Guest Post: The Imperial Sociology of the ‘tribe’ in Afghanistan

 This week’s guest blog-post comes from our Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar speaker this week,

Dr. Nivi Manchanda (Leiden)

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pashtuntribalmap

‘Pashtun Tribal Map’ Source: University of West Florida.

 

“When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.”[1]

 

For 200 years, from the time of the first engagement of the British imperialists with the country, to debates and strategies connected with the post 9/11 occupation, the “tribe” has been a notion intimately related to the West’s study of and involvement in Afghanistan. A particular lens through which the early East India Company administrators made sense of the alien people they were encountering, “the tribes” soon became the irrefutable marker of Afghan society, polity, and culture.

 

Indeed, the “tribe”, as a generic signifier for most relations and identities in Afghanistan appears to have displaced the need for a deep theoretical engagement with the changing political and social configurations in the country. This concept, widely used in the British Empire and initially deployed to capture a specific network of relations at a given historical juncture, has become increasingly de-historicised, losing any conceptual purchase and clarity it may once have had. Exemplified in the above statement by US General Jim Gant in 2009, it remains a dominant trope in the Western analysis and understanding of Afghanistan.

 

Even those such as Barnett Rubin and Thomas Barfield, that have recognised that the discourse of tribalism is problematic have not fully acknowledged its historical pedigree as a practice borne out of imperial violence. A key aim of my research then, is to unearth and make explicit the ways in which colonialism inheres within the very concept of tribe.

 

Tribes in Afghanistan are read as having a “potted history”. Popular images of Afghans, or more precisely Pashtuns, on whom the bulk of historiography has focused, have changed in line with the rise and fall of outside interest in the country[2]. Indeed there still exists considerable confusion about who exactly the Afghans, the Pashtuns, and the Pathans are and what their relation to each other is. For Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, for instance, Afghans, Pashtuns, and Pathans are distinct and separable groups because each group comes to “textual light and social life” in different historical contexts, and each group has its own dynamic historical relationship to Pashto and other languages, including Persian and Indian and Turkic languages. In the nineteenth century, meanwhile, “Pathan” frontier tribesmen were depicted as independent warriors in the British Empire and were prominent in the British (and possibly wider) consciousness as actors in the Great Game that was assumed to define Central Asia at the time.[3]

 

More recently, there has been a return to the original nineteenth-century narrative – or what Richard Tapper has called the “Kipling version” – of the Afghans first and foremost as tribesmen, driven by tribal logics and “ethnic” concerns.[4] In this vein, prominent Afghanistan scholar Olivier Roy has argued that the rise of the Taliban should be seen as “la revanche des Pachtounes”, or the revenge of the Pashtuns, especially the Durrani, currently considered the biggest and most prominent “tribal group”, in spite of the Taliban’s own insistence that they are an anti-feudal and “anti-tribal” movement.[5] This notion has become so widely accepted that it could be blithely remarked in 2010 that “[t]o be a Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman who believes that his fundamental beliefs and customary way of life, including the right to bear arms or defend the tribal homeland and protect its women, are threatened by foreign invaders”.[6]

 

In my research and in my talk at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History, then, I map the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, further problematising the concept and showing how a monolithic and unreflective body of work has become the norm in reference to Afghan social organisation.

[1] Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan” (Los Angeles, CA: Nine Sisters Imports, 2009), 11.
[2] See Hanifi, “Quandaries of the Afghan Nation”. Here I use the words interchangeably to remain consistent with the spirit in which they were employed by the British at the time.
[3] Contrary to popular belief, The Great Game was far from the only or even the most important narrative at the time. For more on this see: Benjamin Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, 34; and Martin Bayly, “The ‘Re-turn’ to Empire in IR: Colonial Knowledge Communities and the Construction of the Idea of the Afghan polity, 1809–38”, Review of International Studies 7, forthcoming.
[4] Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 228.
[5] Roy, cited in Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 227.
[6] Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human (London: Penguin, 2011), 262.

 

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