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A major history of Afghanistan and its changing political culture Afghanistan traces the historic struggles and the changing nature of political authority in this volatile region of the world, from the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century to the Taliban resurgence today. Thomas Barfield introduces readers to the bewildering diversity of tribal and ethnic groups in Afghani A major history of Afghanistan and its changing political culture Afghanistan traces the historic struggles and the changing nature of political authority in this volatile region of the world, from the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century to the Taliban resurgence today. Thomas Barfield introduces readers to the bewildering diversity of tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, explaining what unites them as Afghans despite the regional, cultural, and political differences that divide them. He shows how governing these peoples was relatively easy when power was concentrated in a small dynastic elite, but how this delicate political order broke down in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Afghanistan's rulers mobilized rural militias to expel first the British and later the Soviets. Armed insurgency proved remarkably successful against the foreign occupiers, but it also undermined the Afghan government's authority and rendered the country ever more difficult to govern as time passed. Barfield vividly describes how Afghanistan's armed factions plunged the country into a civil war, giving rise to clerical rule by the Taliban and Afghanistan's isolation from the world. He examines why the American invasion in the wake of September 11 toppled the Taliban so quickly, and how this easy victory lulled the United States into falsely believing that a viable state could be built just as easily. Afghanistan is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how a land conquered and ruled by foreign dynasties for more than a thousand years became the graveyard of empires for the British and Soviets, and what the United States must do to avoid a similar fate.


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A major history of Afghanistan and its changing political culture Afghanistan traces the historic struggles and the changing nature of political authority in this volatile region of the world, from the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century to the Taliban resurgence today. Thomas Barfield introduces readers to the bewildering diversity of tribal and ethnic groups in Afghani A major history of Afghanistan and its changing political culture Afghanistan traces the historic struggles and the changing nature of political authority in this volatile region of the world, from the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century to the Taliban resurgence today. Thomas Barfield introduces readers to the bewildering diversity of tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, explaining what unites them as Afghans despite the regional, cultural, and political differences that divide them. He shows how governing these peoples was relatively easy when power was concentrated in a small dynastic elite, but how this delicate political order broke down in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Afghanistan's rulers mobilized rural militias to expel first the British and later the Soviets. Armed insurgency proved remarkably successful against the foreign occupiers, but it also undermined the Afghan government's authority and rendered the country ever more difficult to govern as time passed. Barfield vividly describes how Afghanistan's armed factions plunged the country into a civil war, giving rise to clerical rule by the Taliban and Afghanistan's isolation from the world. He examines why the American invasion in the wake of September 11 toppled the Taliban so quickly, and how this easy victory lulled the United States into falsely believing that a viable state could be built just as easily. Afghanistan is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how a land conquered and ruled by foreign dynasties for more than a thousand years became the graveyard of empires for the British and Soviets, and what the United States must do to avoid a similar fate.

