Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge

By Nivi Manchanda
Cambridge University Press, 2020

Since 2001 especially, Afghanistan has been turned into a laboratory for 21st-century intervention and its application of power. The study of Afghanistan has vastly expanded and it has been the subject of policy articulation and has populated publishers’ catalogues and university curricula. Afghanistan exists in public debate, in the entertainment industry and museums, and has been thought about a lot, and an ‘idea’ of Afghanistan has taken shape in the Western mind. ‘Imagining Afghanistan’ engages with this idea through a rich assembly of materials relating to the work of past and present knowledge practitioners, including academics, political analysts and policy-makers. “The scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier [who] was in or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part,” in Edward Said’s terms.
The book spans the history of modern Afghanistan from the early 19th CE, when the country was emerging into the consciousness of British empire builders, to the present. It is a prison-break that releases colonialism’s categories and ideas from their (wrongful) captivity in history for them to find their intimate place in the community of Western knowledge on Afghanistan.
At its core, Imagining Afghanistan engages with “the hegemonic discourse and its totalizing ambitions” about the histories of the Afghan state and its peoples. Woven into the book’s argument are three intersecting threads; to begin with, Afghanistan represents “an intrinsically violent place” in the imagination of the transatlantic Anglosphere, but ‘our’ “politics of disavowal” maintain that ‘we have nothing to do with it. Secondly, a rich “grammar of difference” segregates ‘us’ and the ‘West’ from ‘them’ and ‘Afghanistan’. Lastly, this discourse is marked by a “superficial” engagement with Afghanistan’s history and politics, particularly so in times of conflict. This, to bring the argument full circle, reaffirms Afghanistan’s place in a geopolitical hierarchy whose structure enables and sanctions intervention.
The book is an example of “insurgent scholarship”, and an illustration of the need for the continuing decolonization of imperial/colonial knowledge as a continuous act of resistance in our very own age of imperialism. Imagining Afghanistan shows the pathways in which the idea and “story” of Afghanistan have come about and taken root.
The book stands on the shoulders of studies that have crossed (and continue to eradicate) the (artificial) disciplinary boundaries between history and international relations in an attempt to make visible the colonial legacies in their combined knowledge systems.
Imagining Afghanistan focuses on the intellectual cornerstones of historical knowledge production, and how these were, (and continue to be) recycled and cultivated for application in instances of imperialism, racism and war in the present. The analysis draws out the (at best) “lazy” and (at worst) “mercenary” scholarship that has contributed to the reification of Afghanistan as a violent place and failed state allegedly riddled with tribal customs – in short, the scholarship that assists in turning ‘inferior’ Afghanistan into a legitimate object of ‘superior’ Western intervention. As such, Imagining Afghanistan is a “decolonising intervention” as well as an exercise in auto-decolonisation prompting knowledge practitioners in the humanities and social sciences to “unlearn the colonising impulses of knowledge production in the Western academy”.
Also, the book has an important message to all knowledge-practitioners: we cannot escape the past, but we are obliged to change the way we think about its knowledge systems. True to its thought framework, Imagining Afghanistan is explicit about its engagement with ‘story-telling and ‘sense-making. It firmly incorporates the dialogic making of modern empire and ‘frontiers’, centre and ‘periphery’ into its larger make-up.
This book makes for essential reading for every knowledge-practitioner, and particularly those studying or ‘working on’ Afghanistan because we have the power to construct ideas and narrate stories that are acted upon; we also have a responsibility to recognise the coloniality of our knowledge as the basis for its sustained deconstruction in the first place. We can level the power of imperial knowledge by critiquing one colonially woven idea at a time. That process demands acts of auto-decolonisation from all of us if we want to avoid forms of complicity, conscious or otherwise, in physical or epistemological acts of imperial violence.

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