Vending Distorted Afghanistan Through Patriotic ‘Anthropology’

First published in Critique of Anthropology, 2011, 31(3) 256–270

Review Essay: Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010, xi + 389 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-14568-6. $29.95 (hbk)

The destabilization and military occupation of Afghanistan by the United States over the past three decades has triggered the hasty production of a large corpus of writings about the political and socio-cultural dynamics of the country by Euro-American academics, travelers, journalists, and aid and development workers. Anthropologists who have contributed to these writings have become instant ‘authorities’, ‘experts’, ‘specialists’, and ‘old hands’ about the country. Thomas Barfield (aka Thomas Jefferson Barfield III) is one of the most visible members of these groups. He has been referred to as ‘one of America’s foremost authorities on Afghanistan’ (Horton, 2010) and an ‘old Afghanistan hand’ (NA, 2010), and has been ‘asked to occasionally advise policymakers’ (p. x). The tradition of American anthropologists specializing in Afghanistan and advising the U.S. government is not new. Louis Dupree, the ‘dean’ of these specialists, was a well-known CIA operative (Humphrey, 1989). Barfield wrote his Ph.D. dissertation (1978) and a derivative book about the ‘Arabs’ in northern Afghanistan. The book under review has evolved from his published writings about Afghanistan over the past three decades, consisting of a few political commentaries in newsletters, a number of journal articles (none in a peer-reviewed anthropological journal), a few chapters, and conference papers. The framework of this book is available in the author’s three overlapping chapters (1984, 1990, 2005), two journal articles (2002, 2004), and one conference paper (2007). Not all of these writings are cited in his list of references. Barfield is a co-founder and the current president of the eight-year-old American Institute for Afghanistan Studies, a U.S. government funded organization with offices in Boston and Kabul.

The book is ‘presented with a story line’ by a writer who is ‘addicted to narrative (master or otherwise) as any opium smoker is to their pipe. It is useless to chide him for privileging his own interpretations in his own book. It will not stop or even embarrass him’ (p. 15, brackets in the original). To those who might question his interpretation of Afghanistan, the author emphatically says: ‘This is mine’ (p. 16) – a defiant postmodern ‘I did it my way’ roar. In this review the author’s narratives will be received provided they contain cultural and historical validity. He should not be privileged to distort, invent, or misread the cultural, historical, and social realities of the subject. Virtually every page of this book contains various degrees and forms of these features.

The likely audience for this book is the American occupation machinery of Afghanistan. The volume is probably intended as a manual for the American Human Terrain System participants engaged in culture cleansing projects using ‘culture’ to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the tribes in Afghanistan – ‘It is the (Pashtun) tribes, stupid!’ Portions read as lecture notes for roomfuls of American soldiers on their way to the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan. ‘Deploying diplomats, soldiers, and aid workers in particular should pay attention… to [t]his fascinating survey of Afghanistan’ (quote from Ronald E. Newman, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 2005–2007, on the book jacket).

The ‘anthropological approach of this book’ (p. 2) is difficult to discern. Other than citing (but not applying) E.B. Tyler’s classic definition of culture (p. 31), there is nothing anthropological about this book. Even this definition is betrayed as a ‘sociological’ definition (p. 31). The volume is replete with invocations of academic concepts such as state, tribe, nation, nation-state, political elites, without conceptual clarity and explicit cultural and historical substance. No local language sources are used. Incompetence in Farsi and Pashtu is evident in virtually every instance of attempted use of local cultural and linguistic constructs and their English language gloss. The absence of a glossary of local terms is a symptom of this deficiency. Barfield does not speak Dari or any other language of Afghanistan. His claimed ethnographic ‘field work’ and knowledge about Afghanistan seems to have been mediated through the anti-Pashtun filters of three non-Pashtun urban Afghan informants/mentors: ‘Awsif Nawsiri’ (a strained and highly unusual phonetic rendition of Asef Naseri) – his ‘host and friend in Kunduz Province for making [his] research in the 1970s possible’ and for ‘providing so many expert insights on what [Barfield]was observing (pp. x–xi), ‘Neamat Nojoumi, whose experience in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, and search for peace in the aftermath have helped [Barfield] understand that period better’ (p. xi), and ‘Omar Sharifi, the Kabul director of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies’ (p. xi). The first two individuals were members of the American-sponsored non-Pashtun mujahidin ter-rorist gangs of the 1980s and 1990s. All three have been, at one time or another, members of the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, host to the American occupation of Afghanistan. The snippets of Sa’adi’s Persian poetry (pp. 77, 87) are likely contributions of these three Farsi-speaking Afghan urbanite friends of the author.

The author plaintively states that during the early stages of the occupation of Afghanistan ‘[t]ired cliche´ s passed as insights, and few policymakers thought of consulting any Afghans who could not speak English’ and ‘[t]here was, in any event, little appetite for real engagement in Afghanistan after 2002 because the Bush administration was preoccupied with Iraq’ (p. x). To remedy this situation, he aspires to an outlook on Afghanistan that fuses an emic conception by a native Afghan who cannot ‘speak English’ with an etic interpretation by an Afghan-speaking American authority, that is, Thomas Barfield, able to really engage Afghanistan. But few pages later and throughout the book this rhetorical gesture drifts into a blunt rejection of the natives’ ‘boringly self-evident’ (p. 32) emic view of their culture and a boastful but unaccomplished etic offering of a ‘cogently analyzed’ Afghanistan modeled after the 1815 colonial handbook The Kingdom of Caubul by Mountstuart Elphinstone (p. 32).

