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Article

Afghan Trading Networks  

Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins

Afghanistan has long been conventionally regarded as a remote space peripheral to the wider world. Yet scholarship produced in the 2nd decade of the 21st century suggests its multiple connections to a wide array of regions and settings. Such connections are especially visible when viewed through the lens of the trade networks originating from the territories of modern Afghanistan. Scholars have come to recognize that Afghan traders have long been active players in many contexts across Asia and beyond. Such traders and the networks they form play a critically important role in connecting different parts of Asia with one another, including South Asia and Eurasia, as well as East and West Asia. The connective role performed by Afghan caravanners and religious minorities in the trade between India and Central Asia are especially well documented by historians. Increasingly so too are the activities of Afghan merchants in Ottoman territories. The trading networks Afghan traders have participated in are historically dynamic. Their orientating values shift across time and space between various forms of religious, ethno-linguistic, and political identity. The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is helpful in understanding the continuing relevance of Afghan traders to 21st-century forms of globalized capitalism, in contexts as varied as the former Soviet Union, China, and the Arabian Peninsula.

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Objects and Material Cultures in Afghanistan, c. 100–1500 CE  

Alka Patel

During the first 1.5 millennia of the Common Era (c. 100–1500 ce), the multiple cultural geographies constituting the contemporary nation-state of Afghanistan were collectively a place of significant and enduring encounters among traditions and lifeways from across Eurasia. Just as migrating and settling populations contributed new ways of believing and making to Afghanistan’s already rich socio-religious tapestry, objects that arrived through trade and pilgrimage also acted as conveyors of ideas originating elsewhere, often combining with existing traditions and resulting in innovative iconographies (visual content) and styles (methods of depiction, visual languages). An examination of Afghanistan through its objects and their material cultures during these centuries is especially rewarding, as this approach illustrates the multidirectional connections between Afghanistan and its Eurasian neighbors near and far. In turn, these transregional connections came to shape religions, languages, political systems, and other cultural aspects not only of Afghanistan but also of other contiguous areas throughout the first 2 millennia ce.

Article

Afghan Circulations in the Persianate World, c. 1000–1800  

Hannah Archambault

This article traces the movement of Afghan peoples across the Persianate world between 1000 and 1800 ce. Afghans rose to prominence with the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, the first Muslim-ruled polity in northern India. Over the following centuries Afghans moved throughout the Persianate world, a region stretching from the Ottoman territories in the west to the courts of Southeast Asia and as far north as the trading center of Astrakhan. In the territories of what is now the modern nation-state of Afghanistan, a series of Muslim dynasties, including the Ghaznavid (c. 977–1186) and Ghorid Sultanates (c. 1011–1215) as well as a Timurid court based in Herat (c. 1405–1507) and regional representatives of the Safavid and Mughal Empires, were all led by Turkic, Tajik, and other Turco-Mongol lineages. It was not until the 18th century with the Durrani Empire (c. 1747–1842) that an explicitly Afghan-led government came to power in Afghanistan itself. Instead, the main focus of Afghan society and activity was centered within the Indian subcontinent and its mountainous northwestern frontier. As with many other premodern communities, Afghans built their careers around mobility. From humble origins as pastoral-nomadic peoples based in the Sulayman Mountains and their environs, they built careers as peripatetic merchants and as soldiers, ruled as kings, and traveled India’s highways and byways as mendicants. Afghans also became specialists in frontier zones, cultivating relationships across cultural and political frontiers that helped to facilitate integration across regions. Their political interests were informed by their economic interests, and many moved fluently between roles as merchants and as courtly and military officials. Afghans served and eventually ruled the Delhi Sultanate, became nobility within the Mughal Empire and organized its opposition, and established regional centers of Afghan power across the subcontinent. At the end of the 18th century, it was the rising influence of the British East India Company authority and their efforts at controlling the circulation of peoples, ideas, and materials that eventually marginalized Afghans in Indian society, reconstructing them as outsiders.

