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Thomas Friedman’s Afghanistan Fantasies

Submitted by on November 6, 2011 – 11:13 pm 19 Comments |  
Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid EmpireOn November 1, 2011, noted New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman implicitly placed the United States in “a long list of suckers,” a roster composed of countries that had been foolish enough to invade Afghanistan. Friedman came up with the idea while on a tour of historical sites in northern India. When told by a guide that in the late 1500s a “great battle” had followed a Persian attempt to conquer the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, Friedman “had to laugh” at the foolishness of the endeavor. Iran, in his mind, had just been added to the register of feckless “countries certain that controlling Afghanistan’s destiny was vital to their national security.” Friedman concluded his column by arguing that the United States would be wise to pull out of Afghanistan and attempt instead to influence local military contingents and regional powers from afar. Such a course, he claims, would be both more cost-efficient and more effective than trying to maintain U.S. armed forces in the country indefinitely.

I have no complaints against Friedman’s recommendations, but that is beside the point, as advocating or criticizing specific policies is beyond the scope of GeoCurrents. I do, however, have major objections against his use of historical and geographical evidence to bolster his position. Rather than engaging in serious geo-historical reflection, Friedman merely trots out the hackneyed idea that Afghanistan is the perennial graveyard of empires, a country singularly resistant to foreign rule. In reducing the complex history of the region to a crude stereotype that pertains at best only to the 19th and 20th centuries, Friedman discredits his own analysis.

Map of Persian Safavid EmpireThe basic errors in Friedman’s historical reconstruction are pervasive and deep. Let us begin with his initial paragraph. Following his Indian tour guide, Friedman states that in the late 1500s “Afghanistan was part of India and the Moghul Empire.” Actually, in the late 16th century “Afghanistan” was nothing at all, as the country did not exist until 1747. More to the point, the western and northern portions of the territory that now forms Afghanistan generally remained outside of the fluctuating boundaries of the Moghul Empire. Through most of  the late 1500s and 1600s, the western region was part of the Persian (Safavid) Empire, which at times controlled most of what is now Afghanistan. As the map of the Safavid Empire shows, the Uzbek Khanate also vied for power across much of the region. In cultural and historical terms, however, Persian-speaking Herat—the “Pearl of Khorasan”— is much more a Persian city than an Afghan one. Herat was not permanently annexed by Afghanistan until the mid-1800s, and without British military assistance the Afghans might have lost the city to the Qajar Dynasty of Persia on several occasions.

In the final analysis, any late 16th century battles over Herat and Kandahar were simply typical struggles along the frontiers of expansive empires, rather than examples of the pointlessness of invading the unconquerable terrain of Afghanistan. Friedman’s secondary contention, that “Afghanistan” was “part of India” in the late 1500s makes even less sense. In the 16th century, “India” was merely a vague geographical expression used by European that included Southeast Asia (“Farther India”) and in some circumstances extended across East Asia to encompass the Americas. Subsequently, India came to be defined (in certain circumstances) on physical grounds as the South Asian subcontinent; “India” in this sense includes southern Afghanistan up to the crest of the Hindu Kush, but not northern Afghanistan, which has instead been classified as part of Central Asia.

Map of the Growth of Afghanistan in the 1800sFriedman’s column moves on from the Persian-Mughal struggles in the late 1500s to the so-called Great Game of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the British and Russian empires vied for influence in the borderlands between Central and South Asia. Once more, Friedman takes a limited historical episode and transforms it into a permanent geo-historical feature: “it is worth … recalling for how many centuries great powers — from India to Persia, from Britain to Russia, and now from America to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan — have wrestled for supremacy in this region, in different versions of what came to be called “The Great Game.” Yes, “great powers” have often “wrestled for supremacy” in the region under consideration, but the same thing can be said about many other parts of the earth. And the notion that Turkey is now seeking “supremacy” in Afghanistan is too outlandish to merit discussion.

After discussing “the Great Game,” Friedman rapidly segues to the US decision to remove its armed forces from Iraq, writing as if it were part of the same story: “Just as I don’t buy the notion that we need to keep playing The Great Game in Iraq, I also don’t buy it for Afghanistan.” Here he unmoors the concept of the “Great Game” from its Central Asian geographical context as well as from its late 19th century historical milieu, framing it as a permanent, trans-historical, trans-regional dynamic. I “don’t buy” this analogy: although there are many similarities between the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, differences also abound. In the end, understanding is not advanced by forcing these conflicts into a common mold based on regional competition between the British and Russian empires in the late 1800s.

