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Tribulations of Contemporary Afghanistan

Jayant Prasad

By Robert D. Crews
Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2015, pp. 368, $29.95


Robert Crews of Stanford University’s Department of History has penned an unusual narrative about Afghanistan, dispelling the negative portrayals of it—as an anachronistic, unchanging, primitive, and ethnically divided ‘graveyard of empires.’ From a rugged, variegated transit territory, it was cobbled into a country two and a half centuries ago. Its sense of nationhood has remained strong (it has not had a secessionist movement in recent memory), even if its state structure has been weak. Contrary to the current western discourse, Crews sees Afghanistan as ‘an expansive space that accommodated varying kinds of networks that crisscrossed the region and the globe, rather than a static collection of tribes and ethnic groups.’ After intervening ineptly during the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42) and paying a heavy price for it, the British imperial design was to keep Afghanistan weak and isolated. For a century thereafter, Afghanistan was sequestered and turned into a buffered enclave. When Pakistan was created in 1947, according to Crews, in the face of considerable resistance from the Pashtun elites, it was seen then ‘as an instrument of British imperialism.’ Pakistan carried with it the legacy of ‘its colonial origin’ and, with it, of the contested Durand Line. Western Pakistan straddled an area that was ruled historically either from Delhi or Kabul. For the Pashtun ethno-nationalists, writes Crews, ‘the proposition of ultimately drawing all Pashtuns into a single state’ became a matter of primary importance—they wanted to get back their territory, wrested by the British. Pakistan, as a new state, became excessively sensitive to Afghan aspirations. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan were, therefore, fraught from the start. Pakistan became for many Afghans, writes Crews, a rivalrous state, with its ‘universalist claim to be homeland for the Muslims anywhere.’ In retaliation against Afghanistan’s reluctance to recognize Pakistan and opposing its United Nations membership, Pakistan impeded the transit of goods through Afghanistan’s trade lifeline from Karachi, and banned the entry of Afghan petrol trucks into Pakistan in 1949. Their rivalry played out unequally. Pakistan leveraged its geography and resources to build itself militarily, and soon joined the Manila and Baghdad Pacts—the U.S.-led anti-Chinese and anti-Soviet security arrangements. Muhammad Ludin, the Afghan Ambassador in Washington DC made a fervent but losing pitch to promote Afghanistan’s case with the State Department, warning that the strengthening of Pakistan and Iran at the expense of Afghanistan risked ‘a political and ideological ...

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