latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
n the midst of an intellectual movement contending with renewed calls to decolonise knowledge production, adopt postcolonial/decolonial perspectives and decolonize the university, Imagining Afghanistan provides a timely contribution to these critical intellectual approaches. Manchanda’s intervention does not simply offer the field an analysis of the ways in which Afghanistan has been subjected to a series of interconnected imperial incursions. This book goes further, using Afghanistan as a case study to better understand both colonial histories and contemporary foreign policy. Popular discourses of the latter reproduce imperialism both materially and conceptually.
Contributions to this field tend to be limited to an international relations approach, and are often confined within the Eurocentric boundaries that de/anti-colonial scholars seek to dismantle. The conceptual tools provided to us by Manchanda’s use of a cultural theory, however, elevate this text to a significant transdisciplinary contribution to the understanding of international power politics.
It is through the production of culture that racism is primarily spread across the imaginations of state authorities and populations, projecting essentialized cultural traits upon regions, nations, peoples and societies. Since the decline (but by no means disappearance) of theological and scientific racisms, ‘culture’ has not only come to articulate race, but has also become a metonym for it. Manchanda draws on the giants of cultural studies, including Hall, Said and Bhabha, to demonstrate how Afghanistan’s situation offers us an understanding of cultures of imperialism generally, while at the same time being atypical. Afghanistan demands a kind of ‘special treatment’, not simply owing to the tropes we may be familiar with, such as inefficient corruption, cultures stuck in time, or ‘deep ethnic hatreds’. Rather, Afghanistan is, Manchanda asserts, also a ‘blip on the world map’, regarded variously as a buffer against communism, a perpetual warzone or simply a failed state. While there are some parallels with regions such as Somalia and the Balkans, Afghanistan remains the most consistent symbol of these signifiers of instability.
It is through these ideas of unending volatility and violence that such regions can be imagined as areas of military occupation, helpless recipients of aid, and systems in need of political and economic management from external powers. Navigating the delicate balance between the specific and the generalizable is of course a problem faced by critical theorists across a range of fields, and Imagining Afghanistan is a brilliant example of how this can be done well.
Building as it does on the work of cultural and postcolonial theorists, Imagining Afghanistan takes aim at the academic-military complex. Researchers in this field are closely aligned to the state, contributing to data, field manuals and other forms of consultancy for military and intelligence services. By highlighting this convergence of the machinery of the imperial state and academia, Manchanda provides a vivid depiction of the centrality of social scientists in the reimagination of spaces like Afghanistan. It is through these partnerships that foreign policy makers and military practitioners shape perceptions of both Afghanistan and its people, as well as imperial states and their missions. Manchanda’s critical appraisal of this academia-military nexus further underlines the urgency for anticolonial scholarly interventions which stretch beyond the reaches of the academy. These arguments bring into sharper focus the need to decolonize the university, not only because of its historical complicity in Empire building but also because of its ongoing active engagement in contemporary imperialisms.
Enduring stereotypes founded in race-thinking such as Afghanistan as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ are dismantled by Manchanda through archival documents from the colonial and Cold War eras, 21st-century US military literature and mainstream media representation. These analyses offer the reader a way of drawing the threads between these interconnected periods in Afghanistan’s history together. Manchanda demonstrates that, even in military defeat, imperial powers were able to essentialise Afghan people and places in ways which dominated them discursively. Afghanistan provides an illuminating case for this intellectual work, given the manner in which it has been subjected to imperial incursions over the centuries, mobilizing Western moral panics of barbarism, tribalism, martial races, communism and Islamism. These powerful concepts, which seek to dehumanise societies and spaces considered antithetical to Western liberal democracy, will be familiar to many readers.
Vitally, Afghanistan is one of the few regions which bring these tropes together. It is the confluence of racialized imperial discourses which brings alive the ways in which these concepts are not separate stereotypes, projected onto different racialized categories of people and places across different parts of the colonized and postcolonial world. Rather, they are interconnected ideas which arise from imperial powers reinforcing these racialized modes of thinking to suit the circumstances in which their attempts at domination are situated. This intervention is urgent and timely in a context in which, all too often, separations are emphasised between settler colonies and other forms of colonialism, as Robin Kelley has pointed out, or between different racisms, such as anti-Blackness and anti-Muslim racism.
