H-Diplo Roundtable XVIII, 20 on Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan

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Roundtable Review
Volume XVIII, No. 20 (2017)
3 April 2017

Roundtable Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor:  George Fujii

Introduction by Ryan Irwin

Timothy Nunan.  Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.  ISBN:  9781107112070 (hardback, $99.99).

URL:  http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XVIII-20


© 2017 The Authors.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Afghanistan in the World

Timothy Nunan began Humanitarian Invasion in 2009, when Barack Obama’s presidency was still in its infancy. The American military was increasing its footprint in southern Afghanistan in anticipation of that administration’s ‘surge’ strategy, and I can only imagine what Nunan’s dissertation advisors thought as he pitched this project. He had arrived at Oxford University that autumn, having completed a bachelor’s degree in German from Princeton University and a Fulbright fellowship in Germany, where he translated theorist Carl Schmitt’s writings about war. And now he wanted to write a history of a war-torn region—the site of an ongoing American war—and do so using primary sources from Central Asia, Europe, and North America. If I had been in the room, I probably would have guffawed.

Yet Nunan’s reviewers agree: he pulled it off. Humanitarian Invasion contextualizes Afghanistan’s place in the world beautifully. The book tackles two big themes—development and humanitarianism—and tells a story that begins with the onset of the Cold War and ends with the rise of the Taliban. Nunan’s research is exemplary. All four reviewers praise his rigor and curiosity, noting that he has drawn on sources in five languages and interviewed many of his protagonists, providing a pericentric framework that connects Soviet engineers, American hydrologists, German foresters, Swedish activists, French doctors, and Afghan politicians.[1] By considering these perspectives together, Humanitarian Invasion shows that Afghanistan was more than a graveyard for empires. The region was a mirror that exposed the contradictions of economic planning and universal rights.

As the reviewers note, Humanitarian Invasion speaks to several historiographies. Nunan’s indebtedness to Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War is obvious.[2] As Sheyda Jahanbani explains in her review, Westad broke ground a decade ago by comparing Soviet and American modernizing ideologies, and Nunan takes this project a step further by adding more voices and weaving their various efforts into a single tapestry. Everyone seems to have taken a bite out of Afghanistan during the Cold War, making the region an ideal site for Nunan’s international method. He offers what Jahanbani calls a social history of development, attuned to the way outside nation-makers interacted with each other and local people over time. This approach yields some wonderful insights. David Ekbladh marvels rightly at the rhythms within Nunan’s story, as successive cohorts of experts—using distinct yet complementary claims—perform their version of sovereignty upon Afghanistan, stripping away the authority of locals in the name of modernization and freedom.

Humanitarian Intervention also speaks to historians of the global 1970s. The literature on that transitional decade is now sprawling, and Nunan uses Afghanistan to illuminate why socialism faltered along the Soviet Union’s hinterlands and how humanitarianism gained traction as an alternative to state sovereignty.[3] These themes are central to the global 1970s, and Nunan expertly situates Afghanistan at the epicenter of international politics. The region saw ideas fuse and fraction as different actors competed for credibility and authority. As Srinath Raghavan explains, Nunan’s analysis of Afghan women and Soviet youth is groundbreaking because it connects the global to the local so effectively, and shows how people employed transnational idioms to navigate practical constraints within Afghanistan. By using tropes about one another, these groups engaged in a process that was self-aware yet imprecise—and deeply representative of the postmodern condition that took shape during the 1970s.

The reviewers critique Humanitarian Invasion in complementary ways. Raghavan and Jenny Leigh Smith push against Nunan’s methodology. The Afghan people are omnipresent in his story, but their motivations never come into complete focus, and Raghavan in particular suggests that Nunan’s research inadvertently reproduces the dynamic at the book’s heart. Raghavan is unconvinced, for example, that Soviet-style authoritarianism and poststate humanitarianism were the only postcolonial visions on offer during the 1970s, and he uses Nunan’s analysis of Pashtunistan and Islamism to critique the Cold War’s centrality to Humanitarian Invasion. In his opinion, Nunan dismisses Pashtun claims too quickly and overlooks humanitarianism among Islamist thinkers. Smith similarly takes issue with Nunan’s Cold-War lens, arguing that the book is “actually a story about twentieth century ideas about the nation-state and its political uses and frailties.” If Humanitarian Invasion had engaged these themes directly, its analysis of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) might have gone further, and the book could have explained why Russian and Chinese leaders now view NGOs as a fifth column in world affairs.

Ekbladh and Jahanbani critique Humanitarian Invasion from a different perspective, raising questions about the politics of development history. “From the heights, Nunan’s story would seem to indicate that there is no . . . way to get development right,” Jahanbani observes. “International development as a political, strategic, or even social endeavor has always been, is, and will always be a very bad idea no matter who is doing the developing.” It is a sobering observation, and if development is indeed doomed, one has to ask: Now what? More pointedly, how should historians orient themselves to the anti-politics of our own time? Ekbladh turns the question on its head by comparing Afghanistan to South Korea, an equally fictional geopolitical creation that survived a humanitarian invasion and now stands on two feet. Bringing these regions into dialogue raises questions about the historian’s craft. We are often critics, and Nunan has used Afghanistan to deflate myths about development and humanitarianism. But we can also be cartographers, advocates, and guides. “What is missing in Nunan’s account,” Ekbladh writes, “is systematic work to show how distinctive Afghanistan was from other spaces undergoing the same sorts of interventions.”

In this respect, Humanitarian Invasion has accomplished the fundamental task of every good book: it has prompted a worthwhile conversation. Despite the obvious obstacles, Nunan has written a history of Afghanistan in the world. His book situates the region at the center of global affairs, and engages the main themes of international history. It is an excellent read, and it deserves a spot on your shelf.



Timothy Nunan is a Freigeist Fellow at the Arbeitsbereich Globalgeschichte of the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut at the Freie Universität Berlin. He received his D.Phil. in History at the University of Oxford in 2013. His major publications include Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and an edited and translated collection of texts on international order by Carl Schmitt, Writings on War (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011). His current project examines the confrontation between the Soviet Union and socialists with Islamists in Central Asia and the Middle East during the twentieth century.

Ryan Irwin is an associate professor at the State University of New York at Albany, where he teaches U.S. foreign relations and modern world history. He's the author of Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order (Oxford, 2012), and he's currently writing a collective biography about midcentury liberal internationalism.

David Ekbladh is associate professor of history and core faculty in international relations at Tufts University and is currently a visiting scholar at the University of the South Pacific. He is currently at work on a book entitled, Look at the World: The Birth of an American Globalism in the 1930s. His first book, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton University Press, 2010), won the Stuart L. Bernath Prize of the Society of American Historians as well as the Phi Alpha Theta Best First Book Award. 

Sheyda Jahanbani is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Kansas, where she teaches the history of US foreign relations in the twentieth century. Her book, The Poverty of the World: Rediscovering the Poor at Home and Abroad, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He studied and taught at King’s College London for several years. His books include War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Harvard University Press, 2013); and most recently India’s War: The Second World War and the Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-45 (Basic Books, 2016). He has edited and co-authored three more volumes on Indian foreign policy and contemporary history. He is currently finishing a book on American involvement in South Asia from the early twentieth century to the present

Jenny Leigh Smith is an Associate Professor of History at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on technology and rural development in the Soviet Union, and on global food security during the twentieth century. Her book on agricultural modernization in the Soviet Union, Works in Progress: Plans and Realities on Soviet Farms 1930-1964 was published by Yale University Press in 2014. In 2016 she was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship to support her new research into the global history of famines and famine relief. Along with Tom Robertson, she is co-editing a volume, tentatively entitled Transplanting Modernity? which explores the environmental legacy of international development projects throughout the twentieth century.


Depending on how you count, the conflict in Afghanistan is the longest war the United States has ever waged. During this long struggle those who register that a multi-sided conflict burns on have become acquainted with the tropes of how Afghanistan has absorbed the energies of great powers and empires. Part of this narrative is how Afghanistan has been a sinkhole for efforts to improve and stabilize, particularly in the case of Soviet predecessors of the later round of U.S./NATO nation building.

Much of this has been journalistic or impressionistic. But now the latest international incursion into Afghanistan has gone on long enough for Timothy Nunan’s striking scholarship to emerge. What is remarkable about this monograph is that it has not grounded the narrative of international development around twentieth-century Afghanistan. Rather, it threads interrelated concepts and phases of development throughout the history of Afghanistan’s tumultuous past.