30 review for Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Russ

    I read one book about Afghanistan annually, and found this one to be among the most informative. I'd long understood that Afghanistan never quite fit into other categories--too far east to be in the Middle East, too southern to be in Central Asia, too northern to be part of South Asia--but it had not fully sunk into me the extent to which Afghanistan has served as a buffer state between neighboring powers. Persians, India, and Russia being the main but not the only ones over the centuries. Relate I read one book about Afghanistan annually, and found this one to be among the most informative. I'd long understood that Afghanistan never quite fit into other categories--too far east to be in the Middle East, too southern to be in Central Asia, too northern to be part of South Asia--but it had not fully sunk into me the extent to which Afghanistan has served as a buffer state between neighboring powers. Persians, India, and Russia being the main but not the only ones over the centuries. Relatedly, I did not appreciate how the old Afghan heads of state, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tended to partner with one of the neighboring powers (most often the British via India) and fall under their foreign policy umbrella in exchange for copious aid money. These arrangements also helped the Afghan leaders domestically because it meant a lighter tax burden on the population and increased the subjects' political acceptance of the king. I also learned about the Swiss cheese model of nationhood/governance. Imagine a map of a country governed by a king. Then imagine that there are bands of isolated people in the mountains or other remote places that basically keep to themselves and do not live along major routes. These are like the holes in Swiss cheese. The old Afghan chiefs and kings recognized that, and were content not to have 100 percent overlordship of each little pocket of territory. They understood that that's what Swiss cheese looks like. The book also debunks the myth that the country has always been in a state of war. That has been true since the 1970s but before that there were long stretches of decades when the country was at peace. The real problems started when Afghan Communists took over and then the Soviets invaded to prop them up, destroying opposition political parties and setting the stage (once the Soviet Union could no longer aid Afghanistan) for a power vacuum to be filled in the 1990s by Pakistan-backed jihadists. The early sections of the book helped show that the concept of splitting the country apart into smaller countries along ethnic lines is as unlikely as it is inadvisable. There's a lot of demographic overlap and blurring throughout the country, and that's never really been the driving force behind the "ungovernability" of Afghanistan. The issue seems to be more that people in the countryside resent it when some muckety muck in Kabul tries to tell them how to live their lives. The format and tone of the book could have stood some improvement. A lot of instruction about journalism and nonfiction writing tells authors to assume that their audience is intelligent but uninformed. But in this book the writer seems to assume historical knowledge about Afghanistan that I simply did not have. Sometimes I wished it would have started out a chapter with a straightforward, linear description of how a particular king rose and fell from power. But there tended to be some jumping around and explanations of trends over dynasties, so it could be a little annoying to follow. The book was pretty much stuck to the facts when describing the foreign policy of Disraeli and Brezhnev. But once we get to the 2000s there was a lot of negative opinion and ascribing of motives to Bush. At that point the book became more assertion-based than fact-based.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    Thomas Barfield is an anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Princeton whose experiences in Afghanistan stretch back to the 1960s, when he travelled overland through the country as a student. He began ethnographic field studies there in the 1970s and witnessed the overthrow of the Afghan King Zahir Shah in 1973. In his own words "Critics of the university tenure system undoubtedly put me among those useless faculty who purveyed esoteric and irrelevant knowledge to the young wihtout fear Thomas Barfield is an anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Princeton whose experiences in Afghanistan stretch back to the 1960s, when he travelled overland through the country as a student. He began ethnographic field studies there in the 1970s and witnessed the overthrow of the Afghan King Zahir Shah in 1973. In his own words "Critics of the university tenure system undoubtedly put me among those useless faculty who purveyed esoteric and irrelevant knowledge to the young wihtout fear of termination. Wise policymakers had already determined that such remote places and people could be safely excluded from America's New World Order. . . . On September 11, 2001, Afghanistan suddenly became relevant" and Barfield became one of the few Americans who had the intimate knowledge of the country, its people and its history that we so desperately needed. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is a broad overview of the history of Afghanistan and its culture. For a reader like myself, who reads the New York Times daily and a couple of other works on the country, namely Rory Stewart's The Places In Between and thinks they know everything, this book was a much needed corrective to my cultural biases, misunderstandings and creative ignorance of the country that we went to war with almost ten years ago. Afghanistan is blessedly well organized, with a clear goal set out in the introduction: to answer for the reader the following questions: 1. How did Afghanistan, which was overrun and ruled by a series of foreign dynasties for more than a thousand years, become renowned as the "graveyard of empires" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after forcing the withdrawal of both the British and Russians in a series of wars? 2. Why did the U.S. invasion of 2001 that toppled the Taliban not immediately set off a similar national insurgency (as it did in Iraq), and despite that, still fail to bring stability to the country? 3. Why have foreign attempts to change Afghanistan's politics, social structures, and government proved so ineffective? 4. How did a ruling dynasty established in 1747 manage to hold power over such a fractious people until 1978, and why has the afghan state since them experienced such difficulties in reestablishing a legitimate political order? 5. Why did a country for which the term"Balkanized" appeared ideally suited show so few signs of disintegration as a national state in spite of its many divisions? 6. How and why have splits in Afghan society since the 1920s over the structure of government and its policies led to so many periods of state collapse? The chapter on the American-led invasion of Afghanistan was particularly enlightening. There are so many cliches about Afghanistan - that it can't be governed effectively because of its warring tribal factions won't allow it, the belief that it would become a new Yugoslavia, fracturing along ethnic lines that its history is one of constant insurgency and the belief that the country is mired in a medieval mindset are all simply untrue. Barfield demonstrates for the reader that Afghanistans long political history gives the lie to these suppositions and shows how a Western mindset regarding political intstitutions might lead us to believe them anyway. I have two small gripes:1. There are typos. I feel like an academic press shouldn't have any 'teh's in their text. 2. There isn't much cultural history here. While I disagree with other reviewers who say that this is a dry read, I will add that it is an extremely dense one, packed with a lot of information in a relatively small number of pages. With that said, however, I highly highly recommend this book for anyone looking to educate themselves on Afghanistan's history and its current political climate. As Barfield says in his closing, Afghanistan is becoming more than just a backwater where the US fought the Taliban; with its rich mineral deposits and border with Pakistan (a soon-to-be-failed state with nuclear capabilities. Aside: I am scared shitless by Pakistan.) and other central Asian powers like Iran, Afghanistan will continue to be a focus of international interest for generations to come. I have, through reading this book, gained a tremendous amount of respect for Afghanistan and its people. I wish the country the best and hope that the US, Russia, China, India and whoever else can behave themselves there and work with the Afghan people to achieve the rich future that they deserve.

