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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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Autonomy and Authority


Geography & Destiny

Identity & Perception

Reveal Source

080927-F-6426S-083 (Village outside Herat). Accessed August 22, 2010.

Arnesen, Marius. "Musalla Complex and Minarets - Herat, Afghanistan." Digital image. Marius Arnesen's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Creative Commons:
Dupree, Nancy. 61-252. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
Dupree, Nancy. A69-260. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
K-00308-30. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
Mahwash. "E Zema Porsan La Racha (Oh My Fairy, Come And Meet Me)." In Radio Kaboul. Accords Croisés, 2003, CD.
Q2-01282-04. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
Schmaltz, Jeff. "Hindu Kush." Digital image. NASA's Earth Observatory. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Smith, U.S. Air Force TSgt Laura K., and ISAF. 080927-F-6426S-083 (Village outside Herat). In Isafmedia's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 22, 2010.
Unknown Photographer. Afghan Women. 1890s. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London. In British Library. Accessed August 22, 2010.

Producer: Kate Harding


Reveal Transcript

The nation known today as Afghanistan did not really start to emerge until the 18th century. Prior to that, it was a loosely defined region, ruled by a series of empires that rose and fell throughout the centuries. These empires controlled vast territories, much larger than the nations that would eventually replace them. But ruling that amount of land required some compromises.

Because the area was so vast and because the resources were spotty &mdash that is some parts were very valuable and others were not so valuable, difficult of access, either deserts, mountains, steppes &mdash what governments attempted to do was to rethink how should we rule such a place? And the way they did this is by what I call a "Swiss cheese model of empire."

That is to say, you ruled the places that were valuable and you provided services to their people, but you were more flexible about places that didn’t justify the cost of administration.

This meant that some parts of this region had a strong government presence while others did not. It was an empire, but it was an empire with many, many holes.

In essence the urban areas, the irrigated agricultural areas, are the places that governments have always dominated. They’ve always taxed. They’ve always administered.

Meanwhile, the people in the more remote regions, remained mostly autonomous, allowed to use their own tribal systems for governing themselves. But this freedom came at a price.

There’s a downside to being autonomous. The areas that are autonomous are usually very poor. So you can celebrate your freedom but you’re living in poverty.

But of course, these remote regions were not completely isolated from the more cosmopolitan centers of the empires. Some roads did pass through, sustaining rural people with at least a modest income.

What we found is Silk Route caravans of quite ancient date passing through these territories bringing very, very high valuable goods. Not because they were going to necessarily sell them there. They weren’t. But as long as they’re passing through these people are bringing money, they’re bringing ideas, they’re bringing news. You might think about it as a large truck stop in Wyoming.

And so the vastness of empire was continually bisected, and the different points within it were connected to each other, despite large areas that remained independent.

In the 18th century all of this would have to change.

Afghanistan would begin to emerge as a nation, the lines of its territory drawn in the sand. It would have to create a uniform national identity and all the holes would need to be connected.

That project, and all of its challenges, would continue into the modern era.

Authority and autonomy have a special relationship in Afghanistan. In the 18th century, that relationship was put to the test—and the outcomes are still being determined today.