Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

The State of Research on Afghanistan: Too many poor quality publications and some real gems

Christian Bleuer 13 min

Spanning almost 400 pages, the new edition of the Afghanistan Analysts Bibliography provides information about books, journal articles and other publications on a vast range of topics to do with Afghanistan – from ethnic groups, through war, regional relations, the security sector, development, peace-building, governance, opium, women, human rights, migration, education economics and natural resources, to Islam. Christian Bleuer, who has been compiling and adding to the bibliography since 2004/5, looks at what this latest edition says about the state of scholarship on Afghanistan and comments on the past and future of research in this area. He discusses the problem of integrating scholarship and research into policymaking and also notes some interesting new research and suggestions for readers.

The Afghanistan Analysts Bibliography 2024 is available for download in the Resources section on our website.

At university in about 2004 and 2005, I became increasingly frustrated with researching Afghanistan. Trying to conduct a literature search was slow and frustrating. All the Afghanistan bibliographies that had been published as books were out of date and of very little use for those who research Afghanistan post-2001. They were very expensive – if you could find a copy to purchase – or otherwise only found in university libraries. A hard copy sitting in a Western library was of absolutely no use to someone in Afghanistan who wanted to start their research (on the English sources), so I decided that, as I planned to continue pursuing studying Afghanistan, I should create a bibliography for my own reference. In 2006, I created an online bibliography, the now-comatose research resource for Afghanistan, and ensured it was available for others to use. Until I became too busy, I regularly updated it until 2012. The bibliography found a new home at AAN in 2014, and then support to update it in 2019 and again for this latest edition, which includes the last five years of publications.

Many publications, but not many good publications

That there is a massive volume of English-language publications on Afghanistan is undeniable. The Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography now stretches to almost 8,000 publications, including books, academic journal articles, research institute reports, university dissertations and other entries: the first edition, compiled in 2006 included just under 1,000 publications. What is also undeniable is that the average quality of these publications is low – an assessment particularly noticeable in relation to the author’s research interests, governance, conflict and identity. As for quantity, the annual volume of publications in English did rise sharply after 2001 as the West focussed on Afghanistan, and will likely decline precipitously as that attention and funding diverts to other crises.

That low-quality assessment is, however, an average. Certain rare publications stand out as higher quality – some of the author’s favourites are showcased below. Usually the better publications stem from field research or in-depth archival research, backed by fluency in local languages. On the other hand, low-quality publications are all very similar, with most based on a brief survey of secondary sources of poor to average quality. There is a relevant computer science concept here: GIGO – garbage in, garbage out, meaning, if you put dud data in, you get dud results out. It could be applied to many publications on Afghanistan. It is just not possible to make a satisfactory study if it is based on previous poor quality studies, unless your research is on the phenomenon of bad scholarship. The author has published several articles in this category, for example, his 2014 report for AAN, ‘From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in Western writing’. 

The importance of languages

Some research projects related to Afghanistan do not require fluency or even proficiency in Pashto, Dari or the other languages of Afghanistan, nor do they need to be based on lengthy field research or archival research. Examples here include military studies that focus on NATO/ISAF forces, analysis of American foreign policy decision-making (when Washington is the subject of analysis, not Afghanistan), technical agricultural reports and critical feminist studies of representations of Afghans and Afghanistan in the Western media. At the opposite end of the scale would be studies that can only be sufficiently analysed with local language fluency and deep knowledge of local history and society, with examples including studies on the ethnic and/or religious factors in local identities and political action, push/pull factors in decisions to emigrate from Afghanistan, ethnographic case studies and the examination of rural livelihoods and economic survival.