As regular GeoCurrents reader have seen, I am suspicious of the idea of the nation-state. In particular, I find the commonplace notion that all countries are automatically united across their territorial extents by the common bonds of national solidarity both simplistic in conception and dangerous when used to guide foreign policy. Afghanistan has never formed a coherent nation-state. It originated in the 18th century as the conquest empire of the Pashtun warlord Ahmad Shah Durrani, founded on the military subjugation of diverse peoples scattered across an vast area that had never previously been politically united. This “Durrani Empire” subsequently weakened and was whittled back to its Pashtun core. Its successor state, the Emirate of Afghanistan, saw its boundaries drastically fluctuate, as mid- and late-19th century conquests brought in Tajik, Uzbek, and other non-Pashtun areas, while British advances subtracted significant areas in the southeast. Borders were finally stabilized in the late 1800s, but they remain contentious to this day; Afghanistan does not recognize the validity of the Durand Line that separates its territory from that of Pakistan. Equally pertinent, many Tajiks, Uzbeks and members of other minority groups in the country have at best marginal loyalty to any entity called Afghanistan, which they continue to suspect as a potential vehicle for Pashtun domination.

If the idea of intrinsic unity is problematic when applied to a state as feeble and disunited as contemporary Afghanistan, it is positively pernicious when retroactively applied to the territory of modern Afghanistan as it existed in previous centuries. Such an idea is implicitly deployed, however, whenever anyone describes the country as the “Graveyard of Empires,” a geo-historical cliché that will be the subject of the next GeoCurrents post.


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  • Great post, thank you!

  • Zeuss

     But why would a serious professional like you be reading a negligent amateur like Thomas Friedman in the first place?

    • Being in a similar position, albeit in a different discipline, I can answer this question: unfortunately, more people read “a negligent amateur like Thomas Friedman” than “a serious professional like” Martin W. Lewis. So Friedman’s errors of fact and analysis MUST be pointed out and corrected.

    • Anonymous

      Not everyone who reads Martin’s blog is themselves a serious scholar.  Some of us are responsible amateurs who come here to learn 😉 And perhaps to leave some morsel of knowledge we find in some dusty corner of mind 🙂

      • I agree that the value of Martin’s blog is exactly that it is accessible to the general public, “responsible amateurs”, as you say (like myself, when it comes to geopolitics). We can all learn from each other’s morsels of knowledge and wisdom. 🙂

        • Thanks for all the comments above — interesting threat. I try to read broadly in matters of public and political opinion, regardless of whether I agree with the authors or respect them. Punditry plays an important role in our society, and Friedman is one of our top pundits. One of my roles, I suppose, is to urge political columnists to pay more attention to history and geography. Many US politicians have seemingly come to the conclusion that knowledge of the world is not important. I find that stance appalling, but I am also displeased with the idea that a little dash of knowledge is all that is really necessary. I am quite uncertain myself about many global issues of the day, largely because I feel that I lack adequate knowledge. That, however, drives me to learn more! (Although I mostly do so out of mere interest.)  I  should also say that I have great respect for any “responsible amateur” interested in gaining knowledge about world history and geography.  How anyone could find history and geography boring is beyond my comprehension. 

          • Yoav

            “How anyone could find history and geography boring is beyond my comprehension. “

            I wholeheartedly agree.That should be this site’s motto.

          • Unfortunately, I understand why some people find history and geography (as any other subject) boring: in two words, BAD TEACHERS. I had my share of those… You are doing a great job, Martin, rekindling people’s interest in world history and geography!

      • Anonymous

        RightPaddock == Phil_Daniels sorry

        History doesn’t issue press releases; so when pundits want to write about the past they either use “echonomics” (what did the other pundit say) or they make it up to suit their own worldview.

  • Anonymous

    Great to see that I wasn’t alone in wanting to reach through ether to shake some information into Friedmann.

    I should first say that I loathe the term “The Great Game”.  It gives the impression that prior to the advent of the British & Russian Empires, the Central Asian region had been a sleepy backwater of civilisation, which is of course utter nonsense.

    His reference to Turkey being among the more recent players in the Great Game was risible.  As descendants of the Ottoman Empire and before that the 11th century CE Seljuk Empire, you could say they were one of the first players in the game to control Central Asia.  And his reference to Pakistan as being a recent player was similarly foolish. I see Pakistan as a remnant of the Murgal Empire, which derives from the 14th century CE Timurid Empire, another early player in the game to control Central Asia.  

