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Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics) [Hardcover]

Thomas Barfield

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Book Description

18 April 2010 Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics


Afghanistan traces 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.



Afghanistan is 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.



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Review

"[I]mpressive."--Christopher de Bellaigue, New York Review of Books



"This book is an authoritative and well-written summary of what we might call the majority view. There is a streak in this book, however, of more radical thinking. . . . It leads him near the end of the book to some startling predictions for Afghanistan's possible futures."--Gerard Russell, Foreign Policy



"Thomas Barfield's new book offers a remedy for Americans' pervasive ignorance of Afghanistan. . . . Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is an invaluable book. Mr. Barfield does not give the United States a way out of Afghanistan, but he does provide the context necessary for good policymaking."--Doug Bandow, Washington Times



"A brilliant book to educate all of us about a country we should know and appreciate. . . . Thomas Barfield's book on Afghanistan is likely to become the first source that serious students turn to as a guide to this complicated country. His comprehensive portrait of Afghanistan is a stunning achievement."--Joseph Richard Preville, Saudi Gazette



"Barfield, an anthropologist and old Afghanistan hand, has written a history of Afghanistan that weaves in geography, economics, and culture (think tribes, rural-urban dichotomies, value systems) while maintaining a focus throughout on Afghan rulers' relations with their own people and the outside world. [The book] is lightened by many breaks in the narrative to address broad themes or make intriguing comparisons, such as likening patrimonial Afghanistan to medieval Europe."--
Foreign Affairs



"In this riveting study, Barfield does a splendid job of informing us why Afghanistan is the way it has always been."--
Daily Star



"Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield is a primer for anyone seeking to understand the region, its cultural and political underpinnings."--Raghu Mohan, BusinessWorld



"Barfield shows how Afghan notions of political legitimacy and social organization are eerily timeless. . . . This book may change the way you think about Afghanistan."--Brian Kappler, Montreal Gazette



"Impressive. . . . Barfield traces much of what Afghanistan is about to its geography and to developments from thousands of years ago, but he also asserts that the decade of Russian occupation changed Afghanistan permanently."--Harry Eagar, Maui News



"Despite a plethora of books about Afghanistan in the last few years, a good book on the country has not been published since Louis Dupress's 1973 Afghanistan. Maybe the long wait is over. Barfield's new book . . . comes close to matching Dupree's sweeping sense of Afghanistan's complicated history and culture. An anthropologist, as was Dupree, who personally visited most areas of Afghanistan, Barfield is able to put the bewildering complexity of tribes, ethnic groups, religious sects, warlords, and political feuds that is Afghanistan into a coherent whole that is both readable and informative."--
Choice



"Thomas Barfield . . . has provided a rich discussion of the anthropological and historical context for developing such a formula, which is a critical missing piece in the Obama Administration's policy in Afghanistan. . . . Barfield has given us a valuable effort by a Westerner to decode a very foreign society--never an easy task. As a prism through which to understand the current conflict in Afghanistan, this book reminds us that war is about politics and that policies is about who rules and how rule is legitimated."--Marin Strmecki, American Interest



"[Barfield's] deep knowledge brings clarity to a frightfully complicated region that has been and will continue to be of extraordinary importance to policy debates. Scholarly experts in search of an exhaustive reference to the region and those seeking an introduction to the ins and outs of Afghan history will find this book of interest."--Malou Innocent, CATO Journal



"Anyone who wishes to comprehend the intricacies of this complex and mysterious country would be wise to consult this exceedingly valuable book."--Raphael Israeli, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs



"Overall, Barfield is successful in his attempts to render the history of Afghanistan legible to the trained or casual reader. His clear and approachable writing style, use of narrative, metaphor and personal stories to illustrate his arguments, thoroughness and quickness of pace, and his clear personal joy, investment and fascination with the country make this a highly readable--and more--digestible, historical account. . . . It is, in the end, a fascinating read and a tremendous resource."--Rebecca Gang, Jura Gentium



"Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History makes a serious attempt to survey and analyze the changing political, cultural, and social landscapes of the country from the ancient time to the present. It provides meaningful and objective insights into governance, state legitimacy, social and economic development, and foreign interventions, and Afghan responses to them, with an admirable degree of thoughtfulness and fluency."--Amin Saikal, Marine Corps University Journal



"Barfield has written a magnificent, learned, provoking book. He knows Afghanistan better than almost anyone writing on the topic today. He matches that knowledge with keen insight into how human societies grow and change. Barfield helps us think well about a complex and distant land, which is no small achievement."--Paul D. Miller, Books and Culture



"Barfield offers a critique of U.S. and Western strategy in Afghanistan that will likely generate controversy, but strategists, planners, and those on missions in Afghanistan ignore them at their peril. Highly recommended."--Prisco R. Hernandez, Military Review



"In his admirable volume on Afghanistan, Thomas Barfield has written a real tour de force. . . . No one should venture today into Afghanistan, in whatever capacity, without first reading this guide for the perplexed."--Raphael Israeli, European Legacy



"Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand either the history of Afghanistan or what is happening there now."--Danny Yee, Danny Reviews

From the Inside Flap


"This fascinating survey of Afghanistan is an excellent book for those wanting to go beyond headlines. Written by an expert, with the stylistic flair to be savored by the nonexpert, Afghanistan also has judgments worthy of scholarly reflection. Barfield has captured political, social, and cultural insights of extraordinary importance to the policy arguments of today and tomorrow. Deploying diplomats, soldiers, and aid workers in particular should pay attention."--Ronald E. Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 2005-2007


"Barfield's book will become the single best source on Afghan history and politics virtually overnight. His deep knowledge of Afghanistan enables him to range widely and knit together a very coherent narrative with a conceptual clarity that is pretty rare. A great deal of learning is evident here, but Barfield wears it lightly."--James C. Scott, author of Seeing Like a State


"Barfield's book is an excellent general introduction to the country and will be a source of wider debate within and beyond the scholarly community. I am not aware of a history of this kind that explores governance and state legitimacy as its organizing themes."--Magnus Marsden, author of Living Islam: Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan's North-West Frontier



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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
62 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The view from where the people live 3 May 2010
By Harry Eagar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
According to Thomas Barfield, the only way the Afghans could rid their country of the Russians was to make it ungovernable. Having gotten the Russians out, they have been unable to govern themselves, either.

However, based on this impressive review, Afghanistan was never really governed anyway, certainly not in a modern sense. This can be said of any Muslim majority state, with the difference that Afghanistan is, at least according to Barfield, a nation, unlike, say, Iraq or Turkey. It is not quite clear how the Afghans, who divide themselves ethnically, managed to reach and maintain a sense of nationhood, but evidently they have done so.

Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, did field work in Afghanistan as far back at the early 1970s and is one of few Americans to have lived in the country's rural villages. Since almost all Afghans, until recently, lived in the backwoods, this puts Barfield in a strong position to report.

A determinist, Barfield traces much of what Afghanistan is about to its geography and to developments from thousands of years ago, but he also asserts that the decade of Russian occupation changed Afghanistan permanently. Rural Afghans fled to cities, the economy was wrecked, but education was, briefly, expanded. These changes overlie, but they do not erase the ancient geographical, environmental, religious and social structure.

It is thus no surprise that President Hamid Karzai, put in power by outsiders because they thought that he was, to some degree, like them, should have lashed out at the powers that keep him in power, choosing deaths of civilians as an excuse. Many more civilians are killed by the Taliban, by tribal insurgents and by Muslim outsiders than by NATO, but a Karzai would never call them to book in the same way.

Barfield masterfully explains why: Until very recently, there was almost no mass politics in the country. The endless, violent disputes were between ethnic factions and among a ruling line (the Durrani Pashtuns). In the deeply divided nation, no faction could expect to be superior by itself, so no one could afford to permanently alienate any other faction. Political loyalty does not exist in Afghanistan, and it is not unusual for men who were being murdered (and raped, although Barfield does not mention this) by another clan one day to become allies of their enemies a few days later.