The comparison to area studies in other regions puts Afghanistan studies in a poor light. There are academic journals and publishers that would absolutely outright reject any submission by an author without language fluency demonstrated in the references and citations. This is especially true in Russian, Chinese and Latin American studies, among many others. Some fields are even more rigorous, if much smaller. The following anecdote is illustrative of this. Years ago, this author spoke to one recent university graduate who was hoping to do a PhD in Mongolian studies (with a focus on the 13th century), only to be dissuaded by a professor who said that for his proposed research he would need to become fluent in reading not just multiple forms of Chinese and Mongolian from different eras, plus Old Uyghur, but also French, German and Russian to access secondary sources from the 19th and 20th century. Compare this to most articles in the bibliography whose list of references include only English-language publications.

Other fields of research have a much higher share of publications that have another strength seldom seen in publications on Afghanistan – time, and plenty of it. So much about publications on Afghanistan is ‘instant analysis’, that is hurried and shallow as a result. This is not to deny that many authors have works that are a decade in the making, even if they are not getting daily attention.

The problem of good and bad scholarship underpins another question: Can even good literature on Afghanistan have any beneficial effect or make some positive contribution to policymaking and governance?

Should policy-makers read the literature on Afghanistan?

One publication can, in certain circumstances, have a major effect. It does not mean, however, that the effect is necessarily positive. An example of this is when President Bill Clinton likely based his decision to not intervene early on in the Balkan conflicts after reading the book, ‘Balkan Ghosts’, by journalist Robert Kaplan, a person with no local language skills or in-depth research background in the Balkans. The book presented a deeply flawed ‘ancient hatreds’ argument, long ago disproven in academia. The argument in the book went that the people of the Balkans have hated and fought each other based on ethnicity forever and will continue to do so, making any intervention or engagement futile (see this reporting in The New York Times). The counterargument, that Clinton did not read, expressed in a book review by the journalist-turned-historian Noel Malcolm, was that “The Bosnian war was not caused by ancient hatreds; it was caused by modern politicians.” Whatever one’s view on the NATO interventions in the Balkans, it is clear that policy should not have been made based on ahistorical and deeply flawed publications.

Knowledge can also be used in a way that is not for the broader public good, for many British colonial administrators spoke local languages and understood regional history very well, all in the service of the empire. Moreover, knowledge is not always power (good short background on that issue here). Knowledge about a problem does not, in itself, allow for it to be fixed. It is dubious to suggest that, for example, the creation of more knowledge on the local history, language and social trends in Palestine and Israel is going to facilitate solving the Israel-Palestine conflict in the face of contemporary local political intransigence on one hand and the lack of will on the part of outside powers on the other (not because of ‘ancient hatreds’).

Could Afghanistan have benefitted from any studies, or do all paths lead to failure such as Israel-Palestine? Or is this just another faulty line of argument similar to that of ‘Balkan Ghosts’, even if not exactly an ‘ancient hatreds’ argument? It is not possible to prove that more knowledge could have worked out better for Afghanistan, but it is undeniable that there was an early lack of large-scale violence post-2001 that was squandered by the disinterest of Western power brokers (now transfixed by Iraq) and by many local leaders working in their own narrow personal interests. 

Nobody in any position of power or influence over Afghanistan in 2001 was following the guidelines of ‘evidence-based policy’, a concept that “advocates for policy decisions to be grounded on, or influenced by, rigorously established objective evidence” versus “policymaking predicated on ideology, ‘common sense,’ anecdotes, or personal intuitions” (more information on this concept here). This concept is practiced in medicine, advocated for in regards to energy and climate change and thoroughly ignored in foreign policymaking and state-building. While there may have been experts on Afghanistan who were ignored in 2001, it cannot be argued that there was some vital, comprehensive publication that policymakers could have read at that time that would have pushed them towards more sustainable and effective policies. However, even a cursory reading of human rights reports from the 1990s could have woken the US and others up to exactly who they were putting into power and there were different Afghan voices arguing cogently for different types of governance structures they deemed appropriate for their country.[1]For example, in October 2001, Afghan-American anthropologist M Nazif Shahrani argued in the Canadian online governance policy forum, Federations, against a highly centralised form of government, … Continue reading Neither research institutes nor universities have the foresight or funding to regularly produce such work before an issue becomes policy relevant. Publications that were intended to inform policymakers only became common after 2001.

