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VINE VOICEon May 3, 2010
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.
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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.
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on May 16, 2011
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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on April 28, 2011
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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on July 13, 2010
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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on February 26, 2013
I was called to Kabul Afghanistan last August 2012 in response to the Green on Blue murders of 3 of our Border Management Task Force contractors. After 26 years in the military I've seen plenty of war torn countries but this trip to Afghanistan sent me on a mission to better understand what was obviously an extraordinarily complex and mutifaceted culture. To do this I selected both this excellent history by Thomas Barfield and the more contemporary view of Ehsan M. Entezar (also reviewed) . For me it took both books, each unique in their perspective, to capture a satisfactory understanding of the ethnic, religious, tribal and political forces at work in Afghanistan. By it self Barfield provides a superb history. Entezar provides very practical insight into every day Afghan culture and is the minimum must read for the western visitor. Together, these two books will serve you well.
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on March 29, 2011
One of the most comprehensive, yet readable books on the incredibly complex history of Afghanistan. This book was the best of all the ones I read prior to and while stationed in Afghanistan. Professor Barfield definitely has spent considerable time there and does a wonderful job explaining their political history and cultural history as best possible for a book under 1000 pages. Extremely readable.
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on August 6, 2010
Fascinating read. Many times you wonder about the countries that we hear about in the news and to completely understand the back-story it is important to pick up a book like this one.

To call Afghanistan backward would be improper; to call them out of date would be accurate. The author takes is through the turmoil that the country has dealt with for nearly 3 centuries. The conquers and those that the people defeated.

In the end you come out with a deep respect for these people but wonder what is the best course of action to take. Should the US support this country with troops and financial aid or would it be best to back out and allow the country to do what it has always done.

The author makes the process much more convoluted when he clearly shows his bias against President Bush near the end of the book. He clearly does not appreciate the near complete withdrawal of troops after the defeat of the Taliban but then makes it clear that the problems that have arisen in the aftermath are issues that only Afghanistan can correct...so which is it?

The fact that this country has so much potential and growth makes it a country to continue to watch for years to come.
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on December 11, 2014
After reading this book, I feel that I have a much better understanding of Afghanistan, especially of the way the past explains the present. The author writes without frills and is not, for example, William Dalrymple (I strongly recommend "Return of a king", about the first contacts between Europe and Afghanistan), but he clearly knows the country very well and is quite convincing.
I give it 4 stars instead of 5 because, in my opinion, the "cultural" of the title is quite weak compared to the "political". This is a pity because the author condemns the attempts to impose western cultural values on the local populations. I think he's right, but this issue could have been better developed.
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on October 12, 2014
Review -Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

"Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History" by Thomas Barfield is a learned, detailed, well written book by an anthropologist, not a historian. Thus we are privileged to see the landscape, the people, and rulers, the events through different eyes. Thomas Barfield not only tells us the history of kingdoms and kings, and battles and wars, but also tells us of the nature of the people of Afghanistan. He tells us of the why and the how of the history. The sweep is broad and the story dramatic.

Thomas Barfield writes with an educated tongue. I am glad I have my copy as an ebook so as to use the easy access to a dictionary. But the writing is clear and intriguing. The story is well told and fascinating. The detail is crisp and clear.

The book is copyrighted 2010, as a part of the Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics. Looking through the titles in the collection, this book is in highly esteemed company.

Thomas Barfield brings us right up to 2010 with many observations on the status of the politics of Afghanistan at that time. He spends time tracing the "longe duree" and how that long history impacts Afghanistan today. Thus, if you are looking for a book placing the current events in Afghanistan in their historical context, this is it. And it does it very well. Some may disagree with his conclusions. But Thomas Barfield supports his conclusions well. The book is well worth the read.
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