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his review seeks to do something that is perhaps a little cheeky: to take a book that foregrounds its contributions to one set of thematic questions and scholarly literatures, and place it in other intellectual contexts altogether. Imagining Afghanistan takes as its central objects of inquiry the “co-constitutive relations between knowledge production, racism and war” (Manchanda 2020: 5), tracing the imperial history of Anglophone discourses on Afghanistan not as the stuff of the dustbin of history, but as the very basis for the ongoing production of successive violent invasions and attempted occupations. Imagining Afghanistan is adeptly researched and tightly argued in accomplishing the aims that the book sets out, marking a significant contribution to re-thinking imperial war in Afghanistan, and to the fields of critical and postcolonial war studies.
Keeping good company within, but also pushing forward these fields, the book attends to the production of imperial warfare through significant attention to the gendered nature of these violent representations. It also, especially in sections of two chapters, takes up topics of direct concern for disability scholarship, that is: representations of (racial) Otherness as pathological, diseased, or mad. It is these facets of the book that this review focuses on in order to ask: what would it mean to place Imagining Afghanistan squarely as a contribution to feminist international relations (IR)? What exciting lines of research may be opened up by reading this book in relation to efforts to decolonize disability studies? My aim is to highlight contributions the book makes to producing space for exciting lines of research in postcolonial and critical war studies and more generally in the study of imperial warfare.
We can begin by noting that while Imagining Afghanistan does not self-consciously lay claim to making a contribution to feminist IR, two full chapters specifically carry out gendered analysis by examining representations of Afghan women and men (or femininity and masculinity). What would it mean then, to place this book amongst resistant genealogies of feminist IR? To be sure, feminist IR is not a singular project, but one marked by deeply – and materially – entrenched contentions. These contentions are often characterized in terms of a typology of feminist traditions (eg. liberal, radical, standpoint, Marxist, post-structuralist, post-colonial feminisms). IR feminism has also taken up longstanding debates in feminist thought more generally concerning (strategic) essentialism of the category of ‘women.’ Enloe’s foundational and deceptively simple question “Where are the women?” (cf. Enloe 1989) spawned a whole generation of research, working to draw attention to differences between women along axes of race, nationality, class, caste or sexuality to name a few. Yet simultaneously, these axes of difference and power have often been analytically subsumed under gender, reducing complex questions of, for instance, the co-constitution of sex and colonialism to mere sub-sets of an essential category: ‘woman’. Alongside recent efforts to think beyond methodological essentialism, Imagining Afghanistan’s largely unclaimed contribution to feminist IR similarly thinks beyond the analytical move of ‘adding’ Afghan women to the analysis of global politics.
Running through and parallel to the histories described above, feminist IR has always been marked by other schisms, between perspectives purporting that gender can be analyzed in isolation from race, (settler) colonialism, and imperialism, and IR feminist works drawing from and contributing to women of color and queer of color, transnational, post-colonial, indigenous and black feminisms (cf. Agathangelou and Ling 2004; Agathangelou and Turcotte 2010; Chowdhry and Nair 2002; Persaud and Sajed 2018). The former perspective has usefully been characterized as “white feminism” – a term which denotes not the identity of authors, but analytical investments in Western-centric and/or imperial feminist knowledge production. This approach sits in contradistinction to forms of feminisms averring that gender cannot be understood in isolation from race, empire, and settler and other forms of colonialism, and inversely, that the racial-colonial is thoroughly gendered. Such work has been pursued despite material and institutional barriers to its production that disproportionately affect women of colour in IR and other fields (Agathangelou and Ling 2002; Biswas 2014; Chowdhry 2014; Nair 2014).
One clear starting point in apprehending the contributions of Imagining Afghanistan is to heed Manchanda’s alertness to the “co-optation of discourse [analysis] as a depoliticized study of language, semantics, and rhetoric” (2020: 17) that is, the pacification and de-barbing of discourse analysis as a methodology of (feminist) critique. Imagining Afghanistan instead develops its arguments concerning the racial-sexual nature - and violent material consequences - of Anglophone imperial knowledge production about Afghanistan by gathering an extensive and divergent archive of source material: the book eschews a sole focus on the ‘easy targets’ of George W Bush-era or military proclamations, to instead trace not only the production but the circulation of discourse, and in particular to consider the racial logics of Anglophone constructions of Afghanistan across the political spectrum.
So, for instance, we find rich discussion of the production of imperial discourse by those strongly (even dynastically) associated with ‘the left’ and with (white) feminism, such as the longtime Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee (Manchanda 2020: 151). Yet the book also recognizes some potential limitations to an intellectual and political orientation of challenging Western/Anglophone constructions of Afghanistan, as it acknowledges the potential critique (via discussion of Zia 2017) that a “focus on Western constructions of Afghan women’s oppression” might “[make] it difficult for Afghan feminists to expose and arraign local forms of patriarchy and the curtailment of the rights and agency that these entail” (Manchanda 2020: 176; see also the Coda to the book).
