Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

In This Review

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics)
By Thomas Barfield
Princeton University Press, 2010
400 pp. $29.95
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Those who have suspected that the "graveyard of empires" label does not quite capture Afghanistan in international politics past and present will find in this book the comprehensive coverage they seek. Barfield, an anthropologist and old Afghanistan hand, has written a history of Afghanistan that weaves in geography, economics, and culture (think tribes, rural-urban dichotomies, value systems) while maintaining a focus throughout on Afghan rulers' relations with their own people and the outside world. The many peoples, places, and dates cited make for a dense book. (Although there are useful maps, a timeline would have helped.) But it is lightened by many breaks in the narrative to address broad themes or make intriguing comparisons, such as likening patrimonial Afghanistan to medieval Europe. Barfield's Afghanistan is not frozen in amber. He describes a country whose state-building efforts were not unlike those of other Muslim polities in modern times but came later and produced less change. It is a country whose ruler must "convince the Afghans that he is not beholden to foreigners, even as he convinces these very same foreigners to fund his state and military."