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Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics) Hardcover – April 18, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


"[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 Back Cover

"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


Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics
  • Hardcover: 408 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 18, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691145687
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691145686
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #649,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

68 of 75 people found the following review helpful By Harry Eagar VINE VOICE on May 3, 2010
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.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Meg Sumner TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 27, 2010
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).
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By SULAI on May 16, 2011
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!
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Selby on July 13, 2010
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Keith Boyea on April 28, 2011
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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