Chapter 1 offers two conceptual frameworks for the narratives of the author. He outlines abstract selections from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (pp. 56–63) about the relationship between the kinship based solidarity (’asabiya) of desert-dwelling nomadic Bedouin and the differentiated and hierarchical social organization of city life and urban civilization (’umran) in North Africa. Barfield says nothing about the latter and overlooks the wider context of Ibn Khaldun’s model in the sub-Saharan trade and political economies bordering the northwestern parts of the Mediterranean Sea. Only compressed anecdotal examples from the culture of non-Pashtun sedentary rural communities in Afghanistan are cited – probably locations near Kunduz received from ‘Awsif Nawsiri’. Ibn Khaldun wrote about the relationship between desert nomads and cities in North Africa. The role of nomads and their relationships with the cities and towns and their overall role in the cultural, economic, and political history of Afghanistan are not discussed in this survey. The book contains no ethnographic or historical information about the nomads of Afghanistan. Barfield’s abstract discussion of a model designed to address the 14th-century political ecology of social life in the deserts of North Africa produces no anthropological or historical knowledge about forms and relationships involving the pastoral nomads, rural communities, towns, and cities housed in the high-lands and steppes of Afghanistan. Other than its symbolic effect, the invocation of Ibn Khaldun produces little for the understanding of the political economy of Afghanistan. The large corpus of social science literature dealing with and informed by Ibn Khaldun’s classic contribution to the ethnology of the Middle East remains unnoticed in this volume.

It is proposed that, as inheritors of the Turko-Persian and Turko-Mongolian political traditions, rulers in Afghanistan created governing machineries ‘with dual organizations’ (p. 88). ‘Administration was placed in the hands of ‘‘men of the pen’’, literate Persian speakers familiar with government, while military commands were allocated to ‘‘men of the sword’’’ (p. 88), that is, tribal Pashtuns. Barfield suggests that this strategy ‘produced a synthesis that was the political foundation’ (p. 88) of Afghanistan. No ethnographic evidence is offered in support of this important claim. The author is correct about the cultural identity of the ‘men of the pen’ being Persian (and non-Pashtun) in Afghanistan but he is unable to grasp and conceptualize the ethnographic reality and political implications of this powerful non-Pashtun feature of the Afghan state even when such reality is blindingly obvious and available in his own writings. For example, Barfield and the sources he exploits, repeatedly mention the stark presence of Qizilbash, Sayyid, and other non-Pashtun groups without comprehending their cultural distinctness and prominence in the Persianate state apparatus of Afghanistan. As for the identity of the ‘men of the sword’ in Afghanistan being Pashtuns, the cultural, political, and historical realities contradict Barfield’s conclusion.

Chapter 2 deals with the political events that preceded the Anglo-Afghan War of 1839–42. Chapter 3 summarizes political dynamics in Afghanistan during and in the aftermath of this war to the end of the 19th century. Chapter 4 offers accounts of the appearance and disappearance of various governments in Kabul during 1901–2001 – from the reign of Amir Habibullah to the fall of the Taleban regime. Chapter 5 narrates the decline and eventual collapse of the central government of Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s and its subsequent occupation by the Euro-American military forces during the first decade of the 21st century. There is really nothing new here, including the woeful understatement of the role of the United States in the destabilization of Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

The economy of Afghanistan is assumed to be categorically at the (non-surplus producing) subsistence level and is taken to be similar to the peasant economy of early 20th-century Russia. As such, Barfield claims Afghan farmers prefer not to produce surplus and, like the Russian peasants, ‘given a choice between producing more or working less, [Afghan] subsistence farmers opt to work less’ (p. 34), suggesting that Afghan farmers produce only for barter exchanges not for the market in which surpluses and general purpose money would be available. A few pages later (p. 58) the author contradicts this by describing how rural Afghans produce surpluses for exchange in the market with the facilitation of ‘afghanis’, the general purpose money of Afghanistan. Peasants are generally pre-industrial food producers who pay rent or taxes to the owners of the land they farm. As such, Afghan ‘[s]harecroppers are generally neighbors of the landlord from whom they rent the land they farm’ (p. 34); two pages later Afghan ‘[v]illage life is based on households working small plots of land, usually owned by an individual household’ (p. 36, emphasis added). Are Afghan subsistence farmers really ‘peasants’, in an anthropological sense? Or are they ‘penny capitalists’? For either analysis, other than a brief anecdotal example, no situated ethnographic evidence and discussion is offered. And assuming ‘peasantry’, as a typology, to be properly applicable to the pre-industrial agricultural economies of Afghanistan, why are classic theoretical and comparative ethnographic works on peasantry by prominent anthropologists like Eric Wolf and Robert Redfield not used or even cited in this self-styled ‘anthro-pological approach’ to Afghanistan? Here, as throughout this volume, totalizing whisperings of the ‘Culture of Poverty’ resonate in the descriptions of the economic, political, and social life of Afghanistan.