  3. 5 out of 5

    JDR

    This is one of the few, true instances where I could implore on the ability of a book to make me feel knowledgeable on a subject that I had zero experience to begin with. Afghanistan by Thomas Barfield, published by the Princeton University Press (I always feel a little more subconsciously assured whenever I see the publisher being the Press of a major university) makes me feel that exact way. It taught me in two weeks more than I had learned about the entire region perhaps my entire life. This This is one of the few, true instances where I could implore on the ability of a book to make me feel knowledgeable on a subject that I had zero experience to begin with. Afghanistan by Thomas Barfield, published by the Princeton University Press (I always feel a little more subconsciously assured whenever I see the publisher being the Press of a major university) makes me feel that exact way. It taught me in two weeks more than I had learned about the entire region perhaps my entire life. This is not something that is not even breathed a word of in our high schools and I understand that there’s a lot in the world and it’s more important to focus on the most pressing history for our area, but not even an optional course covered anything in this! I honestly would tell friends that it felt like stepping into a fantasy world because it was so unknown to me, so different. The other day I caught myself giving a lecture to my father on the difference between Afghani Pashtuns and Arabs of Middle Eastern countries. Afghanistan is not in the Middle East, it is in South Asia! Afghanis are not Arabs, they are Afghanis! Afghanistan translates into the Land of the Pashtuns, ethnically a majority of them are Pashtuns, not at all Arabs! Oh the horror of broad generalizations! Putting that aside, it reads very much like a textbook. And I do not mean that in an insulting manner, but only that it serves to be very informative – not exactly told in a narrative like Bush by Jean Edward Smith. If you want to see an exact difference of what I mean, read an excerpt from Smith’s Bush and Peter Baker’s Days of Fire and note how the exact same content is told in different ways. Here, Afghanistan is told from an all-seeing perspective, with the minimum of bias and fullest with historical accuracy. I could not tell you what the author’s political ideology was, or towards the end of the book whether he supported Bush or Obama. Pure, unbiased details. That is all an avid reader can ask for in his nonfiction. I’m not looking for a politician’s autobiography here, I’m looking for something that I can use to educate myself and I think a wonderful job is done here. I am a little obsessed with trying to maximize my knowledge on a topic. My first impulse upon seeing the bibliography would be to read all the books in it but that is extremely preposterous and the compulsive aspect to me is something to manage because Barfield’s account is something extraordinary, do yourself the favor of getting a copy if you want to have a good overview on Afghanistan’s history. You can read it, reread, take notes from it as if it was a textbook. It will do the job splendidly and prove plenty informative!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    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 Afgha 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.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lis

    I was assigned this book for a class I took, Development and Change in Iraq and Afghanistan with a great professor, and I could not recommend this book ENOUGH for how much it taught me about recent Afghan history, the impact of the U.S. intervention, and the nuances of Afghan identity and cultural history. It's a seriously comprehensive, thoroughly researched and very readable book, and definitely a must-read for people who are interested in learning more about Afghanistan. I was assigned this book for a class I took, Development and Change in Iraq and Afghanistan with a great professor, and I could not recommend this book ENOUGH for how much it taught me about recent Afghan history, the impact of the U.S. intervention, and the nuances of Afghan identity and cultural history. It's a seriously comprehensive, thoroughly researched and very readable book, and definitely a must-read for people who are interested in learning more about Afghanistan.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    Excellent study by an scholar who actually lived in Afghanistan for a long time. Love his use of Medieval scholars like Ibn Khaldun. His work is detailed, but his writing is very readable. His discussion of ethnic groupings is excellent as is his analysis of the situation there now. Wish our politicos would read this book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    K.M. Weiland

    Overall, an excellent and insightful glimpse through some of the misconceptions surrounding this country of unlikely significance.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Dolf van der Haven

    This was my first experiment listening to an audio book on my commute to work, and I am happy to say I survived without problems! Robin Bloodworth is a fantastic narrator, who manages to navigate through complex Afghan names (some patchwork due to corrections is audible) and manages to make a relatively dry book an interesting listen. As a history of Afghanistan, this book is solid. That said, the balance between the cultural and political sides of history is heavily on the political side, which This was my first experiment listening to an audio book on my commute to work, and I am happy to say I survived without problems! Robin Bloodworth is a fantastic narrator, who manages to navigate through complex Afghan names (some patchwork due to corrections is audible) and manages to make a relatively dry book an interesting listen. As a history of Afghanistan, this book is solid. That said, the balance between the cultural and political sides of history is heavily on the political side, which is a pity, for culturally (apart from history being dominated by religious concerns) there is much more to say about Afghanistan. Also, oddly, the role of foreign influences in Afghanistan, such as the CIA support in the rise of the Taliban, is mysteriously missing or only touched on in a general sense. I actually became mesmerised with Afghanistan by the 2001 movie Kandahar by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and have been waiting for an opportunity to visit ever since. The current situation in the country has sadly made that impossible. I'll take this book as some consolation for not being able to go there.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    Wholly appreciate the different perspective of this book, written by an anthropologist with extensive experience in Afghanistan. It's easy to get bogged down in millennia of history, constant invasions or occupations, internal intrigue, and wind up with an impression that Afghanistan is a place to which military things happen, the end. Yeah, there's plenty of war and intrigue to go around still, but this book does a wonderful job of zooming out to understand the social, cultural, ethnic dynamics Wholly appreciate the different perspective of this book, written by an anthropologist with extensive experience in Afghanistan. It's easy to get bogged down in millennia of history, constant invasions or occupations, internal intrigue, and wind up with an impression that Afghanistan is a place to which military things happen, the end. Yeah, there's plenty of war and intrigue to go around still, but this book does a wonderful job of zooming out to understand the social, cultural, ethnic dynamics that generate and influence the politics (and fighting). If you're diving into Afghan history, I think this really is a great primer to start with; it will breathe much more sense and understanding into your read of more unruly histories down the road.

