Nivi Manchanda, Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Nivi Manchanda (NV): Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge is essentially a revised version of my PhD dissertation. I came to the particular topic in a somewhat circuitous manner. My political consciousness was shaped by September 11—first as a twelve-year-old in India witnessing the event on television and then as a teenager reading Chomsky and becoming more critical about the responses it unleashed (by the United States and on to the “Middle East”). My naïve “leftie” predilections were given more depth and shape as I went through my undergraduate studies at SOAS, and—by the time I embarked on my PhD—I was certain that I wanted to research and write on American imperialism in Iraq.

What I found fairly early on was that the academic work on Iraq was rich and aplenty. The granular historical, social, and political accounts predated the attacks of September 11 and continued into the twenty-first century. In a sense this also reflected the public mood—the war on Iraq was deeply unpopular, and met with staunch and sustained opposition in Britain, where I live, and more generally across the world.

The longer war that waged on Afghanistan, however, was sort of obscured from the public eye, and surprisingly to a large degree even in the academic literature, with a few notable exceptions. I grew increasingly fascinated with Afghanistan and also extremely frustrated by the clichés of “tribal warriors” and “hapless women” bandied about in public discourse and policy prescriptions. This book was ultimately my way of channeling this frustration, and trying to untangle what these representations said about those doing the representing, rather than those being represented.

Fortunately, in the decade or so it took for the project to come to fruition, some excellent and much-needed work has been done on Afghanistan. Scholars such as Ben Hopkins and Shah Mahmoud Hanifi have expanded their oeuvres, whereas many others including Martin Bayly, Wazhmah Osman, and others have entered the fray and are contributing to this important and corrective body of work.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

NV: The book explores Anglophone imperial representations of Afghanistan. There are two main time periods that it focuses on: the nineteenth century and the multiple British colonial incursions into Afghanistan, and the twenty-first century, after the American-led NATO intervention, which constitutes the bulk of the book.

The overarching theme is the racialised and taken-for-granted nature of colonial knowledge, which disguises itself as the only way of knowing. Individual chapters are arranged thematically and therefore address a wide-range of topics, issues, and literatures. One of the chapters looks at the discourse of the Afghan state as a failure, another examines media portrayals of Afghan women as in need of saving. The book is methodologically eclectic—I look at British colonial archives, academic research, policy documents, and media and film portrayals to present colonial visions of Afghanistan. These are by no means monolithic; indeed, competing and contradictory representations help illumine the anxieties that undergird—albeit subliminally—the political economy of (colonial) knowledge production.

The book draws on, and I hope contributes to, postcolonial, queer, and post-structuralist (mostly Foucauldian) theory.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

NV: Many of the themes that the book explores have animated my past work, although sometimes only obliquely. Questions of race and racism have been central to my previous work (including, for instance, my co-edited volume Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line), and I think will continue to be central to my future work, but were often in the background, or the subtext, in Imagining Afghanistan.

I worked with historical archives (located in the India Office in the British Library, and the National Library in Delhi) for the first time, and therefore, methodologically this has been a departure from my previous work and something I would like to do more of in the future.

Finally, the book is also a bit more disciplinary than some of my other work, and also my natural inclinations. It speaks largely to an international relations (IR) audience, trying to address some of the discipline’s (raced, gendered, and frankly quite arrogant) erasures, omissions, and elisions. As a lot of work for the book was done when I was a PhD student in IR, working in a register that was comprehensible to IR felt inevitable. But the book also seeks to bring IR into conversation with scholars working on “global politics” from other disciplines, as well as to bring into the remit and validate some of the work being done in IR that is considered irrelevant or on the margins of the discipline. This has not been the case in my previous work, and my sense is that it will not be in my future work either. Not because it is unimportant, but simply because it is not where my own interests lie.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NV: In my mind there is no “natural audience” for the book. I hope the book will be read by a wide range of people with multiple interests. These include, but are not limited to, those interested in anti- and post-colonial politics, in the history and politics of Afghanistan and regions it subtends (the “Middle East,” Central Asia, and South Asia), and the ecologies of knowledge production about the so-called “Other.”

