Anglo-American representations of Afghanistan, Queer and Post-colonial Theory: Interview with Dr Manchanda

Dr. Nivi Manchanda is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her research interests include post- and de-colonial theoretical approaches to the study of world politics. She is especially interested in the ways in which knowledge is produced and the raced, classed, and gendered nature of both ‘expertise’ and ‘common-sense’. She blogs at www.thedisorderofthings.com and is the Co-Convener of the BISA Colonial Postcolonial and Decolonial Working Group. 

Titled Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge and published by Cambridge University Press*, her latest monograph investigates how:

“Over time and across different genres, Afghanistan has been presented to the world as potential ally, dangerous enemy, gendered space, and mysterious locale. These powerful, if competing, visions seek to make sense of Afghanistan and to render it legible. In this innovative examination, Nivi Manchanda uncovers and critically explores Anglophone practices of knowledge cultivation and representational strategies, and argues that Afghanistan occupies a distinctive place in the imperial imagination: over-determined and under-theorised, owing largely to the particular history of imperial intervention in the region. Focusing on representations of gender, state and tribes, Manchanda re-historicises and de-mythologises the study of Afghanistan through a sustained critique of colonial forms of knowing and demonstrates how the development of pervasive tropes in Western conceptions of Afghanistan have enabled Western intervention, invasion and bombing in the region from the nineteenth century to the present.” (c) Nivi Manchanda, all rights reserved.

Interview conducted by Maxime Seguin on 11 July 2020

  1. Your book explores Anglo-American representations and  offers several important theoretical and practical implications. Could you please share your inspirations for writing this important work? 

I have been fascinated with the politics of empire and colonialism and the ways in which their (often violent) legacy lives on. Afghanistan has always occupied a strange place in both the history and the historiography of empire. It was never fully colonised – by which I mean that it was not  brought into the remit of the British Empire the way India was, for instance, although it was subject to some very invasive restructuring first by the British in the 19th century, then by the Soviets in the 20th century, and most recently by the United States and its allies through NATO in the 21st century. 

And yet, until recently it has been considered at the periphery of empire. The country has seen a rise and fall of imperial interest and because of its peculiar history – at the ‘edge’ of empire proper, considered a buffer between India and Persia, a pawn in the Great Game – it is often conceived of as a passive participant when it comes to its own history and the history of the region. 

To me this has always been more indicative of the ways in which knowledge about the ‘other’ is produced, about how the Anglophone West (which is my focus) has represented Afghanistan, rather than about Afghanistan itself. And so, I suppose my inspiration in writing this monograph was twofold: (i) to destabilise these representations and mythologies by exploring the political assumptions embedded in them and (ii) to make a more general claim about colonial anxiety and the very material repercussions this continues to have. 

  1. Has there been a change in Anglo-American representations of Afghanistan since the elections of Donald Trump in the US and Boris Johnson in the UK? 

One of the aims of the book is to situate contemporary representations of Afghanistan in its longer historical trajectory. Whilst the book stops at 2014 and therefore does not cover the Trump-Johnson era, my sense is that representations of Afghanistan in the past decade have been relatively stable. Contrary to popular belief, the policies and statements emanating from Downing Street and the White House today are not massively different from those in the time of David Cameron and Barack Obama. 

There is, I think, quite a dangerous tendency to impute progressive or more accurately less racialised views to centrist or ‘liberal’ candidates. Whilst the rhetoric might suggest this, if we take just one prominent example – Obama’s expansive drone campaign in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, a more complex picture emerges and the differences in policy, representation, and engagement are marginal at best. To me, mainstream politics continues to be disingenuous and callous. By this I do not at all mean to suggest that the far-right in places like India and Brazil are ‘no worse’ than the opposition, merely to point out that the current status quo is only possible because of the centre’s complicity with right. A romanticisation of liberalism unwittingly erases how much pain and suffering Western regimes have wreaked on much of the world through ‘humanitarian imperialism’. 

Perhaps this would have been a bit different if we had a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and a Democratic Party with Bernie Sanders at its helm in the US, because of their socialist policies at home, and genuinely less imperial policies abroad. But these are now unfortunately counterfactuals and therefore ultimately redundant. 

  1. What are your thoughts on the recent peace deal signed between the US and the Taliban on 29 February 2020 in Doha ?

I think ‘peace deal’ is a bit of an over-statement for what was a relatively short-lived ceasefire agreement. Indeed, in the context of the withdrawal of the last remaining US and allied troops, the attacks on Afghan targets by the Taliban continue largely unabated. 

The sticking point remains prisoner-release – the Taliban wants all its fighters (around 5,000) currently serving time in prison to be released immediately, but the Afghan government has only committed to a staggered release. This is only the tip of the iceberg, and my sense is that there is not a major breakthrough underway. 

