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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.

Article

Deciphering the History of Modern Afghanistan  

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi

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.