There are other points that have escaped those who would meddle in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns do not recognize the Durand Line that puts some in Afghanistan and some in Pakistan. Pakistan, like Germany in 1914, has to worry about a two-front war, so it is not in Pakistan's interest to see a strong, independent and democratic Afghanistan.

Although the scene was set even before Alexander's armies marched through, and Afghanistan was part of various Turko-Persian empires for a millenium, Barfield says Afghan politics effectively starts in the 1740s, when a Durrani dynasty was established that lasted until 1979.

Even non-Pashtuns have a strong sense that the country is made to be run by a Pashtun (Karzai is a Pashtun, as is Taliban leader Mullah Omar, though neither comes from the Durrani elite). Until recently, this deference to the Durranis was, more or less, an asset toward stability. It prevented all-out brawls when it came time for succession, since not every Afghan with a rifle and cousins with rifles was thought eligible to contend for the throne. This shortened the violent interregnums, but it did nothing to prevent them. For the past century, every leader was either murdered or exiled, until the re-election of Karzai.

It is instructive to consider the remaking of the Afghan polity in the 1890s, compared with what went on in the Ottoman Empire at the same time, although Barfield does not do this. Nevertheless, both traditionalist monarchies were revolutionized from the top, the Ottomans in an allegedly liberal manner with a constitution, the Afghans in a typically despotic manner by Abdur Rahman.

The result, though, in each case was a centralization and the destruction of the traditional peripheral restraints on the the power of the executive. In neither case was there modernization, and the brief effort of the king in the '20s in that direction resulted in deposition and civil war in Afghanistan. That assured that no subsequent executive would make even a gesture toward modernity.

As a result, Afghanistan stagnated at a time when even other Muslim countries were making some changes. Since the liberalizing king Amanullah fell on the issue of educating women, which horrified the community, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Afghanistan's misery is its religion.

If there is a deficiency in this meaty book, it is the slight attention given Islam, which gets about two pages. About all Barfield has to say about it is that Afghans believe themselves to have the purest and oldest conception of the religion, an opinion not supported by history and bizarre because they do not know Arabic. This makes them even more resistant to reformation than other Muslims.

Barfield notes that earlier students also treated Islam as a given, like sunlight, not because it was not important but because it was central. Nothing in Afghanistan happens outside the context of religion.

It is is odd that Barfield should skimp this topic, especially since, he notes, Sufism is so strong there. Sufism is generally outside the torments of political Islam.

In a brief summation, Barfield says, "To change the status quo, there needs to be an end to violence within Afghanistan and threats from its neighbors." A tall order, and he does not believe Karzai is up to it. He has no other candidate to offer, though.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An unknown region explored and illuminated 27 July 2010
By Amy Henry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ever since The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Three Cups of Tea, I've found Afghanistan to be a strangely compelling region. In those books, there was a different sense of the humanity of the people compared to what is seen on the nightly news, and it was difficult to align the two in my mind. Mention Afghanistan to someone and all they usually come up with is the notorious Taliban or the crumbling ruins that appear on the news. How accurate is that image?

When I first received Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, I hoped to find that answer and at the same time, that the book wouldn't be too dry or heavy on political rhetoric. I was pleased to find that it's an incredibly readable history book that makes the subject understandable and reveals the complicated lives of the people of Afghanistan. The author manages to compile the history without a political agenda or motive.

