Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

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Overview

"This fascinating survey of Afghanistan is an excellent book for those wanting to go beyond headlines. Written by an expert, with the stylistic flair to be savored by the nonexpert, Afghanistan also has judgments worthy of scholarly reflection. Barfield has captured political, social, and cultural insights of extraordinary importance to the policy arguments of today and tomorrow. Deploying diplomats, soldiers, and aid workers in particular should pay attention."--Ronald E. Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 2005-2007

"Barfield's book will become the single best source on Afghan history and politics virtually overnight. His deep knowledge of Afghanistan enables him to range widely and knit together a very coherent narrative with a conceptual clarity that is pretty rare. A great deal of learning is evident here, but Barfield wears it lightly."--James C. Scott, author of Seeing Like a State

"Barfield's book is an excellent general introduction to the country and will be a source of wider debate within and beyond the scholarly community. I am not aware of a history of this kind that explores governance and state legitimacy as its organizing themes."--Magnus Marsden, author of Living Islam: Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan's North-West Frontier

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Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
Barfield, an anthropologist and old Afghanistan hand, has written a history of Afghanistan that weaves in geography, economics, and culture (think tribes, rural-urban dichotomies, value systems) while maintaining a focus throughout on Afghan rulers' relations with their own people and the outside world. [The book] is lightened by many breaks in the narrative to address broad themes or make intriguing comparisons, such as likening patrimonial Afghanistan to medieval Europe.
Montreal Gazette
Barfield shows how Afghan notions of political legitimacy and social organization are eerily timeless. . . . This book may change the way you think about Afghanistan.
— Brian Kappler
Maui News
Impressive. . . . Barfield traces much of what Afghanistan is about to its geography and to developments from thousands of years ago, but he also asserts that the decade of Russian occupation changed Afghanistan permanently.
— Harry Eagar
Foreign Policy
This book is an authoritative and well-written summary of what we might call the majority view. There is a streak in this book, however, of more radical thinking. . . . It leads him near the end of the book to some startling predictions for Afghanistan's possible futures.
— Gerard Russell
Saudi Gazette
A brilliant book to educate all of us about a country we should know and appreciate. . . . Thomas Barfield's book on Afghanistan is likely to become the first source that serious students turn to as a guide to this complicated country. His comprehensive portrait of Afghanistan is a stunning achievement.
— Joseph Richard Preville
Foreign Policy
This book is an authoritative and well-written summary of what we might call the majority view. There is a streak in this book, however, of more radical thinking. . . . It leads him near the end of the book to some startling predictions for Afghanistan's possible futures.
— Gerard Russell
Saudi Gazette
A brilliant book to educate all of us about a country we should know and appreciate. . . . Thomas Barfield's book on Afghanistan is likely to become the first source that serious students turn to as a guide to this complicated country. His comprehensive portrait of Afghanistan is a stunning achievement.
— Joseph Richard Preville
Montreal Gazette
Barfield shows how Afghan notions of political legitimacy and social organization are eerily timeless. . . . This book may change the way you think about Afghanistan.
— Brian Kappler
Maui News
Impressive. . . . Barfield traces much of what Afghanistan is about to its geography and to developments from thousands of years ago, but he also asserts that the decade of Russian occupation changed Afghanistan permanently.
— Harry Eagar
Foreign Affairs
Barfield, an anthropologist and old Afghanistan hand, has written a history of Afghanistan that weaves in geography, economics, and culture (think tribes, rural-urban dichotomies, value systems) while maintaining a focus throughout on Afghan rulers' relations with their own people and the outside world. [The book] is lightened by many breaks in the narrative to address broad themes or make intriguing comparisons, such as likening patrimonial Afghanistan to medieval Europe.
New York Review of Books
[I]mpressive.
