Manchanda’s book provides a much needed critique of the ways in which knowledge about Afghanistan has been constructed and manufactured by western governments, media outlets, and some anglophone scholars. She does an excellent job of cataloguing the ways in which epistemologies of Afghanistan have been shaped in the West historically, as part of the discursive and colonial representations from the British Empire, and through the persistent deluge of contemporary misrepresentations. Her book examines the many ways in which Afghanistan has been imagined, framed, and portrayed in the West drawing heavily on media accounts from the US and UK. 

Manchanda provides a critique of western images that challenge both colonial era stereotyping and caricatures of Afghanistan that continue to resonate today, particularly under the discursive umbrella the post 9/11/01 Global War on Terror, and US led international military invasion and occupation, and aid/development intrusions and interventions. She illustrates the power of perception and representation through her excellent descriptions of western journalistic articles and images along with some Orientalist academic examinations that have objectified the people of Afghanistan and characterized the country through a series of tropes and narrow narratives. 

The critiques of western media are particular poignant and levy an accurate and well deserved examination of the ways in which Afghanistan is inaccurately conceptualized in the west. She further illustrates the interconnections between journalistic accounts and official representations of Afghanistan from the US White House, Department of State, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and military. Her analyses demonstrate that while government and media portrayals were not necessarily coordinated, they reflect similar patterns, tropes, and objectifications of the landscapes and people of Afghanistan. Manchanda’s analyses further link these inadequate narratives to the psychological effect they create for western viewers. Her book identifies the ideological work done by these limited representations and continual repetition of Orientalist tropes that reinforce differences and assign specifically fixed subjectivities to the topographies and people of Afghanistan. 

While Manchanda provides an important critical examination about the imagination of Afghanistan in the West, more engagement with the extant academic literature that provides similar critiques would have strengthened her arguments and linked her own analyses as a contribution to the multi-disciplinary literature on Afghanistan. I am primarily concerned with the lack of intellectual discussion with scholars who have published exceptional historical and contemporary examinations of Afghanistan (i.e., James Carron, Shah Mahmood Hanifi, Benjamin Hopkins, Magnus Marsden, Alessandro Monsutti, Shahzad Bashir and Robert Crews). Some but not all of these scholars are identified by Manchanda as important exceptions to Orientalist representations of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, she spends little time connecting her analyses to the extant literature that offers similar critiques. 

Drawing more heavily upon the academic literature would have also provided her with the opportunity to offer the reader counter-narratives and a more nuanced representation of Afghanistan. Empirically driven descriptions or summaries would have provided readers with crucial information to further challenge the existing overflow of governmental and mainstream media misrepresentations of Afghanistan. Manchanda’s arguments are presented as separate from rather than connected to contemporary scholarship that also challenges western tropes about Afghanistan. While this book offers many excellent critiques of western imaginaries about Afghanistan, it does not provide adequate alternative analyses or descriptions of Afghanistan’s diverse society. I understand that this may be beyond the scope of the text; however, drawing upon the extant scholarship to offer a more complex picture of Afghanistan would have further underscored the authors critiques and provided readers with a more accurate accounting of Afghanistan’s complexities.

I was particularly interested in the two gender focused chapters, where Manchanda takes on the difficult process of critiquing local patriarchy while attending to the ways in which global processes and US Imperialism have helped to produce the structural conditions of patriarchal social and political structures. These chapters provide an excellent overview of the ways in which liberal western feminism was used to further objectify and narrowly frame women and men in Afghanistan into distinct and rigid categories. While the focus of these chapters was largely on representation, the arguments made did not draw upon recent scholarship that analyzes gender roles and relations in Afghanistan and offers similar critiques about western imaginaries: for example, Julie Billaud’s Kabul Carnival, Torunn Wimpelmann’s The Pitfalls of Protection, Rostami-Povey’s Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion, and the work and research of Deniz Kandiyoti and Anila Daulatzai. 