This is a sound mechanism to explore the changing ways in which global humanitarianism was deployed and often disjointed Afghanistan. Nunan’s work covers a remarkable spectrum of time, space, and perspective. Not only are Soviet regional specialists recovered but also so are the actions of German foresters, European humanitarians, Afghan women’s rights activists, and American New Dealers.

It is enlightening, even jarring, to see these narratives placed in a longer a historical line. The Soviet Union’s support of women’s rights and its support and cultivation of local voices makes the post 2001 Western privileging of similar endeavors look like history being repeated as farce. Yet, Nunan is not solely seeking to recount the story of a set of development work or humanitarian programs. There is sometimes a misconception about the rapidly expanding regime of inquiry around the new history of international development. Many scholars are not just after the story of various aid programs themselves but are using a powerful historical theme that runs through modern life to interrogate the legion of topics that surround development.[4] Nunan uses development and humanitarianism (concepts which are, to be sure, interlinked, although not always the same) to ask questions about the notion of sovereignty. How was a putatively independent space shaped by the interventions of outside actors who often stripped away the very authority they claimed to be supporting, leaving those spaces denuded.

Nunan’s argument is centered on an assertion that Afghanistan is a geographic and regional fantasy, something constructed and maintained out of a variety of political imperatives. However, there is an argument to be made that all human political groupings are a fiction acted out using the crust of the earth as a stage. What is missing in Nunan’s account is systematic work to show how distinctive Afghanistan was from other spaces undergoing the same sorts of interventions. The same sorts of ‘humanitarian’ interventions—not all modernization activities were couched in humanitarian terms at the time; many were pitched as hard-headed economic and political projects—were tried elsewhere in places that were the product of heated (or Cold War) imaginations. Indeed, in the overlapping and interconnected eras of decolonization, developmentalism, and Cold War, there was a great deal of fiction being written in global geography as nation-states that had never existed as such were cut and pasted together out of existing states or crumbling empires.

This does not give the developmentalists on all sides of the very complicated equation that was twentieth century development an out, but there are cases where distinctly ‘fictional’ boundaries led to quite different outcomes, even in regions that were riven by conflict and the intrigues of other states and the agendas of nongovernmental and international organizations. It is arguable in certain cases, such as the equally fictional geopolitical creation of South Korea, that the equally invasive interventions by a host of national, nongovernmental, and international bodies created states that are now strong enough that these interventions can be overlooked.[5]

While eye opening, the story Nunan recounts is primarily of Western (in this case Russian, U.S., and European) activity. The intrigues of regional powers in the very tough neighborhood where Afghanistan is located as well as the vital actions of Islamic actors are not a focus. The impact of pre- and then post-revolutionary Iran is missing, as well as the actions of the People’s Republic of China, both of which stuck their fingers in the proverbial Afghan pie.[6]

While the author offers an adroit and enlightening discussion of what groups and actors had to gain from the creation of an ‘Afghanistan,’ and how often the ambitions for a ‘Pashtunistan’ were cut into this mix, there is actually little sense of how the Afghans conceptualized their own national development in context with a larger global discourse on the subject. Nunan lays out an important point as he begins his journey: that Afghanistan’s archives have suffered from the decades of upheaval that scarred the country itself. While the archival work in Russian and former Soviet archives is impressive there is there is very little context on how Afghans envisioned their own national development over time. The political ambitions of Afghan politicians from the early twentieth century onward are discussed, but the specifics of development visions are, to a large degree, absent. But were the Afghans themselves engaging and shaping the development discourse that dominated international life after World War II? How was an Afghan modernization agenda, even one of specific elites, projected into the global discourse about modernization? How did those claiming authority conceptualize and articulate particular plans for a modern ‘Afghanistan’ in a global vernacular, even if those plans were laid out for political ends or for international consumption (or both)?

Nevertheless, Nunan has made a real contribution, particularly in bringing so many details of how Soviet development was not merely conceptualized but implemented. Many have called for this, and Nunan is among those beginning to deliver the history of international development in the Communist world. His book demonstrates that even expansive global and international histories may not (and perhaps cannot in the forms within which scholars currently labor) be able to cover everything that an expansive question touches on. However, good ones, like Nunan’s, open wide new doors to further and necessary exploration.


Somewhere in the middle of The Places in Between, Rory Stewart’s account of his 600-kilometer walk from Herat to Kabul in the winter of 2002, observant readers will stumble upon the story of nation-building in Afghanistan.[7] Although he went on to work in the aid business—and now serves as a Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom—the Scottish Stewart spent the first two years of the twenty-first century running, or more accurately, walking away from politics. From 2000-2002, Stewart, a polyglot and Oxonian then in his late twenties, embarked upon a solitary trek across the Middle East, a journey that took him from the forest steppe of the Zagros Mountains in Western Iran to the ‘eight thousanders’ of the Himalayas. But, politics, it turned out, were impossible to outrun; war in Afghanistan stopped Stewart in his tracks. Theoretically, wars end, and so Stewart chose to wait this one out in Nepal. In January 2002, just one month after Coalition forces overcame the Taliban, he was rewarded for his patience with an opportunity to pick up where he had left off, traveling from the Pearl of Khorasan to the Mughal Emperor Babur’s paradise in Kabulistan. Two years later, before running headlong into the thicket of Iraqi politics as the Deputy Governor of two provinces in that country, Stewart published his account of his Afghan odyssey.

The book, celebrated by critics and devoured by readers, proved a novel account of the experience of one European in Afghanistan. Its novelty stemmed almost entirely from the fact that its author spent very little of his time in that benighted land trying to help anyone other than himself. Anyone, that is, except for Babur. It started innocently enough, as these entanglements often do. Stewart rescued Babur, a battle-scarred cur, from a gang of dogfighters somewhere near the hill village of Dahan-e-Rezak. This “Sag-Jangi” (“dog of war”), whose ears had been cut off, seemed destined for a life of brutality; yet something in his languid demeanor appealed to Stewart and so, like many outsiders in Afghanistan before him, he decided to get in the way of destiny. Soon, man and dog were climbing a snow-covered slope near the Minaret of Jam together. On that bright, cold day in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, Stewart marveled at Babur in the first full flush of his newly-won freedom, leaving his scent on each tree along their path. “Only once or twice in my eighteen-month walk across Asia had I felt some magical claim to the territory under my feet,” the author, whose career up until that point looked not so very different from Britain’s nineteenth century imperial elite, admitted with some irony. “But Babur apparently felt it all the time. The warm stream of urine was set like a flag to mark his new empire. All his movement was conquest and occupation.” This moment of exaltation, like most such triumphs, soon came to an end. At the bottom of the pass, Stewart and his “canine Alexander” were besieged by a pack of feral dogs. In an attempt to protect Babur from the mongrel horde, Stewart accidentally clipped him with his walking stick. “From now on, whenever I raised the stick to try to protect him, he lay down terrified, thinking he’d done something wrong and waiting for me to hit him. I now had to drag his 140 pound frame with me as I backed up the street throwing stones.”[8] Such is the price, Stewart shows us, of ‘helping’ in Afghanistan.

To my assertion that this anecdote reveals more than the sum of its parts about nation-building in Afghanistan, you might, right about now, be asking who the dog is in this story. Timothy Nunan’s dizzying Humanitarian Invasion, an academic monograph that will sadly never earn the wide readership of The Places in Between, tries to answer that question. The answer the book presents is, unsurprisingly, a complicated one. Everyone who has ever tried to help in Afghanistan is, in some sense, Nunan argues, the dog in this tale. 

