Do you think Afghanistan hasn’t changed since 1842?

March 20, 2012

With U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in disarray, one of the tropes we are likely to see with increasing frequency is the notion that Afghans are inherently ungovernable, too steeped in tradition to accept the “modernity” offered to them,  and by extension, only have themselves to blame for failure.  It will come in seemingly innocuous references to the massacre of the British army during its retreat from Kabul in 1842, graphically symbolised by William Brydon, the “lone” survivor struggling into Jalalabad on his horse.  We might see a revival of the historically inaccurate cliche about Afghanistan being the Graveyard of Empires (the British went on to defeat the Sikhs and kept their empire for another century.)

Pundits will explain how Afghanistan’s history offers a guide to its future (because people in Afghanistan can be frozen in time in 1842, rather as though we might freeze our conception of Americans to the United States in its pre-civil war days).  And then we will see comments like this, from the editors of the National Review Online:  “The impulse to throw up our hands and be done with the entire business is understandable. The protests over the Koran burnings brought home, again, that we are dealing with primitive people in a primitive society operating on a system of values vastly different than ours.”

In such an environment, “Fragments of the Afghan Frontier”, a new book by Benjamin Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, is a useful corrective to anyone who thinks their views are based on reason rather than simple prejudice. It is not the first book to challenge conventional views of Afghanistan and the “North-West Frontier”. But it is unusual in combining history with anthropology to contrast how the British defined the lands beyond the frontiers of their Indian empire – an ungovernable space too steeped in tradition to benefit from the “modernising” influences of colonialism – with how it is actually experienced by the people living there.

Despite their unsuccessful military forays to Kabul, the British never had any interest in colonising Afghanistan, seeking instead a buffer to protect their Indian empire from an expansionist Russia.  It suited them to conceive of Afghanistan as primitive, traditional, its tribes fractured in such a way that made them more amenable to British influence.  This belief in tradition became particularly sharp in defining the people who lived along the Frontier, which though mapped by the British in the 1893 Durand Line, was never actually imagined as a border in the traditional European sense. (For a discussion of the Durand Line, see this RUSI paper/subscription required). Rather the “Frontier” was a series of lines across which British authority gradually tailed off, from the settled areas whose people were subject to colonial rule, and later became full citizens of Pakistan, to the tribal areas, which even today remain governed by the colonial era Frontier Crimes Regulation, to the far-beyond in Afghanistan.

This idea of Frontier tribes frozen in time by tradition, one belied by centuries of Pashtun migration still holds sway in Pakistan -  often translated into  wishful thinking that once the Americans leave Afghanistan and end drone missile strikes on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the Frontier tribes will settle back into some imagined, bucolic and therefore peaceful existence. 

“Fragments of the Afghan Frontier” shows how far this narrative was artificially constructed by the British. Under a system introduced by colonial officer Robert Sandeman in 1876 and first applied to the Baloch frontier, the British deliberately conserved tribal traditions while also subtly subverting and altering these as a means of exerting authority – thus becoming both protector and arbiter of tradition.    The approach “did not seek to integrate, civilise and modernise the frontier’s unruly tribesmen as imperial subjects like their Indian counterparts. Rather it sought to contain, conserve and traditionalise them separate from the colonial sphere.”

Some of the material covered is more relevant to Pakistan as it struggles to address a Baloch separatist movement and a Taliban insurgency on its borders; other parts are more directly relevant to Afghanistan – the authors also take a swipe at  American failed efforts to exploit Afghan tribal ties. All of it should ring alarm bells whenever anyone mentions 1842 or uses the word “primitive” to suggest the people living beyond the old British colonial frontiers are somehow different from the rest of us in their rejection of modernity and development (push that argument to the extreme and you would end up insisting that on one side people want mobile phones and modern medicine; on the other they would rather be in the pre-telegraph days of Doctor Brydon limping into Jalalabad on horseback.)

Interspersed with history are stories of the lives of the people who live on the “Frontier” or travel across it, from Tajikistan to Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan to Chitral in Pakistan.  This is a difficult and somewhat uneven book to read, offering up “fragments” to challenge conventional thinking while eschewing any alternative coherent description.  For the authors the Frontier is a place of great mobility and heterogeneity, a centre in its own way to the people who live there rather than a periphery and  exerting its own influence far and wide rather than being simply what Rory Stewart called “The Places in Between”.