Article

Developing Afghanistan since 1950  

Robert Rakove

While the story of Afghan development long antedates the Cold War era, the US-Soviet struggle accelerated it and accorded it global significance. Washington, and Moscow, among other actors, financed an array of ambitious modernization projects throughout Afghanistan. Afghan elites, especially Prime Minister (later, President) Mohammed Daoud Khan, consciously stoked the competition. Americans commenced a sizable irrigation and hydroelectric project in the Helmand Valley and subsequently committed to modernize Afghan aviation. The Soviets constructed myriad projects, ranging from the high-altitude Salang Pass tunnel to the Kabul Airport. After years of isolation, Afghanistan enjoyed a surfeit of attention from its industrialized patrons. Yet development programs often proved to be ill conceived, even counterproductive. The Helmand Valley project had ecologically disastrous consequences, while Kabul’s efforts to finance costly projects sparked unrest, even the occasional revolt. Frustration at unfulfilled promises led to increased upheaval within the capital, culminating in the overthrow of two governments in the 1970s. Yet the accelerated efforts of Afghan Marxists, reluctantly backed by the Soviet Union, brought calamity: a national revolt that led to decades of conflict within Afghanistan.

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Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance in Afghanistan since 1979  

Jennifer L. Fluri and Rachel Lehr

Afghanistan has been on the receiving end of uneven development aid and humanitarian assistance since the early days of the Cold War. Since the onset of war in 1979, a lack of strategic planning has contributed to poorly coordinated and irregularly implemented relief and development aid only worsened by proxy wars of competing empires and the capriciousness of donor governments. Armed conflict, whether between empires or regional and local actors, has been a consistent challenge. The intent of humanitarian assistance is to alleviate suffering and save lives in times of crisis, political or environmental. It is by design reactive, limited in duration and reach. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has required relief and assistance over a long rather than limited time period. Humanitarian aid worldwide is mostly coordinated through UN agencies and implemented by local affiliates or partners. Development aid is designed to address structural issues in a country in order to improve lives and livelihoods, through improvement programs for infrastructure and economies. Institutional and political reform are part of development aid, often conceived in accordance with the political systems and to meet the goals and interests of donor countries. In Afghanistan, in the past twenty years the problems relating to the distribution of massive amounts of donor funding, the coordination and implementation between local and international Non-Governmental Organizations, the role of the United Nations, and the international military forces, have all hampered success across spatial scales. From 1979 to 1992 humanitarian assistance was also delivered in response to the political goals of donors—in the proxy war between the US and Soviet empires—and from 2001 to 2021 as a primary target of the US-led Global War on Terror. Relief and aid have always suffered from top-down administration, allocation decisions made at the donors’ political whims, decisions about programs and budgets taken at headquarters, or implementation in the field where reality does not meet expectations.

Article

Central Asia between Empires: New Research on the 18th and 19th Centuries  

James Pickett

Central Asia’s 18th and 19th centuries marked the definitive end of the nomadic empires that characterized the region’s geopolitics for over three millennia before the advent of colonialism. Although it is open to debate which polity was the last “empire of the steppe,” a strong case can be made for the Junghar confederacy, which contested the Qing Empire of China for dominance in Eurasia in the 17th and 18th centuries—ultimately unsuccessfully. The Junghars owed their early success to a combination of new gunpowder technology and nomadic military organization, and the fragmented city-states that emerged from Nadir Shah Afshar’s empire (1736–1747)—such as Bukhara, Khiva, and Khoqand—relied even more on musketeer infantry units composed of individuals without ties to the local Turkic military elite. The emergent fiscal-military states that characterized Central Asia on the eve of colonial conquest were thus quite novel in terms of structural power dynamics, yet thoroughly Turko-Perso-Islamic in terms of symbolism, law, and patrimonialism. This period also witnessed what was in many ways the apex of Persianate high culture, building on traditions with roots stretching back to the Timurid period and earlier. Sufism in all of its forms became mainstream. Intellectual elites were polymathic, simultaneously mastering jurisprudence, poetry, medicine, occult sciences, and more. Vernacularization, particularly in literary Central Asian Turki, deepened these currents and carried them to new audiences. The new city-state dynasties competed with one another to build up educational centers to support all of these cultural forms. Many of these cultural, social, and even political forms persisted under colonialism, even as the pace of change sped up. Some of the precolonial dynasties persevered under indirect colonial rule. Sufi brotherhoods and Islamic learning expanded, only to be snuffed out or transformed in the Soviet period. Only at the very end of the 19th century did colonial modernity—in the form of large-scale cotton cultivation, new understandings of national identity, print culture, and steam-propelled transport—begin to make significant inroads.

