Sovereignty Without Borders: Discussing Afghanistan’s Cold War History with Timothy Nunan

Interview conducted by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

Timothy Nunan’s recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (2016), sets global Cold War history on an Afghan stage. It is not, however, the familiar story of the decade-long war between the country’s Soviet-backed communist government and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahidin. In this account, foreign visions for Afghanistan clash instead in the cedar forests of Paktia, the refugee camps of an imagined Pashtunistan, and the gas fields of Turkestan.

This is an Afghanistan of aid workers and technocrats. While American modernizers and European humanitarians play important roles, Nunan foregrounds Soviet development experts and their protracted attempt to fashion a successful socialist nation to the south. Afghanistan was a canvas across which these different foreign actors sketched out their aspirations for postcolonial states. But modernization, socialism, and humanitarianism all foundered on conceptual errors about the nature of Afghan territory, errors whose consequences were often devastating for Afghans.


Cambridge University Press, 2016

When we follow the misadventures of development projects in Afghanistan, a second salient story emerges: the rise and fall on both sides of the Iron Curtain of a certain romance with the idea of the Third World nation-state. By the late 1970s, foreigners’ disillusionment with their attempts to mold Afghanistan resulted in the inversion of international mechanisms once designed to promote postcolonial sovereignty. Countries like Afghanistan were suddenly put on trial, exposed, and shown to be unjust.

In providing a nuanced look into shifting sites of postcolonial sovereignty, Nunan’s account of scholars, engineers, militants, murderous border guards, and traumatized orphans highlights the importance of juxtaposing histories of ideas with the real encounters that unsettle them.

JHI: How did you come to this project? Did you hope to revise popular misconceptions about the history of Afghanistan?

TN: Clearly, concerns about the ethics of humanitarian invention and the prospects of building a “functional state” in Afghanistan reflect what was going on while I was writing the book. But I did not sit down intending to write a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan at all. I came to this topic from the north – from the Soviet Union and the study of Soviet Central Asia. I originally thought I would write on the thaw in the 1950s and 1960s in Soviet Central Asia, to look differently at a story usually centered on Russia. However, when I arrived at the archives in Moscow and, later, Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) many of the files I discovered from the 1950s were wooden and bureaucratic. I struggled to think of how I could turn this archival material into a manuscript that would speak to broader concerns.

But in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I found, for example, the long transcript of a conference in Moscow in 1982 to which Afghan socialist feminists were invited to talk about what a real women’s movement would look like in Afghanistan under conditions of socialist revolution. As I spent more time on Afghanistan, I became aware of the files of Komsomol (Soviet Youth League) advisors, which took me down to the village level. Quickly, I found myself being able to write a certain version of the history of Kandahar or Jalalabad in the 1980s, which seemed much more exciting and current.

JHI: In the first chapter, “How to Write the History of Afghanistan,” you map out in fascinating detail the epistemological framework of the Soviet area studies and development studies apparatus that facilitated, but also was at times in friction with actual Soviet development projects. As you point out, Soviet Orientology developed alongside anti-Western-imperialism, not as an accomplice of it – a hole in Edward Said’s map of Orientalism.

Today, the unipolarity of scholarship is striking and the Soviet knowledge apparatus has largely been forgotten. What happened to this alternative body of expertise with the fall of the Soviet Union? Do we see parallels emerging today that could challenge Euro-American hegemony over the narration of the history of the Third World?

TN: Soviet Orientology was very different from how graduate students [in Western Europe and North America] are trained to think about Orientalism. Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of the entry on Orientalism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was an Egyptian Coptic Marxist who came out of the same social background as Edward Said. But rather than challenging the Soviet Orientalist establishment, as Said did in the U.S. context, he was embedded in it.

Alfrid Bustanov, Masha Kirasirova, and others are doing outstanding work on how Russian and Soviet Orientological traditions affected nationalisms inside and outside the USSR, but there is still an enormous amount of Soviet scholarly engagement we don’t know much about.

The question of what happened afterward is a very good one, especially as we ponder what might come after this moment and the problems with the global history approach. Within the former Soviet space, after 1991, institutions of Soviet Orientology suffered from significant funding shortages and positions were cut, and many of the people I interviewed felt embattled.