Barfield’s narratives about Afghanistan are assembled from specific and generalized cut-and-pastes from a selection of English language (mostly political science and history) secondary sources. A mysterious and unexplained pattern of modifications of borrowings from these sources by the author, many with substantial consequences for the academic integrity of the book, runs throughout the volume. Here are some examples. In discussing ethnic diversity in Afghanistan, the author quotes Abdul Wali Khan as saying during the 1970s: ‘I have been a Pakistani for thirty years, a Muslim for fourteen hundred years, and a Pashtun for five thousand years’ (p. 20). But the original source uses ‘Pathan’ not Pashtun. The two labels contain significantly different cultural and historical content. Abdul Wali Khan was a well-educated prominent member of the Pakistani political elite. This kind of modernist chronology and the use of the label ‘Pathan’ are out of place in Afghanistan.

The author states that during winter 1842 Akbar had a ‘tribal council reaffirm that [his father] the exiled Dost Muhammad remained the true king’ (p. 125, emphasis added). The original source by M.E. Yapp states: ‘Akbar then summoned [to Kabul] the chiefs (including his father-in-law, Mohammad Shah Khan; urbanite Qizilbash and non-tribal Kohestani leaders) and ’ulama and declared that Dost Muhammad was the true king.’ A Pashtun ‘tribal council’ was and is out of place in the political culture of the Persianate city of Kabul. But more importantly, for Barfield, the jerga, the Pashtun tribal sodality for conflict resolution (and the Kabuli invention, the loya Jerga), appear in virtually all locations of political conflict and instability throughout Afghanistan from 1747 to the present. The jergafication of all political spaces is a major component of the author’s distorted imaginings of Persianate Afghanistan. On page 158 he states that Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman ‘referred to his country as the ‘‘God-granted State of Afghanistan’’’. Asta Olesen’s 1995 book is cited as the source for this phrase. Olesen has not used such a phrase in her published writings. Barfield states that ‘Pashtuns famously proclaimed that they fought for three things, zar, zan, and zamin [gold, woman, and land; in Farsi]’ (p. 185). This popular euphemistic Persian language triangle of Zs is widely used in Persia and Persianate Central and South Asia but not among Pashtuns. The book contains multiple uses of the construct ‘bloody tanistry’ (pp. 88, 102, 107, 135), but the source cited does not use ‘bloody’ as the qualifier for tanistry. The hanafi (lit. pagan) school of Islamic jurisprudence is labeled ‘Hanifi [lit. orthodox, righ-teous] school’ (p. 200) and indexed as ‘Hanifi legal school’ (p. 374). The Pashtu construct ‘loya jirga’ translates as grand assembly not ‘national constitutional assembly’ (p. 186). Hamid Karzai was not asked by the Popalzai tribe ‘to return to southern Afghanistan and lead them against the Taliban’ (p. 289). He arrived in Qandahar on the back of a motorcycle driven by American Special Forces and was appointed by the American-engineered ‘Bonn Conference’ to head the Kabul government.

The author’s cloudy understanding of Afghanistan is often veiled with meta-phorical and poetic language. Several entertaining and imaginative tracks for engaging Afghanistan are suggested; among them: ‘Readers who fear they cannot possibly keep track’ of the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan are invited to think of this diversity as ‘‘‘the Afghan League’’ roster’ (p. 9) – a consortium of groups in which ‘significant’ teams like ‘New York Yankees of Afghan politics’ are easily identifiable. The uneven, thinly layered, and wide distribution of power in Afghanistan is equated with voluminous porous ‘Swiss cheese’ as opposed to the heavier, compact, and condensed ‘American cheese’ (p. 68). And for those who find Barfield’s strained application of Eugene Odum’s ‘mature state or the climax’ model (designed for studying the ecology of trees) to Afghanistan ‘complicated’ (p. 162), the author suggests competence in telling the difference between a shaved head and a ‘permanently bald head… [as] hairless climax state’, suggesting that Afghanistan has yet to produce a permanent or stable bald state (p. 162). Thus, like his predecessors and successors, Abd al-Rahman ‘was a diligent barber’ (p. 163). If the human head was the metaphorical equivalent of a state, the author could have considered that some heads never get bald and the quality, rate, and amount of balding varies from one person to another depending on age, gender, location, diet, environment, and cultural and historical experience.

Without any explanation and provision of context, in a span of less than one page (p. 162), Barfield generates from Odum’s model for growing trees, ‘climax state’, ‘old climax state’, ‘political climax state’, and ‘stable climax state in the ‘‘political ecology’’ of Afghanistan’. No discussion or ethnographic illustrations are offered for these varieties of ‘climax state’. On page 32, in an anonymous quotation, he refers to the Indian currency ‘kaldar’ (p. 32, from Kaladar). The Afghan currency is ‘afghani’or ‘rupia’. The cultural and social context for this quote is not provided. However, reference to Kaldar will not be found in Afghanistan, especially northern Afghanistan, where Barfield claims to have con-ducted ‘fieldwork’ during 1975. Throughout the book Barfield’s Orientalist lenses wax poetic about the stereotypical and essentialized Afghan Other. ‘Afghans pro-vide only an unchanging, turbaned chorus… of rough warriors who served as speed bumps on the highway of conquest’ in their long history where others ‘hold the speaking parts’ (pp. 1–2).