  10. 5 out of 5

    James S

    I approached this book with a near to non-existent knowledge of Afghanistan and it’s history. I chose the book based on several recommendations due to Barfield’s renown in the field of Afghanistan’s anthropology and politics. His credibility also takes another big boost due to the fact he actually worked there for several years in the 70’s. The man knows what he’s talking about! I’d recommend the book to anyone wanting an in-depth introduction to Afghanistan, even if you already have some backgr I approached this book with a near to non-existent knowledge of Afghanistan and it’s history. I chose the book based on several recommendations due to Barfield’s renown in the field of Afghanistan’s anthropology and politics. His credibility also takes another big boost due to the fact he actually worked there for several years in the 70’s. The man knows what he’s talking about! I’d recommend the book to anyone wanting an in-depth introduction to Afghanistan, even if you already have some background knowledge. It is absolutely fascinating and Barfield manages to make a subject that I was expecting to be quite dry a very accessible and enjoyable read. He describes the multitude of tribes, ethnic groups and their politics at great lengths before even delving into the countries history of nearly continual wars. Which really provides you with the context required to understand something so alien to Westerners. After reading this book I can really see why American (like so many others) has failed so spectacularly in Afghanistan. Just like in Iraq after the war (during the creation of the CPA), they have put so little importance on understanding the culture, and the tribal politics of Afghanistan. Through this blindness to tribal politics they helped create the Taliban, as they did with ISIS. The U.S. government would have done well to make this book mandatory to any personnel on the ground there.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    I pre-ordered this book before it was published specifically because Barfield is one of the most legit Afghan experts in the west. I read this after having done substantial research on Afghanistan, but nonetheless found this to be an engaging read that would also be accessible for someone who is just beginning to learn about Afghanistan. The book begins with a thorough overview of the ethnic groups, settlement patterns, religion, and geography. It then discusses the social structures of the domin I pre-ordered this book before it was published specifically because Barfield is one of the most legit Afghan experts in the west. I read this after having done substantial research on Afghanistan, but nonetheless found this to be an engaging read that would also be accessible for someone who is just beginning to learn about Afghanistan. The book begins with a thorough overview of the ethnic groups, settlement patterns, religion, and geography. It then discusses the social structures of the dominant Pashtun tribes and traces their rise as the power brokers of Afghanistan from the 1700s onward. He then narrates enough history, in sufficient detail, to help the reader understand current events in context. He offers plausible explanations for the failure in state building that has occurred since 2001, spreading blame around liberally but fairly. In my opinion, the only weakness in the book concerns military specific criticisms. For about 4 pages, he strays outside of his area of expertise and offers assertions regarding military operations, but offers no references to support those assertions. That is really the only criticism that I can muster - 4 pages out of nearly 400. This is a very insightful book. It is a good first start in beginning further research on the country. But, even people well acquainted with Afghanistan will find this to be a very good read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    Excellent book covering the mysterious landlocked region known as Afghanistan. Little is known about this region, despite the West being at war with it for the past 19 years. This is controversial (not really - it might sting a little bit)...Afghanistan has defeated some of the greatest empires in history. They beat the British (twice), the Soviets, and the Americans. The Americans have lost this this war. They have.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mallory

    A fairly concise and interesting overview of Afghan history. If you're looking for an antidote to the argument that Afghanistan has always been some kind of war-riddled, postapocalyptic hellscape, then read this book. A fairly concise and interesting overview of Afghan history. If you're looking for an antidote to the argument that Afghanistan has always been some kind of war-riddled, postapocalyptic hellscape, then read this book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Øivind

