Absorbing account of Afghan history can stand test of time

Jonathan Lee's 'Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present' succeeds in crafting a coherent narrative

One of the first pictures to come from Kabul after its capture by Nadir Khan showing the destruction caused by the fighting. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Jonathan Lee, a widely-published authority on the history of Afghanistan, presents in his new book a comprehensive history of the country from 1260 to the present, which throws a stage-light immediately on the arbitrary decisions that necessarily go into writing any kind of book like Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present.

Why start the account in 1260? The area that we now know as Afghanistan, stretching from the mountains of the Hindu Kush to the Registan Desert, has very likely been inhabited for as long as human societies have existed. Waves of conquest, Indian, Persian, Arabic, Mongolian, Chinese, have swept over parts or all of this territory, and waves of commerce have followed, spreading along the vast and complicated network of overland trade routes known as the Silk Road.

More than a dozen dynasties had risen, ruled for centuries, and fallen long before the Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th century broadened and grounded the Muslim conquests of the region, while dozens more dynasties rose, ruled all or part of Afghanistan, and fell before Lee's chosen date of 1260. There are almost as many periods to begin a big one-volume history as there are dates in history.

One reason to start in 1260 is surely pragmatic. Lee's date coincides with both the Chagatai Khanate established by one of the sons of Genghis Khan and, in the later Timurid era, with the growth of the city of Kabul as a key focus of power in the country. Afghanistan is a large and famously diverse country, with dozens of ethnic groups, tribes and spoken languages, with Lee contending that its size and mountainous topography "has always posed challenges to communications and governance and has encouraged a strong sense of regional autonomy". However, in the course of this book's nearly 800 pages, the main action seldom strays far from Kabul, or for very long.

Dost Mohammad Khan, 1793 To 1863. Emir Of Afghanistan. From The World's Inhabitants By G.T. Bettany Published 1888. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The task of crafting a coherent narrative out of such disparate material, much less making that narrative of genuine interest, is obviously daunting, and one of the many low-key marvels of this book is how often Lee manages to succeed. This has every indication of being the 21st century's standard English-language history of Afghanistan: it's richly detailed but not simplified, keeping up a fast pace without ever sacrificing fine-grained detail, fit to occupy the same shelf as Abbas Amanat's magisterial 2017 history of Iran.

One of Lee's canniest tactics in managing this is to incorporate an agile focus-shifting throughout. His book, which covers nearly eight centuries of tangled and dramatic history, is already dealing with the Victorian era by page 200, and this is probably wise: each of the rulers; each of the families; each of the military campaigns which litter the 500 years of Afghan sultanates covered in Lee's first chapter; all of these things can and have sustained entire books on their own merits. Lee focuses more tightly on the map of Afghanistan's interactions with the post-Enlightenment West.

Given the fierce and often heartbreaking stories of modern Afghanistan dating from the Soviet-Afghan War and the series of civil wars that racked the country throughout the 1990s, it's surprising and perhaps a bit telling that some of the most gripping sections of Lee's book are those dealing with the long and doomed involvement of the British Empire.

Lee describes its “policy of indifference” and also takes a close look at the East India Company and the rulers of Afghanistan, particularly such evocative figures as Emir Dost Mohammad Khan and his son, Akbar Khan, who destroyed the army of William Elphinstone in 1842. Lee has a sensitive ear for the kinds of personal or garish details that have enlivened long narratives such as this since Gibbon, if not Holinshed.

'Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present' by Jonathan L. Lee. Courtesy Reaktion Books

"Finally, the time had come to avenge the humiliations that … Britain had heaped on his father and family over the past three years," Lee writes of Akbar Khan's actions in 1841, when he killed British political agent William Hay MacNaghten on a small hill beside the Kabul river – with the location, which is now at the west side of the stadium opposite the Id Gah Mosque, marked by a memorial plaque. MacNaghten was dismembered and his torso hung from a meat hook in the Char Chatta bazaar.

Perhaps Lee's most inspired and strategic decision before delving into such stories is to open his book with a broad sociological overview of Afghan society. Noting that the 2004 constitution officially designated the country as an Islamic Republic, Lee interestingly acknowledges the variety that's partially concealed by such a term. "Islam, while it is rigorously monotheistic, is far from being monolithic and there are many strands of religious belief and interpretation, ranging from deistic rationalism to the puritanical exclusivism of movements such as the Taliban." 

It is in this section that Lee notes the intricate balance between the country's Sunni majority and its Shiite and Ismaili minorities, and he also explains that "despite the many difficulties they face, Afghan women are far from the weak, powerless victims portrayed in some western polemics." 

Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present stands fairly firmly against such western polemics. It's a parade of richly-realised personalities: sultans, colonial opportunists, visionaries, and the embattled present government figures are all presented here with a startlingly refreshing humanity.

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