Article

The Ismaili of Central Asia  

Daniel Beben

The Ismailis are one of the largest Muslim minority populations of Central Asia, and they make up the second largest Shiʿi Muslim community globally. First emerging in the second half of the 8th century, the Ismaili missionary movement spread into many areas of the Islamic world in the 10th century, under the leadership of the Ismaili Fatimids caliphs in Egypt. The movement achieved astounding success in Central Asia in the 10th century, when many of the political and cultural elites of the region were converted. However, a series of repressions over the following century led to its almost complete disappearance from the metropolitan centers of Central Asia. The movement later re-emerged in the mountainous Badakhshan region of Central Asia (which encompasses the territories of present-day eastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan), where it was introduced by the renowned 11th-century Persian poet, philosopher, and Ismaili missionary Nasir-i Khusraw. Over the following centuries the Ismaili movement expanded among the populations of Badakhshan, reaching a population of over 200,000 in the 21st century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ismailis suffered a series of severe repressions, first under local Sunni Muslim rulers and later under the antireligious policies of the Soviet Union. However, in the decades since the end of the Soviet period, the Ismailis of the region have become increasingly connected with the global Ismaili community and its leadership. While many aspects of the history of Ismailism in the Badakhshan region remain obscure and unexplored, the discoveries of significant corpuses of manuscripts in private collections since the 1990s in the Badakhshan region have opened up wide possibilities for future research.

Article

The History of Badakhshan from the 7th to the 19th Century  

Daniel Beben

Badakhshan is a historical region spanning the present-day territories of northeastern Afghanistan and eastern Tajikistan, as well as bordering districts of northern Pakistan and northwestern China. This mountainous region was historically significant on account of its position as a key transit point for trade between China and western Eurasia, as well as for its gem mines. The region held a largely peripheral position within the Muslim world down to the 12th century. Its status changed significantly in the wake of the Mongol conquests, from which Badakhshan emerged as a notably enlarged and autonomous kingdom, one which thereafter played an important role in the political history of Central Asia and Afghanistan. However, neighboring empires continued to encroach on the region throughout the 18th and 19th century, and by the end of the 19th century, the region had permanently lost its autonomy and was partitioned between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire.

Article

Historical Geography of the Pamirs  

Hermann Kreutzmann

The Pamirs have been a contested space in different periods of time. Access to fertile pastures characterized the local economic competition between nomads and mountain farmers. International attention reached its peak when the Pamirs became a pawn in the “Great Game”; during the second half of the 19th century, Great Britain and Russia disputed control over the mountainous area. Local and regional interests took on a subordinate role. The imperial contest resulted in dividing the Pamirs among four interested parties that are nowadays independent countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. Since the division, separate developments have emerged in all parts that are abodes of farmers and pastoralists who share a common heritage but have experienced quite different political and social developments. Thus the Pamirs represent a focal region of similar ecological properties in which political and socioeconomic developments that originated in the 19th century have changed development paths through the Cold War period until the early 21st century. From Tsarist Russia to post-independence Tajikistan, from the Afghan monarchy to the post-Taliban republic, from British India to Pakistan, and from the Middle Kingdom to contemporary China, political interventions such as nationality policies and regional autonomy, sociotechnical experiments such as collectivization and subsequent deregulation, and varying administrative systems provide insight into external domination that has shaped separate developments in the Pamirs. In the early 21st century, the Pamirs experienced a revaluation as a transit corridor for transcontinental traffic arteries.