    An excellent book. Makes one proud to be a social scientist.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    Went in hoping to have my heart won by Afghanistan's ancient cuisine, customs, music, etc etc...but contra the title this book is mostly politics and not much culture, and the politics is, as expected, pretty bleak! Among lots of names and details the broad strokes are well known. Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires" not because it's very desirable territory - it's a harsh land, sparsely populated by primitive villagers eking out a living - but superpowers have invaded only for incidental r Went in hoping to have my heart won by Afghanistan's ancient cuisine, customs, music, etc etc...but contra the title this book is mostly politics and not much culture, and the politics is, as expected, pretty bleak! Among lots of names and details the broad strokes are well known. Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires" not because it's very desirable territory - it's a harsh land, sparsely populated by primitive villagers eking out a living - but superpowers have invaded only for incidental reasons (Britain sought a buffer against Russian influence, Russia to prop up a Communists ally, the US to drive out al-Qaeda) and regretted it. Barfield is is an anthropologist* (another reason I'd hoped for more about religion, poetry, customs, rather than war and politics) and talks about Ibn Khaldoun's model of nomadic vs sedentary peoples, and the four-generational model of societies - starting with energetic desert tribes attacking sedentary urbanites, success and prosperity, the descent into decadence and eventual renewal of the cycle. This is a better way of dividing Afghanistan's various rulers than as different empires (Ottoman/Safavid/Moghul, or Russian sphere/British sphere/Arab sphere) or by ethnicity. The country has a potpourri of ethnicities (Turk, Persian, Arab, Indian, Tajik, Uzbek), but a plurality is Pashtun. No one has any real idea how large the population is. Some terms: tanistry, feudatory, segmented lineage. A word often used about the country is "mediaeval". Barfield acknowledges that there is some truth to it, both in terms of the premodern economy and lifestyles prevalent in much of the country, and in how identity is defined primarily by religion. Afghanistan's religious identity runs deep (legend has it that the father of the Pashtuns, Qais Abdul Rasheed, went to Mecca and met Mohammed). Afghans see their country as the defender of the faith, and assume that even their more heterodox practices must automatically be Islamic by definition. The end of the book is a long, dreary chronicle of America's bloody and expensive failures. In conclusion Barfield argues that Afghan ungovernability is a myth: most of its history has worked well, just with a "Swiss cheese" model (decentralized rule with gaps, control the economically productive bits and do what you can about the remote areas that don't listen), not the homogeneous, centralised "American cheese" of post-2001 (or the Communist regime). On hot issues like social change, it's better to start in cities, and not try force things onto the rural areas. This book was a good guide, though it did feel more like a CIA briefing and less like National Geographic. But in its wake I'm now rereading The Road to Oxiana - now here is a book enchanted by the culture of Persia and Central Asia, rapt by Timurids and Uzbeks! - so all is good. *A historiographic note from Barfield I enjoyed but couldn't fit into the body of this review: generally people describe things in terms of what they're used to. So they'll recount "the famine was so bad that grain cost twenty zigs for a flurkel!" but WITHOUT SAYING THE REGULAR PRICE OF GRAIN! (By the same token, I guess, that they don't explain what "grain" is.) That's why chronicles by outsiders like de Tocqueville are useful, because they notice things that seem obvious to insiders.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Liam

    "[F]or most of the past two and a half millennia the lands of the Hindu Kush were component part of larger empires, and constituted a frontier zone of conflict between neighboring states. These had their centers in Iran (Achaemenid, Parthian, Sassanian, Seljukid, Il khanate, Safavid, and Afsharid), India (Mayuran and Mughal), or central Asia (Mongol, Timurid, and Uzebek). When Afghanistan itself was the center of an empire (Kushan, Ghazavid, Ghorid, and Durrani), it served primarily as a base of "[F]or most of the past two and a half millennia the lands of the Hindu Kush were component part of larger empires, and constituted a frontier zone of conflict between neighboring states. These had their centers in Iran (Achaemenid, Parthian, Sassanian, Seljukid, Il khanate, Safavid, and Afsharid), India (Mayuran and Mughal), or central Asia (Mongol, Timurid, and Uzebek). When Afghanistan itself was the center of an empire (Kushan, Ghazavid, Ghorid, and Durrani), it served primarily as a base of operations for states that drew most of their revenue from India or Khorasan. What might strike contemporary Afghans as surprising was that only the Durrani Empire was ruled by Pashtuns. From the mid-tenth century to the mid-eighteenth century, every dynasty that ruled in this region was either of Turko-Mongolian origin or had a military that was dominated by Turko-Mongolian peoples." (66-7) "Martyrdom in battle might be a noble sacrifice that granted entry into paradise, but becoming a ghazi, the living victor of a jihad, was better. Afghans therefore rejected the tactic of suicide bombings so popular among Arab jihadists, and did not employ them even during the Soviet war. They also disapproved of terrorist acts that deliberately targeted noncombatants because they were dishonorable and not justified by Islamic law. In Afghanistan, where today's enemy might be tomorrow's ally and blood feuds created rifts that were hard to mend, indiscriminate slaughter was ultimately counterproductive. Of course, groups like al Qaeda had their own reasons for not seeking Afghan recruits: they were too independent and failed to follow orders when they disagreed with them." (268) "The Durrani Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan lived under very different conditions. Their territories generally lay within the zone of state control, and they had access to dependable sources of wealth based on irrigated agriculture, with access to trade and cities. This helps explain why they developed a much more hierarchical social and political structure. Benefiting from the large tax-free land grands first given to them by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the eighteenth century, they had developed a ruling class whose inherited power lasted centuries. As a result, their leaders were generally better educated and more sophisticated than their rural Ghilzai counterparts. Durrani leaders also had the ability to command their tribal followers because they had long ago reduced many of them to the status of clients whose support they could count on." (286-7)

