lot has happened in and to Afghanistan not only since I started writing Imagining Afghanistan, but perhaps more crucially since its publication last year. The Taliban’s near-complete takeover of the country saw its apogee in August 2021, with the ‘fall’ of Kabul. Scenes of desperation were broadcast around the world, with the proclamation (and unfortunate realisation) of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in the country. On page 17 of the book I wrote: 

“the immediate need for ‘solutions’ to the Afghan problem’ – alternately apprehended as the failure of the state, the upsurge in terrorist activities, the internecine feuding of ‘tribes’, and the plight of women and children – has resulted in what may be called an ‘emergency episteme’. Afghanistan ‘experts’ were born virtually overnight, rushing to fill the vacuum of knowledge that the country found itself in, or more accurately, to correct the vacuum of its own knowledge about Afghanistan that the Global North discovered, as if unexpectedly”. 

I was referring then to the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 and the swift invasion of Afghanistan that followed as alleged retribution for those attacks. If in 2001, it was surprising to come across the relative ignorance of the average Western or Anglophone commentator about Afghanistan, in 2021 after twenty years of US-led intervention, it seems almost outlandish. 

And yet, imperial aphasia is a drug vastly more potent than the heroin cultivated in Afghanistan’s opium fields for (predominantly) Western consumption. 

As Benjamin Hopkins notes -- and to some extend portends -- in his review, the Taliban’s ‘victory’ is merely one albeit important “inflexion point in the life cycle of the ever-evolving human disaster that is Afghanistan”. The waves of “enforced amnesia”, in his words, will once again wash over Afghanistan and the cycle threatens to repeat itself in perpetuity. This waxing and waning of colonial interest, along with its devastating consequences, was something I sought to capture in the book. To do this, I took aim at a whole array of knowledge-producing entities to show their perpetuation of a colonial economy of representation. In a sense then, my focus on hegemonic and universal(ising) narratives meant that I opted for scale rather than granularity, even if unwittingly. Indeed, Hopkins contends that the book is “difficult to define” precisely because “the author takes aim at a panoply of targets ranging widely across multiple disciplines. Though the book engages history, political science, cultural studies, anthropology and international relations theory, it belongs exclusively to none of them.” For some, including (generously) Hopkins himself this is a commendable path to tread. For countless others no doubt it risks sacrificing or even negating the impressive disciplinary work done on Afghanistan by political scientists, historians, anthropologists, gender theorists, etc. 

In this spirit, Jennifer Fluri’s critique that I do not adequately engage extant critical literature – especially historical and feminist scholarship – is perfectly valid. However, and I have intimated this both in Imagining Afghanistan and elsewhere, that there is a political impetus behind my choices, and for (the admittedly attenuated) purposes of the book, I was overwhelmingly concerned with accounts that uphold and perpetuate colonial visions that formed the bulk of the corpus of knowledge about Afghanistan. I am acutely cognizant of the limited nature of my inquiry and repeatedly evoke scholars of Afghanistan who have shaped my thinking and writing, and who have been doing the important work of problematizing the very tendencies I examine, for a much longer and more sustained period of time. Nonetheless, exalting the virtue of those writing against the grain (a small but notable contingent of academics) is neither in line with the intentions nor the ethic of the book. 

My greatest regret is that I did not engage with scholars, activists, and people within Afghanistan and draw adequate attention to the resistance, the “livingness” in Katherine McKittrick’s (2016) words, and the multiple worldviews present on the ground. Given my basic linguistic abilities, and the overriding concern with imperial knowledge, this would have been a different and (even more!) ambitious project.

In the context of Fluri’s gentle chastisement of my failure to provide a “pluralistic overview of gender roles/relations”, it is somewhat ironic that its feminist undertones are precisely what Ali Howell teases out in her review. She asks what it would mean to place Imagining Afghanistan squarely as a contribution to feminist International Relations. Recognising that the book is by no means a dedicated piece of feminist analysis, Howell’s reading of the text as one that decentres imperial feminist discourse and racial-sexual violence, without necessarily providing answers or committing itself to unpacking any particular feminist literatures does a better job of capturing the essence of the book than I myself have been capable of. This apprehension of the book as offering or gesturing towards “exciting common touchstones across [various] fields of inquiry” resonates with Ben Hopkins claim that the book puts multiple disciplines in conversation. This, I hope, goes some way in assuaging Jennifer Fluri’s concerns about Imagining Afghanistan’s occasionally synoptic or synthetic nature.

Adam Elliott-Cooper’s review picks up on something different altogether by focusing on how the book helps make sense of what he calls the “academia-military nexus”. In highlighting the imbrication of scholarship with military intervention, he underscores the urgent need to decolonize the university. Noting the university’s historical complicity in empire building as well as its ongoing implication in contemporary imperialisms is particularly pertinent today when Afghan refugees (often enlisted in imperial adventures in their own country as translators, or less generously as “native informers”) and their children are being denied the opportunity to partake in the pedagogical institutions of the UK, despite initial promises by the government. Notwithstanding the many shortcomings of British universities and the shocking duplicity of the government, Afghan Chevening scholars have expressed their disappointment at the steep accommodation costs and the scant relief offered by universities across Britain. Amidst the ravages of a seemingly endless war that was manufactured in no small part by the UK, it is a particularly stark reminder of the multiple ways in which we continue to fail Afghans. Racism, capitalism, and a studied disregard for those who are here because we were there, in A. Sivanandan’s haunting formulation, continue to structure the imperial present. The problem of course is the unevenness with which the fallout of these overlapping structures is experienced. This problem is compounded by the dogged persistence of, and commitment to, colonial amnesia.

In spite of this bleak outlook, I am heartened by those who continue to strive for and imagine different futures both in the academy but especially outside it in Afghanistan and beyond. The importance of politically active scholarship for me, nevertheless, cannot be overstated and the interventions in this review forum are all excellent reminders of both the need for this insurgent scholarship and the work that is cut out for us. I am profoundly humbled to have had these four inspirational scholars whose own work I have read with admiration and learned so much from, offer such thoughtful provocations and deep engagement with my book. I am also immensely grateful to Kate Hall and Charmaine Chua, comrades and scholars par excellence for having organised this forum. 


McKittrick, K (2016) “Diachronic loops/deadweight tonnage/bad made measure,” Cultural Geographies, 23:1, 3-18.

Dr Nivi Manchanda is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her book Imagining Afghanistan: the History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge was awarded the L.H.M. Ling Outstanding First Book Prize by the British International Studies Association.