When writing about Afghanistan, are narrators depicting categories of its history, culture and people, or producing reductive representations or stereotypes?

How many of us can identify an Afghan poet such as Gul Zhowandai (d. 1988) or the mathematician Sediq Afghan (b. 1958)? Not many perhaps link Afghanistan to the great poet and learned scholar and mystic of Islam, Jalaladdin Rumi (d. 1273). At best, they may muster the name of Khaled Hosseini, author of the famed novel, The Kite Runner. 

Yet Afghanistan is readily confused with the Taliban. Many students we teach fail to mention a single name of these luminaries. However, they have a vague idea of Taliban leaders, Abdul Ghani Baradar, and, in particular, the late Mullah Omar.

Even the Cannes-winning Afghan director, Shahraboo Sadat and filmmaker Sahraa Karimi, are recalled today in the context of their escape from the Taliban, generalised as “fundamentalist”, “militant” and violent Pashtun tribesmen.

In confusing the Taliban with Afghanistan, an entire country is Orientalised. As in Said’s definition of Orientalism, the “style of thought” on this Muslim Central Asian country reproduces the epistemological binary pitting Afghanistan against the entire world, especially, European and North American countries. 

In such a style, diversity cedes to singularity. The rich multiethnic fabric that makes up Afghanistan (ranging from Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Hazara to Kyrgyz, Sadat, Pamiri and Gujjar, among others) is understated, if not effaced. Afghanistan ceases to be the total sum of these ethnicities and it is generalised as “Taliban-istan”, a Pashtun-like cartography, bereft of “real” cultures and “civilised” peoples.

Thus, almost invariably, the contrast that comes to the fore is that of a culturally backward, politically chaotic and socially fragmented Afghanistan. Never mind the former Soviets’ invasion in 1979 and the ten-year war, and its American counterpart that lasted twice as long, and the aftermath of each conflict. Never mind the suffering of all Afghans from violence under the world’s most sophisticated weaponry, despite the fact that the fight by the Americans and their allies was primarily with the Taliban. 

Mapping power relations

One feature of hegemonic discourse is the oversimplification of categories. In the context of Orientalist cultural production, generalisation and reductionism work in tandem. Note how the current hyperbole surrounding the category of “security” is grounded in uncritical writing of Afghanistan. The sudden departure of the “coloniser” (the US and its allies) is read in terms of future (perceived) threat, violence, disorder and human rights violations by the “colonised”. 

The subtext of the criticisms of US President Joe Biden all angle at highlighting realpolitik’s obsession with balances of power, threats to national security and the turmoil faced by the US and its friends in Central Asia. The mayhem and deaths caused by the colonised hardly gets a mention. What is mentioned is the colonised as potential losers, in some indeterminate future.

Thus, all the liberal hype about the protection of civilians threatened by Taliban reprisals and violence, which may be justified, does not conceal preference for continuous invasion.

That is why the structural harm bequeathed to Afghans by 30 years of Western wars is not given due attention as inimical to human security, of women and of men. Violent as they may be, the Taliban are not the only actors guilty, actual or potential, of oppression. 

The coloniser’s entire regime of reconstruction, founded on all kinds of isms (humanism, internationalism, paternalism, and liberal feminism) has obviously proven its perpetually hegemonic content. 

Today, one can only wonder at the usefulness of the reconstruction (in application and in theory) propped up for years by armies and monies — much of it siphoned off by civil NGOs requiring protection — that have not proven their worth as instruments of self-regeneration.

Had it not been for the atrophy of colonised-led reconstruction, one would not today be reading about Afghans as objects

Afghans were constructed initially as objects of Orientalist writing, women in need of protection (what Lila Abu-Lughod calls “saving Muslim women) and people in need of rescue. Instead of self-regenerating equals to the colonised, Afghans are today represented as compromised, with demoted agency, and it may be, by some accounts, worth re-invading Afghanistan.

Orientalist regimes of “Truth”

The writing and construction of Afghanistan is mediated via unquestioned discourses. As the world grapples with the US withdrawal, such discourses are grounded in power-knowledge frames of acting and thinking, where the hegemon’s regime of truth is made to pass as universal. 

This is integral to reproduction of self-other oppositions, in which stereotypes from centres of power are sanctioned as knowledge of the “other”.

As in the “Great Game” in the 1830s, power play is paralleled by word play. It is sometimes word play, which proves to be most lasting and dangerous, because at the end of the day, armies leave. 

No word play can forever pass the hegemon’s “regime of truth” as plausible, much less credible. Like those whose armies and words nearly two centuries ago installed Shujah Shah failed to impress the Afghans, today, the order of words and power attempted 20 years ago by the Americans, crumbles. The Taliban returned, as did Dost Mohammad Khan before them.  

No amount of Orientalist wordplay and attendant regimes of truth, whether by the media, social media or the official transcripts of the powers-that-be, can win the battle of hearts and minds in the “West” or the “East” — and definitely, not language and knowledge practices integral to imperialist pathology like “forever war”, “long war”, and “war against terror”.

The continued relevance of academia or media lies in the mischief to speak truth to power, to denaturalise “truths” about all kinds of “otherness” in our world. It is such mischief that recasts the use of knowledge-power from imperial epistemic violence into intellectual consciousness, which is imbued with social and moral commitment. That is, a commitment to rethink the power relations between coloniser and colonised, and reject regimes of oppression, discursive or political.

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