What we miss when we write about Afghanistan

Why does so much Indian writing not connect its current political landscape with the wider context of empire, in its British, Soviet or American iterations?

In the aftermath of the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Fariba Nawa, an Afghan-American journalist, said in a tweet, “Congrats that you wrote a book and you have a few Afghan friends on the ground. And now you’re a superstar because you embedded with the TB [the Taliban] or government forces. You were super brave. But you don’t represent us. You don’t have anything [to] lose. We do.” Nawa was responding to writing on Afghanistan by non-Afghans, of scholarly or journalistic expertise from around the world. This damning indictment compels us to ask: What are the ethics of writing about Afghanistan from New Delhi? Of course, I use New Delhi as a signifier term rather than to indicate its precise location, to indicate writing sympathetic to an Indian point of view, reflective of the worlds of policymaking and the academe that often intersect, and have a shared readership.

Due to its longstanding imagery in Indian writing as a frontier state, Indian political writing on Afghanistan to a large extent has always been writing on war. This tendency was deepened by the world wars, which occasioned a closely entwined theorisation of war and empire by South Asian thinkers. The non-violent politics of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and his Khilafat Movement in the 1920s, embodied that consciousness. Afghanistan was a central concern in an exciting tradition of anti-colonial thought and anti-imperial agitation, eclipsed in public memory by populist movements led by Gandhi, but, in actuality, enacted through writing across the British Raj. If the distance between Delhi and Kabul in the 1920s and ’30s is the distance between Gandhi and Bacha Khan, then that history of the takedown of empire should be a fertile source for writing.

Where is that history now and what role does it play in interpreting a contemporary war? And how is it that so much Indian writing disjoins the current political landscape of Afghanistan from the wider context of empire, in its British, Soviet or American iterations? Projects aimed at decolonising political writing have escaped their confines in academia and have gained considerable hold in popular writing. Yet, this present moment is perplexing because it seems that new critical approaches to war are being neglected precisely when they could be tools to evaluate the failure of and sudden abdication by a great power in India’s immediate neighbourhood. How is it possible that mid-20th-century subcontinental writers mounted extraordinarily unforgiving critiques of the imperial project, but despite long strides in the state of the theoretical field, Indian writers now are sliding back into ways of thinking about war that are resolutely imperialist?

There are two overlapping explanations for this reversal — first, the subcontinental anti-imperial tradition has now been lost to the trickle-down, ironically from the West, of Eurocentric ideas about war and empire. The radical vocabulary of modern Indian anti-imperialist thought is eschewed in favour of dominant western social and political thought, especially on writings concerning war. Eurocentrism is rampant, in what the critical theorist of empire, Tarak Barkawi, calls “the unreflective assumption of the centrality of Europe, and latterly the West in human affairs”. This sort of Eurocentric analysis is materialised in an enchantment with the consequences of the US occupation of Afghanistan for the occupying power.

Second, foreign policy analysis has become a weak substitute for responses to the imperialist, fascist and ultimately capitalist aspects of world order. There is no critique to be made if we remain shackled to the language of strategy, which is ultimately a militaristic language. Indeed, the urge to respond pragmatically goes against the notion that India and Afghanistan share an imperial past and are impaled by it in our statehood, even if not in equal measure. Profound insights have emerged on humanitarian projects in Afghanistan, and on the moral fortitude India should have shown once the US withdrew, but we need more thinking on the relationship between what is happening in Afghanistan now and the neoliberalism India has embraced for itself.

To say that there is an intimate relation between 21st-century neoliberalism of the stripe now seen globally, but rather starkly in India, and America going to war, is possibly now blasé. When the Afghan National Army fell so quickly to the Taliban this past month, it reminded me of the words of an American soldier in Iraq, 2002: “America is not at war; the Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall.” The frailty of Afghan institutions and their impending fate must provoke in us a deeper consideration of how a South Asian state has had a disastrous decolonisation forced upon it, with those in power now an unmitigated consequence of the very imperial project that has been displaced.

After the 1960s, Indians have written little about wars that were not India’s to fight. From the 1920s to the 1960s, in a long moment of dense internationalism, writing about Asia, Africa, Latin America meant writing about wars and empire. War writing has since slid into the domain of military history, which is important in its place. But we also need to disentangle the neoliberal militarism that makes war possible but also that becomes validated through war. If we are to write about war as a field where contestation between unequal powers escapes the civility of politics, then in India we only have to look back to our own not-so-distant encounters with empire that remain with us and are unceasing in the social and political effects they produce. Reengaging India’s colonial past in service of the present moment may help us write the history of this war as that of Afghanistan’s war, waged on Afghan soil and on the bodies of Afghan men, women, children.

The writer works on India’s international relations and political thought at Harvard University Asia Center

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