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dan Nuxoll

    The subtitle is a good summary. This book explores the past couple of hundred years of the history of Afghanistan, focusing on the cultural tendencies that have affected politics. I appreciated that the book did not jump immediately into the current situation; only about a third of the book deals with the era after the Soviet invasion. The book examines the persistent characteristics of Afghanistan, not current events which means that the book is relevant even a decade after publication. The boo The subtitle is a good summary. This book explores the past couple of hundred years of the history of Afghanistan, focusing on the cultural tendencies that have affected politics. I appreciated that the book did not jump immediately into the current situation; only about a third of the book deals with the era after the Soviet invasion. The book examines the persistent characteristics of Afghanistan, not current events which means that the book is relevant even a decade after publication. The book emphasizes the Afghanistan has a number of regions that serve as the building blocks of the nation. Because much of the economy is subsistence farming, these regions have been economically independent, and the ethnic composition differs signficantly across regions. The author pays a good deal of attention to the tribes and sub-tribes. Although the regions are quite distinct and although the people are fractious, the author is convinced that there is a commonality which will ensure the survival of the country. The existence of these different regions raises the question of how the leaders of Afghanistan rose to power and how they maintained their power. The author stresses that elections do not legitimate a leader; rather the people look to results, notably the ability to maintain order. Afghanistan has been at war for almost forty years now, so the question of how to establish a stable government is obviously vital.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Carol Palmer

    I originally bought this book because I wanted to understand Afghanistan and it's history. This book only made me more confused. Alas, it is also a very dry read What I did learn: "Graveyard of Empires" is more myth than fact The nation is made up of many ethnic regions that choose to stick together under one country Rulers of Afghanistan have no problem taking another's country's side as long as they are paid well. The Taliban came from Pakistan. Pakistanis do make a lot of trouble in modern Afghanis I originally bought this book because I wanted to understand Afghanistan and it's history. This book only made me more confused. Alas, it is also a very dry read What I did learn: "Graveyard of Empires" is more myth than fact The nation is made up of many ethnic regions that choose to stick together under one country Rulers of Afghanistan have no problem taking another's country's side as long as they are paid well. The Taliban came from Pakistan. Pakistanis do make a lot of trouble in modern Afghanistan The Taliban's strict rules are a combination of Islam and Pashtoon ethnic traditions The Afghanis think that no other people are as Muslim as they are. They are the Southern Baptists of Islam. Why should they listen to a cleric from Egypt because they are way more Muslim than the Egyptians (despite the country being incredibly illiterate and can't read the Koran) Despite having the money and the power, Afghanistan's rulers did nothing to build up the country's infrastructure during the 20th century. Many Afghanis were against educating women long before the Taliban came along. It was a big mistake for the US to change focus from Afghanistan to Iraq.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Roy McCullough

    Although I am a bit removed from the subject nowadays and therefore probably ignorant of more recent contributions to the literature, I would be willing to bet that this still ranks up there as one of the best, if not the best, 1-volume treatment of Afghanistan's political and cultural history. In this ambitious work, Barfield examines the long and typically unhappy history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, the evolution of internal political structures and shifting political dynamics that Although I am a bit removed from the subject nowadays and therefore probably ignorant of more recent contributions to the literature, I would be willing to bet that this still ranks up there as one of the best, if not the best, 1-volume treatment of Afghanistan's political and cultural history. In this ambitious work, Barfield examines the long and typically unhappy history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, the evolution of internal political structures and shifting political dynamics that have often, and at great cost, been misunderstood by outsiders, and the complicated patchwork of ethnic tribal groups (and their rivalries) comprising this fractious country. Still a useful read today.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Urie Kline

