This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

British soldiers in tanks pass an Afghan guard post in 1941. Hanns Tschira/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

A special Afghanistan edition of this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Afghan Civil Wars and the Location of a Nation

Elisabeth Leake
History Workshop

On 11 February 1988, the Afghan nationalist, Professor Sayed Bahauddin Majrooh, was gunned down in the streets of Peshawar in Pakistan. Months earlier, his organization, the Afghanistan Information Center, had released a survey of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. The majority expressed their preference for an Afghan government under the former king, Zahir Shah, rather than the rule of either the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) or the parties that had formed in exile during the ongoing civil war. Witnesses largely agreed that the militant Islamist party, Hizb-i Islami-yi Afghanistan, was responsible for Majrooh’s death, infuriated by the survey’s veiled critique of local party politics. None of these groups managed to cling on to power, however, and instead civil war in Afghanistan persisted: into the 1990s, through the 2000s, and, as has become clear in recent days, into today.

As peace talks have stalled and Taliban forces have swept through Afghanistan, echoes of Majrooh’s life and death have emerged. In recent days and months, other Afghan visionaries and ideologues who have sought to shape Afghanistan’s institutions and society have been killed, viewed as opponents of the Taliban as it seeks to take charge of Afghanistan’s political future. Not only that, but attention again turns to Afghans living beyond Afghanistan’s borders. While Afghan state leaders now employ social media from abroad to assert their influence, the UNHCR has warned that another humanitarian crisis is imminent, as Afghans flee Taliban forces. [continue reading]

To Understand Afghanistan’s Future, Reckon With the Region’s Colonial Past

Priya Satia
Foreign Policy

Last weekend, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Aug. 14, the eve of Indian independence from British rule in 1947, “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day”—a day to remember the violent Partition of British colonial India into the separate countries of India and Pakistan, which produced the largest migration in human history. Millions of people died or lost their homes, livelihoods, and ways of life and suffered rape and other atrocities in harrowing months of sudden displacement as Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew a largely arbitrary border dividing Punjab and Bengal. But Modi’s pronouncement, made with typical blindsiding precipitousness, was also deeply disingenuous.

It is lost on no one that Aug. 14—the day chosen for this gruesome remembrance—is the day Pakistan marks its independence. (Independence came to British India at midnight on Aug. 14, with India marking its independence on the 15th and Pakistan on the 14th.) Modi’s designation of Pakistan’s Independence Day as an anniversary for Indian mourning is calculated to deflect blame and serves to aggravate rather than heal old wounds. It elides the reality that the violence of 1947 was not the work of neighbors in villages and towns turning against one another but of well-armed paramilitary groups bearing the imprint of Western fascism—including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that Modi joined as a child and that remains a pillar of support for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government. [continue reading]

The Ides of August

Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes

I’ve been silent for a while. I’ve been silent about Afghanistan for longer. But too many things are going unsaid. I won’t try to evoke the emotions, somehow both swirling and yet leaden: the grief, the anger, the sense of futility. Instead, as so often before, I will use my mind to shield my heart. And in the process, perhaps help you make some sense of what has happened.

For those of you who don’t know me, here is my background — the perspective from which I write tonight. I covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR, making my way into their former capital, Kandahar, in December 2001, a few days after the collapse of their regime. Descending the last great hill into the desert city, I saw a dusty ghost town. Pickup trucks with rocket-launchers strapped to the struts patrolled the streets. People pulled on my militia friends’ sleeves, telling them where to find a Taliban weapons cache, or a last hold-out. But most remained indoors. It was Ramadan. A few days later, at the holiday ending the month-long fast, the pent-up joy erupted. Kites took to the air. Horsemen on gorgeous, caparisoned chargers tore across a dusty common in sprint after sprint, with a festive audience cheering them on. This was Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. There was no panicked rush for the airport. [continue reading]

Even the crisis in Afghanistan can’t break the spell of Britain’s delusional foreign policy

Owen Jones

If historians of the future wish to understand the ignorance and hubris that accompanied the decline of the west’s power, this week’s emergency parliamentary debate on Afghanistan will provide an insightful case study. The delusions that have long characterised British foreign policy remained intact when Iraq was destroyed for the sake of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; when British soldiers were forced into a humiliating retreat from Iraq’s southern city of Basra at the hands of Iranian-backed Shia militias; and when Libya was left as a failed state. It seemed unlikely that the Taliban casually waltzing into Kabul would finally break the spell.

Take the much celebrated contribution from Theresa May, who asked, “Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” and rued the repercussions of Britain depending “on a unilateral decision taken by the United States”. The former prime minister is a fantasist: Britain has not had a foreign policy independent of the United States since the 1950s, and indefinite occupation of Afghanistan, which has been proposed as an alternative to withdrawal, effectively means transforming the country into a colony. [continue reading]

What Does the Fall of Saigon Really Have to Teach Us About Afghanistan?

Rebecca Onion

The fall of Kabul, Afghanistan, to the Taliban has inevitably drawn comparisons to the 1975 “fall of Saigon”—so many that, on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the press, “This is not Saigon.” But Blinken’s efforts haven’t stopped the supposed historical parallels from coming, often from the right, which has quickly moved to cast the event as a failure of President Joe Biden and his administration.

But what, if anything, can the fall of Saigon really teach us, as the grim situation in Afghanistan unfolds? And why might the right be so invested in the comparison? Christian Appy is a historian who writes about the Vietnam War and American politics and culture and the author, most recently, of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. I called Appy on Monday to understand more about how the event of the fall of Saigon resonated in the United States in 1975, how its meaning changed in the intervening decades, and what the fall of Kabul may mean for our own politics in 2021. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. [continue reading]