Dismissing the hoary chestnut that Afghanistan is a ‘graveyard of empires,’ Nunan, another polyglot Oxonian, asks us instead to, in an appellation of Tony Judt’s, “think the twentieth century” in Afghanistan.[9] Doing so forces us to reconcile squarely with the wreckage that the Cold War has left behind for all of us to sort through, to acknowledge the immense challenges of trying to maintain order in a world still built on the frame of the Westphalian system but one whose foundation has been eroded by the diminishing vitality of the state. Decolonization in the midst of the Cold War, Nunan asserts, reinforced the principle of state sovereignty and made state-building sensical. The Third World nation-state as a project provided a raison d’être for the ideologies and political programs of the Soviet Union and the United States, but also for a transnational Left. The world after the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the hegemonic ascendance of the United States, and the fracturing of that Left, is a jumbled mess in which states and individuals compete for sovereignty and in which ideology, once at least a lodestar, has now given way to the anti-politics of humanitarianism. “Afghanistan assumed this role as a mirror of the global order because of its tortured place in the history of territorial statehood itself,” Nunan writes. (11) I am not certain that I share Nunan’s confidence in Afghanistan’s agency in this process, but he more than convinces me of its importance to this larger story. Instead of an isolated example of all that went wrong at the margins of the Cold-War drama, Afghanistan’s twentieth century reveals the central forces at play in the twentieth century.

Writing a global history of the region, Nunan also suggests that the frequency of war in any account of Afghanistan has overdetermined military and political conflict as ways into the country’s past. The history of development, he argues, provides a corrective. This is an elegant maneuver; it gets us out of the mode of thinking of Afghanistan as a place where a nation-state fell apart in spite of the blood and treasure of others and instead makes us consider the ways in which a nation-state was constructed as part of a struggle for hegemony between two ideologically-driven superpowers. It recasts the familiar story—one of the limitations of a post-colonial country sandwiched between empires—as a story of rather stunning endurance, reminding us that the Soviet Union and the United States needed the so-called Third World as much as, if not more than, the Third World ever needed them. As Nunan writes, “The Afghan state of the late 1970s was an adventitious thing: microscopic state size, microscopic state capacity, and yet nonetheless a success by the measure of getting foreigners to pay its bills, indeed, to imagine it into existence” (16). This is quite a trick, of course, and Nunan’s effort to show us what was happening behind the curtain gives those of us who do this kind of history new ways to articulate development as an analytical category rather than merely as one more synonym for the exertion of state power.

More than all of this, Nunan’s book offers practical intellectual insights for historians of development. One of the most significant contributions of Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War was to put Soviet and American modernizing ideologies side by side, highlighting much of what they had in common.[10] No subfield in our discipline seems to have benefitted from this as much as the history of development.[11] Yet, for largely practical reasons, few historians have been able to take full advantage of this analytical insight and write comparative, or better yet, integrated histories of Soviet and U.S. development. Those of us who study development’s place in the history of the U.S. and the world in the 1950s and ‘60s are constantly reminded of the intensity with which American policymakers feared Soviet advantage in the Third World. But, we pretty much accept on faith that the Soviets had an advantage without asking too many questions about its shape and scope. Nunan does the journeyman’s work of bringing many of the insights of Russian scholarship on Soviet history to the English-speaking reader. As he notes, where Afghanistan is concerned, much of what we know comes from Soviet scholarship and much of it is very good (7). That Nunan has brought some of this scholarly infrastructure to our attention is to be much appreciated.

Above and beyond its intellectual depth and utility, Humanitarian Invasion is a remarkable achievement in historical inquiry. The author appears, from the bibliography, to be fluent enough in at least five languages to do revelatory research. This meant that he could not only travel to twenty-one different cities across Europe, the United States, and Central Asia in search of archival sources, but that he could also conduct forty-two interviews with participants in many of the activities about which he writes. From the effusion of scholarly literature that has appeared on the history of development in the past decade, we know an awful lot about ideas, politics, and policy, but we still do not know much about what, in my own work, I call the social history of development. Nunan’s oral histories go far in this direction, putting flesh and blood on the history of nation-building by centering our attention on the human experience of the actual nation-builders. To be able to do this over nearly five decades of time is no mean scholarly feat.

The book’s greatest strength—its sheer breadth—is also its most vexing weakness. Indeed, my only critique of the book—and this is not an entirely fair one because of the intentional complexity of Nunan’s enterprise—is that the author occasionally leaves his reader lost amidst the thicket of individuals, institutions, governments, and ideas to which he introduces us. Reading the book felt, at times, like opening up the intellectual equivalent of a Matryoshka doll. Each analytical framework reveals more analytical frameworks; each concept or theme leads us to more concepts and themes. In Nunan’s effort to give too-often ahistorical terms like ‘sovereignty,’ ‘globalization,’ ‘modernization,’ ‘empire,’ ‘nationalism,’ and ‘territoriality’ corporeal and historical reality, he sometimes leaves the reader to do the work of sussing out his analytical priorities. This complexity also occasionally overwhelms the author’s not unimpressive skills as a writer. (One quibble aimed more at the Press than the author: readers of this walloping book deserve far better maps).

To further criticize a book of this ambition strikes me as a bit ungenerous, so let me instead take the liberty H-Diplo roundtables offer reviewers to pose some larger questions to the author. If the Soviet Union, the United States, and countless NGOs could not (and in the case of the latter, still cannot) help without hurting, is the entire endeavor of development doomed? Has it always been? Is there anything to learn from histories of development beyond that? To suggest that development under specific historical circumstances has been counter-productive to the causes of promoting human freedom, improving human wellbeing, or, hell, even serving the interests of a nation-state, is perhaps to come dangerously close to threading the needle by implying that there is some way to do it properly that simply has not been tried before. What if, instead of staying on the ground, we take the bird’s eye view? From the heights, Nunan’s story would seem to indicate that there is no such elusive way to get development right. International development as a political, strategic, or even social endeavor has always been, is, and will always be a very bad idea no matter who is doing the developing. If this is the argument at the foundation of the book (and if it is, I am inclined to agree with it), how, as teachers of the next generation of ‘global citizens’ who all seem to want to start their own NGOs, can we mount this case more effectively? I pose this not solely as a scholarly question about a book but as a philosophical one about our politics. Do historians have a role in wresting politics from the grip of ‘anti-politics?’[12]

Rory Stewart carried out his journey through Afghanistan’s recent past on his own two battered feet. Timothy Nunan wants to keep our attention to the ground level too, albeit without the beguiling simplicity of a first-person account. Humanitarian Invasion, though not as pleasant to a read, is an infinitely better book with which to think. For, from Nunan’s fine work more than from Stewart’s, we learn that as long as nation-building survives as the beau ideal of humanitarian intervention, we Afghans, Russians, Americans, Swedes, French, humans—we will always be the dogs. Triumphant conquerors one moment, abused and confused victims the next, resistant to the help we may need the most, turning on those weaker than ourselves and on those whose strength we fear alike, and vulnerable, always, to the angry packs.


Timothy Nunan’s book is an excellent contribution to the emerging historiography of the late twentieth century. It is a rare book that brings into a single frame several strands of inquiry: international histories of development, the Cold War in the Third World, the rise of new forms of transnational sociability and networks of activism, and the crisis of the postcolonial state. And it is rarer still to pull off such an ambitious enterprise on the largely untilled historiographical terrain of modern Afghanistan. The book is also at the cutting edge of scholarship in its deployment of an extraordinary array of archival and other sources from a dozen countries and in five languages. This is international and global history at its very best.

Nunan argues that in the decade following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the country was more than just another theatre of Cold-War confrontation between the Soviet Union and its enemies. Afghanistan became “a battleground between two very different versions of Third World sovereignty—Soviet-style territorial authoritarianism on the one hand, and poststate humanitarianism on the other.” (5) These two projects collided in the context of a transnational civil war, rendering Afghanistan not as the fabled graveyard of empires but as the graveyard of the Third World nation-state. Nunan does not flesh out this argument in a straightforward narrative. Rather he paints a pointillist picture from several analytic dots. In consequence, the book feels a bit jagged at the start but soon Nunan’s argument comes into view.

Although the temporal center of the book is in the 1970s and 80s, Nunan goes back to the inter-war years and spans the arc of Afghanistan’s postcolonial trajectory. In so doing, however, he is less interested in telling the story of the country in a transnational framework than in examining Afghanistan under Russian and Western eyes.[13] After an opening chapter on Soviet orientalist scholarship on Afghanistan, which shaped Moscow’s stance towards the country right up to 1979, Nunan turns to Afghanistan’s ‘developmental moment’. The postcolonial Afghan state had struggled from the outset owing to the withdrawal of British subsidies from 1919. Decolonization and Partition of India in 1947 aggravated Afghanistan’s problems. The creation of Pakistan cut off Afghanistan from its main markets for import and export in India. Nunan might have added that the collapse of India-Pakistan trade in 1949 made matters much worse for Afghanistan—not least because of the reorientation of Pakistani trade in the years ahead. It was in this context that Kabul sought to harness the emerging Cold War for its own developmental purposes.