    A wonderfully compact overview of an otherwise enigmatic country. Impressively, it manages to both cover the deep span of history for the region while presenting said history in a compact and readable way. An anthropologist, Barfield also does a nice job of injecting his history with a good deal of social science, so that readers can come away with a much better and more nuanced view of Afghan culture and the people themselves. I will say that he repeats himself often, and as you get closer to t A wonderfully compact overview of an otherwise enigmatic country. Impressively, it manages to both cover the deep span of history for the region while presenting said history in a compact and readable way. An anthropologist, Barfield also does a nice job of injecting his history with a good deal of social science, so that readers can come away with a much better and more nuanced view of Afghan culture and the people themselves. I will say that he repeats himself often, and as you get closer to the end, this becomes more grating. Perhaps he wasn't confident that his audience would "get it", or that may be his genuine presentation style. In the long run it did not detract from my enjoyment and engagement with the subject.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jason Sebera

    Notorious for incessant conflict... Infamous for birthing the Taliban... "Afghanistan is one of those places in the world in which people who know the least make the most definitive statements about it"(Barfield, 274). A very deep dive into Afghanistan's identity, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield, illuminates the reader to an incredibly diverse and, arguably, perplexing nation. Covering its vast history and, perhaps more importantly, the cultural intricacies tha Notorious for incessant conflict... Infamous for birthing the Taliban... "Afghanistan is one of those places in the world in which people who know the least make the most definitive statements about it"(Barfield, 274). A very deep dive into Afghanistan's identity, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield, illuminates the reader to an incredibly diverse and, arguably, perplexing nation. Covering its vast history and, perhaps more importantly, the cultural intricacies that form the context, Barfield's presentation is comprehensive. A very informative read.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Austin Bash

    Chapters 1-3 of this book will make your head explode, but provide an extremely detailed and necessary look into the nuts and bolts of Afghan society. Chapters 4-6 deal with the 20th century-present, and contain lots of nuance and uncomfortable truths that will lead you to re-examine your beliefs. Don't worry about memorizing all the names, dates, etc - focus on the big picture - the important stuff will stick. Admittedly, Barfield's writing style is a bit pretentious, but overall this is a grea Chapters 1-3 of this book will make your head explode, but provide an extremely detailed and necessary look into the nuts and bolts of Afghan society. Chapters 4-6 deal with the 20th century-present, and contain lots of nuance and uncomfortable truths that will lead you to re-examine your beliefs. Don't worry about memorizing all the names, dates, etc - focus on the big picture - the important stuff will stick. Admittedly, Barfield's writing style is a bit pretentious, but overall this is a great book. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about Afghanistan.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ironically Nostalgic

    Stunning ethnographic and historiographic survey of Afghanistan. While Barfield's commentary on the ongoing U.S. counterinsurgency is essential reading, his overview of the Soviet-Afghan war and the ensuing civil war provides even more foundational work on the nature of conflict in the region. A thorough text altogether. One of the best portraits of a nation and its people that has come out in the last twenty years. Stunning ethnographic and historiographic survey of Afghanistan. While Barfield's commentary on the ongoing U.S. counterinsurgency is essential reading, his overview of the Soviet-Afghan war and the ensuing civil war provides even more foundational work on the nature of conflict in the region. A thorough text altogether. One of the best portraits of a nation and its people that has come out in the last twenty years.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    Fantastic, thematic approach to Afghanistan's history. I have read a handful of other histories of the country and this was the best. Fantastic, thematic approach to Afghanistan's history. I have read a handful of other histories of the country and this was the best.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Robert C

    an very well researched and and well written analysis of afghanistan. I highly recommend reading this book if you're looking for a primer on the history, culture, and politics of Afghanistan. an very well researched and and well written analysis of afghanistan. I highly recommend reading this book if you're looking for a primer on the history, culture, and politics of Afghanistan.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Will G

    I got lost in the different tribes and power struggles. It did lay a good framework for thinking about the motivations of rural vs urban and tribal vs modern.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ajk

    Thomas Barfield is probably one of the foremost American scholars of Afghanistan, and he's been doing it for long before it was politically relevant. And his book really shows this, cutting through 500 years of history in 350 pages. Barfield is concise when he needs to be, chatty when he needs to be, and does a good job connecting threads and generally making things logical and readable. For an intro to Afghanistan -- or if you're going to read one book about Afghanistan -- this is probably it. A Thomas Barfield is probably one of the foremost American scholars of Afghanistan, and he's been doing it for long before it was politically relevant. And his book really shows this, cutting through 500 years of history in 350 pages. Barfield is concise when he needs to be, chatty when he needs to be, and does a good job connecting threads and generally making things logical and readable. For an intro to Afghanistan -- or if you're going to read one book about Afghanistan -- this is probably it. At the same time, I think it's somewhat obvious that there are ellidations to bring the book to a conversational level and there are some clear editorial nudgings towards "Hey Tom! Make this about Terrorism!" that he accepts begrudgingly. I'd rather he have had 600 pages then to try and crush everything down into a book you can easily be seen carrying. Some of the historiography, especially, seems rushed. He keeps on mentioning ibn Khaldun without mentioning any of the historians that come from his tree of theory. This really flies in the face of "Islam is an always-changing religion with an always-changing story", which is one of his biggest points. The constant references back to Khaldun come at the expense of constantly updating Khaldun and adjusting how Afghans saw themselves in the world order. It makes things too black and white when he's spending many of his words impressing upon the many shades of gray. So it's a great introduction. Barfield knows this stuff way better than I do, and is certainly one of the few people you can lean back and trust in a book about Afghanistan. There are quibbles, of course, but goodness, there are quibbles about everything. Don't let that stop you.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jon