First off is recognizing that culturally, Afghanistan is made up of both tribal and nontribal ethnic groups. These groups mean everything to the people, and unlike some cultures, "tribal and ethnic groups take primacy over the individual." In other words, "individuals support decisions made by their group even when such support has negative consequences for themselves." This is a somewhat unique trait, and contributes to the devotion many have for their leaders. They also have an intense oral history that is repeated through the ages that also creates a sense of cohesiveness between past and present. These people live in a land crisscrossed by history, from Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great (see the photo of his castle above right). It was conflict between tribal regions, a civil war, that made the ordinary Afghan people eager to have the US come in to intervene with the Taliban, as "a drowning person is not too picky about who throws him a line....Afghanistan had either been ignored or abused by the outside world as it descended into chaos."

The Taliban, known for their desire to spread extremely conservative Islam, had riddled the nation with violence towards women and other religions. They've managed to alienate even those countries that were providing needed humanitarian aid. They do not have the support of the `ordinary' citizen, as at times the Taliban members have numbered below 150 members. A good portion of the book deals with how and why the Taliban gained such power. Another portion discusses the occupation by Britain and Soviet Russia prior to more recent actions with the US.

The historical details are interesting, but it was the smaller things that were more revealing. For example, why is it that on the news you usually see only children or old people? Their hardscrabble lives, tending outdoors to agriculture and focused on manual labor, shows up on their faces and they appear prematurely aged. Are the devastated streets of broken concrete typical? Actually no, as the majority of citizens live in small villages far from urban areas such as Kabul. Is it just a land of dust and opium poppies? No again, as stone fruit, grapes, nuts, citrus fruits, melons, and rice are grown in different parts of the country, depending on what areas are irrigated. The famous mountainous region, known to have been a hiding place for bin Laden, is in the center of Afghanistan. Its steepness creates dynamic changes in climate in just a few hours of travel, and creates a diverse variety of crops.

The current situation in Afghanistan is covered in the sixth chapter, where Barfield addresses the complicated social concerns that continually plague the country. The resurgence of the Taliban and their religious ideology reverses social progress, while modern policies want to focus on reducing the religious power of clerics. Additional goals include establishing rights for women, tolerance of non-Muslim faiths, implementing educational policies, and modernizing archaic laws to better represent the desires of the majority.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Afghan Impression 16 May 2011
By SULAI - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am not even finished reading this book but I feel compelled to say something. Afghans need to read this type of a history of Afghanistan. Reason being that some of the reasons that we cant move on as a nation is that we have an incorrect and false perception of our past. We take pride in the wrong things and it would sure free us as a people if we realized that our ideas about ourselves as being so noble and brave are not necessarily true. Afghan history as told to by Afghans is very self glorifying and that is why we refuse to take responsibility for what we have done wrong....this is a great book!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Afghanistan 13 July 2010
By Michael J. Selby - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent history and musings on the current situation. I llike the fact that Mr. Barfield clearly states that making decisions on present day information is hazardous--academic folks seldom mention that! For someone like me who was highly ignorant about Afghanistan this was a wonderful primer. Lots of foreign names and obscure locales to remember, but the central issues are clearly delineated. Would have liked to have seen maps that included province names and boundaries and more labeling of important locales and incidents that occurred there. All in all, thoroughly informative and enjoyable.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced, Well Presented, and Well Written 28 April 2011
By Keith Boyea - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Afghanistan is a notoriously complex country with a notoriously complex history. Barfield has done a fantastic job of presenting a balanced overview of its history. At times, my head spun as I tried to keep the long cast of characters straight, but when I finished I felt like I had a better grasp on Afghanistan than when I started.

If I had to make a light criticism, I would say that the first half of the book is a bit tougher to read because it deals in demographics and geography. It reminded me a bit of of the early sections of Louis Dupree's book, Afghanistan.

The book's biggest strength is the history of Afghanistan since 1901. (I felt like it was the most relevant part to understanding the US effort there.) Since 1901, every Afghan leader has been either killed or exiled. I thought that was a striking piece of information given the US's contentious relationship with President Karzai.

I give the book five starts and a must read for anyone interested in the US effort in Afghanistan. For people who follow Afghanistan very closely, some of it will be a review, but I suspect Afghan watchers of all levels of expertise will benefit from reading this book.
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