Nunan claims that Afghanistan became a theatre of “competition between the empire of planning and the empire of production.” (71) But this dichotomy is unhelpful. As Nunan’s own account shows, American economists worked in the Afghan Finance Ministry to improve the collection of statistics alongside experts from the Soviet Gosplan (State Planning Committee). Equally, both American and Soviet developmental efforts were aimed at enhancing production in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Nunan’s treatment of the developmental projects undertaken during these years is excellent. Importantly, he widens our view beyond the superpowers by examining West German forestry in Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan. He could, however, have also connected the Cold-War developmental efforts in this part of the world to those of the late nineteenth century by acknowledging the role of German foresters in the Raj’s efforts at conservation.[14]

Nunan goes on to situate Afghanistan in the global 1970s. He expertly delineates the two main strands of his story—the changing Soviet stance towards socialism in the Third World and the emergence of a new humanitarianism that sought to transcend the traditional norms of state sovereignty—and shows their interaction in the context of Afghanistan. His treatment of Komsomol activism after the Soviet occupation and the trends in Afghan feminism during these years is original and illuminating. The discussion of the activities of groups like Medecins sans Frontières (MSF) or the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) is equally interesting, but leaves some key questions unanswered. For instance, he notes that these groups operated in close cooperation with various Mujahideen outfits—groups that they knew were not ‘representative of the population’ and that espoused an ideology that was at a considerable remove from any strand of post-1968 European Left. They were also reliant on the logistics and support networks sustained by the Pakistani intelligence agencies whose strategic agenda was obvious to all. How then did these humanitarian groups justify or rationalize their intellectual and practical choices?

There is a larger problem with Nunan’s account—and it is one that mirrors that of the new transnational and global turn in the histories of the twentieth century. The Afghans themselves never really zoom into focus. To be sure, in Nunan’s case this is a matter of choice. Still the choices that he makes considerably dilutes the agency of the Afghan people in the story that he so ably tells. Take his main argument. Were Soviet-style authoritarianism or poststate humanitarianism the only visions of the postcolonial state on offer in the late 1970s? This would be an extraordinary claim given the range of ideas and practices about states and sovereignty that had been examined and discussed in southern Asia for almost a century by then. To suggest that Afghanistan was somehow immune to these would amount to a retreat into the same insular nationalist historiography that Nunan rightly seeks to challenge. In any case, by not acknowledging these alternate visions and their votaries, Nunan makes Afghanistan seem like an empty vessel in which outsiders sought to pour their own ideologies.

Nunan’s treatment of the notion of ‘Pashtunistan’ is the exception that proves the norm. At no point does he take this idea seriously in its own terms. Thus, he argues: “For Persianate rulers like Musahibans incapable of ‘doing Pashto,’ much less speaking Pashto, ‘Pashtunistan’ had always been a shell game, a way of reinterpreting the Durand Line in a way to make Afghanistan geopolitically relevant.” (41) This argument is a running thread through the book and needs to be unpacked.

For starters, it should come as no surprise to any student of European nationalisms that the elites directing such movements were often ‘outsiders.’ Nunan appears to concede this in a footnote, but does not acknowledge its import. Further, the only pieces of evidence adduced in support of this claim are observations by foreign interlocutors. There is no Afghan perspective on offer. Finally, Nunan does not take into account the popular movement for ‘Pashtunistan.’ A figure like Abdul Ghaffar Khan—stalwart leader of a non-violent movement of Pashtun nationalism based out of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province—who was hugely influential across the Durand Line and whose life spanned the period covered in this book does not merit a mention.[15] It is worth recalling that on the day of his funeral in 1988, the Mujahideen and the Red Army declared an unprecedented one-day ceasefire to enable Pashtuns to travel to his hometown of Jalalabad in Afghanistan. I am also unpersuaded by Nunan’s argument that Afghan elites used the call of ‘Pashtunistan’ for the purely instrumental purpose of mobilizing developmental aid during the Cold War (60, 62). In any case, their success in attracting some measure of developmental assistance can easily be explained by Afghanistan’s geopolitical location rather than their ability to internationalize the ‘Pashtunistan’ question.

Another stark example of the downplaying of Afghan agency is the absence of any sustained treatment of Islamism. Not only were Islamist politics gaining traction in Afghanistan from the late 1960s, but they were an important and integral part of the global 1970s. Moreover, they were central to resistance against the Soviet occupation. Yet the Islamists have little more than a walk-on part in Nunan’s narrative. This is not merely about privileging groups like the MSF and SCA over the Mujahideen. Rather, Nunan misses an opportunity to integrate the latter as crucial players in the story of new humanitarianism and the attempt to whittle down the claims of sovereignty. For the Islamist rebels partook of this discourse. Indeed, it was over the course of the decade following the Soviet invasion that we see a shift in Islamist thought from the focus on jihad and the state to a more ‘humanitarian’ world-view and idiom—one that puts the alleviation of humanity’s suffering at the centre of its political and ethical project.[16] To what extent and in what ways was this turn in Islamist ideology influenced by the new humanitarianism of the European Left?

By placing the Afghans—and Third World actors—more squarely in the picture, Nunan could have better illuminated the transnational history of the twentieth century as well as our own times. Nevertheless, the fact that we are forced to think anew about a seemingly familiar period is testimony to the quality of this first-rate book.


The “global” in the title of Timothy Nunan’s book is something of a McGuffin; Humanitarian Invasion is a history of the modernization schemes and humanitarian interventions that were imposed upon Afghanistan before, during, and after the Soviet invasion of the country. Most of these were initiated by one country: the Soviet Union. While the story has global elements, it is essentially a nuanced regional history of a complicated part of the world with a strong focus on important, and previously overlooked, Central Asian actors. Nunan possesses a clear grasp of complicated regional politics and problems and he works with a range of sources in over a half-dozen languages; the breadth of his scholarship is impressive. However, his is an outsider’s perspective; Nunan has not created a traditional history of Afghanistan from a plethora of local sources, but instead a history of several previously overlooked groups of foreigners who tried first to improve that nation, and later to prevent it from descending into genocidal chaos. Nunan is crystal clear on this goal and the limits of writing the history of a part of the world that has been unstable for a very long time, but this meta-analysis of historical events is occasionally frustrating.

Nunan’s analysis is at its strongest when discussing the regional relationships Afghanistan maintained with its neighbors in the Soviet Union (specifically the Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republics [SSRs]). He argues persuasively that Soviet-led Cold War modernization and development projects in Afghanistan, hand in glove with political meddling (the Soviets disapproved of the Pashtun-identified Afghan Communist Party) were a decisive destabilizing force in the country that pushed Afghanistan to the brink of civil war and then over the other side in the 1970s. 

Why did the Soviet Union care about Afghanistan during the Cold War? This is the million-dollar question, and Nunan provides a partial answer. As with the Central Asian Republics (and Eastern Siberia and Mongolia, two additional sites of overzealous Soviet development in the post-World War II era) the reasons for Soviet investment and involvement were symbolic as well as material. Soviet geologists planned to mine Afghanistan for a variety of valuable minerals and there were hopes of discovering large reserves of oil and natural gas. During the Cold War it was also a geopolitically strategic location, as the Soviet Union worked to build an Asian Bloc to complement its influence in Eastern Europe. However, at least part of the initial attraction seems to have been the allure of posing a Soviet vision of modernity on a chaotic and challenging landscape. Just as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev pushed through the completion of the impractical Baikal Amur Mainline railway and his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev rallied youth to populate the steppes of Kazakhstan for the ill-fated Virgin Lands Campaign, the attempt to modernize Afghanistan can be classified as a study in Quixotic socialism, puzzling on the surface, but offering multiple layers of insight into the logic and values of Soviet socialism as it played out on the ground.

Nunan is at his best when he links the Soviet (and the German Democratic Republic’s) will to improve Afghanistan with the later humanitarian impulses of Socialist democracies (mainly Sweden and France) both during and after the Afghan War in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The values and vanities that informed and limited both sets of interventions are quite similar, which Nunan demonstrates through examples as varied as French-sponsored organizations that supported women’s rights in Afghanistan to the politically charged presence of groups like Doctors Without Borders and Sweden’s Sida. His examples are well-researched and provided excellent insight into how small groups of Western actors effected change in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s.