There is even a case of a powerful leader ignoring their own academic work. Two presidents of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani and Hafizullah Amin, both have/had advanced degrees from Columbia University. While nothing is known of Amin’s academic work while studying for his master’s degree in education, Ghani wrote an excellent anthropology dissertation and then much later co-authored a book with Clare Lockhart titled Fixing Failed States. This book, which was received favourably by reviewers, was ignored by Ghani once he became president, in favour of politics as usual. If policymakers will not or cannot take their own advice – advice they built a career upon – how do we expect them to take advice from others? 

The problem of expert advice and scholarly literature being ignored is clear enough. Academics and their work have consistently been ignored or just not useful for policymaking (not counting outliers such as the ignored book mentioned above). Added to this is the communication problem where academics and policymakers speak different languages. Academic work is often too dense and filled with jargon and obscure theory. It is indigestible for those outside the field (and sometimes even for fellow researchers). 

Unfortunately, the environment of university-based research is declining precipitously. This will mean that opportunities for research that existed for Ghani (Columbia University PhD) and Lockhart (Harvard and Oxford degrees, plus a lengthy Yale fellowship) will exist but in lesser numbers and in poorer quality.

The death of the university

Universities in the West are failing in their traditional goals, with opposite ends of the ideological spectrum offering competing explanations for why, with the mundane reasons being budgets cuts combined with an out-of-control university bureaucracy funnelling money towards itself at the expense of students and faculty. Of the many failures, of which students are the primary victims, are the relatively minor concerns of those early career researchers wishing to make a living from their work. The problem here as related to research on Afghanistan is that there was and still is a need for in-depth and long-term analysis of Afghanistan, but is there a market for it? Should young students and researchers invest time and money in earning an advanced degree scrutinising some aspect of Afghanistan, or train in data management or dentistry?

There are now many disincentives to invest so much in studies and language training. What is at the end of such a rigorous course of study over a decade? The statistics say that you should prepare for the likely scenario of retraining and employment outside the field of study you chose – and indeed outside of university employment in general. Even if a researcher is particularly dedicated and sticks with their PhD studies despite the negative forecasts, they may find only employment at the fringes of academia in a role known in the US as ‘adjunct faculty’, a type of low-paid part-time and/or short-term contract employment that puts at least one-third of teachers in this scheme under the poverty line (according to a 2020 study by the American Federation of Teachers. The equivalent positions in Canada, Australia and western Europe are not much better when you factor in the extreme cost in living in some of the cities and towns where competitive research universities are based. At the opposite end of the scale are the full-time permanent faculty position that comprise only 25 per cent of instructors at American universities, a phenomenon with equivalents in most other countries to varying degrees (see this blog from Inside Scholar on the rise of part-time and short-term contracts in universities).

How about scholars on a fast track, who do not need so much time to become proficient in the languages of Afghanistan and who already have a strong base of knowledge to build on? Obviously, Afghan researchers whether in Afghanistan or in the diaspora have a strong head start and could be the source of much needed quality analysis. However, this does nothing to fix the long-term problem of the decline of university research as a viable career choice. 

Some interesting research

Failures and faults of Afghanistan research aside, there are some bright spots. Below are some publications from the last five years that have caught the eye of the author due to his personal research interests. They touch on governance, religion and ethnicity. If you are looking for recommendations on agriculture, military operations, gender or macro-economics, you will need to ask somebody else. The works selected are interesting for their high quality, or as an example of a new trend in research – and in some cases both. 

If in 2001 there were only a few professors and prominent exiled Afghan political figures whom you could ask for their opinions on what sort of structure the Afghan government should have, over 20 years later, we now have Afghans asking Afghans that question in a rigorous manner:

Mohammad Bashir Mobasher and Mohammad Qadam Shah, 2022, ‘Deproblematizing the Federal–Unitary Dichotomy: Insights from a Public Opinion Survey about Approaches to Designing a Political System in Afghanistan’, Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Vol 52, No 2.