There are numerous instances in which the author’s ‘this is mine’ attitude imposes unexplained modification on the writings of others. Here are some examples. On the authority of Stephen Tanner’s 2002 book Barfield claims that ‘[i]f Ayub had immediately followed up on his victory, he could have easily captured Qandahar’ and ‘even without occupying Qandahar, had Ayub chosen to march north on Kabul, the country would have risen with him’ (p. 144). Tanner makes no such assertions. And, for unstated reasons, Barfield changes Tanner’s stated 320 miles distance from Kabul to Kandahar to 324 miles. Tanner’s 20 days for this trip by General Fredrik Roberts become Barfield’s 23 days (p. 144). On page 74 Barthold’s ‘[w]hat have subjects to do with war?’ becomes Barfield’s ‘[w]hat do subjects have to do with war?’ On page 79 in a long quotation from Ibn Khaldun ‘making use of some religious colouring’ becomes Barfield’s ‘making use of religious coloring’; Ibn Khaldun’s ‘The reason for this is that because of their savagery’ becomes Barfield’s ‘The reason is because of their savagery’; ‘the Bedouins are the least willing of nations to subordinate themselves to each other’ becomes Barfield’s ‘the Bedouins are the least willing of all nations to subordinate them-selves to each other’; ‘then they have some restraining influence in themselves’ becomes ‘then they have some restraining influence upon themselves’. The long quotation on pages 157–8 about the differential treatment of Pashtuns by Abd al-Rahman attributed to Kakar (1979) cannot be located in the source cited.

The relationship between King Zahir and Mohammad Daud in the context of the dynamics of the Kabul government apparatus had little to do with their tribal ‘tarburwali’ (p. 190, patrilateral male cousin rivalry). Daud and Zahir were child-hood playmates and schoolmates in France during the 1920s. Daud, the older of the two, was addressed by Zahir Khan with the honorific nickname Agha Lala (Farsi, incomparable lord) and was married to Zahir’s sister. The overthrow of the king in 1973 had much to do with the emergent power of leftist political parties, the increasing number of their supporters among the Soviet-educated officer corps of the Afghan armed forces (e. g. Aslam Watanjar), and their approval of Daud’s pro-Soviet policies than jealousy between two cousins.

In Chapter 4 Barfield narrates the story of Nadir Khan’s capture of Kabul and his ascendance to kingship. He notes the role of ‘a tribal lashgar [sic] of twelve thousand Wazir tribesmen from the British side of the frontier assembled by his younger brother Shah Wali Khan’ (p. 195). This and related narratives about the Musahiban rule in this and other Western historical accounts have little ethno-graphic and historical grounding. Contrary to what Barfield claims, Nadir was transferred from France to Afghanistan by the British in early 1929, immediately after the fall of Amanullah Khan. He and his brothers were lodged in Dean’s Hotel, Peshawar. The Waziri militia was organized and subsidized by the British and put under the command of their Sindhi agent, Allah Nawaz Khan, with orders to help Nadir capture Kabul. Some of the Wazir leaders (e.g. Zar Khan, Aseel Khan, my neighbors during the 1930s–50s) stayed on in Kabul and received sub-sidies from the Musahiban governments. Allah Nawaz Khan became Nadir’s Sar Monshi (chief secretary). He later became minister of public works and ambassador to Berlin where he died and where his descendents currently live.

During the early months of Nadir’s rule the British provided him with gifts of large quantities of arms and military uniforms including helmets that they had captured from the German army during the First World War. (These helmets were worn by the Afghan army until recent years when they were replaced by used Eastern European military headgear). Nadir reciprocated this support by recognizing the existing treaties with the British. King Nadir did not name his brother ‘Shah Wali Khan as the minister of war and commander in chief, and Shah Mahmud as the minister of the interior’ (p. 190). Shah Mahmud was appointed minister of war. Shah Wali was named ambassador to Paris. On pp. 198–9 Barfield generalizes about the Musahiban government policies and programs without reference to any ethnographic and historical evidence and documentation. Many of these claims are baseless. The author’s categorical assertion that ‘the Musahiban gradually marginalized the clergy and Sufi order leaders who played a powerful role in the 1930s’ (p. 198–9) is contradicted by historical facts. For example, the Hazrat of Shor Bazaar (and his family, leaders of the Naqshbandia Sufis) and Said Ahmad Gailani (and his family [the ‘naqibs’], leaders of the Qadiriya Sufis) were at the height of their influence in the civil and political society of Afghanistan during the reigns of Nadir Khan and Zahir Khan, 1929–73. Barfield’s book is uninformed by Iran’s participation in the demarcation of the western borders of modern Afghanistan. Turkey helped mediate the delineation of these borders (Khalili, 2010; Mojtahed-Zadeh, 2004).

