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Historiography versus Afghan Nationalism.

 Mohammed Daoud Kahn, President of Afghanistan between 1973 and 1978

Dominic Tweedie surprised me when he responded to the parallels I was drawing between the cartels in Mexico and the cartels in Afghanistan by dismissing them, implying that the narco-war was a sideshow and what was really happening was a nationalist uprising against foreign invaders, the USA and NATO.

On a separate occasion, Dominic remarked that certain interpretations of history are completely ignored. For example, in the universities and think-tanks in the USA and Europe the key role played by the Cuban forces in the liberation of the Front Line States and the ending of Apartheid is simply not a useful idea.

Modern mainstream historians, explained a colleague, have no illusions that there is anything scientific about history. They are aware that what they write is only worth writing if it furthers a political agenda. Modern history relies on thorough investigation, historiography and convincing narratives and it should produce good rhetoric. For liberal-left historiography, Marx is definitely pase.

But I was surprised. He responded so vehemently to the observation that nationalism was under-estimated as a force in Afghanistan.

Now what I know about Afghanistan is holographic, I've collected myriad potsherds. Nothing to write home about. Still, I trust my cold reading of the situation there  based on what I do know.

One of my students, an Afghan in his 20s said that he was a follower of Sha Massood. Ahmed Sha Masood had been instrumental winning the cruel war of attrition against Soviet Forces. He had been an ally of the United States in the late seventies and 80s. He was assassinated by Al Qaeda on September the 9th 2001. The interesting thing for me was that this former supporter of Sha Masood, remarked that issue was rapidly becoming one of a nationalist war against a foreign invader and its puppet government. The Taleban were not the main problem now, he said.

There can be no such thing as Afghan nationalism, it doesn't exist, sputtered the left-liberal historian, look, there are many tribes in Afghanistan and they occupy different areas of this so called country and they have been at each others throats since time immemorial with the Pashtuns as the dominant tribe. The Americans are trying to create a nation that never existed. So called Afghan nationalism is Pashtun nationalism.

Warning bells started to ring. The tinkle in question was Ernst Gellner and, to simplify, his definition of the nation state based on homogeneity of all kinds and the formation of national identity. The consequences of this approach have been disastrous in places like Yugoslavia, for example. Gellner's approach seems ridiculous when you look at countries like India and China. Was the Soviet Union a country? If it wasn't a country then why is China considered to be a country? Why is Tibet an exception?  Gellner's theories, which I imagine have undergone some development since I heard of them, are convenient political rationalisations. Post facto and expedient.

So what is the evidence for Afghan nationalism? Is it real? Are Dominic and the supporter of Shah Masood right? And to say that Afghan nationalism is non-existent sounds like an interesting case of denial. It seems to echo slightly the more right wing 'year zero' approach to rebuilding an Iraq where the democracy would be established and 'spontaneously' a free market society with all its raw materials and contracts up for tender would be generated in Iraq. Again, reactionary historians would argue that Iraq is not a 'real' nation so level it and start again.

And we come to the blind spot, the moment in history that some historians, however self-effacing or personable they may be in public discourse, don't find useful to dwell on.

Let's take Wikipedia as an informal barometer. There is only one paragraph in the entry on the period in Afghanistan between 1933 and 1978. This is revisionism. Do historians participate in the writing of Wikipedia entries. They do, if only to protect their patch.

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. What happened in these countries between 1933 and 1978? Were there national identities strengthened or even created during this period? Perhaps they were.

Certainly Afghanistan was gradually pulled into the orbit of the Soviet Union. Possibly the policy towards Afghanistan was to 'bring it along' as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were brought along.

After Stalin, the former Soviet Union positively indulged regional identities. And at the same time, in its clunky and unsubtle way, unenhanced by the exquisite weaponry of PR, the it encouraged equality of opportunity for women, secularism, public works, and the rest of what was commonly and clumsily associated with progressive society.

Interestingly, and perhaps this is yet more evidence of cyberwar, there are only five lines on the period when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union in Wikipedia. The opening salvo in the entry simply dismisses the period by blaming th Soviet Union for the eco-catastrophe in the Aral sea - that should do it - and then the text quickly moves on.

I wonder how the Uzbeks feel about their Wikipedia entry being written by an American, probably in Langley?

What also seems to be ignored and revised now that it is no longer part of Holbrooke-think, is the extent to which the rejection of the Soviet union in the separate cases of all four nations created a sense of nationalism.

The question is not whether Americans or British historians think that Afghan nationalism exists and whether the concept prior to their own year zero strategy was real enough. The question is do people from those nations think their nations exist? Do Afghans think there is such a thing as Afghanistan?

I would argue, of course, that they do.

This post first appeared on Donkeyshott & Xuitlacoche, please read the originial post: here

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Historiography versus Afghan Nationalism.


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