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n the context of examining the relationship between race, war, and policing in the United States, Nikhil Pal Singh (2017: 35) writes that, “Policing makes race and race has defined the objects of police at the point where relations of force take primacy.” In a way, this dynamic is what Nivi Manchanda seeks to untangle in her book Imagining Afghanistan. Not only because Afghanistan is one of many sites in which the practices of American war craft and race craft have evolved and been fine-tuned (although the book is by no means focused solely on the United States). But also because policing is inextricably linked to knowledge production as a practice of order making, and it is the relationship between knowledge production, racism, and war that Manchanda wants to understand in terms of how Afghanistan is conceptualized. As she puts it, the driving questions of her investigation are: “’how is Afghanistan thought about in a way such that it is possible to invade and bomb it?’ and ‘what are the sources of authority that sanction the discourses that make that act of invasion permissible and possible in the first place?’” (Manchanda 2020: 5).
Race, war, and order making find themselves intertwined in particular and often surprising ways in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the story of how Afghanistan has been thought of and represented by the West is a narrative familiar to scholars of postcolonialism and Orientalism. But on the other hand, Afghanistan seems to also occupy a liminal space in these representations – what Manchanda calls the ‘disOrient.’ Afghanistan neither fully fits under epistemological frameworks of colonial governance nor is it viewed as a completely ungovernable space. How race, war, and knowledge production come to shape Afghanistan in this quasi-colonial conceptualization is one of the book’s significant contributions and Manchanda traces this through various registers in the chapters including formulations of the state of Afghanistan, the idea of the ‘Tribe,’ and representations of Afghan women and men.
For example, in part of the second chapter Manchanda examines this idea of the quasi-colonial through frontier governmentality. As she writes:
“Whereas the ethnographic or colonial state sought to define and document each aspect of the area and peoples under its jurisdiction, on the Afghan frontier the British were concerned largely with the management of unruly tribesmen, never seriously intending to convert them into compliant subjects of empire. The frontier, as a discursive formation was left fundamentally incomplete, its contours outlined but its substance hazy” (Manchanda 2020: 94).
Frontier governmentality, as Manchanda argues, is one based on division and demarcation, determining who is deemed governable and who is seen to be less governable. In this hazy space of the frontier, knowledge of the Other is produced in different but no less violence-producing ways. While her study of this is specific to Afghanistan, what other spaces and practices of quasi-coloniality find parallels here?
Because of the questions it poses and the way it trains its lens on the race-war-knowledge production nexus, Manchanda’s book is of interest to scholars from a wide range of fields. In relation to my own research, Imagining Afghanistan adds an important contribution to a growing body of scholarship looking at the longer imperial and colonial histories of war and intervention that shape contemporary practices of war-making and policing, and the intersections between the two. In this review forum we have brought together scholars whose research can be categorized as multi/trans/inter/anti-disciplinary to write about their engagements with Imagining Afghanistan. One of the common themes across these reflections is how Manchanda’s text can further efforts to decolonize the university (and the multiple disciplines that her book takes aim at). This links to the importance of insurgent scholarship, as Manchanda reflects on in her response at the end of this forum. She ends her book writing that:
“My hope is that Imagining Afghanistan has provided up with the preliminary intellectual resources to begin working towards such a politics, one that stems not from the logics of distancing and disavowal but is instead an ethical challenge to the processes of racism, and sexism, violent accumulation and dispossession that inhere in the colonizing project.” (Manchanda 2020: 229).
As you’ll see, many of the reviews below engage with the question of what it means to take up this call.
Singh, NP (2017) Race and America's Long War. University of California Press.
Katharine Hall is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.