personal centres, similar to India. There may be additionally the necessity to deliver the Anglospheric Afghanistan of this e-book right into a comparative framework with different imperial imaginaries, similar to Russia’s.

Auto-decolonisation / decolonising ourselves

As well as, the e-book has an vital message to all knowledge-practitioners: we can’t escape the previous, however we’re obliged to vary the way in which we take into consideration its information programs. True to its thought framework, Imagining Afghanistan is specific about its engagement with ‘story-telling’ and ‘sense-making’. It firmly incorporates the dialogic making of contemporary empire and ‘frontiers’, centre and ‘periphery’ into its bigger make-up (p.10). At a important historic second, Imagining Afghanistan can also be concerning the tales ‘we’ inform about ourselves and about academia’s function in an age of heightened ‘tradition wars’ and ‘post-truth’. On this sense, the e-book is as a lot about what makes warfare, ‘(un)lawful killing’ and homicide in ‘our’ identify potential on a world scale as it’s a part of a dialogue on racism nearer to house. Nonetheless sturdy the need to incarcerate historical past – or the urge to throw away the keys – could also be within the current, we have to have interaction extra with colonial historical past. Orientalism signifies the facility of the self to create constitutive information of the opposite. What is simply too usually and conveniently forgotten is that energy begets duty and accountability. This e-book makes for important studying for each knowledge-practitioner, and notably these learning or ‘engaged on’ Afghanistan. As a result of now we have the facility to assemble concepts and narrate tales which are acted upon, we even have a duty to recognise the coloniality of our information as the premise for its sustained deconstruction within the first place. We will degree the facility of imperial information by critiquing one colonially woven concept at a time. That course of calls for acts of auto-decolonisation from all of us if we need to keep away from types of complicity, acutely aware or in any other case, in bodily or epistemological acts of imperial violence.


Bayly, Martin J. 2016. Taming the Imperial Creativeness: Colonial Data, Worldwide Relations, and the Anglo-Afghan Encounter, 1808-1878. Cambridge: Cambridge College Press.

Hopkins, Benjamin D. 2020. Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Trendy World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard College Press.

Hopkins, Benjamin D. 2008. The Making of Trendy Afghanistan. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Prakash, Gyan. 1995. ‘Introduction: After Colonialism’. In After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, 3–17. Princeton: Princeton College Press.

Stated, Edward W. 2003. Orientalism. London: Penguin.

Savic, Bojan. 2020. Afghanistan Beneath Siege: The Afghan Physique and the Postcolonial Border. London: I.B. Tauris.

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