The question of impact is a tricky one—in an ideal world the book would be read alongside a host of others that have argued (more eloquently and cogently than I have) about the importance of imagining the world anew. This entails actively working, in whatever capacity, towards bringing down current structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. A small part of me is hopeful that this project is already underway but I am also under no illusion about the gravity of the task at hand, given the embeddedness and tenacity of these very structures.

At the very least, I hope the book is seen as a modest contribution to scholarship that sheds light on “our” complicity with murderous imperial interventions, and the politics of disavowal and innocence that sustain these incursions.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NV: I am working on a few different projects at the moment. The single biggest one looks at borders, or more precisely the politics of bordering. It draws on the work of four mid-twentieth century theorists—Gloria Anzaldua, Temsula Ao, Jean Genet, and Huey Newton—in order to parse the logics of bordering in their work. The project is still very much in its nascent stages but my intention is to explore alternate modes of thinking about the border, to think the border otherwise as it were, by building on the insights of these writers, who hail from very different locales and who are not usually considered geographers, cartographers, or scholars of borders. This is quite a trendy and crowded field but my sense is that their capacious visions have something new to offer and they will enable us to grapple with the complexity of the border: the ways in which the border “abuts,” “adjoins,” and “resembles,” as well as dissects and delineates. It might even help give more texture to the argument in favour of border abolition.

I also have two other projects underway. The first is an analysis of the Black Panther Party, with a focus on questions of policing and militarism (with Chris Rossdale). And the second is one that places the border—as a fantasy of national security, protection, and control—in conversation with the corridor and as a fiction of smoothness, technological cooperation, and endless speed. The project examines the violence that borders and corridors as technologies of racial capitalism enact (with Sharri Plonski).


Excerpt from the book (pp. 5-9)

Academics, politicians, decision-makers and people in all spheres of human interaction present their subjects, construct their analyses and establish meanings. In so doing, they conjure up the world they seek to describe. We have in recent years been privy to an increasing acknowledgement that ‘reality’ is inter-subjective and our experience of it socially produced and mediated, but what precisely does this mean for a global order characterised by entrenched power asymmetries and deepening rifts between the haves and the have-nots? Through an analysis of the practices of knowledge production about Afghanistan, and in particular, the way in which Afghanistan is thought about and represented in and by the Anglophone world, this study spotlights the interlocking and co-constitutive relations between knowledge production, racism and war. With anthropology at the forefront, the last few decades have witnessed the mounting of a significant challenge to the systematic silence and evasion over the imperial-racial origins of the human sciences.

Imagining Afghanistan partakes in the effervescent conversation about social science’s implication in empire, both past and present, and brings to the table a rather peculiar example of this implication. This is the story of imperialism in Afghanistan, a story which is perhaps best designated as that which is the ‘same but different’. It is the ‘same’ in that it displays, even exemplifies, a steady, if not quite consistent, lineage of colonial thinking about the Other. Afghanistan, in keeping with the rest of the Third or subaltern world, has been judged, represented and constructed according to those recognisable logics of mystification, hierarchy and fetishism. However, Afghanistan is not merely the Orient of Edward Said’s Orientalism; it is also the disOrient. This difference stems from what I refer to as its quasi-coloniality; Afghanistan is a not-quite colonised entity, situated at the margins of colonial thought, praxis and policy, and it has been subject to a form of the euphemistic ‘indirect rule’ that turned out to be every bit as invasive as ‘direct’ rule but was never fully operationalised. Afghanistan, I submit, has been marked by the presence of empire, which mutated into an absence and back again, as if by demand. This book is thus an account of the imperial politics of knowledge production about Afghanistan, a place which, although of immense geo-strategic significance today, remains under-studied or inadequately studied.

There are two lacunae in the study of that I have identified, and I aim to make two corresponding moves to address these. The first is largely conceptual. As a study fuelled by an interest in ideas, perceptions and representations, the project critiques and challenges the conventional empiricist, and specifically positivist, wisdom of social science in which the world is experienced in terms of an ontological distinction between physical reality and its representation. My perspective is different from the ‘constructivist’ or ‘constructionist’ viewpoint that argues that the world is ‘socially constructed’. The world is socially constructed, but power and privilege – through the practices of representation – ‘socially construct’ non-European Others and ‘bring them into the world’ in specific ways, as subordinate, as ancillaries or as unimportant. If in the age of modern technology, the world has become a ‘picture’ or an ‘exhibition’, then this ‘staging of the world’ circumscribes the very conditions of possibility for the Other in interesting and complex ways. My contention is that this modernist metaphysics – where the Other is always represented and (pre-)given a part to play – must be understood as part of the ‘colonising project(s)’. This book, then, was conceived as a ‘decolonising’ intervention or ‘corrective’ in the broadest possible sense: it challenges us to rethink and ultimately unlearn the colonising impulses of knowledge production in the Western academy.

