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Nivi Manchanda’s Imagining Afghanistan has arrived at an important inflexion point in the life cycle of the ever-evolving human disaster that is Afghanistan. Although first appearing in print during the summer of 2020, with the current US drawdown from the country and the seemingly impending collapse of the Kabul government, the work’s arrival could not be more timely or pertinent. Rather paradoxically, Manchanda’s important work on how we imagine Afghanistan is being digested at the very moment so many are intent on forgetting Afghanistan. Yet part of imagination is amnesia, a point which though not explicitly made in her work, is nonetheless resonant with it.
The object of Manchanda’s attentions – Afghanistan – is a place which is at one and the same time is both “under-theorised and over-determined” (2020, 10). Such a double bind has had the effect of transforming Afghanistan from a place full of people, or even an object of policy, to a problem to be solved. Right from the start of her work then, Manchanda notes the utilitarian bent of not only scholarship about, but also the conceptualization of Afghanistan. This is not a place studied for the advancement and enrichment of human knowledge and experience – for humanity to get to know itself both more intimately and more fully. Rather this is a place studied simply to deal with it – or more pointedly to tame it.
Imagining Afghanistan is, in many ways, a difficult book to define. This is 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. Rather, Manchanda skillfully draws upon each to weave a story of how in their collectivity, they have woven an alluring and inescapable vision of Afghanistan which dominates understanding of this place – past, present and future. The author herself acknowledges as much in the opening pages, writing that the book “is situated at the interface of geopolitics and culture, and shows how practices of knowledge production about the Other are deeply implicated in the imperial present” (Manchanda 2020, 9). Moreover, she is both clear and unrepentant regarding the explicit aim of the book – “as an insurgent form of scholarship, as a decolonizing project of political engagement that recognizes the imbrication of the ethical and epistemological, or the intellectual and the political” (Manchanda 2020, 10). As much as Imagining Afghanistan is a work of scholarship, it is also a work of activism and advocacy which not only critiques but self-consciously challenges the entrenched power structures.
Given this conscious positioning of the work – as both one of scholarship and advocacy – then what is its central argument? Simply put, it is this: Afghanistan has been conceptually created – imagined as it were – by the Western academy, popular culture, and political decision makers in ways which render it beholden to timeless tropes – “‘sound bites’ of information about its people” (Manchanda 2020, 22) - with relatively little traction in the everyday lived experiences of those people. In turn, this imagination of Afghanistan has allowed for its invasion and bombing by external powers who sanction their actions through a Foucauldian knowledge/power nexus (Manchanda 2020, 5). But there is more to this than simply how Afghanistan has been conceptualized and conquered. As Manchanda pithily points out, “Afghanistan is not merely socially constructed, but also socially constricted: defined, delineated and spoken for” (2020, 22) This astute observation speaks to both the possibilities entailed by an imagined Afghanistan, as well as the power dynamics which contour them.
One needs to be careful to neither misstate nor overstate her argument or intention, for it could be caricatured that Manchanda’s thesis is simply the way Afghanistan is rendered is ‘incorrect’ – somehow missing some objective, on the ground reality. Such is not the case however. Her work is not about the misdiagnosis of the Afghan predicament – the replacement of one incorrect vision of the Afghan reality for another, better informed and correct one. Rather, it is an incisive critique of how the understandings of this place and its people have been framed, policed, and maintained through time. As such, at its most radical, Imagining Afghanistan challenges the very idea of Afghanistan itself. This is not to say that Manchanda is, in any way, trying to challenge or undermine Afghanistan either as a lived experience or as a coherent, collective community. Manchanda’s aim is not to say Afghanistan is simply the figment of the Western imagination or hangover of colonialism. Instead, it is to interrogate how that imagination, how that historical event, and the processes both have spawned through time continue not only to influence Afghanistan, but in many ways define it. As such, Imagining Afghanistan presents a damning post-colonial critique of what is best described as a proto-colonial creation.
