After the September 11th attacks on America, many nations were drawn into the War on Terror. With this escalating conflict came the names of many countries that the American public knew little about. Prior to 9/11, Americans knew Afghanistan simply as a country in the Middle East. In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans now associate Afghanistan with words like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Despite the recent press coverage on this land-locked nation, few understand the history of Afghanistan, including the rich cultural aspects, political climate, and society of this country. As the future of Afghanistan is being lived and written right now, a clear understanding of the country’s history is imperative in understanding the new global circumstances.
It is for this reason that Meredith L. Runion has written this book, published by Geenwood Press. The author is a Program Manager in the Directorate of Science and Technology for the U.S. Federal Government and has been involved in several efforts regarding the Middle East. She is regarded as a specialist in the history of Afghanistan. The author has produced a volume that reflects her current research on Afghanistan. In addition to writing several articles on the subject, “The History of Afghanistan,” is her first published book. Meredith is a native of the Washington D.C. area, and holds advanced degrees in Decision Science and Business.
The book is intended for students and general readers. It is also serves as an appropriate starting material for researchers trying to find concise yet all-inclusive text on the entire history of Afghanistan and the rulers that have governed it.
The United States, being a superpower which attacked Afghanistan and is now embroiled in the War Against Terror in this region, shares a special relationship with this country. Yet, many Americans know very little about Afghanistan, its history and the people who occupy this region. Therefore the author has made special effort to keep the book simple, concise and easy to follow for the American readers. Among the many other questions the writer addresses some are as given: How did Afghanistan get to be the way it is? What kind of political systems have evolved there? What kind of influence does it have in the region? What are the dominant political, religious and cultural forces that move its leaders? These and many other questions have been answered in this volume.
The book under review is a nonfiction account of the history of Afghanistan. It provides an abridged history of Afghanistan, from the emergence of civilization to the United States overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001. The history is almost entirely political and military in nature, recounting shifting dynasties and governments and successive invasions by empires and great powers.
Major points in the book describe how modern Afghanistan is a melting pot of a multitude of cultures, tribes, and political influences all under the guiding belief of Islam. The author repeatedly stresses that due to the country’s strategic location along the crucial trade routes between Central Asia and the Middle East, Afghanistan has suffered repeated conquests throughout its tumultuous history. In spite of this, Afghanistan has proven to be a resilient force in the face of long term conquests, as the United States is experiencing today.
It starts with an introduction to the country, focusing on its geography and people. It discusses its location in the region, its physical features and agricultural potential. It also discusses its economy and the ethnic groups inhabiting the country.
It is interesting to note that the author has devoted a complete chapter to Afghanistan’s prehistory. While libraries and bookstores are filled with a multitude of works on the early life of Mesopotamia and Persia, very little can be found about Afghanistan’s prehistory. Further, most books provide only one or two paragraphs on the early civilization era of Afghanistan, usually after Alexander the Great conquered this region. By including a complete chapter on the country’s prehistory the writer has made the book appealing to general public as well as students of history.
The next chapter discusses the early civilizations which flourished in this area. Brief yet informative material has been presented about the Aryan Civilization, the Medes Empire, the arrival of Alexander the Great in the region and the Greco-Bactrian rule in Afghanistan.
Most books on the subject ignore the intermediate period between the early civilizations and the arrival of Islam in Afghanistan. However, the writer has discussed the Greek-Hellenistic culture prevailing in the area till the conquests led by Muslim invaders. The Macedonian Empire, the division under Seleucid and Mauryan Rule, the Greco-Bactrian and Parthian eras, The Kushan Empire and the Sassanid Dynasty have been dealt with by the author in this chapter before moving on to the advent of Muslim conquerors. Conspicuous, however, is the author’s lack of attention to the rule of Islamic Empires in Afghanistan. The Islamic Empires of this region were some of the most powerful and influential ones during the period extending from 10th century A.D., and played a significant role in shaping the history of Central Asia, Persia and India. The indisposition of the author to handle this period of history in greater detail will come as a surprise to researchers and historians.