While both chapters provide detailed descriptions and discussion about the ways in which Afghanistan has been imagined through a gendered lens, Manchanda’s arguments and critiques do not effectively incorporate the extant literature on this subject, or include a pluralistic overview of gender roles/relations. For example, the discussion of Shah’s documentary Beneath the Veil neither discussed the role of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which provided access and assistance to the filmmakers, nor the ways in which their clandestine documentation of civil war and Taliban atrocities were marginalized and once film gained popularity after September 11, 2001. 

While RAWA is a controversial organization and does not represent all women in Afghanistan, their actions and activism along with many other Afghan Women focused or led organizations receives little attention in the text. This is particularly surprising since RAWA has been involved in shaping some of the western narratives about Afghan women through their international supporters’ network. RAWA is only discussed briefly and in a footnote. Providing a bit more background and understanding of the complexities and diversity of women’s lives and experience would have provided more context for the reader to counter the “saving women” trope perpetuated by the US government and media, especially in the early intervention period (Fluri and Lehr 2017).

In another example two different portrayals of the area of Kabul known as Zanibad (a women-only area mainly comprised of widows) are juxtaposed; one identifies this area negatively and the other as a feminist haven. These different portrayals are important to note when examining divergent discourses; however, the book does not include any discussion about the multifaceted experiences of widows, as discussed by other scholars such as Daulatzai (2006, 2008). Additionally, these chapters do not address the complexities and ideological diversity among Afghan women and men, particularly with respect to disparate concepts and methodologies employed by various women’s rights activists and the ways in which women and men in Afghanistan differentially navigate patriarchal social structures. 

These chapters touch on issues of internalized Orientalism and they ways in which Afghan women are represented among some organizations within the Afghan diaspora. However, this section is quite minimal and does not address the complexities and variability of women’s experiences in Afghanistan or the diaspora. Additionally, more discussion about the production of knowledge in and about Afghanistan could have included addressing the funding mechanisms and international influences on research organizations based in Afghanistan, such as the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) and Afghanistan Analyst. 

My critiques of this book should not take away from its importance to the cannon of critical scholarship on imagined geographies and Imperial influence. This book would be useful for undergraduate courses to introduce students to the ways in which geopolitical and media driven discourses about Afghanistan have been constructed. Manchanda’s analyses are further useful for courses that examine Orientalism and discursive geopolitics. 


Bahsir, Shahzad, and Robert D. Crews, eds. 2012. Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Billaud, Julie. 2015. Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Caron, James. 2013. “Elite Pasts and Subaltern Potentialities.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45 (1): 138–41. 
Daulatzai, Anila. 2008. “The Discursive Occupation of Afghanistan.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 35 (3).
Fluri, Jennifer L., and Rachel Lehr. 2016. The Carpetbaggers of Kabul and Other American-Afghan Entanglements: Intimate Development and the Currency of Gender and Grief. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Hanifi, Shah Mahmoud. 2008. Connecting Histories in Afghanistan: Market Relations and State Formation on a Colonial Frontier. Columbia University Press.
———. 2016. “The Pashtun Counter-Narrative.” Middle East Critique 25 (4): 385–400.
Hopkins, Benjamin D. 2008. The Making of Modern Afghanistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kandiyoti, Deniz. 2005. The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan. 4. UNRISD Occasional Paper.
———. 2007. “Old Dilemmas or New Challenges? The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan.” Development and Change 38 (2): 169–99.
Marsden, Magnus. 2016. Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Modern Frontiers. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Monsutti, Alessandro. 2005. War and Migration : Social Networks and Economic Strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan. Routledge. 
Rostami-Povey, Elaheh. 2007. Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion. Zed Books.
Wimpelmann, Torunn. 2017. The Pitfalls of Protection: Gender, Violence, and Power in Afghanistan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Jennifer Fluri, Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has been researching geopolitics, gender, conflict and international aid/development in Afghanistan since 2001. She is the co-author with Rachel Lehr of 2017 book, The Carpetbaggers of Kabul and Other American-Afghan Entanglements, University of Georgia Press.