Guide Connecting Histories in Afghanistan: Market Relations and State Formation on a Colonial Frontier

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Stanford: Stanford University Press, Reviewed by Thomas J. Connecting Histories in Afghanistan examines Afghanistan's economic relations with British India in the nineteenth century and addresses a seeming paradox: how did a country that was so prosperously tied into south Asia's trading network at the beginning of the century become so disconnected and economically isolated as the century ended?

While Shah Mahmoud Hanifi contends that his is a revisionist approach, such is the paucity of detailed studies on Afghanistan's history that there is really very little available research to revise. Instead the value of the book is its probing of previously unexamined assumptions about how Afghanistan's state and economy functioned.

American Institute of Afghanistan Studies

In particular, Hanifi demonstrates that too much of existing Afghan history uncritically projects more recent templates onto its past. Thus the picture of an isolated, antiforeign, and economically impoverished Afghanistan does not do justice to its vibrant international trade and multinational merchant community that thrived there before the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Hanifi also compellingly argues that the failure to incorporate Afghanistan directly into British India's colonial dominion disguised the significance of its indirect influence over Afghan rulers who became dependent on foreign subsidies and weapons.

Despite his anti-British rhetoric and occasional jihad rattling, Abdur Rahman's success at forcibly building a strong Afghan state depended on staying within their sphere of influence.

https://poratabnacon.tk This required cultivating his alliance with the British even when it demanded such sacrifices as agreeing to the Durand Line, the frontier demarcation that put the majority of the region's Pashtun population under British sovereignty. While Abdur Rahman developed Afghanistan's army to suppress his internal rivals, his strategy for keeping foreigners out of the country depended on making Afghanistan too poor to attract their attention.

An Afghanistan with no transport or communications infrastructure would be hard to invade, but an Afghanistan with no developed resources would not repay the cost of doing so. Cultivating Afghanistan's underdevelopment as a deliberate strategic asset may seem counterproductive, but it is true that thieves and extortionists rarely trouble the poverty-stricken.

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The first section of the book focuses both on the run-up to the First Anglo Afghan War and the economic changes the British instituted in Kabul during their ill-fated occupation. In the s, the British began to look at Afghanistan as a potentially profitable trading base linking central Asia with India. Afghanistan already had a strong overland network of production, transport, and finance that supported a surprisingly large fruit trade with India.


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Central Asian goods, notably horses, also transited through Afghanistan to reach British military buyers in India. That economic rather than geopolitical considerations took priority made good sense at the time.

Table of Contents

Second, concern about whose goods would dominate this trade network was more significant than the hypothetical Russian military threat to India. Third, and most telling, the British initially conceived of Afghanistan's occupation as part of a much more ambitious plan for economic development that would link the overland trade networks coming out of central Asia with a new maritime route utilizing ports to be constructed along the Indus River.

This explains both why an invasion force tasked with conquering a landlocked country would be called the "Army of the Indus" and how its expense was to be justified. Only a maritime power, such as Britain, would imagine the Indus could serve as the gateway to the heart of Asia. Few cargo vessels ever plied that route at least since ancient times and the region's previous conquerors over the past thousand years, all land based, had looked upon rivers as obstacles to cross rather than highways of commerce.