Interview: Shah Mahmoud Hanifi on Histories of Afghanistan

Photos from Afghanistan, 1939 or 1940. One shows an automobile sitting on a dirt road between hills. The second picture shows camels in the same scene.
Photos from Afghanistan, taken by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, 1939 or 1940. Image via Wikimedia (public domain).

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kabul at the end of August and the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Afghanistan has recently received a great deal of attention in the wider news media. In that context, our new Membership Manager, Bill Warner, reached out to AAS member Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, professor of history at James Madison University, to discuss the history of Afghanistan, its connections to Asian Studies, patterns in the field, and more.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

H William Warner (HWW): To put recent events in a little bit of personal context, the United States invaded Afghanistan in my senior year of high school and only recently pulled out all troops. U.S. engagement in Afghanistan has loomed over my entire adult life and, thereby, informed my experiences in, study of, and research on South Asia. But you’re from a generation before me. What influenced your study of Afghanistan and South Asia together?

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (SMH): While my connection to Afghanistan is personal or familial, intellectually I approached the study of Afghanistan from the west, that is the Middle East, particularly Iran. I went to the University of Michigan and intended to do research on the origins of the Abdali/Durrani polity via the 18th century Persianate World ruler Nadir Shah. My advisor, Juan Cole, whose own work looked at the connections between the Middle East and South Asia via Shi’ism, had recently arrived in Ann Arbor as well. But, the first Gulf War knocked out a chance to work in archives and libraries in Iraq and it was really dissertation research funding situation that led me to South Asia.

To make a long story short, there was funding opportunities for travel to and research in India and Pakistan available to students interested in interregional connections. So, instead of pursuing Afghan state formation from the west, that is, Persian and Arabic materials, I wrote my first book on the 19th century imperial influence on Afghanistan from the South Asia perspective using British colonial records.

Right when I finished, 9/11 happened. So, it’s kind of an inversion of my situation to yours in the sense that I lived my whole life in the Afghan diaspora and was literally just finishing my thesis on 9/11.

HWW: What are some of the ways that the U.S. military presence after 2001 changed the study of Afghanistan and, maybe indirectly, Afghanistan’s place in Asian Studies, more generally?

SMH: 9/11 amplified the Islamic component as global Islamic terrorism became the operative discursive frame of reference. There has been an expansion of studying Islamic politics through terrorism and security studies. It brought Afghanistan further into the political science and international relations fields, and intelligence analysis studies as an undergraduate course of study is something of an institutional artifact of a very militarized concern with Afghanistan.

At the same time, research into Islamic history—even the intellectual roots of the Taliban—highlighted multi-regional connections within South Asia specifically and Asia generally. In this way, the last 20 years have helped to, if there is a benefit here, really open up a window on the wide geographic range of mobility patterns across Asia that Afghans and Afghanistan are parts of.  So, there’s been sort of two contradictory academic and intellectual strands since 9/11. First there is the militarized and securitized perspective occupying the dominant discursive but there is a second, less visible but arguably more consequential expansion in colonial studies and medieval and early modern historical studies of Afghanistan, largely but not exclusively explored through lens of Persianate cultural history. 

HWW: Building on the last thought, Afghanistan geographically overlaps with various areas studies regions: the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia. This often seems in contradiction to how divided the region is in terms of contemporary nation-states.

SMH: Earlier in my teaching career, I wish I could have said, “forget borders as our primary frames of reference.” Because, what happens when you remove the borders is you recognize that different parts of this thing called Afghanistan are connected and disconnected in different ways. And the various regions comprising Afghanistan all have extraterritorial connections. I think for understanding the deeper historical patterns and power processes related to Afghanistan, we need to sort of lift the lid off, forget those borders, but of course it’s a very difficult move to abandon these primary frames of reference.

HWW: With the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, there have been discussions in the media about other regional forces, say China or Russia, “entering” or engaging with or becoming a new player in Afghanistan. Are these connections to Afghanistan really new?

SMH: Well, if we sort of step back a couple millennia, Buddhism connected the geographic spaces of Afghanistan and China. In the Islamic era, the horse becomes particularly important not just as an animal, but as a shared cultural technology across the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, and South Asia. In the contemporary period, migrations, particularly of Uzbek communities, have had a profound impact, culturally, economically and politically. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan starting in 1979 involved not just Russian soldiers, but also a numerically more significant number of Central Asian soldiers. And that continues. The shall-we-say northern wing of the Taliban are hugely influenced by Islamist parties in or from Central Asia. And if we put the Caucuses and Chechens in this this mix of Central Asian ingredients affecting Afghanistan, these broadly northerly connections remain very alive and well up until the very present.

HWW: In many respects, cities are portrayed as being the hubs of these interregional connections. Before the U.S. departure, news outlets reported daily on the “fall” of various cities—Kunduz, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar—to the Taliban. At the same time, demographically, Afghanistan is heavily tilted toward rural areas. 

SMH: Yes, Afghanistan is preponderantly a rural place. So, the word “fall” implies some sort of destruction or violence. On the ground, these were largely bloodless takeovers.