I have two direct critiques of the book, and a few other comments/questions. First, the editing, maps, (lack of) other visuals and the index in Humanitarian Invasion leave much to be desired. This does not incline me to recommend Cambridge University Press to other first-time authors with similarly ambitious projects. Second, the author does not cite publications by Nick Cullather and Jenifer Van Vleck on modernization in Afghanistan.[17] Nunan’s arguments complement the work of these scholars; his work would be richer if it were in conversation with them.

On to the comments and questions: first, while ‘Cold War’ is in the title of the book, I wonder if this is fundamentally a Cold War story. As I read, especially the early chapters, I became convinced this is actually a story about twentieth-century ideas about the nation-state and its political uses and frailties. The Cold-War (1945-1991) framework feels a bit stilted and limiting for this analysis. Second, the narrative ends with the rise of a variety of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Russia and China have recently moved to limit the influence of NGOs in their respective countries, choosing to view them as a potential fifth column element. I would welcome Nunan’s thoughts on whether this suspicion is potentially accurate, and what the fate of Afghan NGOs has been in the years since 1992.  Finally, the conclusion speaks broadly of what has happened in Afghanistan since 1992 (namely, a lot). While this work is obviously invested in demonstrating that the failed state of Afghanistan as a case study in the breakdown of notions of sovereignty and the new rise of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I wonder if the book would have been improved had it identified other failed states where similar breakdowns and shifts in the basic understanding of the nation-state model and the meaning of humanitarian aid have occurred in the past 25 years.


I would like to thank Thomas Maddux for organizing this H-Diplo Roundtable, as well as David Ekbladh, Sheyda Jahanbani, Srinath Raghavan, and Jenny Leigh Smith for their careful attention to the arguments and ideas presented in Humanitarian Invasion. I must also thank Ryan Irwin, who has engaged with the ideas in this book for longer than almost anyone, save my dissertation supervisors. I appreciate his writing the introduction to this Roundtable.

The four reviewers have already explained the main contours of the book, so I will not explain my narrative choices or rehash the argument here. Nor do I feel obliged to address every criticism that they raise. Instead, I think that it might be more helpful for readers if I address two issues that each of the four reviewers raise: one related to the ostensible lack of Afghan voices in the book; and second, how we ought to conceive of the history of development and humanitarianism, especially when teaching the subject in the classroom to students who aspire to work in humanitarian aid organizations.

The first issue, raised in most depth by Srinath Raghavan but mentioned by the three other reviews, concerns the presence of Afghan voices in Humanitarian Invasion. What vision did Afghans themselves have for ‘development’ and ‘modernization’? Foreign schemes certainly mattered, since it was Moscow, Washington, Bonn, and (later) the international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) community and the United Nations that was footing the bill; but the visions articulated by American New Dealers and Soviet apparatchiks surely had to mesh with those of their Afghan counterparts. And what of the emergence of Islamist actors onto the Afghan scene in the 1970s and 1980s?

When I began writing the dissertation that eventually became Humanitarian Invasion, I sought to respond to what scholars like David Engerman, Nick Cullather, and others had identified as a hole in the historiography of international development.[18] Studies like Michael Latham’s Modernization as Ideology and Nick Cullather’s 2000 article in Diplomatic History had made clear the importance of development as a tool of U.S. diplomacy in the Cold War.[19] Yet aside from underrated works like Elizabeth Bishop’s 1999 University of Chicago dissertation on Soviet aid to Egypt and Ragna Boden’s German-language monograph on Soviet policy toward Indonesia, scholars had taken little advantage of Soviet archives to explore how the Soviet Union deployed aid toward the Third World.[20]

This was important, as scholars like Engerman noted, not only because the USSR was the primary donor to states like Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, and Vietnam; more than that, a study of the reality of Soviet aid efforts was essential for scholars of U.S. foreign relations as well, since one of the major justifications for development aid in the first place was to prevent post-colonial societies from succumbing to Communism.[21] Not for nothing did the American policy intellectual Walt Rostow subtitle his 1960 Stages of Economic Growth “a non-Communist manifesto.”[22] Hence, I was not alone among a number of scholars who began investigating Soviet development projects in both the Third World as well as the USSR’s own ‘underdeveloped’ peripheries.[23]

Afghanistan seemed like an obvious arena for to engaging these questions. Not only did it, by some measures, receive more development aid per capita than any other country in the world during the 1960s; more than that, by the 1980s, Peshawar, which served as the hub for transnational humanitarian activities in Afghanistan, contained the densest concentration of NGOs anywhere in the world. I had the good fortune to begin the research for Humanitarian Invasion at the same time as the field of Afghan history was enjoying something of a renaissance. Scholars like Nile Green, Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, Magnus Marsden, and Christine Noelle-Karimi had spearheaded a revitalization of the field that reexamined Afghanistan as an ideal arena in which to study the flows of people, goods, and ideas across Central Asia, rather than as a no-man’s land untouched by area studies formations.[24] Yet few of these scholars were conversant in the debates in international history or the history of development; fewer possessed the Russian-language skills or familiarity with Soviet archives to explore the history of Moscow’s engagement with the country.

The task thus became to diversify the historiography of development in terms of actors (bringing in the Soviet Union and transnational humanitarian NGOs) and temporally (delving into the 1970s and 1980s), while also remaining sensitive to the visions for modernization and development that Afghan actors brought to the table. Since I knew that I wanted to pursue a multi-actor international history from the start, I knew that a kind of dialogical approach in which I would compare (for example) American views with Afghan views over several decades would not work as a narrative strategy.[25] My narrative strategy instead revolved around the engagements of the three major actors in pre-1979 Afghanistan (the USSR, the U.S., and West Germany) and the two most prominent NGOs to challenge the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan and Doctors without Borders, all the while trying to make clear the priorities of Afghan actors insofar as they were relevant to this story of international development and humanitarianism in Afghanistan, which I identified as my main priority in the introduction (15).

I do grant that I could have engaged more substantively with Afghan state newspapers and journals such as Anis or Majaleh-yi Kabul (all of which were digitized at the time of my main research).[26] But I made the choices I did, and significant parts of Humanitarian Invasion explore the career of the Afghan Minister of the National Economy and the dominant figure in interwar Afghan economic planning, Abdulmajid Zabuli (49-60), using both his own Persian-language memoirs as well as Afghan ministerial documents found in former Soviet archives. The entire fifth chapter of Humanitarian Invasion focuses on the international engagements of Afghan feminists, whether those of the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the Afghan party-state or those driven into exile who engaged with European Social Democrats. Most obviously, much of the book engages with the ways in which Afghan regimes made perhaps their core demand for the future of the country and the region, namely the demand for the creation of ‘Pashtunistan.’

In Srinath Raghavan’s reading of the book, this treatment of “Pashtunistan” is “the exception that proves the rule.” He asserts that I avoid taking the idea of Pashtunistan seriously on its own terms, thereby “diluting the agency of the Afghan people in the story that he so ably tells.” I do agree with Raghavan that I could have done more to situate Afghan state calls for “Pashtunistan” in the context of domestic politics, but I do wonder if he may be incorrect in eliding calls by the Afghan state with grassroots support for Pashtun unity. Thanks to the work of James Caron, for example, we now understand how ‘Pashtunistan’ was as much a foreign policy tool as it was an attempt to legitimize the Afghan monarchy (and, later, President Mohammad Daoud Khan’s republican experiment) in terms of ethnic particularism, thus delegitimizing and fragmenting cosmopolitan anti-monarchist movements such as the Wex Zalmiyan.[27] And while Pashtun independence activist Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s death did indeed provoke an outpouring of grief from Pashtuns on both sides of the border, the more telling fact is that the deaths of Afghan state leaders who championed ‘Pashtunistan’, such as Daoud Khan or the self-proclaimed ‘Great Leader of the Pashtuns’ Nur Muhammad Taraki (the General Secretary of the PDPA from 1978-1979) prompted no such response. If the Afghan state’s championing of ‘Pashtunistan’ really were such a reflection of a popular sentiment that was obviously there, we would expect a similar outpouring of emotion toward Daoud or Taraki’s death—and yet, nothing like that happened.

