The historiography of modern Afghanistan is undergoing a transformation that involves tension between varieties of data, on one hand, and interpretative frameworks for that information, on the other hand. Textual sources in multiple languages are increasingly in dialogue, as are local and global voices addressing the history of Afghanistan. Growing awareness of inter-regional and international forces impacting the geographical space of Afghanistan has generated conversations among scholars working within and across historical eras and geographic frames of reference. Transnational and trans-temporal orientations have contributed to an interdisciplinary historical discourse where textual information shares analytical space with cultural, material, and visual data from modern Afghanistan. Greater volumes and more types of textual data have led to a historiographical shift away from isolationist views of the country to analyses that treat the territory and people of Afghanistan in relation to a wide assortment of external contexts, actors, and resources. For example, the increasing use of Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and colonial sources is revealing an ever-widening and highly influential range of relationships between Afghans and non-Afghans inside and outside the territory of Afghanistan that are being examined through prisms such as technology transfer and intellectual exchange, architectural and infrastructure development, literary and sartorial practices, and patterns of social and spatial mobility. These and other exciting historiographical developments are impeded from realizing their full potential by enduring explanatory recourse to undertheorized, decontextualized invocations of ethnicity; a perpetual emphasis on warfare; and an exclusionary analytical focus on Kabul as a metaphor for the country as a whole that combine to convolute understandings of global forces and their impact on state–society relations in Afghanistan. Together, these issues point toward a conspicuous gap in the historiography of Afghanistan, namely, a fundamental absence of attention to how power works there. Questions about power are political, and ironically, while the historiography of Afghanistan revolves around state politics, however limited to a handful of pinnacle elites, there is little political critique at work in this discourse as a whole. Whether based proportionally more on coercion or consensus, power involves classification and representation, and in the historiography of Afghanistan, there are few questions asked about the categories of analysis, that is, when they arose, how they congeal, what purpose they serve, for whom, and why. Power has a spatiality to it, and it is rare to find a sustained discussion of how power operates differently across distinct geographies in Afghanistan, or in short, how power in Kabul looks elsewhere. Power also involves culture, in particular the manipulation of language, and here again despite constant invocations of Pashtun-ness, there is a scarcity of attention to how Pashto the language and the culture it carries are situated in the state structure and historiography of Afghanistan, that is, the relationship between Pashto and the national elites in Kabul. Power also has a history of its own, often expressed in episodes of extreme violence in service of empire, and once more, the historiography of Afghanistan tends to elide the enduring impacts of imperialism, let alone offer paths of resistance to it as an aspirationally unrestrained coercive agency in principle. The people of Afghanistan have suffered grievously and inhumanely from national and international forms of power wielded against them, and the vast majority of Afghan people have been written out of the history of Afghanistan through uncritically reductive culture-based misrepresentations of state leaders in Kabul. Intellectual pathways are needed for building an awareness of and remediation of the serial imperial epistemological and physical-material violations perpetrated on ordinary Afghan people and reproduced in the historiography of this hyper-conditional national space.
Shah Mahmoud Hanifi
During the 19th century, the great powers imposed a series of unequal treaties on China that violated the country’s sovereignty. These agreements guaranteed Europeans, Americans, and later the Japanese rights of extraterritoriality, opened an increasing number of treaty ports to international commerce, and fixed import tariffs at 5 percent to facilitate foreign penetration of Chinese markets. Qing officials launched an important reform movement called “Self-Strengthening” in the 1860s to enhance state power and combat foreign influence, and these efforts continued until China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Although the imperial court in Beijing placed its imprimatur on this political program, the principal impetus for these changes came from high-ranking provincial authorities of Han Chinese ethnic extraction such as Li Hongzhang, Zhang Zhidong, and Ding Richang. Despite the partial political decentralization of the period, these reforms had a lasting impact. Over the course of a half century, the Self-Strengthening Movement and the subsequent New Policies (1901–1911) laid the foundation of a powerful military-fiscal state in China, a polity organized around the imperative of war-making. This form of political organization combined money, guns, and bureaucracy in new ways and replicated certain institutional features of European states without, however, transforming China into a poor imitation of “the West.” Officials augmented these core reforms with a series of state-sponsored enterprises in shipping, telegraphy, mining, and banking to develop a small modern sector within the economy. At an intellectual level, authorities such as Li Hongzhang formulated a new conception of statecraft focused on the pursuit of wealth and power to protect the empire’s sovereignty. Meanings of this term remained fluid prior to 1895, but together with ideas such as rights, independence, and commercial warfare it served as part of the basic vocabulary for this new philosophy of governance. In sum, the late Qing state amassed the sinews of power with considerable success, particularly in urban areas, and strengthened itself beyond the minimal threshold necessary to retain its independence during the height of European imperialism.