In this article, Mohammad Qadam Shah (Seattle Pacific University) and Mohammad Bashir Mobasher (American University, Washington DC) argue that “concepts such as unitarism, federalism, centralization and decentralization are highly politicized and often misunderstood when they enter the public discourse.” So, if you were hoping for an answer to the question ‘What system of governance do Afghans prefer?’, you will get an accurate but complicated answer, and certainly not an easy one. You may consider this debate moot with the return of the Islamic Emirate (Afghanistan’s current rulers prefer a unitary and highly centralised state), but the article may be useful in the future when and if the Taleban no longer rule Afghanistan. 

If you are not a student or faculty at a university with subscription access, you can have ‘short-term access’ from Oxford University Press to this article for the very unreasonable price of 55 USD, or you can email the authors directly and ask for a PDF – a good example of the difficulty in accessing research on Afghanistan. There is, however, an article on the same topic (a general introductory work) that is available for free:

Jennifer Murtazashvili, 2019, ‘Pathologies of Centralized State-Building’, Prism, Vol. 8, No. 2.

There are also an increasing number of collaborative works between local and foreign researchers; I choose to note this one as it is, unexpectedly, by two researchers based in China:

Ihsanullah Omarkhail and Liu Guozhu, 2023, ‘The Trajectory of Islamic State Khorasan Province and Afghan Taliban Rivalry’, Small Wars and Insurgencies.

Related to my interest in ethnicity and religion – specifically the interplay between the two – there is an entire issue of an academic journal with 11 articles by Afghan, Pakistani and Western scholars on the theme ‘Ethnic Nationalism and Politicized Religion in the Pakistan-Afghanistan Borderland’. 

There are also several books I want to eventually read, but cannot assess at the moment (due to constraints of time, money and library access). One is an English translation of a book originally published in German in 1975, for those interested in the deep history of the region:

Karl Jettmar, 2023, Religions of the Hindukush: The Pre-Islamic Heritage of Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, Orchid Press.

On the subject of religion, there are more publications worth mentioning. The question of what exactly is the status of Sufism in Afghanistan at the moment is addressed in this book:

Annika Schmeding, 2023, Sufi Civilities: Religious Authority and Political Change in Afghanistan, Stanford University Press.

I also noticed a recent English translation of a 1970s ethnography by an Afghan. It will certainly read like a classic ethnography – both in a good and bad way, as it is a product of its time. But regardless, it should provide an informative view of the understudied ethnic Baluchis before the beginning of decades of war. 

Ghulam Rahman Amiri, 2020, The Helmand Baluch: A Native Ethnography of the People of SouthWest Afghanistan, Berghahn Books.

Published by Berghahn Books and available for purchase at a price (USD 135) set for university library buyers, this book serves as a model for moving knowledge from local languages into English – in terms of content although not price. There are many other works by local scholars that would merit translation if funding was available. 

Another book from the same publisher is a study of Afghans as a global phenomenon:

Alessandro Monsutti, 2021, Homo Itinerans: Towards a Global Ethnography of Afghanistan, Berghahn Books.

Anthropological studies of Afghans can no longer confined to the village, or even just to the territory of Afghanistan. That has been true for decades and even more so now. Alongside this book, one should consider reading this study of Afghan traders who turn up in surprising places across the Eurasian continent:

Magnus Marsden, 2021, Beyond the Silk Roads: Trade, Mobility and Geopolitics across Eurasia, Cambridge University Press. 

