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Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield. Princeton University Press, 2010, 389 pp.

Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, seeks to answer the questions of how Afghanistan’s cultural and political history has both united the country and torn it apart on a cyclical basis and how this cycle has repeated under the current US occupation. As the United States continues to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, what does the future hold for a country that seems constantly in chaos, and will such changes bring yet another round of destructive political and social upheaval?

Barfield has written books on China, Central Asian Arabs in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan’s domestic architecture. The context of this work is a cultural and political review that examines how Afghanistan’s repetitive history of warfare and rebuilding and its unstable internal politics have shaped its formation, identity, and its place in the twenty-first-century political world. He examines how this continuing cycle of war, instability, and reformation continues to reshape its relations with its various ethnicities, its role with the rest of the world, and how the current government under Hamid Karzai is starting to repeat this cycle.

The thesis of Barfield’s book is how Afghanistan has evolved from a fragmented state fought over by such powers as the Persians, the British, and the Soviet Union to one that did not immediately succumb to the pattern of warfare and rebuilding that characterized previous political changes when the United States drove out the Taliban in 2001. He reviews Afghan political history from the 1747 ascension of Ahmad Shah (whose dynasty held power in various forms until 1978) to the apparently rigged election of Karzai in 2005. He also discusses how changing political relations with such countries as Russia, Pakistan, India, and the United States have repeatedly brought the country to civil war as internal groups fought one another and the existing regime (and those who financially supported the regimes) toppling it, uniting under a new regime, and rebuilding the country. However plans for rebuilding Afghanistan socially, politically, and economically have rarely reached the rural areas, he notes, and have met with violent opposition by conservative groups opposed to any change that affects family life, the economy, and women’s rights. Attempts by various regimes to rapidly force such changes have led to yet another cycle of instability, warfare, rebuilding, and a new regime.

Barfield provides examples via a detailed examination of the various regimes and their rulers, examining how their relations with the various ethnicities inside the country helped but limited their power, and how many regimes followed a pattern of being founded by a strong ruler only to collapse under a weak leader two generations later. He also discusses how those who sought to overthrow a regime (and those who opposed them) were supported economically and often militarily by foreign powers who sought to make the country a part of their own nation or empire. Barfield concludes by examining how the Taliban came to power and how they sought to return Afghanistan to an idealized caliphate nation that never truly existed and how their own internal conflicts which led to more instability, warfare, and a new regime under Karzai—a weak ruler under whom the cycle is repeating.

The book’s limitations are few, as Barfield provides specific detailed material to support his theses as well as an analysis of how and why such power structures and social views changed and overthrew those in power and how each regime’s adherence to the cycle of war, rebuilding, and a new regime and strong to weak rulers inevitably led to their downfall. Barfield’s only limitation is more of a reliance on the political and economic information to support his theses and less on how society and culture also played a role. He concludes his work with the implication that even with the aid of the United States, the “rebuild and revolt” pattern is still present and will repeat within Karzai’s regime (i.e., a weak ruler, a rise of opposing forces, and forced social changes) and that signs of this already have begun.

Is this a book worth consulting? The answer is yes. Those seeking to learn how and why Afghanistan continues to play such a role in the world and why its history continues to repeat itself will profit from reading this book. Military members or diplomatic envoys preparing for duty in Afghanistan or currently working in the country are encouraged to read the book to gain a better understanding of the political, social, and economic issues with which they will be dealing and of which they should be very much aware.

Mel Staffeld 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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