Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present
Jonathan L. Lee, Reaktion, $69.99
There is an old story – no longer quite as funny as when I first heard it – about a traveller visiting Afghanistan. "When did you arrive?", asks a local. "Yesterday." "When are you leaving?" "Tomorrow." "What are you doing here?" "I'm writing a book."' "What's its title?' "Afghanistan – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow."
No one, fortunately, could accuse Jonathan Lee of being an author of that kind, and his monumental new book, Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present, provides a perfect illustration of how the combination of immersion in a society and freedom from the "publish or perish" mindset that pervades too many institutes of higher learning, can lead to the production of detailed but accessible research of the highest quality.
Girls head home from school in Kabul past a mural promoting voting for men and women.Credit:Alamy
Jonathan Lee is a now relatively rare example of what one might call the "gentleman-scholar". Based at Snells Beach in New Zealand, he first visited Afghanistan in 1971 while a student at the University of Leeds, from which he later received a PhD for research on the origins of the Nawruz, Janda Bala and Gul-e Surkh festivals in Mazar-e Sharif. I first met him in Kabul when the Taliban were in control of the Afghan capital, and we both ended up as houseguests of the redoubtable head of the UN office in Kabul, Jolyon Leslie.
What was remarkable about Lee was that even before receiving his doctorate, he was already renowned as a scholar. In 1991, in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, he had published an article of great ingenuity that argued, on the strength of largely neglected sources, that Abdul Rahman Khan, the so-called "Iron Amir" who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, had suffered from the metabolic disease porphyria. Documented effects of porphyria can include mania and psychosis, as has often been suspected in the case of King George III of England; and in a 1996 book, The "Ancient Supremacy": Bukhara, Afghanistan and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901, Lee provided searing evidence of a brutality on the part of the Amir that would be hard to explain without reference to mental instability.
In his new book, Lee has blended an eye for detail with a sense of the broad sweep of Afghanistan's history. Commencing his narrative at a much earlier point than the 18th-century crystallisation of the Durrani empire, he is able to point to important social developments that preceded anything like the emergence of an Afghan state. Thus, he highlights the role of Bayazid Ansari and the Roshaniyya movement in the 16th century, which serves as a potent reminder that politics and power in Afghanistan are not reposed in the state alone.
Lee does not make the mistake of assuming a linearity in Afghan history and the stories he recounts do not serve to suggest that the key to understanding the 21st century is simply to revisit the experiences of earlier times. But that said, the book is studded with memorable vignettes that suggest the ubiquity and persistence of human frailty.
We learn, for example, that when a British doctor examined Abdul Rahman Khan's 20-year-old son Nasr Allah, "his highly confidential medical report revealed that Nasr Allah Khan and Sardar Muhammad Akram Khan, the Amir's brother-in-law, were suffering from 'chronic alcoholism', which on occasion verged on delirium tremens".
One attractive feature of Lee's book is that Afghans are at the heart of the story that he tells. This might seem a peculiar kind of praise for a book that is avowedly a history of Afghanistan, but there is no shortage of works by authors with overdeveloped "Lawrence of Arabia" complexes, in which Afghans figure as little more than stage props, playing cameo roles alongside the real star, namely the heroic and courageous Western traveller.
This is a failing that Lee entirely avoids. Moreover, he very effectively conveys a point that is easily missed, namely that the vast majority of Afghans have played no significant role in generating the disorder, even the carnage, that they and their country have experienced over the past four decades.
In discussing those times, Lee pins the blame squarely on those who most deserve to carry it – the Soviet Union (which invaded Afghanistan openly in December 1979); Pakistan (which mounted a creeping invasion of Afghanistan via surrogates acting at the behest of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate); and local proxies such as the radical Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and then the Taliban.
Women and children wait outside an out patient department facility in Regreshan IDP camp in Herat Province. Jonathan Lee’s book makes the point that the Afghan people have played little part in the disorder that has affected the country in the past four decades. Credit:Kate Geraghty
But he is also scathing about the way in which the opportunities that arose after 2001 were squandered by self-serving politicians, albeit politicians responding to incentives that Western powers played a role in creating. Ordinary Afghans have been the prime victims of all this mischief.
In particular, ordinary Afghans have been the targets of appalling violence and coercion. This was certainly the case during the reign of Abdul Rahman Khan, whose savage attacks on Hazaras in particular make for agonising reading, and who was also ruthless in repressing his fellow Pushtuns. (As a British official put it in 1888, "he is always exposed to the risk of assassination from his numerous enemies and rivals, and from men who have a blood feud with him on account of his unjust slaughter of their relations".)
And in more recent times, groups such as the Hazaras have been targeted by the Taliban movement, and Lee's accounts of their experiences are not for the faint-hearted. The June 2019 Global Peace Index report concluded that "Afghanistan is now the least peaceful country in the world, replacing Syria, which is now the second least peaceful". It is no wonder that many Hazaras, despairing of ever knowing peace, have come to see exit as their only realistic option.
Lee's history ends on a sobering note: "The jury is still out as to whether Afghanistan in its present form will survive or if it will revert to rival, self-governing fiefdoms once foreign funding and military support is withdrawn." Much will depend on a somewhat-dubious "peace process" that has seen a US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, meeting on multiple occasions with representatives of the Taliban.
Shrewder Afghans have tended to regard this exercise with considerable apprehension. While Khalilzad has repeatedly stated that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, he is not the ultimate US decision-maker: that power rests in the hands of the most erratic and ill-informed US president in living memory.
The Taliban have not offered a single concession of any substance.
There is little in the way of credible evidence to suggest that the Taliban have morphed into power-sharers; or that the Taliban, in power, would be much different from the antediluvian, anti-modernist force that they proved to be when last they held state power, in the dark years that preceded the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Lee's analysis captures a feature of the Taliban that is all too easily overlooked: that they are divided from large numbers of other Afghans not just by conflicts of interest, but by conflicts of values. It is no surprise that the annual survey of opinion conducted in Afghanistan in 2018 by The Asia Foundation found that 82.4 per cent of respondents had no sympathy for the Taliban.
Thus far in their discussions with the Americans, the Taliban have not offered a single concession of any substance, and there is little indication that they are about to do so, or that it would be safe to act simply on the strength of their words.
Jonathan Lee summarises the problem with characteristic candour and precision: "The only political solution offered by the international community boils down to a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, Hikmatyar and other radical Islamic jihadists. For Afghans, especially Shi'as, Hazaras, Uzbeks and women, such a coalition is even more frightening than the continuation of the insurgency."
One hopes that those in positions of power in Western capitals take this sombre warning on board.
William Maley is Professor of Diplomacy at The Australian National University. His most recent book, Transition in Afghanistan: Hope, Despair and the Limits of Statebuilding, is published by Taylor & Francis.
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