Review – Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge

Review - Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge

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

History and the prison-break

In the introduction to After Colonialism, Gyan Prakash was express about the necessity to “pry open the reading of colonialism from th[e] prison-house of historicism”: “For at stake is not simply the issue as to whether or not former colonies have become free from domination, but also the question as to how the history of colonialism and colonialism’s disciplining of history can be shaken loose from the domination of categories and ideas it produced – colonizer and colonized; white, black, and brown; civilized and uncivilized; modern and archaic; cultural identity; tribe and nation” (Prakash 1995, 5). This explicit 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 army alliance by the title of “Enduring Freedom”. The ‘operation’ has morphed into an everlasting occupation of, and with, Afghanistan. It made the crucial 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 ‘inventory’ step one for a crucial confrontation of historic processes and their traces in ourselves (Said 2003, 25). Imagining Afghanistan is greater than a listing described in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Since 2001 particularly, Afghanistan has been become a laboratory for twenty-first century intervention and its utility of energy. The research 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 quite a bit, and an ‘idea’ of Afghanistan has taken form within the Western thoughts. Imagining Afghanistan engages with this concept by a wealthy meeting of supplies regarding the work of previous and current information practitioners, together with teachers, political analysts and policy-makers – “the scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier [who] was in, or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part,” in Edward Said’s (2003, 7) phrases. The ebook 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 is 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 ebook’s argument are three intersecting threads. To start with, Afghanistan represents “an intrinsically violent place” within the creativeness of the transatlantic Anglosphere (p.3). But, ‘our’ “politics of disavowal” keep that ‘we’ don’t have anything to do with it (p.3). A wealthy “grammar of difference” 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, significantly so in occasions of battle (p.4). This, to convey the argument full circle, reaffirms Afghanistan’s place in a geopolitical hierarchy whose construction allows 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 ebook is an instance of “insurgent 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 reveals the pathways wherein the thought and “story” of Afghanistan have come about and brought root. The evaluation unsettles with a transparent objective: “‘how is Afghanistan thought about in a way such that it is possible to invade and bomb it?’ and ‘what are the sources of authority that sanction the discourses that make that act of invasion permissible and possible in the first place?’” (p.5).

The ebook 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 techniques (e.g. Bayly 2016; Hopkins 2008). Imagining Afghanistan focuses on the mental cornerstones of historic information manufacturing, and the way these have been, and proceed to be, recycled and cultivated for utility in cases 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 reliable 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 knowledge production in 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 area of Afghanistan was reinscribed with arbitrary notions of marginality within the age of colonialism. These Eurocentric lenses of geopolitical organisation make Afghanistan seem ‘different’ and proceed to exert their energy on ‘our’ creativeness, wherein Afghanistan options as “an arbitrary blip on the world map, its re-inscription as a space of exception on the fringes of humanity that demands ‘special treatment’” (p.102). Chapter 3 forefronts the ‘tribalisation’ of Afghanistan. It weaves its means from Mountstuart Elphinstone’s inspiration by Scottish clans by more and more racialised registers to Olaf Caroe’s The Pathans. Whilst the Soviet intervention within the Nineteen Eighties created independence-loving freedom fighters, Afghanistan has extra lately been lowered to tribal assemblages of chauvinistic males with penchants for terrorism and the subjection of girls. According to 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 culture’ by “superimpos[ing] the neat image of a medieval land of barbaric men and tyrannised women over the messy history of the region” (p.175). The urge to ‘save’ Afghan girls is carefully linked to the identical world buildings that legitimise patriarchy on the native stage. Chapter 5 enhances this dialogue with a representational survey of Afghan masculinities, singling out representations of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban. The have to classify, label, categorise and, finally, cope with Afghan males is a historic hint deeply rooted in colonial enterprise and has “remained true to the wider Orientalist discourse” (p.218).

Imagining Afghanistan is a conceptually good, deeply researched, richly annotated, finely articulated and thought-provoking ‘inventory’: it’s decolonisation-as-critique. In its problem to the cultivation of colonial information as a supporting operate to imperialism the ebook has scholarly in addition to political relevance. Its rebel path is plotted towards a re-imagination of ‘Afghanistan’. But there’s work to be completed, 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 technique of re-centring requires the manufacturing of becoming mental instruments that aren’t rooted in colonialism’s personal centres, reminiscent of India. There can be the necessity to convey the Anglospheric Afghanistan of this ebook right into a comparative framework with different imperial imaginaries, reminiscent of Russia’s.

Auto-decolonisation / decolonising ourselves

In addition, the ebook has an essential message to all knowledge-practitioners: we can not escape the previous, however we’re obliged to alter the way in which we take into consideration its information techniques. True to its thought framework, Imagining Afghanistan is express 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 crucial historic second, Imagining Afghanistan can be in regards to the tales ‘we’ inform about ourselves and about academia’s position in an age of heightened ‘culture wars’ and ‘post-truth’. In this sense, the ebook is as a lot about what makes warfare, ‘(un)lawful killing’ and homicide in ‘our’ title doable on a worldwide scale as it’s a part of a dialogue on racism nearer to house. However robust the need to incarcerate historical past – or the urge to throw away the keys – could also be within the current, we have to interact extra with colonial historical past. Orientalism signifies the ability of the self to create constitutive information of the opposite. What is just too usually and conveniently forgotten is that energy begets accountability and accountability. This ebook makes for important studying for each knowledge-practitioner, and significantly these finding out or ‘working on’ Afghanistan. Because we now have the ability to assemble concepts and narrate tales which can be acted upon, we even have a accountability to recognise the coloniality of our information as the idea for its sustained deconstruction within the first place. We can stage the ability 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 wish 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 Imagination: Colonial Knowledge, International Relations, and the Anglo-Afghan Encounter, 1808-1878. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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