Through an analysis of popular and academic narratives about Afghanistan – which routinely appear in newspapers, policy documents and academic publications – addressing certain topics including, for instance, the status of women (Chapter 4), the ‘warlike’ nature of the tribes (Chapter 3) and the failure of the Afghan state (Chapter 2), I endeavour to show how these narratives simultaneously present and represent a world; that is, how they concurrently create a reality and allege that they stand ‘independent of that same reality’. This is a classic sense-making or ‘nomos-building’ manoeuvre: the bringing of the marginalised subject into being through a generative discourse, the constructed nature of which is immediately disowned and disavowed; and the invention of this subject, through practices of representation, reframed as the ‘discovery’ of the subject. In the assertion of independence by those doing the representing, difference is fossilised through a series of reiterative and enunciative acts, most notably through a proliferation of essentialist tropes and stereotypes about the Other. Distance and disavowal become much easier to sustain in this world-as-exhibition. The first gap operates at the level of theory or meta-theory; the second ‘gap’ is rather less rarefied and has to do with the place Afghanistan occupies in the world described above. Afghanistan’s geo-political salience in the age of the so-called War on Terror is unquestionable, but it remains shrouded in mystery, almost as a sort of obscure(d) object of violence. Afghanistan is mostly dealt with as a ‘policy’ or security problem, seemingly posed uniquely in the twenty-first century. While the last decade has witnessed the growth of some excellent (and much needed) scholarship on the region, these works are mostly historical in orientation. What remains missing is a coherent body of work dedicated to analysing how an assemblage of practices of representation and interpretation, sometimes deliberate and always political, took root and has come to shape a particular ‘idea’ of Afghanistan in the Anglosphere. The unmistakable portent of these representations – and the corresponding ‘idea’ – is of more than academic interest. At its most basic, the carving up and hollowing out of Afghanistan as a policy issue is a prominent manifestation of the academic-military complex, a relationship with a long history but one that has found renewed vigour in the War on Terror. There is a demand for ‘practical’ knowledge, which is produced and utilised overwhelmingly for military purposes.

Notwithstanding the ethical concerns that the production of academic expertise for purposes of war gives rise to, the immediate need for ‘solutions’ to the Afghan ‘problem’ – alternately apprehended as the failure of the state, the upsurge in terrorist activities, the internecine feuding of ‘tribes’ and the plight of women and children – has resulted in what may be called an ‘emergency episteme’. Afghanistan ‘experts’ were born virtually overnight, rushing to fill the vacuum of knowledge that the country found itself in or, more accurately, to correct the vacuum of its own knowledge about Afghanistan that the Global North discovered, as if unexpectedly. The need to rapidly produce and digest material on Afghanistan was especially urgent because the country had been largely neglected in the years immediately before 11 September 2001 (9/11) for reasons of political convenience and imperial indifference, and it reflects something of a trend when it comes to the country. This requirement for ‘quick data’ also signals an underlying imperial anxiety in the face of ambiguity, a danger emanating from what Homi Bhabha has called the ‘partial gaze’ of the coloniser, and is in effect a continuation of the legacy of what I ascribe to Afghanistan’s quasi-colonial status. The coloniser’s gaze, always parti pris, is attenuated further in the case of Afghanistan. With the country established as an ancillary to ‘empire proper’, efforts to taxonomise it and make it intelligible have been sporadic and patchy, based on political expediency and colonial caprice. This makes Afghanistan’s position in the wider discursive Orientalist apparatus a curious one: scripted and circumscribed according to the logics of Othering, it is nevertheless something of an anomaly in its departure from the recognised genealogies of the sustained and penetrative restructuring of most other (post-)colonial societies.