Friday, October 29, 2010

Five books on Afghanistan

Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor at Boston University, is the author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

At FiveBooks, he discussed five books on Afghanistan with Daisy Banks. One book on the list:
The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun

[Banks:] Tell me about your first choice, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun.

[Barfield:] Ibn Khaldun began writing the book in 1375 so it’s certainly the oldest on my list. It is also a unique work from that period in its attempt to analyse the context of history by understanding how societies organise themselves and how different modes of organisation can affect the interactions amongst people.

The book has had a really powerful influence on me, in part because I began my work by studying nomads similar to those Khaldun writes about and calls desert people. Although Bedouin nomads are his prime example, he explains that it is a way of life that encompasses all the people who live at the margins, whether that be the mountains, or the steppes or the deserts and he asks the basic question: Why could such people who come from the margins and aren’t particularly sophisticated manage to form so many dynasties of the Arab Near East and North Africa?

He looks at how their form of socialisation in a tough environment gives them a group solidarity that can be a great military advantage in times of conflict, and, when the opportunity is ripe, allows them to conquer more populous regions. But these opportunities are rare because sedentary civilisations, areas of urban high culture and irrigated agriculture, are generally economically more prosperous and politically powerful. People there have weak social solidarity but strong economic integration. They therefore maintain complex political organisations and professional militaries that can fend off these people from the margins. But he notes that their lack of internal solidarity creates a vulnerability when incompetent ruling dynasties become bankrupt – no one is there to defend them from outside invaders. As Khaldun saw it, it was charismatic leaders from marginal regions that restored order and founded new dynasties; dynasties that then also decline in four generations and themselves are replaced by new outsiders. So for a person who looks at Afghanistan, there are some wonderfully interesting parallels that he describes.

So you definitely see echoes of what he was talking about centuries ago still happening today?

There are echoes but it is not entirely similar to his Bedouin groups because Afghan history is also affected by people coming out of Central Asia that have a different model of tribal organisation which is more hierarchical. They are more willing to accept leadership. They have ruling clans as opposed to everybody believing that he can be the ruler and that sets up a different political dynamic.

That is why you get the long-lived dynasties like the Ottoman Empire, which lasted 800 years, and the Mughuls, who lasted more than 300 years. Obviously they lasted for more than four generations. So what I wanted to see is what happens in this interaction zone, and what we find is an Afghan dynasty that lasts for 230 years Рwhich is much more like the Turks. But if you look at it internally you see that it follows an Ibn Khaldun cycle, which is that clans within the royal élite fight and replace each other on a four generation cycle just as Khaldun describes in his book. So we see this interesting dynamic in which the highly egalitarian Pashtun tribes find it easier to accept the legitimacy of a royal clan because they could never agree on who had the right to replace it. It was finally overthrown in 1978 by communists attempting to topple the entire system. After more than two decades of war, it is interesting that the Bonn Accord chose Karzai, whose ancestors first founded the Afghan state. The interesting thing is that Karzai comes out of that descent group. In other words, while thinking we were creating a new democracy we were in fact helping to restore the same sort of ruling dynastic élite that had previously governed Afghanistan.
Read about the other books on Barfield's list.

Also see Ann Marlowe's five best books about Afghanistan.

--Marshal Zeringue