— Christopher de Bellaigue
Washington Times
Thomas Barfield's new book offers a remedy for Americans' pervasive ignorance of Afghanistan. . . . Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is an invaluable book. Mr. Barfield does not give the United States a way out of Afghanistan, but he does provide the context necessary for good policymaking.
— Doug Bandow
Daily Star
In this riveting study, Barfield does a splendid job of informing us why Afghanistan is the way it has always been.
BusinessWorld
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield is a primer for anyone seeking to understand the region, its cultural and political underpinnings.
— Raghu Mohan
Choice
Despite a plethora of books about Afghanistan in the last few years, a good book on the country has not been published since Louis Dupress's 1973 Afghanistan. Maybe the long wait is over. Barfield's new book . . . comes close to matching Dupree's sweeping sense of Afghanistan's complicated history and culture. An anthropologist, as was Dupree, who personally visited most areas of Afghanistan, Barfield is able to put the bewildering complexity of tribes, ethnic groups, religious sects, warlords, and political feuds that is Afghanistan into a coherent whole that is both readable and informative.
American Interest
Thomas Barfield . . . has provided a rich discussion of the anthropological and historical context for developing such a formula, which is a critical missing piece in the Obama Administration's policy in Afghanistan. . . . Barfield has given us a valuable effort by a Westerner to decode a very foreign society—never an easy task. As a prism through which to understand the current conflict in Afghanistan, this book reminds us that war is about politics and that policies is about who rules and how rule is legitimated.
— Marin Strmecki
CATO Journal
[Barfield's] deep knowledge brings clarity to a frightfully complicated region that has been and will continue to be of extraordinary importance to policy debates. Scholarly experts in search of an exhaustive reference to the region and those seeking an introduction to the ins and outs of Afghan history will find this book of interest.
— Malou Innocent
Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs
Anyone who wishes to comprehend the intricacies of this complex and mysterious country would be wise to consult this exceedingly valuable book.
— Raphael Israeli
Jura Gentium
Overall, Barfield is successful in his attempts to render the history of Afghanistan legible to the trained or casual reader. His clear and approachable writing style, use of narrative, metaphor and personal stories to illustrate his arguments, thoroughness and quickness of pace, and his clear personal joy, investment and fascination with the country make this a highly readable—and more—digestible, historical account. . . . It is, in the end, a fascinating read and a tremendous resource.
— Rebecca Gang
Marine Corps University Journal
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History makes a serious attempt to survey and analyze the changing political, cultural, and social landscapes of the country from the ancient time to the present. It provides meaningful and objective insights into governance, state legitimacy, social and economic development, and foreign interventions, and Afghan responses to them, with an admirable degree of thoughtfulness and fluency.
— Amin Saikal
Books and Culture
Barfield has written a magnificent, learned, provoking book. He knows Afghanistan better than almost anyone writing on the topic today. He matches that knowledge with keen insight into how human societies grow and change. Barfield helps us think well about a complex and distant land, which is no small achievement.
— Paul D. Miller
Military Review
Barfield offers a critique of U.S. and Western strategy in Afghanistan that will likely generate controversy, but strategists, planners, and those on missions in Afghanistan ignore them at their peril. Highly recommended.
— Prisco R. Hernandez
European Legacy
In his admirable volume on Afghanistan, Thomas Barfield has written a real tour de force. . . . No one should venture today into Afghanistan, in whatever capacity, without first reading this guide for the perplexed.
— Raphael Israeli
Danny Reviews
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand either the history of Afghanistan or what is happening there now.
— Danny Yee
Books & Culture
Barfield has written a magnificent, learned, provoking book. He knows Afghanistan better than almost anyone writing on the topic today. He matches that knowledge with keen insight into how human societies grow and change. Barfield helps us think well about a complex and distant land, which is no small achievement.
