A quick act of self-promotion: this Wednesday, February 6th, I’ll be giving a talk at LSE International History’s Cold War Research Seminar, presenting a paper spun off from some of my D.Phil. research entitled ‘From Pashtunwali to Socialism? Modernization, Development, and Pashtunistan as Cold War Crisis, c. 1978-1989.’ Focusing on Soviet developmental interventions in southern Afghanistan – Kandahar Province in particular, but also Helmand and Zabol Provinces – during the years of the Soviet occupation of the country, it should hopefully be of interest to a wide spectrum of history nerds: people coming from Soviet and Russian history especially, but also South Asian specialists and people more interested in the broader conversation among historians about the history of economic and administrative thought, and development in the Third World.
Although the paper is still pretty rough in parts, there are a couple of themes that have begun to crystallize in the piece. One is trying to ‘normalize’ our history of Central Asia, and Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular, by emphasizing the limits of what I’d call the ‘graveyard of empires’ approach – the idea that the theme you need to understand in looking at this part of the world is the collapse of empires in wars of attrition against valiant tribesmen. While someone like William Dalrymple is almost beyond reproach as a scholar and writer, his recent Return of a King, which focuses on the First Anglo-Afghan War, sort of falls into this trap. Instead of studying stuff like taxes, customs, and administration (if you want to look at the 19th century) in the way that someone like Shah Mahmoud Hanifi did in a really cool book that involved work in archives in Peshawar, we tend to fall back on this easy trope of a) empire invades, b) Afghans kick ass, c) empire retreats in disgrace. There’s little attempt to write about Afghanistan or Central Asian empires in the way we would about, say, ancièn regime France – a story where tax collecting, armies, economic improvements, and management of grandees are the big themes.
Part of what I’m trying to do in this paper, then, is show how southern Afghanistan, but also the entire Afghan-Pakistan frontier, portended to serve a very different role in different visions of what Central Asia could have looked like in the late 20th century: a modernized Afghan state dominated by Durrani Pashtuns and intent on splitting off NWFP and Balochistan from its eastern neighbor? A socialist state run by Leftist Ghilzai Pashtuns and the Army? Or the appendage to a Pakistani Pashtun – Punjabi condominium next door? If we look at the different ways in which the Royal Government of Afghanistan, Daoud, Afghan Communists, and all of their auxiliaries thought about development, we reach a much more complex – and, I hope, accurate – view of what was at stake in Central Asian history beyond the usual tale of the Russian Bear plodding south.
Speaking of Russian bears, a second project that runs through the paper is trying to produce an ethnography of Soviet development as it went down in the specific arena of Afghanistan, here Kandahar Province in particular. I’m struggling to find the right conceptual language here, though, in part because while there are lots of fine works on Western development as a form of ‘governmentality’ – think of scholars like Timothy Mitchell or James Ferguson – it’s fairly difficult to
ape adapt the conceptual language from a book like The Anti-Politics Machine or Global Shadows to the way the Soviet administrative apparatus worked in the Third World. That’s where Russian economists like Gavriil Popov, who formulated critiques of Soviet administration in the mid-1980s, come in, to help us appreciate what, precisely, ‘the Soviet system’ was when transplanted to unlikely locations like Kandahar. Throw in a healthy mix of reflections on ‘Soviet subjectivity’ – what advisors thought they were doing in going to Afghanistan, the terms on which they understood their mission, and how a spell abroad fit into their broader life ambitions – and there’s an ingredient-rich mixture of stuff going on the piece, with scholars like Jochen Hellbeck and Igal Halfin providing additional inspiration. But you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen. Still, that’s why I enjoy seminars like this one: it’s a good chance to explain and defend some of my methodological choices, and get some sense from graduate students and faculty on what works and doesn’t in this version of the piece.
So how to get to the seminar? It will be taking place in Room COL 2.01 at Columbia House at Houghton Street, a pedestrian walkway running through the LSE campus, from 4:00 PM to 5:45 PM. (Check out the university’s map here, or see it on Google Maps here.) There are also rumors of post-seminar refreshments at a nearby pub afterwards. After spending a long time away from the UK, and yet being in full-on writing mode, I’m inclined to think of one of Thackeray’s lines about returning: ‘If I had time and dared to enter into digressions, I would write a chapter about that first pint of porter drunk upon English ground. Ah, how good it is! It is worth-while to leave home for a year, just to enjoy that one draught.’