In short, the evidence for ‘Pashtunistan’ as performed by the Afghan state (a very different thing from the interwar campaigns of Khan with which Raghavan elides it) being a cynical ploy with limited resonance among Afghan or Pakistani Pashtuns is quite strong whether we look at Afghan history from the inside out (as have scholars like James Caron and Faridullah Bezhan) or the outside in.[28] While a book that did present itself to be a social or intellectual history of modern Afghanistan might be faulted for not adopting the former approach, I thought I was clear in the introduction when I stated in the introduction that “this book is not a social or political history of Afghanistan” (15). As I argue, however, even if local audiences did not accept the Afghan state’s claims to speak for all Pashtuns, foreign audiences certainly did. Raghavan argues that foreign actors engaged in Afghanistan for reasons of geopolitics rather than ‘Pashtunistan’ (as if the prospect of dismembering Pakistan was not ‘geopolitics’), but this, of course, requires and explanation as to why Soviet diplomats were so supportive of Afghan calls for ‘Pashtunistan,’ rather than calling on Kabul to temper its claims (as it did following the 1979 invasion).[29]

A subset of the critiques about Afghan agency wonder about the relative lack of integration of Afghan Islamist voices in my treatment of the 1980s. I would point out that Humanitarian Invasion does make novel use of Persian-language institutional correspondence from Jami’at-i Islami branches in northern Afghanistan as well as original letters from Afghan mujahidin commander Ahmad Shah Massoud (226), but I would agree that I could have gone into more depth on the shifting ideological contours of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Here, I can only explain the reasons why I chose not to go in this direction.

First, at the time of researching and writing this book, relatively few mujahidin (or PDPA) publications were available, or at least accessible for research. This has changed dramatically since the publication of Humanitarian Invasion, thanks to the efforts of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, the World History Library, and the Hoover Institution. Over approximately the past year, all of these institutions have made available digitized copies of Afghan mujahidin, PDPA, and Arab jihadist periodicals published in the Afghanistan-Pakistan arena of the 1980s.[30]

Second, as my own study of these periodicals for an ongoing second book project reveals, these materials are themselves highly varied and merit a study of their own.[31] There were considerable ideological differences between hardline Islamists supported by the ISI such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, much less between these and the more independent Ahmad Shah Massoud.[32] Similarly, the role of Afghan Shi’a Islamists, whether operating inside Afghanistan or from Peshawar, would have to be taken into account, ideally with attention to the turn against Shi’a groups inside Pakistan itself as orchestrated by Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq.[33] There is also the Arab global jihadist movement as well, with its own publications and ideological disagreements.[34]

Beyond the Islamist spectrum, one would have to devote attention to the monarchist groups that assembled in Peshawar—not to mention the PDPA regime itself. All of these groups produced untold millions of words about their vision for the future of Afghanistan, as well as running commentary on world events from the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) to the Gulf War (1990-1991). Many of the mujahidin groups publications were repackaged as commentary for the U.S.-backed Radio Free Afghanistan in Munich, while the regime in Kabul itself had radio and television stations staffed by exiled Iranian Leftists. In short, in the 1980s, Afghans inside and outside the country organized an enormous transnational public sphere.[35]

The inherent complexity of the conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s puts strains on any narrative strategy. The best existing treatments of the Soviet-Afghan War (whether their emphasis is on the CIA, the Soviets, the Afghan resistance, or the Arab global jihadist movement) run anywhere between 480 to 914 pages—and this with their authors lacking access to the huge runs of new primary sources made available in the last few years.[36] Nor did these accounts of the Afghan jihad engage substantively with the pre-history of development and humanitarianism in the country, noting, for example, the irony of the fact that Osama bin Laden and other jihadists were often housed in the ruins of former U.S.-built agricultural extension offices near the Kandahar Airport.[37] Yet beyond these ironies of Islamist actors moving into and through the spaces that are familiar to readers of the work of Nick Cullather and Jenifer van Vleck, I am inclined to agree with other authors that the history of Islamism does not belong in the same narrative frame as the history of international development and humanitarianism.[38]

Perhaps it seemed this way to me only because my narrative strategy revolved around covering the international engagements of a few select places in Afghanistan, namely the northern Afghan-Soviet borderlands; eastern Afghanistan; and the Helmand River watershed and Kandahar. I emphasized this strategy in the Introduction (16) as well as through one of the maps in Chapter 2 (49).[39] Because I devoted relatively little attention to Herat and western Afghanistan, or the Hazara highlands of central Afghanistan, the role of Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamist networks in Afghanistan remains absent from the book (something David Ekbladh rightly notes).[40] And as Raghavan notes, there are parallels to be made between the ways in which Afghan governments engaged foreign aid with experiences just across the border in the British Raj and post-colonial India and Pakistan.

Yet to me, it seemed that it was only by tracking the history of foreign aid interventions in very specific locations across multiple decades that I could deliver a sense of how modes of international development and humanitarianism changed throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Attempting to treat the emergent Saudi-Iranian cold war that played out in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or Soviet-Iranian relations in the context of Afghanistan, much less also handling the ideological terrain of the Afghan resistance, simply seemed beyond the bounds of a book that several of the reviewers already identified as quite ambitious on its own terms.[41] I can only note that I celebrate future attempts to unify the development narrative with the Islamism narrative. I, however, could not find a way to do so between the covers of one book.

The second major issue raised by the reviews is that voiced by Sheyda Jahanbani, who asks whether there is anything to draw from the history of development other than that it seldom goes as planned. If that is so, she wonders, how do we deliver this message (and what alternatives do we pose) to a generation of students in the classroom who see themselves as ‘global citizens’ and for whom work in development and humanitarian NGOs seems like a natural career path?

Here, I see two possible responses. For one, future scholarship should engage more with the institutional forms (NGOs), rhetorics (‘empowerment,’ ‘community development,’ ‘resilience’) and decades (the 1970s and 1980s) that form the basis of the global development and humanitarianism industry as our students encounter it.[42] More work in this direction would not only have the benefit of provincializing U.S.-led development efforts within the field of international history, but would also help us ‘think’ through the shift from one imaginary of development (hydroelectric dams, enriched wheat, power plants) to another of humanitarianism (starvation, child trafficking, sexual violence, trauma survivors) that unfolded across the 1970s and 1980s. More critically, unpacking the ways in which NGOs were bystanders or sometimes active participants in civil wars and regime changes around the Third World in the 1980s (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia) would help us understand how humanitarian concerns supplied the justification for military interventions in the 1990s.[43] And as the reviewers point out, such histories should integrate the voices of significant ‘national’ actors (Afghans, Cambodians, Ethiopians and Eritreans) and occupiers (Soviets, Cubans, Vietnamese) without dismissing them as parochial or immobile when compared to humanitarian actors.

Second, however, more than just reconstructing the activities of such organizations, we ought to engage more productively than we have with ‘moral anthropologists’ of humanitarianism and aid who lay bare the hierarchies of lives often implicit in such actions. In their work, scholars like Lori Allen, Didier Fassin, Mariella Pandolfi, and Miriam Ticktin have examined the ways in which post-1970s humanitarianism created new hierarchies even as it claimed to operate in a space beyond politics altogether.[44] Humanitarian Invasion represented an attempt to bring this anthropological literature to bear on a historical episode, showing how European NGOs’ entry into Afghanistan was not based on some immutable humanitarian ethics but rather revolved around new ideas about genocide prevention, trauma, and ‘totalitarianism.’[45] Future historians should do more to understand how practices these specific to post-1970s humanitarianism derived from these intellectual changes that were specific to Western Europe and North America.[46] They might also show how the subjectivities expected of recipients of humanitarian aid changed to match these new expectations.[47] In using the aforementioned NGO archives and examining theaters like Cambodia, Central America, the Horn of Africa, and the Kurdish lands, they could help to show students and practitioners why the history of humanitarianism is not just one of apolitical solidarity, but that it is rather entangled with new transnational media landscapes, medical and psychological concepts, and legal concepts such as “secure countries of origin.”[48]

Leaving an idealized seminar that presented them with this kind of historical overview, students would, I hope, not immediately withdraw their applications to intern with the Clinton Global Foundation or Médecins sans Frontières. But I hope that they would gain a sense of the unintended consequences (often disastrous) associated with the best-intended ‘high’ development programs of the 1950s and 1960s. I would hope that they understand how humanitarian recognition is not the same, and may be seen to stand in tension with, the guarantees that states extend to their citizens. And I would hope that they understand that their humanitarian engagements today take place in arenas where local illiberal politics intersect with international competition in unpredictable ways. Imbued with this kind of historical consciousness, I would hope that students enter the field (if they do indeed choose to do so) with the sense of being embedded in history themselves, sober if not always immune to the kinds of teleological thinking and imagined universalisms that have troubled the development industry and humanitarian enterprises not only in the Afghan arena I sought to reconstruct in Humanitarian Invasion.