Manchanda directly embraces and addresses the seemingly liminal space that Afghanistan has occupied historically and continues to occupy conceptually. Never formally colonized, the force of post-colonial critiques such as Said’s classic Orientalism do not apply in full effect in this quasi-colonial hinterland. This produces an object not quite fully formed in orientalist discourse familiar to many other parts of the colonial, and now post-colonial world. Afghanistan is at best partial and provisory in the Western imagination – “a semi-institutionalized, quasi-colonial discursive regime” (Manchanda 2020, 227). This produces, in Manchanda’s words, a quality of “disOrient” wherein the proto-colonial nature of Afghanistan’s relationship with European imperialism has subtle, dislocative effects (2020, 6). Manchanda later analysis hints at this further when she refers to Afghanistan “as a space of insufficiency” (2020, 93). This is an intriguing, indeed tantalizing idea and category of analysis which she dangles before the reader, and one with much potential traction. However, as in some of the other parts of the work, the author does not fully follow through on the promise of her pronouncements.
The language of post-colonial theory, while employing that of other, related disciplines, is nonetheless distinct from those disciplines. At times that can be quite jarring, and it can seem that Manchanda’s attacks do not quite hit their mark. An oblique reading of Imagining Afghanistan – by that I mean one which limits itself to the strictures of a particular disciplinary perspective – is the greatest danger the reader runs with this work, as it produces the least rewarding result. But adding the corrective lens of Manchanda’s own framing – post-colonial theory – it quickly becomes clear that her missives land with both precision and devastating intellectual force.
Take, for example, her discussion of the cannon of Afghan national history. There is relatively little here which Manchanda offers to the well-informed historian. Granted, this is a very small community. More importantly, Manchanda makes no inflated claims about either her intervention or its importance. She gives credit where it is rightly due, noting the recent revisionist scholarship of the likes of Shah Mahmud Hanifi and Robert Crews. But her aim is not to speak to historians as historians. Rather it is to use the work of historians as a post-colonial theorist, putting it in conversation with that of political scientists and anthropologists amongst others. While in itself an interesting intellectual exercise, in less capable hands, it could be a largely fruitless one. However in Manchanda’s hands it is an extremely productive undertaking. Not simply through the juxtapositioning of these different disciplinary works, but more importantly through their purposeful and well-considered cross-pollination. In this, Imagining Afghanistan is reminiscent of another outstanding piece of recent scholarship on the country which takes a similarly ambitious disciplinary approach, namely Martin Bayly’s Taming the Imperial Imagination. Indeed, if there is a peer work to Manchanda’s it is Bayly’s. And as with any well paired scholarship, these two in combination make a whole which is greater than the sum of its respective parts.
Imagining Afghanistan’s purposeful interdisciplinarity raises fertile questions and possibilities. In fairness, and gentle critique, not all are fully answered or exploited. As an historian, for example, I was keen to see the intersection between the temporal story Manchanda told and the theory with which she framed it. While in places this was directly addressed, there were many instances where it had to be gingerly teased out. But this is part of the munificence of her writing. In raising, but not answering some of these questions, in identifying but not exploring some of these possibilities, the author invites others to undertake the intellectual journey with her and do the critical work of deconstruction which she so able starts in this volume.
Such collective work can be seen in her engagement with media studies where she offers a trenchant critique of how Afghanistan has, and continues to be portrayed in the popular press. Manchanda intellectually excoriates the media for its largely uncritical repetition of images of Afghanistan as a savage land trapped in the past marked by religious fanaticism, tribal custom, and patriarchal blood feuds. Her indictment resonates with the recent work of Wazhmah Osman whose analysis considers how many of the Western tropes about Afghanistan have been domesticated and shape the conceptual topography of the country from within. The richly nuanced argument and analysis offered in Imagining Afghanistan nests well with other pieces of scholarship with are just now percolating into the published realm.
In sum, Nivi Manchanda’s Imagining Afghanistan is an important and opportune work whose significance will only grow with time. It boldly, indeed in many places, fearlessly forges new intellectual inroads, using post-colonial theory to frame a discussion about Afghanistan and how it is conceptualized entailing history, political science, anthropology, international relations and cultural studies. For its ambition, it will no doubt be criticized. Equally however, for its audacity it should rightly be admired. While the conversation Manchanda begins in these pages is necessarily, and in my reading, self-consciously incomplete, it is absolutely necessary. It will be interesting, as a wave of enforced amnesia slips over Afghanistan following the American withdrawal from the country, how our deadly imagination of the place will carry forward into the future.
Benjamin Hopkins is a professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University (Washington DC). He specializes in the history of Afghanistan - framed globally - and has written widely on the subject, including his new book Ruling the Savage Periphery.