Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History


by Thomas Barfield
400 Pages | Buy this book

Barfield delivers a one-stop, full accounting of Afghanistan's geography, people, and history. If it weren't so painstakingly researched and intensely assembled, it could be called "Afghanistan for Dummies." He starts in the premodern era and sweeps up through the present day, charting the country's history through its people and its invaders.

What's The Big Deal?

Despite its near-constant presence in the news since 2001, Afghanistan remains a misunderstood place for most Americans. President Obama has committed 100,000 troops to win back the country from the Taliban. Barfield offers a rigorous anthropological study of the country that has become such a crucial piece of America's international policy.

Buzz Rating: Hum

There's no getting around the fact that this is a piece of scholarship. In other words, it's dense, loaded with complicated names, and structured around a particular research methodology rather than a sweeping and gripping narrative. Wonks, military officers, and politicians will be reading it. Everyone else will be chattering on the sidelines.

One-Breath Author Bio

Thomas Barfield is an anthropologist at Boston University who has written about Afghanistan's indigenous architecture and ancient Chinese history.

The Book, In His Words

"All this focus on war and visiting conquerors overshadows the country's own inhabitants, except as the rough warriors who served as speed bumps on the highway of conquest or more recently earned a reputation for making the place ungovernable. As a result, Afghanistan itself remains just the vague backdrop in a long-running international drama where others hold the speaking parts . . . This book takes a different tack. It views the Afghans themselves as the main players to understand the country and its political dynamics" (page 1).

Judging By The Cover

Why the red? Perhaps because there's so much cause for alarm: the war, the humanitarian catastrophe, the billions in wasted aid dollars. But the color choice may also evoke memories of Afghanistan's communist-era flag from 1979, which would be, ahem, a red herring, because that period was a fleeting anomaly for Afghanistan. Red does hold a place as the middle stripe of the country's current flag and ostensibly represents Afghanistan's fight for independence.

Don't Miss These Bits

1. Don't believe the claim that there will always be insurgencies in Afghanistan. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2009 that Afghanistan "has probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind" (page 320). Barfield disagrees. There have been several civil wars, but most insurgencies were short-lived, he argues. And when Afghans fought back against British invaders, the insurgents dissipated quickly after the foreigners left. In fact, the hardened, long-lasting insurgency is a relatively recent phenomenon, Barfield says, beginning with the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979.

Much like the U.S. strategy today, state-building throughout Afghan history has centered on the creation of a powerful Afghan armed force. When the British first invaded in 1839, they revamped the country's tax system and began to build a national army. And though the British were soon driven out, Dost Muhammad—the leader who then came back to power—found himself armed with an army to rule the entire country. State-building, indeed.

3. The history of Afghanistan is rich and complicated, but Barfield drives home two ever-present facts: a detached elite class rules, and governance is rooted in corruption. The ruling class, while prevalent for centuries, was repeatedly weakened by the interference of foreign invaders, but at the national and provincial level there's still a sharp divide between those deemed capable of ruling and the masses. Corruption foiled many of the British plans for colonizing the diverse peoples inhabiting the country's rugged terrain. It's tough to institute a tax system in a country where officials depend on backroom payoffs.

4. More than anything, what dominates daily life in Afghanistan is one's qawm, or local population and ethnic group. Over the centuries, qawm in Afghanistan has made for a widely fractured political landscape. Pashtuns, long the dominant group, making up about 40 percent of the population, are the largest group and speak Pashto. Tajiks, who make up 30 percent of the country and live mostly in the capital, Kabul, speak Persian and are Sunni Muslim. Next are the Hazaras, who are Shia Muslims and live in the Hindu Kush, which borders Pakistan. Ten percent of Afghans are Uzbek, who are Turkish-speaking Sunnis. Then there are Aimaqs, Nuristanis, Pashai, Qizilbash (they speak Persian, too), Baluchs, Arabs, Pamiris, Jugis, Jats. And don't forget about the 1,000 nomadic Kirghiz living in the Wakhan corridor. Did you catch all that?

Zeitgeist Check

Afghanistan is like a specter come alive: completely forgotten 10 years ago, but the subject of countless books today. Among the best are Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos, Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, and Seth Jones's In the Graveyard of Empires. Unlike these three, however, Barfield's book is anything but polemic—not as sexy, but just as vital.

Swipe This Critique

There are several good maps and interesting diagrams illustrating what is otherwise a hefty, academic tome. But more than 2,000 years' worth of Afghan rulers' names start to blur after a while. For the pounds of research in this book, a timeline and some infographics presenting leaders, eras, and tribal allegiances would have been hugely helpful. (Barfield's already at risk of a short list of readers because of the academic nature of the project—some user-friendly tools could bring another level of readers into the fold.) Maybe there will be an interactive component to the iPad version?

Tic Alert

For a straight academic type, Barfield seems weirdly insistent on funny subtitles. A section on "People and Places" bears the subtitle "And Yes, Even Smaller Groups." Later, in his chapter on pre-modern Afghanistan, he offers up "States and Empires: A Tale of Two Cheeses." (It turns out that premodern Afghanistan doesn't fit the "American" processed cheese form, in which you get the same thing no matter how you cut it.)


Weighty academic prose and dense content make this a slow read, but a worthwhile one.

With a subject matter like Afghanistan, there's no way around long words and hard-to-pronounce names. But Barfield at times compounds those obstacles with clunky academese.

Lofty wags in the ivory tower so often pride themselves on being removed from the politics of the day. But here we have an anthropologist giving the world a much-needed study. Bravo for timeliness!