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Book Review: Afghan Modern

By (September 12, 2015) No Comment

Afghan Modern:afghan modern cover

The History of a Global Nation

by Robert D. Crews

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015

Stanford history professor Robert Crews opens his new book Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation with a frank assessment of obstacles faced by any attempt to present Afghanistan as anything other than the “desolate, inward-looking, and isolated place” it’s always been in the popular imagination:

In this “graveyard of empires,” everything is different. Ancient tribes reign supreme, undergirded by patriarchy and xenophobic religious authority. Ethnic chauvinism trumps ideas. And loyalty goes to the highest bidder. A French ethnologist sketched out most of this forbidding picture already in the late nineteenth century when he wrote, “The Afghans do not have a history, because anarchy has none.”

In attempting to, as he puts it, re-imagine Afghanistan on a broader canvas, Crews sets out to tell the story of a people, starting from their early pre-modern centuries as objects of conquest for alien empires and moving briskly to the contentious 20th century, crucially the 1978 revolution and the ten-year war it precipitated with the Soviet Union. Entire books have been written about all of these individual epochs, and Crews does a masterful job of staying both concise and interesting. But surely most of his readers will focus their attention on the later chapters of his book, when he examines the constant state of war that’s become synonymous with Afghanistan in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and attempts to thread his strand of doggedly hopeful re-evaluation through even the increasingly heavy bad news bombardment the modern era unleashes.

It’s a nearly-impossible task, so it’s no denigration to Crews that he largely fails at it. His thesis is that Afghanistan has always been a more global and diffusive nation than it’s given credit for being, and his accounts of such phenomena as the deadly eternal conflict between Shia and Sunni or the rise of the Taliban are so stubbornly even-handed that they almost paradoxically end up being distorted. To take one example, there’s the 1995 incident when a Russian Airstan transport plane was forced down to Kandahar Airport by Taliban warplanes and its pilots were held for ransom by the Taliban. Crews’s account is all but unrecognizable:

Like previous Afghan governments, the Taliban craved international legitimacy. One of their first encounters with the world involved the detention of Russian pilots whose plane they forced to land in Kandahar. The Taliban were determined to be treated like a state in their negotiations with Moscow. The pilots were eventually allowed to leave, though the Russians claimed they executed a heroic escape (a film was later made about the incident), but insiders said the Russians paid, in effect, a ransom.

In such an account it’s not just the dangerous euphemisms employed – although “encounter with the world” should never be used synonymously with “terrorist attack’; it’s also the dodgy over-emphasizing of equality invoked by that wink-wink suggestion that the Russians surreptitiously paid a ransom and, by implication, played the whole hostage game on a level playing field. Crews bases his knowing mention of “insiders” on one Afghan source, but the fact that the Russian pilots overpowered their captors and effected an escape was well-documented by the Western press, and it’s part of the dead-weight resistance to Crews’s theme that no single person in the world other than himself, presented with a choice of believing an Afghan news source or the BBC and the Washington Post, would choose the former. And it’s important to note what Crews’s account fails to mention, which is that taking hostages to get what you want is not in any way a demonstration of international legitimacy. It’s the act of a brigand state. It’s the kind of thing illegitimate states do.

The dissonance grows deafening in the book’s closing chapters. The book’s description of a resurgent and growingly vital Kabul, for instance, is  sharply at odds with the actual experience of walking the streets of the city, which is something nobody in the world – very much including Kabul’s current inhabitants, haunted every hour of every day by the threat of suicide bombers and moral-police thugs – would voluntarily choose to do. New neon signs over weightlifting gyms are mighty thin compensations the brutal suppression of women, non-Muslims, and racial minorities; the slight glimmerings of a nightlife don’t do much to cut the darkness of a crime state enthusiastically financing international terrorism with the profits that come from being the world’s leading producer and exporter of opium and cannabis.

It’s difficult in fact to know what Crews might see as the purpose of his book. In part he certainly wants to rehabilitate the international view of Afghanistan, but to what end, when almost all the facts are against the task? When he writes a line like “The American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 inaugurated a new era of Afghan globalism,” even his most sympathetic reader won’t know whether to laugh or cry.