I spend a lot of time reading mujahidin publications from the 1980s, mostly in Persian, and even when these journals translate works of propaganda written by Saudi scholars, they cite Russian orientalists such as Vasily Bartold. The Soviet Orientological tradition appears to have been received, processed, and understood by actors working in the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria – places that were strongly aligned with the Soviet Union – there were academies of sciences that employed dozens of people. What was it like to be a member of one of these institutions in Syria after 1970, or in Afghanistan after 1955, or 1978 or 1979? These are important stories that I was only able to gloss in Humanitarian Invasion, but which I hope future works will elucidate.


Timothy Nunan

JHI: Some of the most interesting sources you use are interviews with these Soviet Orientologists who worked in and studied Afghanistan, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you track down these scholars, and how do you deploy their stories in the book?

TN: I wanted to access Soviet subjectivity of experiences in Afghanistan beyond the archive. What did Soviet Uzbeks and Tajiks think about Afghanistan? Did they suddenly convert to Wahhabism? Did they feel some special bond with Afghans?

The interviews would have been impossible without a yearbook that Komsomol advisors had produced about themselves around 2006. When I arrived in Dushanbe in summer 2013, I started Yandex-ing [Russian Googling] these people to find out where they were. One person responded and that led to more introductions. Their networks ran all the way from Kiev to the border of Afghanistan, and I was able to travel widely around the former Soviet Union to interview many of them. By talking with these people I identified figures and turning points that distilled the themes they themselves emphasized.

JHI: In your introduction, you write that you hope to cast Afghanistan not as the “graveyard of empires,” as it has often been known, but as the “graveyard of the Third World nation-state.” Just as the former has more to do with the foreign empires than with Afghanistan itself, the latter speaks to the idea of the Third World nation-state as it was championed by foreign actors and transnational bodies – and their eventual disillusionment with it. Could you elaborate on the life and death of the international romance with the Third World nation-state? What role did Afghanistan play in shaping it?

TN: Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, and the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize it. But what did this recognition mean? From 1914 to 1945, countries could become independent, but in many cases didn’t have the geopolitical wherewithal to make this sovereignty meaningful. Furthermore, there was no significant international forum not already dominated by the imperial powers. This changed after 1945 and especially after 1960, when not only did independent nation-states have a forum, the United Nations, in which they could gain representation, but there were also new rules within that international organization that allowed them to effect a certain kind of power not commensurate with their GDP or whether or not they had nuclear weapons. We might point to 1960 as a turning point, when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly affirms the independence of colonized people as a human right, and when “civilization” is erased as a criterion for admission into the United Nations.

This lack of commensurability between sovereignty at the United Nations and geopolitical heft began to have real effects on international society. Throughout the mid-1960s and especially from the 1970s onward, many Third World nation-states, including Afghanistan and often sponsored by the Soviet Union, began to realize that they could sponsor resolutions against Israel, the Portuguese empire, apartheid South Africa – and attempt to delegitimize entire states’ right to exist. By the mid-1970s, in addition to this power, however symbolic, at the United Nations, nations were taking control of their destinies with armed force. Broadly speaking, if you had enough Soviet or Chinese weapons, you could push back the imperialists and eventually gain enough power at the level of international organizations to delegitimize groups that disagreed with you.

However, Afghanistan was one of the turning points against this mood, starting in the late 1970s. European actors became disillusioned with this Third World nation-state form through events like the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the late 1970s, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Often, post-colonial sovereignty seemed more like an excuse to murder ethnic minorities and political dissidents than to realize a vision of freedom. Arguably, China’s post-1970s Chinese détente with the United States was a factor, as well. Leftists saw that China no longer offered a viable vision of revolution, but was just a lackey of American finance capital and imperialism. Many of the intellectuals who went on to found humanitarian NGOs had lost faith in the USSR as a revolutionary force since the Prague Spring, or, at the very latest, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In short, by the late 1970s, these East Asian and Southeast Asian fantasies of the future were discredited. One place these groups turned was humanitarian action, rather than the Third World nation-state, as a new form of political organization. But the old tools of delegitimization and Third World politics were applied in reverse to places like Afghanistan. Forums pioneered for use against Israel or South Africa, such as the UN Special Rapporteur and human rights investigations, were flipped. It was suddenly no longer the oppression of black Africans or Palestinians qua colonized subjects but rather the oppression of Afghans qua humans under a Third World socialist regime that constituted the supreme crime within international society. The reversal of this Third World logic onto Third World nations is one of the key themes of the book.

