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The ‘re-turn’ to empire in IR: colonial knowledge communities and the construction of the idea of the Afghan polity, 1809–38

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 October 2013

Abstract

This article seeks to add to the exploration and development of Imperial History's contribution to the discipline of International Relations (IR). Focusing on British perceptions of Afghanistan in the period preceding the first Anglo-Afghan war the article considers colonial knowledge as a source of identity construction, but in a manner that avoids deploying anachronistic concepts, in this case that of the Afghan ‘state’. This approach, which draws on the insights brought to IR by historical sociology, shows that engaging with Imperial History within IR can encourage a more reflexive attitude to core disciplinary categories. This not only reveals alternative approaches to the construction of specific political communities but it also allows for a more historicist mode in the use of history by IR as a discipline. Furthermore, by moving away from material based purely on diplomatic history, Afghanistan's imperial encounter can be recovered from the dominance of ‘Great Game’ narratives, offering an account that is more appreciative of the Afghanistan context.

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Copyright © British International Studies Association 2013 

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References

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3 In a documentary broadcast on BBC2 in 2012 Stewart described one of these men, Alexander Burnes, as the greatest diplomat Britain had ever seen. ‘Afghanistan: The Great Game – A Personal View by Rory Stewart’, BBC2 (Broadcast 28 May 2012).

4 Stewart was also courted by Richard Holbrooke following the latter's arrival in the post of ‘AfPak’ special envoy. Rory Stewart, ‘Midnight Moments: Exposing the truth and taking full responsibility for Afghanistan’, Huffington Post (20 December 2010), available at: {http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rory-stewart/post_1457_b_799063.html} accessed 19 October 2012. For a critique of Foreign Policy ‘expertise’ see Manan Ahmed, ‘Flying Blind: US foreign policy's lack of expertise’, The National (4 March 2011), available at: {http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/flying-blind-us-foreign-policys-lack-of-expertise} accessed 19 October 2012.

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7 In this sense the article builds on Hopkins’ important contribution to the modern literature The Making of Modern Afghanistan, in which he refers to the Afghan ‘proto-state’. This terminology has implications for approaches pertaining to the International Relations discipline and is worthy of further interrogation.

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31 Noelle, State and Tribe in Nineteenth-Century Afghanistan, p. 38.

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33 On the concept of ‘closure’ and the sociology of knowledge see Golinski, Jan, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

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37 Stehr and Meja (eds), Society and Knowledge.

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39 Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge.

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43 Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, p. 8.

44 This process of centre-periphery exchange was visible in the construction of Afghan national identity prior to the arrival of the British. Nile Green has recently shown how Mughal-era diasporic networks had already fostered a sense of ‘Afghan’ identity amongst Pashtun elites prior to the advance of British influence in the region. Green, Nile, ‘Tribe, Diaspora, and Statehood in Afghan History’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 67:1 (2001), pp. 171211Google Scholar. I am grateful to an anonymous peer reviewer for bringing this article to my attention.

45 Martin J. Bayly, Imagining Afghanistan: British Foreign Policy and the Afghan Polity, 1808–1878, unpublished PhD thesis (King's College London, 2013).

46 Mountstuart Elphinstone should not be confused with his relative General William Elphinstone who led the disastrous retreat from Kabul during the First Anglo Afghan War.

47 Elphinstone, Mountstuart, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary and India [in two volumes] (2nd edn, London: Richard Bentley, 1819)Google Scholar.

48 Masson's real name was in fact James Lewis. ‘Charles Masson’ was a pseudonym invented in order to cover for his desertion. Whitteridge, Gordon, Charles Masson of Afghanistan (Warminster: Aris and Phillips Ltd, 1986)Google Scholar; Omrani, Bijan, ‘Charles Masson of Afghanistan: Deserter, Scholar, Spy’, Asian Affairs, 39:2 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Henry Pottinger's nephew, Lieutenant Eldred Pottinger, also played a prominent role later on in the defence of Herat during the Persian siege of 1837.