More importantly, the phrasing belies the biases of where imperial projections of power were ensconced: in these urban areas. The impact of the last 20 years is most obviously seen in the city of Kabul, which really morphed and mutated out of its own skin, not just culturally but demographically and environmentally. I think the estimates revolve around about 500,000 residents in 2001 (which is a quite contested number and, in my view, high). Now, I hear 5 million people live in Kabul. Five hundred thousand to five million. Beyond that, it has become one the most polluted cities in the world. And, Kabul and Afghanistan are simply running out of water.

In the rural zone, the Afghan state, and cities by extension, have been seen as extractive entities. Becoming legible for a state often means taxation, conscription, and surveillance. Strategic ruralism attenuate bureaucratic and surveillance connections between the capital and the rural zone.

HWW: Related to the urban-rural divide is the sense that Afghanistan is a theater for studying state-tribe relations, both historically and in the current ascent of the Taliban.

SMH: And that is, first of all, understandable given the literature. Before 9/11, primarily anthropologists worked on Afghanistan and tribe-state dynamics were a big part of Middle Eastern anthropology, in particular in studies of Muslim tribal communities. Historians primarily work on states. And while I think the customary viewing of issues in Afghanistan through the prism of tribes-state relations reflects an interdisciplinary dialogue between anthropology and history, it is important to note the framing of Afghanistan’s history as a tribe-state conflict reflects the enduring influence of a colonial epistemology that continues to anchor most historical, cultural, and political analyses of the country.

HWW: Recently, there have been some in the foreign policy world that have described the Taliban as a modern manifestation of the ways in which tribes were able to overcome the state.

SMH: And so in this reading, if the Taliban are “a tribe,” is Ashraf Ghani “the state”? I don’t think so. I think there’s a discursive bias at play here, which is the colonial understanding of a tribe as an isolated, self-contained, viciously defensive entity against other so-called tribes or the state, which are also hermetically sealed. But that’s not the reality of Afghan tribalism, which is predicated on mobility, connectivity, and openness. If we look closely at the literature of Muslim tribes, these are in many ways tremendously open, externally oriented entities. As an example, there’s constant intermarriage between tribes, and also between tribes and the “state” or royal court. So, if we want to explore the dynamics of tribalism, we may want to explore tensions or relationships within the Taliban: the tension and cooperation between Durranis and Ghilzais in the Taliban; the tensions and cooperation between the Quetta Shura and the Peshawari crowd in the Taliban.

HWW: I wonder if the focus on state-tribe conflict is a product of viewing Afghanistan through the prism of war.

SMH: Early in my career, I tried very hard to write around the wars. Now, I don’t know if “war” is the right word to be using or avoiding. Take for example, the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42): was that really a war as war is conventionally understood? To me, it looks less like a war and more of an occupation that was devoid of sustained warfare. The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80): here we can point to some episodes of violence, and it was certainly marketed as a war. But is it accurate or even helpful to say that all of Afghanistan was affected [by] two years of war in this instance? Not directly, at least, it seems to me. The Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) is least war-like of them all. There are some border skirmishes and casualties. Mostly, though, it’s about a single airplane raid. It’s not like all Afghans always unified against the British, because there have always been Afghans who serve as local collaborators for them and other invasive imperial powers.

The Soviet War now maybe this looks more like war with larger scales of violence, new technologies, battles such as the battle for Jalalabad.

The American presence looks initially like an imperial punishment exercise designed as a supremely violent object lesson for unruly Muslims that led to a longer-term cultural conversion attempt described as counter-insurgency or nation-building, followed by a quick abandonment and retrospectives predicated on selective facts to shield the full truth of this catastrophically coercive escapade from the American public-at-large.

HWW: Nevertheless, these episodes in Afghan history have been turnings points, but I suspect not in the ways most people think.

SMH: War provides an opportunity for knowledge production. A lot of data gets produced during war and those who study Afghanistan can’t avoid the literature and data on these ‘wars’, but must be careful not to adopt the perspective of the so-called combatants. It’s really a one-sided story that gets circulated insofar as there are few Afghans voices in the ‘history of war in Afghanistan.’  To be clear, there are some but a proportionately very small number of local histories on the Afghan literary side of these encounters. There’s oral memory, but the point is an overall asymmetry in how wars get recorded and memorialized by the combatants and the masses of largely anonymous local victims of these wars.

Regarding legacy of war, I’m concerned about and working on the environmental impact of war. The most recent wars have been environmentally catastrophic with, for example, the Soviet use of napalm in the forests of eastern Afghanistan, such as Paktiya in particular. War has substantially deforested Afghanistan. The American experience has involved a tremendous threat in the form of the previously mentioned pollution in Kabul, but also the much greater threat to Afghanistan’s water supply through long-term, extensive use of depleted uranium-laced munitions, which is absolutely devastating for long-term habitability.

HWW: This approach to the study of war resonates with emerging conversations about the legacy of war elsewhere.

SMH: The environmental dimension of war connects directly to communities outside of Afghanistan. In the United States, there is constant reference to toxins and pollutants at and around military bases, active and inactive, involving such issues as radiation poisoning in New Mexico and forever chemicals in Chesapeake Bay. The environmental pollution resulting from military activities—whether in the United States or from the burn pits in Afghanistan—is immense and long-lasting. So, while armed conflict generates immediate violence and casualties, war as a whole creates additional waves of slow environmental violence. This is a primary legacy of war in Afghanistan that remains largely underdiscussed.