In discussing ‘Large Groups’ (p. 24) in Afghanistan, Barfield inserts the concept of ‘clan’ (p. 25) into Pashtun tribal organization. A Pashtun tribe is a patrilineal descent group. It consists of a number of what anthropologists call ‘minimal’, 2–3localized generations in which one can claim and demonstrate membership, and one or more ‘maximal lineages’, five or more dispersed generations in which one can claim but cannot demonstrate membership. Among Pashtuns maximal lineages are inclusive of minimal lineages. Unlike clans, Pashtun lineages may be endogamous; and they are not totemic. I cannot find reference to ‘maximal-descent groups’ (p. 25) in anthropological literature. Two other levels of distortion and confusion are imposed on Pashtun social organization and identity. Khel, usually (and especially among eastern Pashtuns) a political category (as in Jabarkhel, Babakarkhel, etc.), is confused with zai, a descent group (as in Ahmadzai, Noorzai, etc.). Not all Pashtun genealogies trace the descent of the Ghalzis through Qais’ daughter (see Hanifi, 2004). Barfield locates all Ghalzi Pashtuns in the highlands of eastern Afghanistan overlooking the fact that Hotaks and Tokhis are located in the flatlands of southwestern Afghanistan. The ecological context of these Pashtuns is critical for the understanding of the emergence of a powerful political hierarchy during the 18th century among the Hotak Ghalzis in Qandahar. The Ghalzi confederation consists of two branches, eastern and western.

Like most Western scholars of Afghanistan Thomas Barfield is trapped in the ideology of Afghanophilia, in which, depending on the level of cultural competence of the author, every form of identity in Afghanistan is either conflated with or differentiated from ‘Afghan’, and Pashtunophobia, a syndrome in which Pashtuns (especially Ghalzis for Barfield) are the chronic disrupters and opponents of the state. To Western eyes, Pashtuns are lurking everywhere in Afghanistan (and in earlier centuries all over northern South Asia) engaged in mischief, destabilization, lawlessness, bravery, killing infidels, living in tribes, engaged in segmentary politics, doing tarburwali (patrilateral parallel cousin rivalry among males). Yet, ironically, to Barfield they are the producers and rulers of the state structure of Afghanistan! Throughout the book ‘Afghan’ and ‘Pashtun’ are conflated and inter-changeably used without the realization that Pashtuns seldom identify themselves as ‘Afghan’. This is perhaps partially caused by the highly contested and variant meanings of the label ‘Afghan’ throughout the region’s cultural and historical landscape and the author’s inability to understand this contested local cultural complexity.

Pashtun political domination of Afghanistan is the master narrative of this volume; it invades all locations of power in Afghanistan. Pashtuns are the ‘profes-sional rulers’ and ‘hereditary elite’ (p. 3) of Afghanistan. Pashtunwali is invoked repeatedly as the causal agency of the behavior of Pashtun tribes and the alleged Pashtun rulers of Afghanistan from 1747 to present. But this is done with a con-fused and contradictory understanding of this concept. To Barfield Pashtunwali is a ‘code of conduct’ (p. 25), a ‘code of principles thoroughly rooted in the primacy of maintaining honor and reputation’ (p. 59), a‘code of behavior’ (p. 138), a ‘code of honor, which placed a great emphasis on personal autonomy and resistance to state power’ (p. 185), ‘the cultural code of the Pashtuns’ (p. 261), the ‘obligation of hospitality’ (p. 268), a ‘mind-set’ undergirded by ‘political autonomy’ (p. 286). However, ethnographically understood, Pashtunwali is a complex system of cultural values that produces the charter for Pashtun identity and social behavior. This charter consists of three interconnected features. Pashtu laral (having Pashtu) through a procreative patrilineal relationship with a minimal and maximal Pashtun lineage; Pashtu kawal (doing Pashtu) through behavior such as being generous, sharing food (melmastia, literally, hosting guests), giving refuge and protection in political, social, and physical spaces under one’s control (nanawatay), taking revenge (badal, exchange, balanced reciprocity), maintaining honor (nang), avoid-ing shame (sharm); and Pashtu wayal (speaking Pashtu), competence in speaking Pashtu as one’s mother or first language.

No king, amir, ruler, ruling elite, and ruling dynasty of Afghanistan discussed in this book exhibits all these features – especially Pashtu kawal and Pashtu wayal – simultaneously. The last of these dynasties (Musahiban, 1929–78) is disqualified as Pashtuns by what the author himself states: ‘the old Persian-speaking Muhammadzai elite was displaced by eastern, mostly Ghalzai, Pashtuns’ (p. 226). Based on the ethnographic and historical record there is nothing culturally, linguistically, and behaviorally Pashtun about the Sadozi and Mohammadzi dynasties of Afghanistan. Nothing qualifies these dynasties as Pashtun except their own tactfully constructed claim, in which the numerical majority and historical prestige of Pashtun tribes and tribal culture is manipulated in order to dominate Afghanistan and keep Pashtuns at a safe distance from the Persianate center of the kingdom of Kabul. Starting with Mountstuart Elphinstone, Western Orientalism incorporated and reproduced this political invention in locations of centralized power in Afghanistan. Barfield’s book is the latest inheritance of this cultural and historical shadow play.