50 Claude Wade also used his position as a conduit for intelligence reports from Kabul to the governor general to warp the information contained within them in a manner that was more favourable to his preferred candidate for the throne, Shah Shuja. Norris, J. A., The First Afghan War 1838–1842 (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), p. 139Google Scholar; Dalrymple, William, Return of a King (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 65Google Scholar.

51 Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan, p. 18.

52 Kaye, John William, History of the War in Afghanistan, Volume I (London: Richard Bentley, 1857)Google Scholar.

53 Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan, Volume I, p. 179. See also, India Office Records (hereafter IOR), Masson Papers, Mss Eur E.161/633, Correspondence III, 3, enclosure 2; Mss Eur E.161/6-7 (microfilm), 6a, Pottinger to Masson, 27 July 1834. Burnes's movements during his second commercial mission to Kabul in 1837 were closely followed in the Delhi Gazette for the consumption of the British settlers in Delhi. IOR (microfilm), Delhi Gazette, 1837–8, SM 52.

54 See IOR, Elphinstone Papers, Mss Eur F88/81, pp. 85, 91, 105, 111.

55 Burnes, Alexander, Travels into Bokhara, Volume I (London: John Murray, 1834), p. 162Google Scholar. Masson also requested a copy from Pottinger in 1833: IOR, Masson Papers, 20876 Mss Eur E.161/6-7/1a (microfilm).

56 One of these agents, Mullah Najib hosted Burnes on his later trip through Peshawar. Najib was at the time on a British pension. Burnes, Travels into Bokhara, Volume I, p. 105.

57 Omrani, ‘Charles Masson of Afghanistan’. Masson's correspondence with Pottinger and Wade is in the Masson Papers, IOR Mss Eur.E.161/631-632.

58 IOR/V/27/270/7, ‘Reports and Papers, Political, Geographical, and Commercial. Submitted to Government, by Sir Alexander Burnes; Lieutenant Leech; Doctor Lord; and Lieutenant Wood’.

59 Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge.

60 Rendell, Jane, ‘Scottish Orientalism: from Robertson to James Mill’, The Historical Journal, 25:1 (1982), pp. 4369CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Said, Orientalism.

62 Rendell, ‘Scottish Orientalism’.

63 Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, p. 17.

64 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006)Google Scholar.

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66 Elphinstone, Account, Vol. I, p. 238.

67 Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, p. 23.

68 This included consultation of the genealogical histories of the founding father of the Afghan nation, Qais Abdur Rashid. Elphinstone, Account, Vol. I, pp. 253, 398.

69 Elphinstone, Account, Vol. I, p. 138.

70 Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan.

71 Branch, ‘“Colonial Reflection” and territoriality’.

72 A Persian unit of measurement based on how far a man can walk in one day.

73 Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, p. 25.

74 As per the original: ‘The Khootba is part of the Mahommedan service, in which the king of the country is prayed for. Inserting a prince's name in the Khootba, and inscribing it on the current coin, are reckoned in the East the most certain acknowledgement of sovereignty.’ Elphinstone, Account, Vol. I, p. 138.

75 Ibid., p. 138.

76 As a rough guide, the modern territorial state of Afghanistan is bounded on its north, south, east, and west, by Bulkh (Balkh), Caubul (Kabul), Candahar (Kandahar), and Farrah (Farah), respectively. Additional important population centres include Heraut (Herat) in the north-west, and Peshawer (Peshawar) to the east of Kabul, on the present day border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

77 Ibid., p. 269.

78 Ibid., p. 247.

79 Ibid., p. 85.

80 Ibid., p. 86.

81 Bayly, Christopher A., ‘Knowing the Country’, Modern Asian Studies, 27:1 (1993), pp. 343CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

82 Masson, Charles, Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, and the Panjab, Vol. II (London: Richard Bentley, 1842), p. 204Google Scholar.

83 Burnes, Travels, Vol. III, p. 250.

84 Burnes, for example, was courted by Sirdar Sultan Muhammad Khan of Peshawar; Masson by Haji Khan, chief of Bamiyan (north-west of Kabul) and one of Dost Muhammad Khan's principal advisers. Burnes, Travels, Vol. III, p. 255; Masson, Narrative, Vol II, p. 360.

