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Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics, 36)
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics, 36)
Thomas Barfield
Princeton University Press, 2010
408 pp., 16.95

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Paul D. Miller

Afghanistan Demystified

No, not "the graveyard of empires."

Afghanistan is a foreign land about which we knew little before 9/11 but which intruded on our attention with sudden urgency, like Vietnam in the 1960s or, in a different context, Egypt in the 1920s. And as in those earlier instances, alas, we have continued to know very little without fully realizing the extent of our ignorance. That is a dangerous combination. It is the perfect recipe for what Edward Said famously called "Orientalism"—westerners' fabrication and imposition of identity onto "easterners" to fill the vacuum of our ignorance. I dislike making such a charge: Said opened a Pandora's Box of postmodernist criticism in the social sciences and made it too easy for lazy graduate students to dismiss good scholarship. Yet who can deny that westerners sometimes say the dumbest things about non-western countries?

Exhibit A is the deluge of books on Afghanistan over the last decade (not to mention countless bits of reportage and anecdotal lore on the TV, the radio, the web). More books have been published in English about Afghanistan in the last ten years than, perhaps, the previous ten decades. Most are war memoirs, travelogues, popular histories, journalism, or a mix of all of the above, surrounded by vast heaps of think-tank reports and policy papers. The best of this lot—Steve Coll's Ghost Wars (2004) and (despite its title) Seth Jones' In the Graveyard of Empires (2009)—offer compelling narratives of the catastrophe that is recent Afghan history. Those aside, however, very few were written by people who have spent much time in South Asia, speak the languages, or are trained social scientists. Thus we have an ever-growing echo-chamber of books quoting each other: Afghanistan has never been conquered; it is "the graveyard of empires"; it has been ungovernable for centuries; Afghans lack a sense of nationhood; Afghans are invincibly xenophobic and resistant to outsiders. In the best Orientalist fashion, almost none of this common wisdom is true. ...

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