The official court history of Ahmad Khan Abdali (Husaini, 1974 [1773]) con-tains no reference to Ahmad Khan as having, doing, or speaking Pashtu. The words Pashtu and Pashtun are not mentioned in this official history of the founder of the so-called Durrani empire. Nor is there any textual reference in Barfield’s narratives that connects Abdali, Durani, Sadozai, and Ahmad Khan’s numerous looting forays into India and Khorasan with Pashtu, Pashtuns, Pashtun tribes, or Pashtunwali. Ahmad Khan Abdali was born in Multan, raised in Herat, and groomed in the Persianate court of Emperor Nadir Shah Afshar (1738–47). His sons were named: Suleiman Mirza, Timur Mirza, Chehab Mirza, Sanjar Mirza, Yazdan Bakhsh Mirza, Sekandar Mirza, Dara Mirza, Parwaez Mirza. These constructs are out of place in the teknonymic traditions of Pashtuns and Afghanistan in general. It would have been very helpful if Barfield had informed his readers about the Pashtun cultural and social features of Ahmad Khan Abdali and his government including the Jerga that allegedly elected him ruler in 1747. What does ‘Abdali’ mean? Why, how, and under what conditions was this label changed to ‘Durrani’? What was Pashtun about Timur Shah and his Qizilbash-dominated harem, court, and government? What does Mountstuart Elphinstone say about Shah Shoja’s court in Peshawar during 1809? What was Pashtun about Dost Mohammad, Mohammad Akbar, and Sher Ali (was the latter a Shi’a? Dost Mohammad’s mother was)? What was Pashtun about Abd al-Rahman, Habibullah, Amanullah, Nadir, Zahir, and Daud? The Mosahiban brothers (Mohammad Yousuf and Mohammad Asef, father and uncle of Nadir respec-tively) were exiled to India by General Fredrik Roberts in 1880. King Nadir was born and raised in Dehra Dun, India, where he received military training with the artillery units of the British army. Nadir and his brothers (Aziz, Hashem, Shah Wali, Shah Mahmoud) did not speak Pashtu; they spoke Urdu, and broken English and Farsi.

Farsi (called Dari since 1958) has been and continues to be the lingua franca of Persianate Afghanistan as a state, as a polity, as a political economy, as a market, and as the subject of Western academic discourse. Pashtuns never dominated or ruled Afghanistan. Those who doubt this reality should carry out a simple empirical ethnographic exercise. Based on a vast amount of theoretical and ethnographic comparative literature on language as a tool of domination and construction of relations of power in multi-ethnic and multilingual societies like Afghanistan, the language of the dominant ethnic group (even when this group is a numerical minority) is the language with which structures of political and economic power are articulated, and it is the local or original speakers of this language who enjoy privileged access to these structures of power. The dominant group is invariably monolingual in its own language. On the other hand, the dominated groups are overwhelmingly bilingual. They are forced to learn, alongside their own language, the language of the dominant group. Let us now ask the doubters: Which ethnic group in Afghanistan was overwhelmingly monolingual? Which ethnic groups were overwhelmingly bilingual or trilingual? If the doubters correctly answer these questions, their persistent claim about the domination of relations of state power in Afghanistan by Pashtuns loses its ethnographic and historical moorings. During a required ceremonial encounter with King Zahir in summer 1970, I was instructed by his Persianate secretariat to not speak in Pashtu with his majesty because he was ‘tired’ that afternoon! King Zahir spoke Farsi and some French, learned during his father’s stay in France during the late 1920s.

Pashtu and Pashtunness are distinct from the label ‘Afghan’ and are marginal to the structure and operations of the Persianate state of Afghanistan. No matter how the domination of Pashtuns in Afghanistan is imagined and articulated by Western scholars, the syntactic form de Pashtun dawlat (Pashtu, Pashtun state) – the taken-for-granted (explicit or implicit) core of their conceptualization of Afghanistan, does not occur in their writings because it is inconsistent with local cultural and historical realities. These realities reject Barfield’s master narrative – the Pashtun domination of Afghanistan. On page 167 the author introduces quantitative data in support of his claim for the Pashtun domination of Afghanistan. He uses biographical information collected by the political scientist Barnett Rubin from a few Farsi-speaking Kabuli informants in support of his claim that Pashtuns dominate Afghanistan. Although, like Barfield, Rubin is convinced that the Mohammadzi Kabulis were Pashtuns, in a momentary Freudian slip, he sponta-neously constructs a phrase which makes the unavoidable and ethnographically correct distinction between ‘Pashtuns and Mohammadzais’ – as two distinct ethnic and power groups – in the middle of the paragraph which Barfield quotes. Moreover, in the list of 112 ‘Political Actors in Afghanistan, 1973–1994’ provided in Rubin’s Appendix B, only 35 are explicitly identified as ethnic Pashtuns. Barfield does not cite this list.

The backdrop for Barfield’s understanding of the cultural history of Afghanistan is the ‘Durrani Empire’ (interchangeably used with the ‘Afghan Empire’, p. 11) and its operators, the ‘Durrani rulers (1747–1978)’ (p. 4). These rulers ‘may have originated in an egalitarian Pashtun tribal system’ (p. 4). On this basis it is taken for granted by this author (and virtually all other Western writers), that from 1747 to 1978 Afghanistan was ruled and dominated by Pashtuns, not only Durrani Pashtuns but Pashtuns in general. And the derivatives of their culture such as Jerga, Loya Jerga, Pashtunwali, Tarburwali are the defining features of the structure and operations of the ruling machineries of Afghanistan. Barfield obsessively, but mistakenly, believes ‘Pashtuns… constituted the country’s ruling elite’ (p. 25).