85 Hillemann, Asian Empire and British Knowledge; Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)Google Scholar.

86 As the president of the Board of Control Lord Ellenborough proposed in late 1829, ‘the Indian Government should be authorized to act as an Asiatic power, ignoring the effect of its actions on Britain and Europe, if the Russians moved towards Kabul’. Norris, The First Afghan War, p. 31.

87 Bayly, Empire and Information, pp. 144–5.

88 Norris, The First Afghan War, p. 30.

89 Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan, p. 31.

90 Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, p. 38.

91 The findings of a Select Committee on Steam Communications were reported in the Delhi Gazette, IOR (Microfilm) SM52, January 1837. See also, IOR, Broughton Papers, Add MS 36473, pp. 64, 80, 85–6, 188.

92 IOR, Broughton Papers, Add MS 36473, p. 120. For the reports see IOR/V/27/270/7, ‘Reports and Papers, Political, Geographical, and Commercial. Submitted to Government, by Sir Alexander Burnes; Lieutenant Leech; Doctor Lord; and Lieutenant Wood’.

93 Henry St George Tucker, who was Chairman of the Company Board at the time, declined to support this second mission ‘feeling perfectly assured that it must soon degenerate into a political agency, and that we should as a necessary consequence be involved in all the entanglement of Afghan politics’. Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan, Volume I, p. 181.

94 The Qizilbash were a Persian unit of the Afghan army that functioned as the personal bodyguards of the ruler of Kabul, having been originally established under the rule of Ahmad Shah (r.1747–72). The Qizilbash are to be distinguished from the ethnic Hazara community inhabiting the central highlands of the Hindu Kush who were also of the Shi'a sect of Islam and accordingly were viewed by the British as potentially aligning with Persia in the event of a Persian invasion.

95 IOR/V/27/270/7, p. 10.

96 IOR, Broughton Papers, Add MS 36473, p. 262.

97 IOR/V/27/270/7, p. 15.

98 Ibid.

99 IOR/L/PS/20/MEMO1/15/3, pp. 4–5, 7. Shah Shuja also made three attempts to regain his throne, each of which failed. The first attempt via Kashmir in 1815, an aborted attempt in 1818, and then again 1834. The latter two had been followed by British officials and in the case of the 1834 expedition, supported by British financing. Despite this there was a reluctance to become more involved in these efforts and what was seen as an opaque political contest. Dalrymple, Return of a King, pp. 36–8, 45–6, 66–73.

100 IOR, Broughton Papers, Add MS 36473, p. 188.

101 IOR, Elphinstone Papers, Mss Eur F88/105, pp. 46–9.

102 IOR, Broughton Papers, Add MS 36473, pp. 370–7.

103 For this distinction see Bayly, Empire and Information, p. 144.

104 Masson, Narrative, Vol. 1, pp. vi–viii. Burnes made a similar argument in response to a letter from Elphinstone disputing the wisdom of the invasion. In his words, ‘I never doubted we could place the Shah on the throne but that I viewed the Army as far too large – Indeed the passing of so many British troops into Afghanistan has been the prime cause of Shah Shooja's partial unpopularity.’ IOR, Elphinstone Papers, Mss Eur F88/111, p. 81.

105 IOR, Elphinstone Papers, Mss Eur F88/111, p. 28.

106 Masson, Narrative, Vol. I, p. xi.

107 Satia, Spies in Arabia, p. 337.

108 Noelle, State and Tribe in Nineteenth-Century Afghanistan, p. 40.

109 Bell, Duncan, ‘Empire and International Relations in Victorian Political Thought’, The Historical Journal, 49:1 (2006), p. 283CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

110 IOR, Broughton Papers, Mss Eur F213/89, ‘Observations on the restored Government of Shah Shooja’, 4 July 1840.

111 Simpson, Great Powers and Outlaw States.

112 Hopkins and Marsden, Fragments of the Afghan Frontier, p. 63.

113 ‘In the Heart of Afghanistan’, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, January (1887), p. 81.

114 The Second Anglo-Afghan War took place between 1878–80. Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan, p. 41.

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