— Paul D. Miller
New York Review of Books - Christopher de Bellaigue
[I]mpressive.
Foreign Policy - Gerard Russell
This book is an authoritative and well-written summary of what we might call the majority view. There is a streak in this book, however, of more radical thinking. . . . It leads him near the end of the book to some startling predictions for Afghanistan's possible futures.
Washington Times - Doug Bandow
Thomas Barfield's new book offers a remedy for Americans' pervasive ignorance of Afghanistan. . . . Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is an invaluable book. Mr. Barfield does not give the United States a way out of Afghanistan, but he does provide the context necessary for good policymaking.
Saudi Gazette - Joseph Richard Preville
A brilliant book to educate all of us about a country we should know and appreciate. . . . Thomas Barfield's book on Afghanistan is likely to become the first source that serious students turn to as a guide to this complicated country. His comprehensive portrait of Afghanistan is a stunning achievement.
BusinessWorld - Raghu Mohan
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield is a primer for anyone seeking to understand the region, its cultural and political underpinnings.
Montreal Gazette - Brian Kappler
Barfield shows how Afghan notions of political legitimacy and social organization are eerily timeless. . . . This book may change the way you think about Afghanistan.
Maui News - Harry Eagar
Impressive. . . . Barfield traces much of what Afghanistan is about to its geography and to developments from thousands of years ago, but he also asserts that the decade of Russian occupation changed Afghanistan permanently.
American Interest - Marin Strmecki
Thomas Barfield . . . has provided a rich discussion of the anthropological and historical context for developing such a formula, which is a critical missing piece in the Obama Administration's policy in Afghanistan. . . . Barfield has given us a valuable effort by a Westerner to decode a very foreign society—never an easy task. As a prism through which to understand the current conflict in Afghanistan, this book reminds us that war is about politics and that policies is about who rules and how rule is legitimated.
CATO Journal - Malou Innocent
[Barfield's] deep knowledge brings clarity to a frightfully complicated region that has been and will continue to be of extraordinary importance to policy debates. Scholarly experts in search of an exhaustive reference to the region and those seeking an introduction to the ins and outs of Afghan history will find this book of interest.
Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs - Raphael Israeli
In his admirable volume on Afghanistan, Thomas Barfield has written a real tour de force. . . . No one should venture today into Afghanistan, in whatever capacity, without first reading this guide for the perplexed.
Jura Gentium - Rebecca Gang
Overall, Barfield is successful in his attempts to render the history of Afghanistan legible to the trained or casual reader. His clear and approachable writing style, use of narrative, metaphor and personal stories to illustrate his arguments, thoroughness and quickness of pace, and his clear personal joy, investment and fascination with the country make this a highly readable—and more—digestible, historical account. . . . It is, in the end, a fascinating read and a tremendous resource.
Marine Corps University Journal - Amin Saikal
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History makes a serious attempt to survey and analyze the changing political, cultural, and social landscapes of the country from the ancient time to the present. It provides meaningful and objective insights into governance, state legitimacy, social and economic development, and foreign interventions, and Afghan responses to them, with an admirable degree of thoughtfulness and fluency.
Books and Culture - Paul D. Miller
Barfield has written a magnificent, learned, provoking book. He knows Afghanistan better than almost anyone writing on the topic today. He matches that knowledge with keen insight into how human societies grow and change. Barfield helps us think well about a complex and distant land, which is no small achievement.
Military Review - Prisco R. Hernandez
Barfield offers a critique of U.S. and Western strategy in Afghanistan that will likely generate controversy, but strategists, planners, and those on missions in Afghanistan ignore them at their peril. Highly recommended.
Danny Reviews - Danny Yee
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand either the history of Afghanistan or what is happening there now.
From the Publisher