Article

Pashtuns  

Robert Nichols

With an estimated thirty million or more in Pakistan, twelve million in Afghanistan, and perhaps a million or more in a global diaspora, Pashtuns or Pukhtuns comprise a complex ethno-linguistic population with a rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities. Historic and literary references to communities that have been thought to identify “Afghans” date to the 10th century and, according to the source and scholar consulted, many centuries earlier. The assumption of any uniquely “Pashtun” identity as equivalent to the diverse “Afghan” cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that evolved over centuries has obfuscated a full understanding of the emergence of distinct regional Pashtun ethno-linguistic communities and the origins of frequently studied cultural idioms. Millions of Pashtuns have lived in close and daily contact with many other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluch, Punjabis, etc.), and color-coded maps of ethnic homelands in Afghanistan and Pakistan are best seen as guides to often complex social geographies rather than absolute markers of ethnically pure settlement areas. For perhaps a thousand years, Pashtuns and regional forefathers have circulated within imperial and merchant networks connected by Silk Road pathways, Persian and north Indian trade routes, and Indian Ocean sea lanes. Pashtuns sought livelihoods as horse traders, military entrepreneurs, agrarian pioneers, and regional rulers in the northern, eastern, and Deccan regions of India. An Afghan state with variable territorial claims consolidated after 1747. Leading Pashtun clans from around Kandahar and the eastern districts took positions in the dynasties that soon ruled from Kabul and core provinces. Pashtuns between the Oxus and Indus rivers adapted to, avoided, and served 18th- and 19th-century Russian and British imperial economic and political forces. In the high European “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghan territories were framed by treaty-negotiated boundaries. Never colonized, Afghanistan became economically dependent on British–India subsidies and linkages. Into the mid-20th century, Afghanistan’s Pashtun political dynasties and Islamic and political activists on both sides of the British-Indian Durand Line offered leadership and alternative visions of the future to anticolonial and Muslim nationalists, including those in British India. In recent decades, core Pashtun homelands and diasporic communities have fully experienced the disruptions and violence that followed the partition of British India in 1947, postcolonial “national” consolidation, conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Cold War alliances and conflict, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and civil war. Like others, Pashtun lives were shaped by the transnational dynamics of economic globalization, urbanization, migration, and the international crises that traumatized the world after September 11, 2001.

Article

The Wakhan Quadrangle  

Hermann Kreutzmann

The Wakhan Quadrangle emerged as a geopolitical constellation and situation in which a less important area—in terms of demographic size, political power, and economic wealth—can be perceived as a central arena for the ambitions of imperial powers. Since the second half of the 19th century, four major players participated in the competition as actors with competing stakes. Afghanistan, China, Great Britain, and Tsarist Russia turned to each other with spatial interests of expansion. The immediate protagonists were involved with or influencing one of the regional actors: Badakhshan, Xinjiang, Kashmir, and the Emirate of Bokhara are four representatives closing in on Wakhan, which still had maintained its autonomy as a quasi-independent principality in an economically marginal and remote high-mountain location with non-demarcated and shifting limits of authority. Overall political tensions grew during the hot phase of the Great Game. Upon the precautionary move into exile by its last ruler, Mir Ali Mardan Shah, Wakhan became an object of bargaining in the imperial endgame before international boundaries were delineated by the supreme powers. Wakhan ended up as a divided territory between Afghanistan and tsarist Russia, functioned as a spatial buffer between British India and its successors against Central Asian neighbors since, and its limits became a hermetic boundary between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since delineating the boundaries, only the Afghan section is easily visible on maps and commonly perceived as the Wakhan strip.

Article

Infrastructure, Circulation, and Ecology in the Maldives  

Luke Heslop and Lubna Hawwa

In the Maldives, interconnected human and ecological systems of circulation both sustain and corrode social, cultural, and environmental life. Therefore, a focus on infrastructure in the Maldives requires conceptualizing infrastructure as an assemblage of more-than-human networks and interactions. As well as being a known category of public good, infrastructure in the Maldives is also experienced as an accumulation of networks and meeting points between the ecological and subaquatic world, and the world dreamed of, designed by, and built by people. Infrastructure encompasses the relationship between the islands in the Maldives, island inhabitants, the sea, networks of people, and the movement of people through the islands over time. In taking such an approach, attention must be paid to the significance of the ocean and its reefs as unruly infrastructures that shape the permissibility of life on the archipelago.

