Khorasan: The Eternal Battlefield... and the Bleeding Heart of Asia - Chapter1
The enigmatic nature of Afghanistan was cultivated... and still is today, because it suitably represents the enduring colonialist romantic myth of a wilderness populated by swashbuckling barbarians.
Without a knowledge of history, one cannot understand the world today... For most people, especially Westerners, "Afghanistan" remains a dark enigma. But the enigmatic nature of this construct was cultivated... and still is today, because it suitably represents the enduring colonialist romantic myth of a wilderness populated by swashbuckling barbarians.
Before tackling the current situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia in my next essays, I would first like to provide some fundamental historical background on the region to enable a better understanding of the complex circumstances affecting it today.
The curse of colonialism
The ideology of colonialism has always endeavoured to detach the colonised peoples from their ancestral and civilisational resources in order to subjugate and dominate them - not only economically and politically, but also culturally, intellectually and psychologically. Consistent with their "divide and rule" maxim, colonialists all over the world drew up borders for their advantage; they partitioned countries and regions, renamed and recontextualised them. These "recontextualisations" then moulded the viewpoints of the inhabitants of the colonialist states... and these viewpoints were and continue to be transmitted to the whole of global society through various media channels, publications and education. These viewpoints were not exclusively embraced by colonial nations - they were also adopted by large parts of the colonised societies themselves, who henceforth began to see themselves through the eyes of the colonisers.
In this way, false identities were manufactured – on ethnic, national, and also on individual levels. (The notion of "exoticism" in colonialist societies is a good example of this, but that's a topic deserving of a separate essay.)
It is thus essential that the inhabitants of regions where colonialism has been wreaking its havoc on indigenous cultures to this day (colonialism does not just belong to history) become aware of these circumstances and investigate the causes and roots of the false identities foisted upon them.
The discourse on identity has been a dominant subject for many academics for quite some time, occupying not only the fields of art and culture, but also politics, sociology, psychology and philosophy.
One of the regions where colonial interventions have had a significant impact on the history, geography, culture, mindset and ultimately the lives of its people is Afghanistan...
The name and the construct of "Afghanistan"
The nation and country of "Afghanistan", with its current borders and constitution, has in reality only existed for about 100 years...
Yet international historians and researchers cite "1747" as the year of the official foundation of Afghanistan. In that year, a Pashtun khan from the Abdali tribe in Kandahar was crowned king; he’s considered the "father of the modern state of Afghanistan". His name was Ahmad Khan Abdali, later known as Ahmad Shah Dorrani.
But when Ahmad Shah was elected king of the Pashtuns, he called himself king of Khorasan and not king of Afghanistan. At that time, there was no country, no state with the name "Afghanistan". If the Pashtuns had wanted their own kingdom with their own name at that time, they would have called it "Pashtunestan" and not Afghanistan, because "Afghan/Afghanistan" were foreign appellations for Ahmad Khan and all other Pashtuns, bestowed on them by non-Pashtuns.
Ahmad Shah had originally intended to rule over the entirety of Great Iran, including Khorasan, and eventually wanted to extend his empire further east into India and further north beyond the Oxus. But in the end, he only advanced as far as Mashhad in the west and the Amu Darya (the Oxus) in the north. He was mainly focused on conquering India. [More on this later.]
"Afghanistan" was once the name of an area in the Sulaiman Mountains that today spans Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the designation of an area where the majority of Afghans (Pashtuns) lived and had no status as a state or country. This "Afghanistan" was always either part of the Greater Iranian Empire until the end of the Safavid Empire or under the hegemony/influence of the other ruling empires to the north and east, such as the Mauryas, Kushans, or the Mughals.
The Pashtuns were called "Afghân" by the Persian-speaking inhabitants of Greater Iran (and "Patân" by the Indians), and their tribal area "Afghanistan". The name Afghan appears in the form of apagan, aughan in the Avesta (Zoroastrian religious texts) and in the Rigveda (Vedic Sanskrit hymns).
Regarding the origins of the Pashtun tribes – when and whence they came to their present homeland – there were numerous publications written by Indian, Russian and European researchers, as well as many myths and legends initiated by the Pashtuns themselves. In any case, the theories diverge widely on this subject [I offer a reading list at the end of this essay.]
It must also be said that texts in Afghan history books, in British publications and in Wikipedia entries should generally be taken with a grain of salt, because Afghans and the British have their own political and ideological agendas and narratives to pursue ("colonialism" for the British; "securing domination" for the Pashtuns).
I'd also like to point out that Wikipedia seems to be the first port of call for many time-pressed journalists when researching topics they know little about... I've noticed this particularly in several recent articles on Afghanistan. (Wikipedia can be a useful tool for checking dates, events and names, but when it comes to ideological, political and historical information, it is not only an unreliable source, it often censors or distorts truths to serve the agenda of certain powerful institutions or a specific idea/ideology.)
Afghan historians and researchers and, for the most part, international historians and researchers, tend to use the terms "Afghanistan" and "Afghans" when referring to the history of the region in all periods going back to prehistory. This inevitably leads to a distortion and misunderstanding of history and gives a false legitimacy to the name "Afghanistan", as though Afghanistan, with its current borders and constitution, had always existed in this form. It may be that academically trained researchers have their scientific justifications and criteria for this. But it is also common knowledge that many texts are written in a political and ideological context, so that they modify history according to the prevailing political circumstances... as the saying goes: "History is written by the victors".
It was actually the British who introduced and propagated the term "Afghanistan" for the country, and the state and the term "Afghan" for the entire Khorasan population, before the Pashtuns ever used these terms themselves. All Pashtun rulers had used the name Khorasan for their territory up until the mid-19th century. It was only Amir Abdul Rahman (1880-1901) who, through bribery, accepted the name "Afghanistan" for his state and adopted it himself – without the consent of the people, without any official legitimacy and without respecting the international rules and customs of the time.
In 1919, the Treaty of Rawalpindi recognised Afghanistan's independence from the British government and established the name "Afghanistan" internationally.
In 1935, at the instigation of King Reza Khan, the parliament in Tehran decided to establish the name "Iran" internationally for the country, which until then had been known in the West as "Persia". But before this intention was to be announced officially, Reza Khan wanted to obtain the consent of the Afghan government, fearing that the Afghan side, especially the population, would lay legitimate claim to the names "Iran" and "Khorasan".
Afghan King Zaher Khan readily welcomed this move by the "Persians" and renounced the name "Iran" for Afghanistan – something that was criticised by the non-Pashtun elites of Afghanistan.
Why the name of the country or state (and the Persian language) mattered back then and still matters so much to the educated, non-Pashtun people involved in politics and culture, has to do with the country's (hitherto non-existent) national identity and with the continuing non-Pashtun resistance against the efforts of the (Pashtun) state to impose an identity on them other than the continuous "Persian/Iranian" identity (one that has been developing over millennia) to which they have always felt a belonging.