More broadly, Imagining Afghanistan speaks to our current political moment, in which crises of political legitimacy are reanimating a wave of reactionary nationalisms, clamouring to monopolise an imagined national history defined by global prestige, patriarchal norms and a stable racialized order. Here, Stuart Hall’s concept of the moral panic becomes a useful entry point for conceptualizing the many crises currently disorientating states and societies across the world. Critical social and political theorists are contending with economic, ecological and political crises that are too often presented by states as to do with security, crime and national identity. Unable or unwilling to ameliorate the instability facing employment, the climate and democratic freedoms, nationalism and imperialism enter to protect citizens from perceived foreign threats. An imagined Afghanistan is central to the construction of these threats, with the region serving as a potent symbol of chaos, conflict and despotism.
The principle threat to these markers of national identity emanates from the so-called ‘migrant crisis’. Manchanda reminds us that Afghanistan (like migration) is considered principally as a policy or security ‘problem’ which requires solving. The perceived problems of unstable countries abroad and migration from them into the Global North, is of course part-fueled by a moral panic surrounding a threat of Islam. Through a critique of how imperial states frame Islam as a religion, a culture, a socio-political practice or a combination of the three, Manchanda’s book expertly deconstructs the mythologies that surround Islam and how Afghanistan is consequently imagined.
Additionally, the migrant ‘problem’ is also enabled by a combination of colonial amnesia and a disavowal of the connections between US/UK/NATO foreign policy and global migration flows. Imagining Afghanistan provides readers with an analysis which weaves together the historical and international contexts of economic underdevelopment, ecological destruction and militarism. This enables us to better understand how nationalist imperialisms exploit racist moral panics around migration while being one of the key stimulants for migration flows from Global South to North.
The state as a patriarchal force is another crucial component of Manchanda’s offering, providing a meticulously researched yet conceptually vivid appraisal of how gendered tropes are projected onto Afghan society. Again, many readers will be familiar with how Afghan women are deemed uniquely subordinated, while men are framed as wedded to a timeless commitment to patriarchal honour. Imagining Afghanistan expands on feminist critiques of imperial discourses, drawing on evidence from Europe which counters US-centric tendencies that exist in this field. These better enable readers to draw links with how migrants generally, but Muslims in particular, are not simply demonized as an economic burden or a violent threat, but also as the antithesis of an imagined enlightened Western liberal democratic modernity. Here, reactionary nationalists find favour with liberal progressives, who are committed to an imperialist feminism which seeks to save Afghan women from their men, and to liberate Afghan men (if they are willing to surrender) from themselves. This civilizing mission takes place not just through foreign policy discourses and practices but also through the border regimes of the Global North, where states such as Britain compel migrants to learn the language, internalize national values and swear allegiance to the state.
As I write this review, the Biden administration is ordering airstrikes against ‘Iran-backed militants’ in Syria, in response to attacks on US facilities in Iraq. These strikes, and their aftermath, are presented to us uncontroversial, soliciting little critical comment from the press or politicians. It is by imagining the societies upon which this violence is enacted as spaces of despotism, violence and chaos that such acts of war can be relegated to the mundane. We can speculate whether this strike was part of an ongoing military strategy which predates Biden, whether his intention was an assertion of strength in his first months in office, or whether indeed US foreign policy is concerned with fostering democracy in the region. But the focus on this specific military operation should not obscure us from considering the broader web of interconnected discourses, histories and images which produce the targets of aggressive Western foreign policy. Iran, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, together with other spaces of imperial incursion, are not static regions with an objectively recorded history, culture and physical data. They are societies which have been constructed as essentially different from imperial nations, through a complex web of projected discourses that manipulate perceptions in the service of imperialism. Deconstructing these discourses is a vital component of the long intellectual movement against Empire, and Imagining Afghanistan offers a provocative contribution to understanding these issues in the 21st century.
Adam Elliott-Cooper is a research associate in sociology at the University of Greenwich. He is author of Black Resistance to British Policing (2021, Manchester University Press).