Article

Reframing Ancient Afghanistan: Pre-Historic and Early Historic Spatial Connections to the Saka-Yuezhi Period (1st Century CE)  

Henri-Paul Francfort

Afghanistan has remained a crossroad of civilizations since its origins. Despite having no access to the sea, Afghanistan, in both the north and south of the high mountainous range of the Hindu Kuch, benefits from large fluvial arteries from the Amu Darya system in the north and the Helmand system in the south, along with their tributaries. This benefit brings opportunities for irrigation and for communications. The mountains, especially the Badakhshan and Pamir mountainous nodes, contain important mineral resources, including gold and lapis lazuli. Because Eurasia is an open space, Afghanistan had relations with external regions, groups, nations, cultures, as early as the Paleolithic and Neolithic (especially Kel’teminar) periods. During the Chalcolithic period (ca. 3000–2500 bce), the maps of exchange networks encompassed Iran, Pakistani Baluchistan, Tajikistan, and the steppe world. This is the period of pottery, metallurgy, and glyptics related to economic and social development: a proto-urban phase. This broad network strengthened and grew during the Bronze Age (ca. 2500–1400 bce) with the Oxus civilization, covering the north of the country (Bactria and Dashly) and neighboring regions (parts of Northeast Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), and connected to the southern regions (Pakistani Baluchistan). During this period, Indus colonies settled in northeastern Afghanistan (Shortughaï). The territories of Afghanistan were developing as “urban” settlements where arts and crafts reached international high standards, but in a specific socioeconomic model without large cities and no writing system, and with an enormous network of trade and exchanges (semiprecious stones, metals, and possibly camels), connected to Elamite, Akkadian-Ur III, and Levantine arts. It was a sort of twin of the Indus civilization. It collapsed around 1800–1500 bce possibly because of the effect of climate change and coming of steppe peoples. During the Iron Age (ca. 1400– 500 BCE), changes in pottery and craftsmanship indicate an economic decline, when Iranian tribes of horsemen may have migrated coming from the steppes and early phases of Zoroastrianism appear (in Bactria, Chorasmia, or Sistan). “International” trade possibly continued (lapis and metals). A new “imperial” phase occurred with the inclusion of the Afghan territory in the Persian Achaemenid empire by Cyrus the Great (ca. 545–540 bce). A number of satrapies with capital cities were located in Afghanistan (Bactria, Arachosia, Aria, etc.). The ancient trade and administrative roads functioned and were controlled by the imperial power. With the conquest of Alexander the Great (ca. 330 bce), the empire fell into new hands. An important Greek colonization, especially in the north, expanded to the north of Amu Darya with the Seleucid and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, founding cities and establishing their cultures. India, after the establishment of strong ties with the Indian Maurya dynasty, came also under Greek rule: the Indo-Greeks emerged after 180 bce. Around 145–130 bce, the Greek power disappeared in Bactria and newcomers from the steppes, the Saka (Scythians) and Yuezhi (other nomads, predecessors of the Kushans), installed their domination, preparing the advent of the Kushan empire’s stabilization in the 1st century ce. The dialectics between external and local archaeological remains is a difficult question to tackle; often the research focuses on the external origins of cultural elements. For example, the languages and the scripts (Aramaic, Greek, and Indian) belong to the external ruler groups rather than to the autochthonous cultures. Indeed, in the Early History of Afghanistan, it is almost impossible to clearly define any “autochthonous” archaeological remains, unless we consider the preceding period as being localadmit . In sum, without being the center of these “empires”, except during the two centuries of the Greco-Bactrian, but even then not, if we consider a larger “Hellenistic koinè”, Afghanistan was, from its origins, a meeting place for many cultures and civilizations, and it remained an important part of external politico-cultural entities for millennia—the crossroads of Eurasian civilizations.

Article

Afghanistan in Victorian Literature  

Zarena Aslami

Afghanistan appears infrequently in Victorian literature. However, when it does appear, whether as detail or as the setting of stories that characters tell within the framing story, it is highly charged with affect and meaning. For Victorian writers, references to Afghanistan had to be carefully managed because of the conflicted feelings the public had toward two wars that the British empire conducted in Afghanistan, wars that were unprovoked, traumatic, and did not definitively gain their stated objectives. The ideological necessity of viewing Afghans as both sovereign allies, preventing the incursions of other empires on British holdings in India, and savage others, to be dominated, led not only to powerfully charged references to this country in Victorian literature. It also finds expression in 20th- and 21st-century postcolonial scholarship, including the formidable work of Edward Said. Within this field, scholarship also tends to reference Afghanistan as mere detail and to evacuate it of historical content. Returning to Victorian literature allows us to fill in the content, that is, to understand this generic quality of Afghanistan—detail or narrated, but not direct, setting—as the result not of historical insignificance but of powerful Victorian ambivalence.