Based on the historical record for mid-19th-century Afghanistan, Malcolm Yapp (1964: 380) states: ‘[t]here is no concept of a political unit called Afghanistan nor of any people called Afghans’. Nor has there ever been any ethnographic and historical evidence about the presence of a collective consciousness of an Afghan ‘nation’ discernible in the cultural, political, and social realities of Afghanistan. Barfield’s attempted construction of the Afghan ‘national character’ confirms this:

Few people in the world, particularly in the Islamic world, have maintained and [sic] unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were non believers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pashtuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent. (p. 42)

These local and regional divisions cited here between Sunnis and Shi’a and between Uzbeks and other Afghans are glaring contradictions of what Barfield later observes as ‘a strong sense of national unity’ (p. 278) in Afghanistan in the last paragraph of his book. These deep cultural and historical divisions have never been mediated and woven into a collective ‘national’ conscious in Afghanistan.

After scolding the insolent and divided people of Afghanistan, the consultant to empire offers consolation with a blatantly distorted version of the American-sponsored assembly-line ‘Soviet war’ (aka ‘jihad’ – holy war) fought by Afghan ‘Freedom Fighters’:

The belief that Afghanistan was an artificial creation doomed to collapse was rooted in confusion between the effectiveness of its state institutions and the cohesion of its people. In 2001, Afghanistan was a failed state but not a failed nation. Its lack of an effective central government was counterbalanced by a strong sense of national unity forged during the Soviet war as well as the refugee experiences in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. In living as refugees abroad and fighting the Soviets at home, the Afghans came to realize that what united them far outweighed the differences that divided them. This sense of national unity was not rooted in an ideology of nationalism but rather in the will of its people to persist together united by a common experience that transcended ethnic differences. Despite the collapse of central authority and the rise of ethnically based militias during the civil war, Afghans never feared that their country might disintegrate. (pp. 277–8)

Barfield believes that the dishonoring and killing of Russians by the United States on Afghan soil, and the consequent trampling of the Afghan state and the production of 5 million Afghan refugees has paid a dividend which he calls ‘national unity’. These astonishing imaginings are totally divorced from the realities of what has really happened to Afghanistan by the agency of Cold War combatants. Only a sleep-walking, wishful, and perhaps guilt-ridden American patriot bloodied by the Cold War can think like this.

The patriotic anti-communist sentiments of Thomas Barfield are crudely and cynically tucked into this political text just as such sentiments have framed much of the post-Second World War American scholarship of Afghanistan. Barfield blatantly understates and sugarcoats the American destruction of Afghanistan. Ethnic and regional divisions among the people of Afghanistan were used and amplified by the United States through the production of the so-called ‘Freedom Fighters’ terrorists groups and their mass-produced jihad. Sectarian, ethnic, and regional forces defined the organization and operations of these criminal gangs. A glance at the publications of these terrorists during the 1980s and 1990s confirms the exacerbated ethnic and sectarian divisions and the hostility between the Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns and between Sunnis and Shi’as. The consequences of these divisions are starkly reflected in the fragmented and strained political dynamics of present-day Afghanistan. The American imperial presence in Afghanistan, to which Barfield offers his advice, is now fighting the Pashtuns, and is in accord with Barfield’s Pashtunophobia in this book. The non-Pashtuns of Afghanistan (some of whom are Barfield’s friends and informants) invited the American armed forces to invade their country and are begging them to stay in Afghanistan. For an analysis of the American-sponsored fragmentation of Afghanistan see Hanifi (2000, 2004, 2010).

The final paragraph of the book summarizes its motives and objectives. Writing as though he was the spokesman for General David Petraeus, Barfield lectures the Pashtuns of Afghanistan to follow the example of the Pakistani Ghafar Khan (a follower of Mahatma Gandhi) and become development-oriented pacifists who would not resist military occupation and local culture cleansing projects under-taken by imperial America (p. 350). Using the template of Ghafar’s movement, the author commands the Pashtuns (or is it Afghans!) of Afghanistan to give up their history, become detribalized pacifists, and submit to the American occupation that Barfield and his book serve so well.

The subject of this manual has become academically and politically wrapped up in the ideologies of the ‘Cold War’, Islamophobia, and the delusional obsession with Afghanistan as the mythical cradle of ‘tribe’ and ‘terrorism’ about to hit America. This blinding ideological effect and the sorry state of Western scholarship on Afghanistan over the last 60 years are perhaps the reasons why two prominent Western social scientists specializing in South and Southeast Asia would receive this work with such uncritical and extravagant language on its jacket: ‘Barfield’s book will become the single best source on Afghan history and politics virtually overnight. His deep knowledge of Afghanistan enables him to range widely and knit together a very coherent narrative with a conceptual clarity that is pretty rare. A great deal of learning is evident here, but Barfield wears it lightly’ (James C. Scott). ‘Barfield’s book is an excellent general introduction to the country…’ (Magnus Marsden). Barfield’s free-for-all yuppie narratives contain little to which the academic labels anthropology and history can properly be applied. Patriotic anthropology driven by Cold War and War on Terror ideologies is a suitable label. Given the dire need in Afghan scholarship for new insights and directions, this manual for the American war in Afghanistan is a material and symbolic setback.

