The exorbitant price of Martin Ewans’ “Afghanistan: A New History,” coupled with the word “new” in the subtitle, is enough to attract attention. But as it turns out, the book is new only in the literal sense, not in offering a new approach to Afghan history. In fact, the author has taken what you might call the old “grammar school” approach to his subject, documenting the significant events, themes, dates, personages and, in this case, deadly intrigues that make up the historical experience of Afghanistan, in strict chronological order.
The book tracks the country’s history from the third century B.C. all the way through to the Taliban’s heady ascension to power in the 1990s, but focuses mainly on the past 300 years. Afghanistan’s experiences in this latter period have been grisly, indeed. A disturbing and enormously depressing pattern emerges of warlord and clan battles, ethnic vengeances, banditry, plunder, rape, political betrayal, assassinations and massacres. This contributes to making the book difficult reading, aggravated in no small part by the complexity of detail that Ewans, the former head of the British Chancery in Afghanistan, offers regarding the intrigues of scheming powers, both internal and external.
The research is nevertheless prescient, and the book is a significant contribution to a largely ignored field; perhaps what you might call a “pioneer primer,” a basis of factual research from which more speculative histories might be attempted later.
It is also avoids convenient conclusions. One might assume, for example, that Afghanistan is a victim of the great power games that occurred between England and Russia in the 19th century, and, by extension and inheritance, between Russia and the United States in the last 40 years. Ewans, however, presents a different picture, of an Afghanistan that has followed its own fairly independent (and remarkably ruthless) course, despite interference by Russian, British or American interlopers, or those of Afghanistan’s lesser power brokers, its two wary and often aggressive neighbors, Iran and Pakistan.
If Afghanistan can claim victimhood (and it would not, it is not in the national character), it seems more a victim of geography than of powers that actually wished to conquer its soil (disregarding for a moment the inexplicable Russian miscalculation to usurp territoriality in the 1980s). A rugged and barren country, Afghanistan lacks resources, is mostly uncultivable, and is located in a matrix of isolated passes running between many greater powers. This has meant that the country’s shifting leadership has adopted the “diplomacy of the highwayman” with outsiders. The metaphor of the warlord extorting tolls at the bend in the road that he controls seems also to fit rural relations vis-a-vis the central government, when central government has existed.
One could argue that a condensed history such as Ewans’ tends to distort reality, by ignoring less eventful periods of peace and focusing more on conflict and upheaval. But it is worth noting how peace has largely been negotiated and maintained in Afghanistan during more politically successful, quieter periods in the last 300 years. The word “subvention” turns up persistently throughout the book. It means “subsidy”; a less kind definition, which seems equally accurate, might be “bribery.” When the British learned the country was unconquerable, they managed to maintain influence in Afghanistan via such bribes.
In this morass of political intrigue and recurring atrocity, one begins longing for the brighter periods outlined in Ewans’ first chapter, which covers the first 2,000 years of Afghan history: the Gandharan Era of Greco-Buddhist culture between the second and fifth centuries A.D., for example, or the flowering of the arts under the Mogul emperor Babur, who reigned from Kabul in the 16th century.
From the 16th century on, the story is of bloodshed, warlord rivalry and corrupt mullahs resisting foreign ideas or restrictions on their authority. There are, of course, the “subvented,” and sometimes idealistic, national leaders who periodically attempted to modernize the nation. But the modern history of Afghanistan is a brutal cycle of repression, and when reforms were attempted, brutal methods were used to introduce them.
Ewans quotes Abdur Rahman (the “Iron Amir”), a reformer of the late 19th century: “Every priest, mullah and chief of every tribe and village considered himself an independent king and for about 200 years past the freedom and independence of many of these priests was never broken by their sovereign . . . The tyranny and cruelty of these men were unbearable.” This elicits sympathy for Rahman’s dilemma until one discovers that his solutions included razing villages, forced migration, and reducing the Hazara Shiite ethnic minority to slavery.
Rahman’s comments and his brutal solutions hint at Afghanistan’s problem: It is a land of ethnic diversity, myriad warlord centers of power, harsh tribal codes, Islamic extremism, xenophobia, poverty and little interest in nation-building. When ideas do come to Afghanistan, they come either halfheartedly or with zealous intensity. The 40-year reign of Zahir Shah, and his lackluster, 20-year experiment with constitutional monarchy ended in a coup and was replaced by Marxism.
Marxism and Afghanistan somehow seem the most improbable irony. How could Marxism appeal to people in these isolated mountain reaches of the world? On the surface, at least, the reasons are familiar: It seems urban intellectuals educated in Russia wished to break the back of rural feudalism, and for women especially, who yearned for greater rights, Marxism was attractive.
Despite the difficulty in absorbing the mass of detail Ewans provides, this book is eye-opening in one respect: The history of Afghanistan has been unremittingly violent, far more than even vivid imaginations might have expected. The country’s vehement reactions against modernity, or blind gropings to adapt to it, suggest that interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, a man, apparently, of measured ideas and vision, stands at a precipice, a chasm as deep as the Hindu Kush.