For those who believe that foreigners arrived in the region only with the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, there is a section on the “Hindustani Fanatics” – Muslims from the then United Provinces, Bengal and Punjab in British India who set themselves up among the Pashtun tribesmen of Swat in the 19th century. While they never represented a real threat, their existence both shaped British colonial fears of “seditious Wahabis” on the frontier and also allowed the Raj to use them as a foil to avoid tackling the legitimate grievances of their subjects.

Move forward in time and the authors take aim at the interpretation of behaviour and ethics on the frontier into simplistic notions of “Pukhtunwali” - relying, they argue, heavily on a colonial codification of society which depicted many elements of society as “ancient if not downright primordial” (read primitive). Staking a claim to heterogeneity, they also focus on Chitral, a region which lies on a major trading route into Afghanistan and Central Asia, but which is linguistically and ethnically different to the Pashtun areas to the south and south-west, populated as it is mainly by Khowar-speaking Sunni and Shi’a Isma’ili Muslims. 

To the authors, Chitral is the exception which proves the rule of avoiding easy generalities.  Here the people are cosmopolitan, pluralistic and mobile. Chitral’s   youth undertake tours of the region to better their education and understanding of diversity; sometimes to escape the watchful eye of their elders, but often  encouraged by them.  Chitral’s outlook is influenced by the influx of refugees from Afghanistan and Tajikistan (after the civil war which followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union) and by the post 9/11 efforts to reduce movement across borders. Its engagement with the world is based on  ”modern” preoccupations which belie the notion of a traditional society frozen in time.

The best stories – and ones I would have liked to have read more about – are those of the individuals who try and often fail to navigate this very modern world.

One is about Sulton, an Isma’ili who came to Chitral from the southern Badakhshan region of Tajikistan in December 1999.  After falling out with the villagers where he lived – he had a reputation as a hothead who smoked hash and tried to meet girls - he became a driver for the Afghan Taliban based in Jalalabad before 9/11, disguising his faith and pretending to be a Sunni and abandoning his western-style dress in favour of a beard and shalwar kameez. 

By 2002, Sulton had returned to Chitral, working for a man known as a prolific producer of hash who had recently diversified into smuggling apricot schnapps.  Author Marsden met him again in Chitral in 2005. By now, Sulton said, he felt like a “prisoner of the mountains”, unable to return to Tajikistan where he would be arrested by the authorities who were suspicious of all those who had fled to Pakistan during the civil war, but also too scared to go into the heartland for fear of being picked up by Pakistani police and sent to Guantanamo. “Sulton then pulled out a bottle of apricot shnapps that he had hidden down his trouser leg and presented it to me as a gift before bidding farewell.”

Another story is about a young man of Panjshiri background who Marsden said he had known since he moved to Chitral in 2000, “where I taught him English, a language that he later used to procure work as a translator with ISAF.” By 2010, he was fighting with the Taliban.

If we must choose ciphers to explain the Afghan war, let it be people like that.  The Shi’ite Isma’ili refugee from Tajikistan turned Taliban driver turned apricot shnapps smuggler. Let it not be Doctor Brydon, whose own personal experience of Afghanistan and beyond was frozen into an image of his arrival into Jalalabad. The British did rather well with that image of the plucky Briton  surviving against all odds;  add in Kipling and the Last Stand at Gandamak and you have a blueprint for turning defeat into victory.  But that does not make it objectively “true” or even relevant. It is colonial historiography.  

I shall end with an assertion and a prediction. The repetition of colonial historiography in the US media has far less to do with what is actually happening in Afghanistan and what Afghans think; and far more to do with how the United States and its allies perceive a war of which they have become weary.  Every time, say, a U.S. soldier goes mad and kills 16 Afghans, we will see an increase in references in the U.S. media to how Afghanistan has always been ungovernable, to Brydon, to the “graveyard of empires”, to ”tribal tradition” or to how primitive the people are. 

I am, of course, hopeful of being proved wrong.  But also counting.

(Reuters photo: An Afghan security guard carries his child after finishing work at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province/Erik de Castro)


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