What We Talked About At ISA: The Imperial Sociology of the “Tribe” in Afghanistan

As has been established, encounters between the coloniser and the colonised led to the creation of truths, myths, legends and identities in which the two were mutually implicated. These encounters have also bequeathed a particularly problematic lexicon, one whose provenance is narrowly European and one which has been kept alive especially in the discipline of International Relations, even as it is increasingly renounced by other disciplines and in the world outside the Anglophone academy. In my talk at ISA this year, I sought to problematise the concept of ‘tribe’ and show how a monolithic and unreflective body of work became the norm with reference to Afghan social organisation as exemplified by this kind of statement made by General Jim Gant in 2009:

When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.[1]

By tracing the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, the paper (based on a dissertation chapter) performs two types of intellectual labour. First, by following the evolution of a concept from its use in the early nineteenth century to the literature on Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, wherein the “tribes” seem to have acquired a newfound importance, it undertakes an intellectual history of the term. The Afghan “tribes”, taken as an object of study, follow an interesting trajectory: initially likened to Scottish clans, they were soon seen as brave and loyal men, but fundamentally different from their British interlocutors – albeit interestingly always superior to the Hindus who often provided the necessary contrast – only then to be seen as a “problem” that needed to be managed, and finally, as indispensable to a long-term “Afghan strategy”.[2] And second, the paper endeavours to describe how that intellectual history is intimately connected to the exigencies of imperialism. My argument is that the “tribe” has become a familiar and accessible idiom – another expedient shorthand – used to make sense of Afghanistan’s diverse and complex social structure, but that in the process the term has veered far from the manner in which it was originally conceived and utilised. I aim to demonstrate not only how the term has become more thoroughly racialised, but also how it now amounts to a conceptually vapid word that has paradoxically been credited with ever more importance in “understanding Afghanistan”.

It is one man’s early 19th century writing that continues to be the capstone of much of the academic work done on Afghanistan today. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Weaponising Geography and the Global Striations of Military Targeting

In the context of a panel I put together on “Turning Ploughshares into Swords: Weapons and Weaponizations”, the ISA’s annual conference was the occasion for me to present some of the research I have undertaken as part of my long term project into the logistics of military perception. The central aim of that project is to uncover the genealogy and operation of the functional constituents of contemporary targeting practices as they increasingly span the globe. I submit that we can outline three distinct, if profoundly intertwined, functions of sensing, imaging and mapping that respectively gather sensorial information, visually represent and disseminate it, and relate it to geospatial frameworks. It is the last of these operations that was the focus of my paper, with particular attention paid to the way in which the planet has increasingly been enframed within systems of geographic coordinates permitting the geolocation and thereby targeting of any entity caught within their mesh.

While the role of cartography in European colonial expansion from the fifteenth century on is well-known, my main interest here lies in the even more intimate relationship between the histories of weapons targeting and techniques of geospatialisation. From the outset, the development of artillery in the early modern era was closely bound up with that of surveying techniques for the measurement of distances by visual means. Indeed, the range-finding exercises of gunners relied on the same trigonometric methods that underpinned the rise of modern cartography.

Continue reading

Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller

Europe has the only classical tradition that is also considered modern.

Europe claimed Greece as its ancestor. But not anymore.

Europe once turned a Black god white.

Once upon a time Europe decided that it was a family of nations. This decision is commemorated as the beginning of international law.

Because indigenous peoples were not mentioned in a very old book, Europeans wondered if these peoples were human.

Some of the Europeans who cleared lands of their indigenous peoples liked to represent themselves as indigenous princesses.

Europeans once thought that if they left Europe they would degenerate. To this day they view their cousins over the seas with suspicion.

European scientists once found a way to break up human beings into a set of quantum parts.

Europe is proud of freeing itself from metaphorical chains.

Europe got rich out of African slavery. Then it freed the slaves.

Europe was so concerned with slavery that it colonized the African continent.

In Europe you can baptises yourself so as to be born again with a humanitarian soul.

Some of Europe’s top philosophers were bigots and racists, even for their own time.

Europeans were so fascinated with primitives that they created a space in the brain called the unconscious.

Europeans say that Unconscious bias is regrettable but that it doesn’t make a person bad.

Europe prefers to narrate its eras of global war as eras of “long peace”.

Europe once had a big war with itself when some Europeans started to practice in Europe what they had been practicing in their colonies.

Algeria was a part of Europe. But Algeria was not part of the pax-Europa.

Anyone can be European so long as you tell Europeans where you come from.

Europeans can only trust women who show their whole face. Exceptions apply.

Europe never said thank you to muslim scholars.

The Mediterranean is currently the deadliest sea crossing in the world

Europeans are experts on Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Europeans prefer to learn about Africa, Asia and Oceania from other Europeans.

Europe is the only cosmopolitan that is allowed to keep its own adjective.

Europe believes that if it wasn’t written down it didn’t happen.

Europeans like to write about themselves.

Only Europeans can know Europe.

Once Europe was narcissitic, but Europeans fixed that by turning the mirror into a window onto the world.