For some reason, this book went unnoticed by the author when compiling the bibliography – an unfortunate incident that illustrates the need for a researcher to do their own search for sources that is not just confined to this bibliography. On a more fortunate note, the publisher has made this book free to download

Notable over the last five years, at least in areas of research that this author favours, is that European researchers have made more contributions worth mentioning than Americans (for unclear reasons). In addition to Schmeding, Monsutti and Marsden above, I noted with interest these two new books, one already published and one forthcoming, in June of this year:

Florian Weigand, 2022, Waiting for dignity: Legitimacy and authority in Afghanistan, Columbia University Press.

Jan-Peter Hartung, 2024, The Pashtun Borderland: A Religious and Cultural History of the Taliban, Cambridge University Press.

The (bleak) future of research

Despite the positive contributions listed above, universities cannot be relied upon in the future to produce a sufficient base of knowledge. Is there an alternative? Options exist, but in a deficient form that would need to be reformed. Government-controlled research services such as Australia’s Parliamentary Library, the United States’ Congressional Research Service and the UK’s House of Commons Library are focused on rearranging existing research into digestible shorter products for government. They do not produce new knowledge and much of their work is tailored to individual MPs, ie it is never destined to be public. Nor does it appear that any of the most important foreign policy decisions has ever been affected by research from these types of institutions. 

On the independent side, research institutes and thinks tanks have short time frames and in many cases unreliable or short-term funding, some of which reduces their independence. It is clear that there is no model waiting to take over the research role that universities have performed, even if it is and has always been overwhelmingly an ineffective role. If governments want access to timely research before and at the beginning of a crisis, they will need to start funding projects that can provide the evidence that is needed to craft effective policy. This funding will need a long-term component focussed on researchers who need some guarantee of long-term job security if they are to invest so much time, effort and money into research on what many will consider irrelevant topics (until the topic becomes highly relevant). This could take place in a university or in an independent research institute, but in a manner that negates the short-comings listed above.

Unspoken in this article and a topic that would merit a much longer discussion, is the collapse in opportunities for field research (as in the 1980s and 1990s). Will communication technology and inter-connectedness overcome this problem and reach into Afghanistan in a methodologically sound manner, or will rigorous and scholarly studies on Afghanistan be limited to refugee and asylum studies based outside of Afghanistan? Furthermore, the ability of local researchers to freely do their work and publish is doubtful. A report from January that the Islamic Emirate had conducted a mass confiscation of locals’ books in Dari and Pashto was not encouraging. Maybe this state of affairs will not be permanent, but, sadly, I see no bright future for research on Afghanistan. I hope to be proven wrong.

You can download the bibliography here.

Edited by Kate Clark


Note about the author, written by the author: Christian Bleuer left the field of Afghanistan studies in 2009-10 when it became clear that his planned fieldwork among ethnic Uzbeks in Kunduz Province was, due to security concerns, no longer possible according to his university’s guidelines for doctoral research fieldwork. Preparation for that fieldwork can be seen in this article on the local history of the Kunduz river valley. The eventual plan would have been to work from these (overwhelmingly English-language) sources to expand into field interviews and translation of local language sources and documents. The resulting article – basically a salvaging of a literature survey for a failed research project – fits in very well amongst the many other articles on Afghanistan that are based almost entirely on English-language sources. 

His other work on Afghanistan has often been alongside Afghan researchers, with this AAN report being an example of one of the types of collaborative research he feels can be useful. The bulk of his research (mostly unpublished or uncredited as an anonymous author) is on former Soviet Central Asia. He eventually co-authored a history of Tajikistan.

References

References
1 For example, in October 2001, Afghan-American anthropologist M Nazif Shahrani argued in the Canadian online governance policy forum, Federations, against a highly centralised form of government, while the Afghan-Canadian economist Omar Zakhilwal (and years later, Afghan minister of finance and ambassador to Pakistan) argued exactly for it:

M Nazif Shahrani, 2001, ‘Not “Who?” but “How?”: Governing Afghanistan after the conflict’, Federations, October issue, PDF.

Omar Zakhilwal, 2001, ‘Federalism in Afghanistan: A recipe for disintegration’, Federations, October issue PDF.

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Christian Bleuer

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