If there could be a positive feature of this book, it is its (however raw) attempt to impose a theoretical framework on the theoretically barren Western scholarship of Afghanistan. Its deficiencies are reflections of the overall poverty of this scholarship. Exposing this condition could hopefully set in motion a more culturally informed and theoretically robust cycle of anthropological and historical engagement of Afghanistan. As noted by Ambassador Newman, this is a book made for the American occupation forces in Afghanistan. Barfield’s prefacing of ‘his own book’ with the emphatic ‘this is mine’ blast echoes the American imperial insistence on plodding through Afghanistan with bombs, bayonets, and distorted understandings of the cultural and political content of the ‘Human Terrain’ of Afghanistan reproduced in this popular handbook for empire.

The invasion and destruction of Afghanistan by the United States boosted Thomas Barfield’s institutional academic fortunes at Boston University from a ‘useless faculty who purveyed esoteric and irrelevant knowledge to the young without fear of termination’ (p. x) to ‘one of America’s foremost authorities on Afghanistan’ and adviser to its war machine. If this book is a glimpse into the kind of advice Thomas Barfield has shared with the American imperial enterprise in Afghanistan we can be sure that this destructive business is fundamentally a scam in which ‘the blind lead the blind’, with Barfield and others like him in the lead. The young students who were on the receiving end of Barfield’s expatiations not only received ‘irrelevant knowledge’ but were exposed to distorted and inaccurate representations of the country which Barfield has vended as his specialty and with which he has accumulated substantial academic, economic, and political capital.


Sources not listed below are cited in Barfield’s book.


Barfield TJ (1990) Tribe and state relations: the inner Asian perspective. In: Khoury PS and Kostiner J (eds) Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 153–182.

Barfield TJ (2002) On local justice and culture in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Connecticut Journal of International Law 17(3): 437–443.

Barfield T (2004) Problems in establishing legitimacy in Afghanistan. Iranian Studies 37(2): 263–293.

Barfield TJ (2007) Weapons of the not so weak in Afghanistan: Pashtun agrarian structure and tribal organization for times of war and peace. Paper given at the Agrarian Studies Colloquium Series. Yale University, 23 February.

Hanifi MJ (2000) Anthropology and the representation of recent migrations from Afghanistan. In: Gozdziak EM and Shandy DJ (eds) Rethinking Refuge and Displacement. Washington: American Anthropological Association, 291–321.

Hanifi MJ (2004) Editing the past: colonial production of hegemony through the ‘Loya Jerga’ in Afghanistan. Iranian Studies 37(2): 295–322.

Hanifi MJ (2010) Causes and consequences of the destabilization of Afghanistan. Afghanistan, 1979–2009: In the Grip of Conflict. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 23–26.

Horton S (2010) Afghanistan: Six Questions for Thomas Barfield. Harper’s Magazine (online), May 5. Available at:

Humphrey G (1989) A tribute to the late Dr. Louis Dupree. Congressional Record – Senate 35(52): S4649–S4650.

Al-Husaini M (1974 [1773]) Tarikh-e Ahmad Shahi (Farsi, History of Ahmad Shah), 2 vols. Reprinted. Moscow: USSR Academy of Sciences.

Khalili K (2010) Yad-dasht-ha-ye Ustad Khalilullah Khalili (Memoirs of Khaliullah Khalili; in Farsi). Herndon, VA: All Prints.

Mojtahed-Zadeh P (2004) Small Players of the Great Game: The Settlement of Iran’s Eastern Borders and the Creation of Afghanistan. London: Routledge.

NA. (2010) Review note. Foreign Affairs 89(5): 168. Available at:

Yapp ME (1964) The revolutions of 1841–2 in Afghanistan. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 27(2): 333–381.

3 thoughts on “Vending Distorted Afghanistan Through Patriotic ‘Anthropology’

  1. Maximilian Forte

    Jamil, you quote this in the article above, but I want to repeat it here, as it comes from an anthropologist widely touted as a radical scholar, an anarchist, etc.:

    “Barfield’s book will become the single best source on Afghan history and politics virtually overnight. His deep knowledge of Afghanistan enables him to range widely and knit together a very coherent narrative with a conceptual clarity that is pretty rare. A great deal of learning is evident here, but Barfield wears it lightly.”–James C. Scott, author of Seeing Like a State

    That can be found here:

    It leads me to think that “American anthropology,” is really a propitious term, as it is always first American–regardless of the so-called anarchist, Marxist, or whatever other signifier of “radicalness” one chooses. Scott is thus reinforcing a hegemonic perspective on what is itself a product of American hegemony. It also makes me wonder how American-trained Afghan anthropologists can unbind themselves from the constraints of their teachers, given that some do, and clearly some do not.

  2. rolandrjs

    Interesting Review and important comment, Max. David Graeber comes to mind, although he spent a long time in Britain–maybe that helped him see through the ‘Americanization’ filters.

    Unfortunate to see the usually-realable Scott Horton (Harper’s) having taken the bait on this one.

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