JHI: One of the overarching themes of the book is sovereignty: sovereignty as it was imagined and sovereignty as it was performed. Could you flesh out for us some of the major disjunctions between the ways different foreign actors, as well as Afghan politicians, conceptualized Afghan sovereignty, and acts of sovereignty that were carried out on the ground?

TN: The Afghan government was extremely ambitious in claiming that other countries were parts of it, yet was very weakly territorialized. From 1947 onward, when Pakistan is formed, Afghanistan does not recognize its own entire eastern border. One official Afghan government map has a disclaimer on it saying “this map was composed in great haste and none of the information on it should be taken to be reliable.” There’s an odd mix of hyper-ambition and total insecurity. The indeterminacy of the border also creates catastrophic consequences for people living around it.

In the 1980s, Soviet border guards extend the Soviet border regime hundreds of kilometers inside Afghanistan, and murder Afghans within Afghanistan’s borders. Children are another interesting lens. On one hand, the Soviet Union says that children are the future of the nation and need to be educated and mobilized as symbols of the nation’s future. Orphans, especially, are taken to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with this. Insofar as states have a right to exist and defend their borders, it then follows that the state has a right to mobilize its citizens–men, in particular–to defend those borders and weave protection of the state with the citizen’s life-cycle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, humanitarian actors like Amnesty International become concerned with children having the right to a nationality and the right not to be trafficked out of the nation-state of their birth. And yet, those deploying this humanitarian logic, who are often concerned with diagnosing children as traumatized, have no problem taking the children out of their familiar contexts to receive medical treatment. Here we see two different logics of what the Third World nation-state project is supposed to be about: the solution for creating a national future, or the problem causing people to be traumatized for life.

Nunan Image JHI Blog.jpg

Prior to Afghanistan becoming a battleground between the Soviet Union, the Afghan mujahidin, and the European NGOs embedded among them, it was famous for being an ‘economic Korea’ where Western powers competed with the Soviet Union to offer more effective forms of aid to Kabul. Pictured here is an exhibition for a West German-managed agricultural and forestry project in eastern Afghanistan, the Paktia Development Authority. Photograph courtesy of Christoph Häselbarth

JHI: We’re in a moment of deep suspicion not only toward internationalism, but also toward humanitarianism. In this context, a particularly timely thread of the book traces how states, Leftist activists, and eventually NGO workers envisioned social justice and moral responsibility toward distant people in need. What is the landscape of conviction in Humanitarian Invasion? Where does it intersect with expertise, on one hand, and geopolitical strategy on the other?

TN: While I see the humanitarian groups that I look at most closely – Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) – as entangled in this geopolitical game, I don’t view them as having had nefarious intentions. Many of the groups that enter the Afghan theater via Pakistan in the 1980s initially try to stay very distant from a geopolitical focus. But there are different trajectories that these groups follow, with the Swedes trying to adopt a more consistent anti-imperialism and the French flirting with explicit engagement in politics.

Regardless of specific anti-imperialist or anti-totalitarian politics, new regimes of intervention are created from the late 1970s onward. Rather than saying, “OK, the Afghans or Cambodians have had their socialist revolution, now they should finally be free from foreign interference,” NGOs embed themselves in trans-border resistance movements that reframe those Third World citizens as subjects of new internationals regimes of governance. NGOs are able to diagnose Afghans as traumatized or suffering from disease, and this becomes grounds for further intervention, or shipment of supplies into a country without consulting its government. Over time, this contributes to a shift in which the dominant optic employed when engaging with Third World populations is not so much that of the guerrilla fighter but of the traumatized individual, the wounded girl. This reframing wasn’t intentionally nefarious, but did reframe subaltern actors as non-political.

There is a strange boomerang effect to all of this. In the 1980s, identifying trauma or certain types of wounds became a carte blanche for aiding armed insurrections in Third World countries–as in the case of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, however, as scholars like Miriam Ticktin have shown, refugees have to demonstrate exactly these kinds of wounds in order to gain the right to stay in European countries. In both cases, a discourse centered around individual, often corporeal trauma became the litmus test for whether states could maintain control of their borders, but a procedure that once allowed Europeans to insert themselves into Afghanistan now allows Afghans and others to claim a (marginal) space in European settings. Pushing back, governments like Germany have sought to classify entire countries, and specific provinces of Afghanistan, as “safe countries of origin” or “safe zones” from which it becomes procedurally impossible to file such an asylum claim. The boomerang, then, is that Europeans are grappling with these humanitarian claims in an obviously political way, even as the turn toward humanitarianism was itself motivated by an exhaustion with traditional left-right politics in the first place.