Crucial here is that these kinds of engagements are illustrative of the need to resist any temptation to comfortably conceptualize feminist IR in terms of a binary reading of a homogenized ‘white’ versus a homogenized ‘other’ feminism, when some of the most exciting debates in feminist IR work through conversations and contentions between, for example, divergent schools of postcolonial feminist, transnational feminist, and anti-imperial and Third World feminist thought, with their different emphases and methodologies for understanding colonial matrices of power, imperial warfare, and resistance. In this sense, Imagining Afghanistan raises urgent questions (without claiming to ‘resolve’ them with finality) about whether challenging white-Western feminist canons of knowledge risk re-centering them as objects of knowledge, and whether there is room for multiple, sometimes contentious, avenues for imagining and enacting feminism as an anti-imperial project.
Another way in which feminists and others can read Imagining Afghanistan is to consider how it empirically illustrates that thinking about disability (studies) might enrich our accounts of war, empire and global politics. While the book makes scant reference to disability studies texts (containing some discussion of Puar’s 2017 The Right to Maim), there are two notable sections of the book that sit squarely in the realm of disability studies concerns: the first (Manchanda 2020: 44-49) examines the “leitmotif” of “illness and disease,” that is, the persistent articulation of Afghanistan as a festering, cancerous, pathological space in need of curative and surgical (read military) intervention; the second (Manchanda 2020: 188-190) is situated in the chapter on representations of Afghan masculinities, and unpicks the figure of the “Mentally Unstable Taliban.”
Such empirical concerns, and the book’s brief engagement with some recent literature located as interventions in disability studies opens productive space for thinking about imperial warfare from a decolonial disability studies perspective. Despite the whiteness of, and historical focus on the Global North in, disability studies (cf. Bell 2006; Gorman et al. 2013; Miles, Nishida and Forber-Pratt 2017), like feminist IR, there are many worlds of disability scholarship and activism, including parallel genealogies of anti-imperial and anti-racist work that treat ableism as integrally enmeshed with racism (cf. Meerai, Abdillahi, and Poole 2016; Pickens 2019). Established and growing research in this field has been shaped by an acknowledgement of the need to decolonize disability studies and firmly place disability in global and colonial contexts (cf. Erevelles 2011; Meekosha 2011; Grech 2015; Grech and Soldatic 2016), as the field has examined the imbrications of racism and ableism in a number of areas of empirical concern to global studies, including for example: migration and detention (cf. Joseph 2015; Tam 2017), development (cf. Cosgrove et al.), the arms trade (cf. Meekosha 2011), and war and militarism (cf. Wool 2015). Like Imagining Afghanistan, some of the work emerging from this field has entailed researching how colonial knowledge and imperial violence are produced through racist and ableist registers of madness and deviance, especially the pathologization of the figures of the terrorist or insurgent (cf. Howell 2007; Patel 2014; Rai 2006).
One of the highly productive tensions emerging out of these literatures concerns how to situate research focusing on the representational/discursive in relation to efforts to decolonize disability studies in ways that foreground how enslavement, land theft, and colonial warfare have been and continue to be productive of mass impairment and debility (cf. Meekosha 2011; Grech 2015; Puar 2017). This latter move may press on understandings of disability as a basis for political identity, community and collective action (sometimes organized through the concept of ‘Pride’). Put differently: how can the bodily devastation of colonialism and imperialism be captured as a disability issue, without casting racialized disabled people or disabled people in the Global South as pitiable victims lacking agency, or without reifying representations as a function of deconstructing them?
One answer has been to highlight shared collective political struggles, for example by recognizing attempts to disqualify colonized peoples from self-determination and sovereignty on the basis of the production of racial hierarchies of mental capacity, intelligence, maturity and (sexual) deviance (cf. Bruce 2017), or political activism and scholarship that highlights shared but divergent histories of incarceration (i.e. penal incarceration and disability incarceration in institutions or by ‘chemical incarceration’) and of abolitionist activism (cf. Ben-Moshe 2020; Carey Chapman and Ben-Moshe 2014; Fabris 2011).
To begin to think through how these literatures might come into conversation with Imagining Afghanistan, we might start by acknowledging that what’s at stake in taking this scholarship seriously is not, as Manchanda warns, to adopt a “mantra of race, class and gender” (Manchanda 2020: 183) to which ‘disability’ could be ‘added,’ but rather recognize that “[s]ocial difference is messy, uneven and ambivalent.” Put differently, this is not about cataloguing a more complete list of ‘isms’, but about fostering a more conceptually and empirically robust field of imperial war studies.
Bringing Imagining Afghanistan into conversation with these disability studies literatures pushes us to consider, for example, the relations between colonial tropes of the Taliban ‘warlord’ as mentally unstable and as sexually deviant, topics which are treated sequentially in the book (chapter 5). Such tropes of madness and deviance are not new, and can be situated amidst a long history of misogynist and racist psychiatric knowledge and practice in settler and other colonial spaces. It is noteworthy that precisely where Imagining Afghanistan shifts gears from the discursive or “metaphoric to the literal” (Manchanda 2020: 48) is in the discussion of representations of Afghanistan as a diseased and pathological space, where the direct relations between drone warfare, CIA activity and elevated polio rates are discussed. This suggests natural lines of affinity with the kinds of disability studies scholarship that view colonization through the lens of the production of impairment, while opening space to highlight agency and resistance to war and other forms of correction-through-violence.
Read through and against these political and scholarly contexts, Imagining Afghanistan points to exciting common touchstones across these fields of inquiry, suggestive of ways to significantly push forward the fields of critical and postcolonial war studies, and to better grapple with all of the complexities of imperial warfare.
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Alison Howell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University – Newark.