    Like most US journalists Freidmann regards the Turks as Europeans.   I put this down to the myth that Tsar Nicholas 1 coined the term “The Sick Man of Europe” when referring to the Ottoman Empire.  Interestingly the term and its attribution to Tsar Nicholas 1 was first reported on May 12 1860 in the New York Times.  However the  official records do not contain those words. In those records Nicholas’s actual words spoken in French, to the British Ambassador in Moscow, are better interpreted as “We have a Sick Man IN Europe”, he also said something similar in respect to the Hapsburg Empire.  

    Another quotation used by Friedmann was one from Abbas Milani, “What you see today if you look underneath the Islamic revolutionary facade in Iran, is a flourishing of painting, films and music, driven by technology.”

    I’d like someone to tell me a time when there wasn’t a flourishing of arts and culture in Iran.  And when did Iranians not use the latest technology in their artistic and cultural expression.  

    • Fantastic comments — many thanks. I had no idea about the origin of the term “Sick Man of Europe.”  In fact, I used the term while lecturing just today — I guess I should not have put off reading the comments to this post! (I teach two two-hour classes on Tuesdays, so I tend to put things off until the middle of the week). I also agree about the term “Great Game.”  It also makes geopolitics seem like an unserious matter . And you are certainly right about arts and culture in Iran, as almost any Iranian will quickly tell you. 

  • Anonymous

    RightPaddock == Phil_Daniels sorry

    History doesn’t issue press releases; so when pundits want to write about the past they either use “echonomics” (what did the other pundit say) or they make it up to suit their own worldview.

  • I can think of nothing more useless than limiting one’s reading to the works of responsible scholars.  I suppose it would be all right to read those who think they are responsible.  It reminds me of a conversation I had with a Hungarian who assured me there was no anti-Semitism in interwar Hungary.  I, of course, pointed out a number of writers and political leaders, but he was of the opinion that none of them were respected thinkers, so they didn’t count.  No true Scotsman, I suppose,….

  • Ryan Brasher

    I realize I’m a bit late, but very necessary post, thank you very much – some folks over at similarly have been at work debunking the ‘graveyard of empires’ yarn as well(

    One might quibble with the conclusion that the nation-state in Afghanistan is completely non-existent (“Equally pertinent, many Tajiks, Uzbeks and members of other minority groups in the country have at best marginal loyalty to any entity called Afghanistan, which they continue to suspect as a potential vehicle for Pashtun domination.”) This may have been true of the mid-20th Century. But 30 years of war and dislocation have ironically created a stronger sense of national identity than ever before, by pulling many millions of Afghans out of their localist and traditionalist sense of identity into a broader context.

    Lastly, just as the nation-state itself is, in Benedict Anderson’s words, ‘imagined’, so is ethnic identity. In other words, there is nothing particularly primordial or more tangible about “Uzbekness”, “Tajikness”, or “Hazaraness” than the national sense of ‘Afghanness’. See my article in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology 2011(“Ethnic Brother or Artificial Namesake? The Construction of Tajik Identity in Afghanistan and Tajikistan”)

    • Thank you for your fascinating comment, Ryan! (And it’s never too late to jump into the discussion).

      Regarding your last point, I am not sure I agree. I’ve not been to Afghanistan, but based on my familiarity with other ethnic groups, I think there is a very strong in-group sense of identity that’s not “imagined”. For insiders, the distinctions of who’s who are often even more subtle yet at the same time more tangible than for outsiders…

      Do you know if your article that you refer to is available online?

      • Ryan Brasher

        Asya – ‘imagined’, in Benedict Anderson’s sense, does not mean it is not real to group members. It is ‘imagined’ in that it is a ‘social’ reality, not based in objective fact (say, like DNA). Ethnicity has become more important in Afghanistan over the last few decades. But before much of Afghanistan’s recent troubles began, if you had gone to the so-called ‘Tajik’ parts of the country and asked people who they were, they would have been more apt to say “I’m from this valley, or that religious community”, rather than using an ethnic marker. Ethnic identification has, in Central and South Asia at least, been a product of British/Soviet colonial policy more than anything else. And b/c the colonial footprint in Afghanistan was rather low, politicized ethnic identities, although much talked about in the public sphere recently, were not particularly salient in Afghan politics.

        The article, by the way, won’t be available on-line for a little while due to the publisher’s quirkiness, but I can pass it along.

  • Soroush

    interesting article, as a half tajik/half pashtun originally from afghanistan I appreciate the analysis. contemporary discourse on afghanistan in the media and even among certain circles of afghanistan is very distorted.

    you should look into the persian epic “shahnamah” and the localities mentioned in it. you’ll find that most of the localities mentioned by ferdowsi as part of “iran” are situated in contemporary afghanistan.