"Overall, Barfield is successful in his attempts to render the history of Afghanistan legible to the trained or casual reader. His clear and approachable writing style, use of narrative, metaphor and personal stories to illustrate his arguments, thoroughness and quickness of pace, and his clear personal joy, investment and fascination with the country make this a highly readable--and more--digestible, historical account. . . . It is, in the end, a fascinating read and a tremendous resource."--Rebecca Gang, Jura Gentium

"Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History makes a serious attempt to survey and analyze the changing political, cultural, and social landscapes of the country from the ancient time to the present. It provides meaningful and objective insights into governance, state legitimacy, social and economic development, and foreign interventions, and Afghan responses to them, with an admirable degree of thoughtfulness and fluency."--Amin Saikal, Marine Corps University Journal

"Barfield has written a magnificent, learned, provoking book. He knows Afghanistan better than almost anyone writing on the topic today. He matches that knowledge with keen insight into how human societies grow and change. Barfield helps us think well about a complex and distant land, which is no small achievement."--Paul D. Miller, Books and Culture

"Barfield offers a critique of U.S. and Western strategy in Afghanistan that will likely generate controversy, but strategists, planners, and those on missions in Afghanistan ignore them at their peril. Highly recommended."--Prisco R. Hernandez, Military Review

"In his admirable volume on Afghanistan, Thomas Barfield has written a real tour de force. . . . No one should venture today into Afghanistan, in whatever capacity, without first reading this guide for the perplexed."--Raphael Israeli, European Legacy

"Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand either the history of Afghanistan or what is happening there now."--Danny Yee, Danny Reviews

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Product Details

Meet the Author


Thomas Barfield is professor of anthropology at Boston University. His books include "The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757"; "The Central Asian Arabs of Afghanistan"; and "Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture".
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations vii

Preface ix

Introduction 1

Chapter One: People and Places 17

Chapter Two: Conquering and Ruling Premodern Afghanistan 66

Chapter Three: Anglo-Afghan Wars and State Building in Afghanistan 110

Chapter Four: Afghanistan in the Twentieth Century: State and Society in Conflict 164

Chapter Five: Afghanistan Enters the Twenty- first Century 272

Chapter Six: Some Conclusions 337

Notes 351

References 359

Index 367

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted July 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An unknown region illuminated

    Ever since The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Three Cups of Tea, I've found Afghanistan to be a strangely compelling region. In those books, there was a different sense of the humanity of the people compared to what is seen on the nightly news, and it was difficult to align the two in my mind. Mention Afghanistan to someone and all they usually come up with is the notorious Taliban or the crumbling ruins that appear on the news. How accurate is that image?





    When I first received Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, I hoped to find that answer and at the same time, that the book wouldn't be too dry or heavy on political rhetoric. I was pleased to find that it's an incredibly readable history book that makes the subject understandable and reveals the complicated lives of the people of Afghanistan. The author manages to compile the history without a political agenda or motive.





    First off is recognizing that culturally, Afghanistan is made up of both tribal and nontribal ethnic groups. These groups mean everything to the people, and unlike some cultures, "tribal and ethnic groups take primacy over the individual." In other words, "individuals support decisions made by their group even when such support has negative consequences for themselves." This is a somewhat unique trait, and contributes to the devotion many have for their leaders. They also have an intense oral history that is repeated through the ages that also creates a sense of cohesiveness between past and present. These people live in a land crisscrossed by history, from Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great (see the photo of his castle above right). It was conflict between tribal regions, a civil war, that made the ordinary Afghan people eager to have the US come in to intervene with the Taliban, as "a drowning person is not too picky about who throws him a line..Afghanistan had either been ignored or abused by the outside world as it descended into chaos."




    The Taliban, known for their desire to spread extremely conservative Islam, had riddled the nation with violence towards women and other religions. They've managed to alienate even those countries that were providing needed humanitarian aid. They do not have the support of the 'ordinary' citizen, as at times the Taliban members have numbered below 150 members. A good portion of the book deals with how and why the Taliban gained such power. Another portion discusses the occupation by Britain and Soviet Russia prior to more recent actions with the US.




    The historical details are interesting, but it was the smaller things that were more revealing. For example, why is it that on the news you usually see only children or old people? Their hardscrabble lives, tending outdoors to agriculture and focused on manual labor, shows up on their faces and they appear prematurely aged. Are the devastated streets of broken concrete typical? Actually no, as the majority of citizens live in small villages far from urban areas such as Kabul. Is it just a land of dust and opium poppies? No again, as stone fruit, grapes, nuts, citrus fruits, melons, and rice are grown in different parts of the country, depending on what areas are irrigated. The famous mountainous region, known to have been a hiding place for bin Laden, is in the center of Afghanistan. Its steepness creates dynamic changes in climate in just a few hours of travel, and creates a diverse variety of crops.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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