JHI: So the Soviets, while pursuing a parallel project, never really bought into the humanitarian discourse?

TN: Yes, though this does not mean they lacked something. The Soviets had a strong interest in childhood as a stage of life that is political and is protected, not, as we would put it, a stage of life that is protected and therefore should not be political.

Russian critiques of the creation of humanitarian protectorates in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya and Afghanistan hold that humanitarian action without a strong central state is nonsense. Syria is the most dramatic instance of where these impulses are contrasting again. The Russian government claims that Syria is a sovereign member state of the United Nations that has invited Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (not a state) to aid it in an act of collective self-defense—something permitted under the United Nations charter. Russia also provides humanitarian aid to government-held areas in Syria through its Ministry of Defense. In contrast, Russian diplomats would argue, Western media have conspired with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to portray the jihad against Damascus exclusively in terms of traumatized children, the destruction of Aleppo, and so on. Now as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the tension has to do with the legitimacy of post-colonial states and reading the Syrian people’s aspirations not solely in terms of geopolitics or trauma.

JHI: Humanitarian Invasion gives an account of global actors making decisions with global repercussions, but it is at the same time firmly grounded in a particular place. So, where do you see global history heading as a field, and where does this book fit? What are the potential risks of global history?

TN: Obviously, Humanitarian Invasion is not a history of the world or of every place in the world. Rather, the book’s central concern is shifting meanings of postcolonial sovereignty during the Cold War. The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands form a particularly rich location to examine how this idea of the Third World nation-state was changing over time, precisely because so many different actors brought their own conceptual baggage to it. I would welcome anyone who wants to write a history of the Cambodian-Thai borderlands or, indeed, much of Ethiopia during the 1980s. MSF, in fact, had a larger presence in the Cambodian-Thai theater than in the Afghan one, and it would be fascinating to understand what difference it makes when these NGOs are collaborating against the Vietnamese, who had been their heroes only a decade before.

Yet as historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have pointed out, the intensive language training and multi-archive projects of many global historians depend on the extensive resources that only wealthy American and Western European universities possess. One way we can correct this imbalance, learn from colleagues in other countries, and maintain a spirit of humility about our work is to remember, even while working on so-called global themes, that events are still taking place in actual places with local histories, and never to insist on a hierarchy in which NGO actors are more important than national stories.

For example, writing Humanitarian Invasion, I was not able to explore as much as I would like how Afghans themselves changed their political language to respond to the surge in humanitarian ideas (and funding streams) that emerged in the 1980s. I would have liked to probe more how much the massive changes in the 1980s actually affect the ways Afghans talk about politics and what they expect from an Afghan state, what needs they expect to be met by international organizations. How ideas and discourses are transmitted from North to South or South to North is a major interest for global historians today, and that’s an area where “local” scholars with a knowledge of Pashto and a deeper knowledge of regional political thought would be a great contribution.

JHI: What is your current project, and how did it evolve from Humanitarian Invasion?

TN: I would have liked to consider, more seriously, Afghan socialists as thinkers. What did socialism actually mean to them? How did they, on the front line of an Afghan national jihad and the emerging global jihadist movement, understand political Islam? The current project looks at how socialists in the Soviet Union and allied left-wing groups such as the Afghan Communists and Iranian Tudeh Party understood political Islam or Pan-Islamism, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamists took violent control of states in the 1980s.

In 1914, the Russian orientalist Vasily Bartold writes that Pan-Islamism is totally bogus, that it’s a political program created by the Ottomans with German support. Fast-forward 60 or 70 years, and there’s enormous anxiety about Islam not only destabilizing client states such as Afghanistan or Syria, but also infiltrating the Soviet Union itself. I was shocked to discover a 1983 publication by an Adjarian nationalist from southwest Georgia describing Muslims as “something that crawled out of a trash heap, who need to be weeded out of our garden” – things you expect to hear from Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, or Steve Bannon today. I became really interested in how the Soviet Union and Russian scholars go from viewing Pan-Islamism as a potential ally in fomenting an anti-Western and anti-colonial global front, to viewing Muslims and Pan-Islamism as inherently opposed to the interests of the Soviet Union. In doing so, I hope to provide a unique perspective on contemporary concerns about the threat, real or imagined, of Muslim unity and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.

The editors wish to thank Timothy Nunan for his graciousness in granting this interview.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s