I thank Tom Maddux, the reviewers, and H-Diplo again for organizing this roundtable on my book, and I look forward to further conversations that amplify, contest, and complicate the arguments presented in Humanitarian Invasion.


[1] Tony Smith, “New Bottles for New Wine: A Pericentric Framework for the Study of the Cold War,” Diplomatic History 24:4 (2000): 567-591, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/0145-2096.00237.

[2] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), especially chapters 1-4.

[3] For a primer, see Niall Ferguson, Charles Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel Sargent, eds., The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[4] Take Bradley R. Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), which explores how development discourse was a part of a complicated ally/client relationship between the US and Indonesia in the 1960s or David C. Engerman, Modernization from the Other Shore: American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), which explores how American social scientists understood and analyzed the industrialization in the Soviet Union during the interwar years.

[5] See Gregg Brazinsky, Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[6] A.Z. Hilali, “China’s Response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.” Central Asian Survey 20:3 (September 2001): 323-351, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02634930120095349; Iran long had interests in its neighbor Afghanistan. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution Afghanistan became part of a complicated relationship between Iran and the USSR and the latter’s response to Islamism, See Aryeh Yodfat, The Soviet Union and Revolutionary Iran (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984).

[7] Rory Stewart, The Places in Between (New York: Harcourt, 2004),

[8] Stewart, 147-148.

[9] Tony Judt (with Timothy Snyder,) Thinking the Twentieth Century, Reprint edition (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).

[10] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Westad, it might be worthy to note, was one of Nunan’s dissertation examiners.

[11] For a summary of the historical literature on development, see Nick Cullather, “Development? It’s History,” Diplomatic History 24:4 (Fall 2000): 641-653, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/0145-2096.00242, and Daniel Immerwahr, “Modernization and Development in U.S. Foreign Relations,” Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review (September 2012): 22-25.

[12] For more on the anti-politics of development, see James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureacratic Power in Lesotho (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

[13] For a recent account that places Afghanistan’s national history in a wider setting, see, Robert Crews, Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[14] Cf. Mahesh Rangarajan, Fencing the Forest: Conservation and Ecological Change in India’s Central Provinces, 1860-1914 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[15] On Ghaffar Khan’s “khudai khidmatgar” movement, see, Mukulika Banerjee, The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North-West Frontier (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[16] For a perceptive analysis of this new militant Islamist politics, see, Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (London: Hurst, 2008). The structural similarities between terrorists and humanitarian are also analyzed in Adi Ophir, “The Sovereign, the Humanitarian, and the Terrorist,” in Michel Feher, Gaelle Krikorian and Yates McKee (eds.), Nongovernmental Politics (New York: Zone Books, 2007).

[17] Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State,” Journal of American History 89:2 (September 2002): 512-537, Jenifer Van Vleck, “An Airline at the Crossroads of the World: Ariana Afghan Airlines, Modernization, and the Global Cold War,” History and Technology 25:1 (March 2009) 3-24.

[18] David Engerman, “The Second World’s Third World,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 12:1 (Winter 2011): 183-211.

[19] Michael Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Nick Cullather, “Development? It’s History,” Diplomatic History 24:4 (2000): 641-653, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/0145-2096.00242.

[20] Elizabeth Bishop, “Talking Shop: Egyptian Engineers and Soviet Specialists at the Aswan High Dam” (PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1997); Ragna Boden, Die Grenzen der Weltmacht: sowjetische Indonesienpolitik von Stalin bis Brežnev (Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2006).

[21] Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[22] Walt Rostow, The Stages of Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).

[23] Alessandro Iandolo, “Soviet Policy in West Africa, 1957-1964” (D.Phil. Dissertation, University of Oxford, 2011); Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).In addition to these studies of Soviet development abroad, scholars of Soviet Central Asia have been correct to point out that the Soviet Union developed its own internal ‘underdeveloped’ peripheries and later touted these successes to Third World audiences. See, for example: Paul Stronski, Tashkent: Forging a Soviet City (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010); Masha Kirasirova, “The Eastern International: the ‘Domestic East’ and the ‘Foreign East’ in Soviet-Arab Relations, 1917-68” (PhD Dissertation, New York University, 2014); Patryk Reid, “Managing Nature, Constructing the State: Infrastructure, Enviroment, and the Establishment of Soviet Tajikistan, 1917-41” (PhD Dissertation, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 2016); Artemy Kalinovsky, Socialist Development: Cold War Politics, Decolonization, and the Struggle for Welfare and Equality in Soviet Tajikistan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, forthcoming).

[24] James Caron, “Cultural Histories of Pashtun Nationalism, Public Participation, and Social Inequality in Monarchic Afghanistan, 1905–1960” (PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2009); Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, Connecting Histories in Afghanistan: Market Relations and State Formation on a Colonial Frontier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011); Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, “Quandaries of the Afghan Nation,” in Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands, ed. Robert Crews and Shahzad Bashir (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); Nile Green, “Locating Afghan History,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 45:1 (February 2013): 132-134, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020743812001316; Afghanistan in Ink: Literature Between Diaspora and Nation, ed. Nile Green and Nushin Arbabzadah (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Afghan History Through Afghan Eyes, ed. Nile Green (London: Hurst, 2015); Robert Crews, Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Magnus Marsden, Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers (London: Hurst, 2016); Mountstuart Elphinstone in British South Asia: Pioneer of British Colonial Rule, ed. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (London: Hurst, 2017); Faiz Ahmed, Constituting Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming). Among ongoing work on Afghan history, ongoing or recently completed dissertations include Hakeem Naim (UC Davis, Ottoman-Afghan relations), Marjan Wardaki (UCLA, German-Afghan relations), and Jawan Shir Rasekh (Islamization of medieval Afghanistan); Thomas Wide (Oxford, transnational Afghan literary history).

[25] While Nathan Citino’s Envisioning the Arab Future: Modernization in U.S.-Arab Relations, 1945-1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) was in press at the time of composing this response, readers may find it useful to compare the advantages of research and narrative strategies that focus on multiple actors of different nationality and institutional scale (different superpowers and NGOs vis-à-vis Afghan governments and transnational actors) versus one specific set of relations (U.S. state actors vis-à-vis Arab governments). For alternative approaches to Afghanistan, consider G.P. Ezhov and P.F. Kirpenko, Afganistan. Taĭny diplomatii: istoriia vzaimootnosheniĭ SShA i Afganistan, 1919-1955 (Moscow: Tsentrpoligrafizdat, 2012); Ibid., Afganistan, 1956-1963 gg. Ili, kak amerikantsy navërstyvali upushchennoe (Moscow: Tsentr strategicheskoĭ kon”iunktury, 2015). Within the American scholarly scene, Robert Rakove’s current project focuses on Afghan-American relations up until the Soviet invasion.

[26] Interested scholars may find digitized editions of these newspapers via Afghanistan Digital Collections, http://www.afghandata.org.

[27] James Caron, “Cultural Histories of Pashtun Nationalism, Public Participation, and Social Inequality in Monarchic Afghanistan, 1905–1960,” 194; 250-259.

[28] Faridullah Bezhan, “The Second World War and Political Dynamics in Afghanistan,” Middle Eastern Studies 50:2 (2014): 175-191, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00263206.2013.870892. Bezhan has authored numerous other articles on Afghan political and intellectual history.

[29] New evidence from the work of Elisabeth Leake, for example, suggests how consistent the Soviets were in pressing the Pashtunistan issue against Pakistani diplomats throughout the 1950s and 1960s. See Elisabeth Leake, The Defiant Border: The Afghan–Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936–1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 205.

[30] On the Hoover materials, see: “Thousands of Rare Afghan Periodicals Now Available Online” (27 June 2016), http://www.hoover.org/news/hoover-opens-online-access-rare-afghan-partisan-serials-collect... on the World History Library’s Afghan materials, see: https://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2016/16-164.html.