The following chapter discusses the Mongolian Invasion, the Timurid Empire and Safavid Rule leading up to the creation of the first Afghan state under Ahmed Shah Durrani in 1747.
A complete chapter has been written by the author detailing the Anglo-Afghan Wars from 1839 to 1919. Once again the author very concisely narrates the history of Afghanistan during this period ensuring that no important event is left out.
Events leading up to the Soviet Invasion, Retreat of Soviet forces and the Afghan Civil War have been described by the author in a succinct manner. Since the history of Afghanistan during this period has been covered by a significant number of books, and that too in great detail, it is relieving to note that the writer has not presented extensive material reproducing the same events in the book. Instead the author sticks to presenting the events briefly.
The next chapter in the book discusses the rise of fundamentalism in Afghan society. This covers the role of the ‘Mujahideen’, the rise of the ‘Taliban’, their war with the Northern Alliance and finally the advent of Osama bin Laden on the global scene. This chapter will be of particular interest to Western readers, especially those in the United States who are not clear about the origin of the Taliban. Afghanistan is a nation about which Western readers knew very little about till the events of 2001. Overall, Runion gives an insightful overview of such a country.
In general, the book lays greater stress on the historical events occurring in the past 30 years. According to Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling, both professors at Indiana University and foreword-writers for the book, ‘the past 30 years have been witness to a great deal of historical change, and it is to this change that this book is primarily addressed’.
The material in the book has been presented in an orderly manner, with the author focusing on the chronological order of the historical events. The language used is simple and helpful for students wishing to acquire knowledge about the subject matter in a short time duration.
However it must be noted that the book presents a very brief overview of the history of Afghanistan, with the overly plain language at times becoming simple even for high school students.
As the reader moves towards the more modern history of Afghanistan, it becomes perfectly clear that this book was written for Americans who wanted to know more about Afghanistan after 2001. If that is the only purpose of the readers, this book will prove fine. But if the readers are history students or researchers, they will find vast other eras of history getting ignored.
The book contains additional chapters that add useful detail to the historical narrative. One chapter is a thorough chronology of important historical events, making it easy for readers to follow the flow of Afghanistan’s history. Another chapter features biographical sketches of the nation’s most important figures who have contributed to the historical development of the Afghan nation. The book also contains a comprehensive bibliography, so that those readers interested in the subject matter can find more about the nation and its history. Each chapter is followed by detailed notes explaining the contents of the chapter, making extensive references to works of other writers and historians on Afghanistan. Included alongside these items is a glossary of frequently used terms, and a guide to further readings. The author apparently did a great deal of research and references multiple sources to provide an unbiased look into Afghanistan.
It was noted that the chronology of this book moves in a haphazard fashion, and the areas the author chooses to focus on are sometimes puzzling. Even though Afghanistan was a neutral nation during WWI and WWII, those wars are discussed in a paragraph.
The author’s style of narrating the events which have not yet occurred in a specific section becomes irritating at times. For example, the author writes:
“That king ruled until the war was over in 1967”
Then the next section will begin:
“The war of regicidal independence began in 1960”
This is fairly common, and has the readers sometimes struggling to put their mindset back into chronological order.
The absence of maps was greatly felt, which could have assisted in explaining the historical contents of the book. Similarly, the book contained no illustrations or images, making it a tiresome and unamusing read at times. Inclusion of maps and illustrations could have added to the appeal and quality of the book
Overall, the book makes a satisfactory attempt to explain the major historical events of Afghanistan very briefly. Some historical details have been ignored by the author. For an introductory history to Afghanistan, this serves its purpose, but it will probably pique rather than satiate the readers’ search for knowledge, which may have been the author’s point all along. The book has about 150 pages, so if the readers want an in depth material this probably isn’t recommended. However, this is a great starting material for those wanting to gain more understanding on the country and the current focus on modern events and conflicts
It is recommended for general public wishing to acquire elementary knowledge and background information about the history of Afghanistan in a concise manner. Students of history and researchers looking for in-depth material on the subject however will be disappointed.
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