  1. How do you see Anglo-American representations of Afghanistan evolve in the coming years? 

I think for the majority of people in the West, Afghanistan will go back to being shrouded in mystery – in line with the historical trend, interest in Afghanistan will wane and representations of tribal warriors, repressed women, and a failed state will continue to dominate.

Nonetheless, I think that there has been a shift, especially in the academic disciplines of history, geography, sociology, and most recently international relations towards being more reflexive of processes of knowledge generation and how relations of domination including race, gender, and class, are implicated in those processes.

Unlike popular perception, I do not think academia is the trendsetter here. The logics of knowledge production are extremely intricate and entangled. Academia responds to, as much as it influences public opinion. Therefore, I do have hope that both popular perceptions of Afghanistan and other countries we derogatorily refer to as the ‘third world’, as well as the academic and policy discourse around them will increasingly become more attentive to the histories of colonial incursion and the present of neocolonial intervention in Afghanistan, leading to more sensitive and historically-informed representations of Afghanistan in the Anglosphere and elsewhere.

  1. In your article article ‘Queering the Pashtun: Afghan sexuality in the homo-nationalist imaginary’ (2015), you conclude that “our understanding of the Pashtun male is mediated by an Orientalist, specifically homo-nationalist, framework, in which accusations of ‘deviance’ and ‘queerness’ take centre-stage as organising principles in making sense of the ‘Other’ ” (p. 143). How would you advise IR students and scholars who would like to use queer critique within their writing? 

In both the article and the book I draw heavily on Jasbir Puar’s work on homonationalism. She and other queer scholars of colour including Julietta Singh, Anjali Arondekar, Nirmal Puwar, Paul Amar, Rahul Rao and Jin Haritaworn have done excellent work in problematising some of the core concepts of IR – the state, war, power, security, notions of time and temporality, to name a few – and there is a rich archive of work for students to draw on located on the margins of the discipline.

My advice to IR students and scholars who are relatively new to queer theory would be to be receptive to the idea that a queer critique is not something that is either arcane or has limited use in IR. Queer theory destabilises some of the capstones of International Relations theory – including notions of war, security, power, and the very idea of the ‘political’ – and therefore can help make sense of the world in a way that is more rather than less attuned to what is really happening on the ground in global politics. 

  1. In your article ‘Rendering Afghanistan legible: Borders, frontiers and the ‘state’ of Afghanistan’(2017) you critically analyze ‘colonial spatialisations’ which persist to influence the way we conceptualize the Afghan state.  How do you see postcolonialism as a means to investigate spatial representations of sovereignty and borders within IR?

Postcolonial theory offers many different vantage points from which to investigate borders and space in IR. For instance, in Orientalism Edward Said uses the concept of ‘imaginative geography’ to look at the changing constellations of power, knowledge and geography. For him, the power of the imagination and of representation, especially if one is situated in the West and has access to a public platform can have profound material impacts on that which is imagined. Sovereignty, on this account, is not a property every state possesses a priori, but something that is shaped indelibly by imperial and postcolonial relations. 

The (racialised) divide between ‘Us’ and ‘them’ or ‘self’ and ‘other’ often serves a geographic divide too – between the West and the East or the North and the South. And presenting something as dangerous, the way Afghanistan was, then leads to the violation of its sovereignty and of international borders. In my mind, postcolonial theory provides unparalleled resource in its ability to think through why some borders exist, between India and Pakistan for example, why others disappear, in the EU for example, all whilst still others are increasingly fortified such as in Israel and Palestine. 

  1. Lastly, what are the policy responses you are hoping to see from governments following the COVID-19 crisis? 

I have very little faith in government even in the best of time but the policy responses from the Trump administration in the US, and the Tory government in the UK have been abysmal by any measure. And yet, crises can also present us with moments of opportunity. We see the most horrifying and tragic instance of this in the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020. Set against the backdrop of a pandemic which is disproportionately affecting people of colour in the US and the UK, George Floyd’s homicide has also been a catalyst for an uprising, in the US, the UK and beyond. 

In the United States we have seen some concession to demands from Black Lives Matter and other activist groups. In Minneapolis there is an ongoing conversation about defunding the police, Durham Police has promised to stop training with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and closer to home in the UK, we’ve been witness to the dramatic dismantling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston. 

Racism and racial inequality are part of the fabric of society in Britain and the United States. But it does not have to be that way. Perhaps another future is possible. It certainly is being demanded. We will have to see whether policy-makers around the world finally listen to the cries of demilitarisation, justice, and even abolition. 

*Discount code: IMAF2020

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