    Well there were parts of this book that were very interesting and compelling reading and other parts that dragged. This is a completely subjective point of view I realize that because I am more interested in the current state of affairs in Afghanistan and this is my second book that is somewhat related to this. I read last In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan by Seth G. Jones which I found to be a more enjoyable read. Having said this, some might find it fascinating to read Well there were parts of this book that were very interesting and compelling reading and other parts that dragged. This is a completely subjective point of view I realize that because I am more interested in the current state of affairs in Afghanistan and this is my second book that is somewhat related to this. I read last In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan by Seth G. Jones which I found to be a more enjoyable read. Having said this, some might find it fascinating to read about the various dynasties since the 16th century and previous wars but I had a hard time with it and it seemed Barfield dedicated too much of the book to this subject. I realize he was establishing context but I think most of his readers are more familiar with the 20th and 21st century Afghanistan, so I think he short-sighted that analysis a little bit. I did enjoy the first chapter discussing the cultural aspects of Afghanistan as well as the later parts of book covering the 2nd half of the 20th century, the 21st century and the conclusion chapter was air tight. This only comprised about 150 pages of the 350. Nontheless as a numer of people have stated, this is unquestionably in my opinion the quintessential book about understanding Afghanistan, particularly its importance on the world stage. I do recommend anyone who has some degree of patience and doesn't mind some dull reading in parts that has a curiosity about Afghanistan to give this book a try. But if you are looking for pleasurable historical reading this isn't it.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Eric Haas

    Excellent work by Thomas Barfield. This work, published in 2010, provides one of the most straightforward and understandable depictions of Afghan society, especially the period from 1978 to the present. As an anthropologist who lived in northern Afghanistan in the early 1970s, Barfield provides a detailed, but well put together layout of Afghan history and how it relates to the cultural developments in the country. Major points not found in other works on Afghanistan: 1) A more nuanced approach to Excellent work by Thomas Barfield. This work, published in 2010, provides one of the most straightforward and understandable depictions of Afghan society, especially the period from 1978 to the present. As an anthropologist who lived in northern Afghanistan in the early 1970s, Barfield provides a detailed, but well put together layout of Afghan history and how it relates to the cultural developments in the country. Major points not found in other works on Afghanistan: 1) A more nuanced approach to the Soviet invasion / occupation of Afghanistan from 1978 - 1989. Barfield works to layout what the USSR hoped to accomplish and true impacts of the USSR invasion. Specifically, he details the competing communists elements in Kabul versus the tribalism outside the urban center that provides the reader with greater understanding of what happened to the country. 2) A more thorough layout of the Taliban as a Pashtun movement versus an Islamic movement, specifically laying out how the Taliban had not truly consolidated power in Afghanistan before the attacks of 9-11. This then sets conditions for many of the issues facing the US and their Allies in the military operations that followed. Outstanding work, though it would be beneficial if Barfield is able to produce another edition that address the post-2010 developments (or lack there of), especially after the departure of Hamid Karzai from the presidency.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    I knew shamefully little about this country that has dominated international relations for the past decade or so, but this book has thankfully rectified that. Afghanistan is a complex and historically rich country, and it's a shame that people only really associate it with the Taliban nowadays. This book deals with that well: tellingly, the section on the history of Taliban rule in Afghanistan is only a few pages long, which is fitting as they've only been around since the mid-1990s. I must admit, I knew shamefully little about this country that has dominated international relations for the past decade or so, but this book has thankfully rectified that. Afghanistan is a complex and historically rich country, and it's a shame that people only really associate it with the Taliban nowadays. This book deals with that well: tellingly, the section on the history of Taliban rule in Afghanistan is only a few pages long, which is fitting as they've only been around since the mid-1990s. I must admit, I skipped quite a bit of the 19th-century history. British colonial history turns me off, and I was itching to get to the PDPA and Soviet intervention. Still, I expect I will come back to this book in the future - it's an invaluable historical source and will serve me well for many years. Barfield is an anthropologist by trade and it really shows in his ethnographical survey of the different tribes, their interactions and ways of life. I now have more of an appreciation of the heterogeneity of Afghanistan's groups, and the paradox of Afghan nationality and unity. Four thumbs up.

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