[31] The working title for this project is The Cold War’s Clash of Civilizations: Socialists, Islamists, and the Soviet Union in Cold War Eurasia.

[32] For one survey of these and other materials, see Simon Fuchs, “Glossy Global Leadership: Unpacking the Multilingual Religious Thought of the Afghan Jihad,” in Nile Green (ed), Afghanistan's Islams (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

[33] Simon Fuchs, “Third Wave Shiʿism: Sayyid ʿArif Husain al-Husaini and the Impact of the Iranian Revolution in Pakistan,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 24:3 (2014): 493-510, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186314000200.

[34] Muhammad Amir Rana, Arabs in Afghan Jihad (Lahore: Pak Institute for Peace Studies, 2002); Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan (London: Hurst, 2015); Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Anne Stenersen, Al-Qaida in Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[35] While beyond the scope of this review, the papers of Radio Free Afghanistan (a Radio Free Europe-backed venture run out of Munich during the 1980s) are instructive on these networks. The papers for Radio Free Afghanistan are largely available at the Hoover Institution Archives. On the PDPA government itself, see (among many others) the memoirs of Surraya Baha, Rahā dar bād (Kabul: Intishārāt-I Tāk, 2013); on Iranian Leftists in exile, see Ali Khodāī, Nāgoftehhā, http://www.rahetudeh.com/rahetude/mataleb/nagofteha/html/aghaz-nagofteha.html.

[36] Aleksandr Liakhovskiĭ, Tragediia i doblest’ Afgana (Moscow: GPI Iskona, 1995); Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004); Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Vintage: New York, 2007); Peter Tomsen, The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of the Great Powers (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011).

[37] According to post-2011 Afghan documents, Tarnak Farms (where bin Laden lived during the late 1990s) “has a 50-year history and served as one of the production centers of the Improved Seed Enterprise, a government– owned entity administered by [could you please add the full term here MAIL, until early 1990s.” Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan), “Terms of Reference: “Tarnak Farm” Rehabilitation Master Plan Designer,” http://mrrd.gov.af/Content/Media/Documents/TOR_Tarnakfarm_2_Word200311220102133773.pdf.

[38] Jenifer Van Vleck, “An Airline at the Crossroads of the World: Ariana Afghan Airlines, Modernization, and the Global Cold War,” History and Technology 25:1 (March 2009).

[39] Jenny Leigh Smith comments on the lack of visuals and maps and poor indexing in the book; in reality, Humanitarian Invasion contains ten maps and illustrations drawn from the former Soviet Union and private archives. Also, a recipient of the American Society for Indexing’s most prestigious prize composed the index.

[40] Beyond the piece Ekbladh recommended on this note, also useful is Zalmay Khalilzad, “The Iranian Revolution and the Afghan Resistance,” in Shi’ism, Resistance, and Revolution, ed. Martin Kramer (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987). That said, to risk belaboring an earlier point, there are dozens of works published in Afghanistan and Iran since the 1980s that touch on the situation among Afghan Shi’a and the Shi’a-majority Hazarajat in the 1980s alone. See: M.’A. Gharjistāni, Shekast-ī Rūshā dar Hazārahjāt (Arlington: M.M. Afghanistan, 1983). M.M. Afghānī, Afghānistān dar masīr-i takāml-i inqilāb-i Islāmī (Tehran: Sāzmān-i Nīrū-yi Islāmi-i Afghānistān, 1985); Muhammad ‘Alī Jāvīd, Pīrāmūn-i inqilāb-i Islāmī va tajāvuz-i Rūs’hā dar Afghānistān (Qom: Mālik Ashtar, 1985); Muhammad ‘Īsa Gharjistānī, Mubārizat-i Hazārah’hā dar bīst sāl-i akhīr-i Afghānistān (Quetta: Shurā-yi Farhangī-i Islāmī-i Afghānistān, 1986); Murtaẓa As’adī, Jahān-i Islām (Tehran: Markaz-i Nashr-i Dānishgāhi, 1987); Sayyid ‘Abd Allāh Ashghāri, Khātirāt-i safarī bih Afghānistān (Qom: ‘A. Ashgharī, 1990); Hādī Khusrawsh¯hi, Nahzhathā-yi Islāmī-i Afghānistān (Tehran: Daftar-i Mutāla’āt-i Siyāsī va Bayn al-Milalī, 1991); Amīr It’imād Dānishyār, Jang-i Afghānistān va Shūravī: ‘āmil-i furūpashī-i jahānī-i kummūnism (Tehran: Bahīnah, 1992); Nāṣir Mastūrī Kāshānī, Afghānistan, dīpumāsī-i dū chihrah: chigūnagī-i uhūr va ufūl-i dawlat-i Mārksīstī dar Kābul va dalāyil-i ishghāl-i niāmī va khurūj-i nīrūha-yi Shūravī az Afghānistān (Tehran: Nashr-i Īrānshahar, 1992); Muhammad Kāẓīmī and Muhammad Āṣif Rahmānī, Shi’r-i muqāvamat-i Afghānistān (Tehran: Hawzah-i Hunarī-i Sāzmān-i Tablīghāt-i Islāmī, 1991); Shihāb al-Dīn Farrukhyār, Sarzamīn-i darrahhā: yāddashthā-yi safar beh Afghānistān (Tehran: Daftar-i Nashr- Farhang-i Islāmī, 1992); Baṣīr Ahmad Dawlat’ābādi, Shināsnāmah-i ahzāb va jarayānāt-i siyāsi-i Afghānistān (Qom: B.A. Dawlat’ābadi, 1992). A list of all of the works appearing in Persian and Pashto covering distinct regional geographies of the jihad would be much longer than even this list.

[41] On Saudi-Iranian competition, see Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: Norton, 2006), Chapter 6; Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013). The best existing treatment of Soviet-Iranian relations during the period is Uwe Halbach, Die Sowjetunion und der Iran (Cologne: Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, 1989). While Halbach (who used Soviet and Iranian periodicals to great effect) was limited by writing on contemporary events and lacking access to archival sources, his account stresses a de facto Soviet-Iranian détente that took place from 1988 onward.

[42] For moves in this direction, see: Emily Baughan, “Saving the Children: British Humanitarianism in Europe and Africa, c. 1915-2010” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Bristol, 2014); Daniel Immerwahr, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Tehila Sasson, “Milking the Third World? Humanitarianism, Capitalism, and the Moral Economy of the Nestlé Boycott,” American Historical Review 121:4 (October 2016), 1196-1224.

[43] Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Human Rights and History,” Past and Present 232:1 (2016): 279-310, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtw013. For one admirable effort in this direction that draws on MSF’s archives, see Bertrand Thaite, “The Cradle of the New Humanitarian System? International Work and European Volunteer at the Cambodian Border Camps, 1979-1993,” Contemporary European History 25:2 (2016): 335-358, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0960777316000102. The challenge remains to integrate this style of work into the Cold War history story told most ably in Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[44] Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, ed. Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (New York: Zone Books, 2010); Miriam Ticktin, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); Lori Allen, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[45] Timothy Nunan, “The Anti-Colonial Origins of Humanitarian Intervention: NGOs, Human Rights,” Jadallyya, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/25107/the-anti-colonial-origins-of-humanitarian-interven.

[46] Eleanor Davey, Idealism Beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954-1988 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[47] On this front, Eleanor Davey (mentioned in the above footnote) is currently working on a project on the relationship between national liberation and humanitarianism.

[48] Future interventions along these lines might examine the ways in which European states invented the concept of or the ways in which arenas like pre-1993 Ethiopia went from major areas of concern for humanitarian activity due to famine and forced migration to bulwarks against refugee flows. How to account, for example, from the moment at the end of Amanda McVety’s account of U.S. aid to monarchist Ethiopia to the country today? The answer, I would argue, has to come through a reconstruction (like in Afghanistan’s case) of the intersection of socialism and humanitarianism in the 1980s. On the past, see: Amanda McVety, Enlightened Aid? U.S. Devleopment As Foreign Policy in Ethiopia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). On the situation today vis-à-vis refugees, see “Der Diktator als Partner gegen Flüchtlinge,” Die Zeit (11 October 2016), http://www.zeit.de/politik/2016-10/aethiopien-angela-merkel-afrika-reise-repressionen/komplettansicht.