PhD Research

The archaeology of Afghan political identities and implications for peacebuilding: a comparative study of Soviet and American interventions


This thesis aims to deconstruct and compare Afghan political identities as they have emerged and been affected by the Cold War and War on Terror interventions in Afghanistan. The main research question the thesis aims to answer is: ‘How have the Soviet and American hegemonic regimes in Afghanistan affected the emergence and development of political identity formation and polarisation?’

Preliminary research suggests that there is a phenomenological disarticulation between the Western academe knowledge of identity formation, and Afghan political realities. An English and Persian language literature review has revealed that texts which seek to apply theoretical constructs still fail to fully capture the dynamic relationship that exists between the triple register of identity in Afghanistan. The triple register is that of the qawm (the localised community, the umma (the Muslim community or “nation”[1]), and then ad-daula (the state; as distinct from watan a term which is also used within the literature but per even early writings is more taken to mean the land which is occupied by a person[2]). The basic contention of this thesis then is that theoretical referents in the existing literature fail to adequately distil the (lived) political experience of such a multi-faceted and heterogenous society.[3] Indeed, as noted by Manchanda and Sharma, Afghanistan political sociology in the area thus far has predominately depicted Afghanistan as an “unchanging”[4] phenomenon; a “rigid prism”[5] of ascribed ethnic divisions, united by “depraved and benighted” Islamist ideals rather than interrogating the ambiguities in Afghan political identity.[6] Specifically, the transformative impact of occupation on Afghan conceptualisations of political identity, and associated concepts is rarefied.

This thesis will pursue an inductive approach that aims to contribute to the gaps in the “repertoire of available meaning”[7] in relation to the formation, reification and transformation of political identity through a mixed methods analysis of participant interviews, media and Afghan literature. The author aims to take critical decolonising position, taking into account traditional ways of Afghan theorising and thinking, rather than regaling the same to a position of exteriority. In this regard, it is noted that members of the Afghan community were consulted in the assembly of this thesis’ design and methodological practices. This approach will necessarily require a high degree of critical reflection, with specific reference to Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge and the politics of knowledge production.[8]

In summary then, this thesis aims to contribute to the theoretical literature of political identity formation, including nascent concepts such as “identity ambiguity”[9] through this in depth case study. The resulting analysis will also speak to the implications for a post-American Afghanistan, noting the prima facie parallels with post-Soviet Afghanistan in terms of political group contestations that are emerging as this abstract is being written, but also the simultaneous divergence in the in situ reality. The larger implications for building a sustainable and just peace in Afghanistan will also be considered, taking into account Afghani perspectives and experiences.

[1] Sylvia Haim, “Islam and the Theory of Arab Nationalism,” Welt des Islams 4, no. 2/3 (1955): 124–149, 141.
[2] Husain al-Marsafi quoted in Haim, 132; Olivier Roy. Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan 2nd ed. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1990: 8.
[3] This perspective is additionally informed by the authors previous research into conflict in the North Caucasus region; whereby the a similar ‘triple register’ of identity is that of ethnic, confessional and civic somewhat in parallels to that which exists in Afghanistan.
See also: Nivi Manchanda, Imagining Afghanistan: the History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
[4] Manchanda, 27.
[5] Raghav Sharma, Nation, Ethnicity and the Conflict in Afghanistan: Political Islam and the Rise of Ethno-Politics 1992-1996. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2016: preface.
[6] Manchanda, 148.
[7] Manchanda, 19.
[8] Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge. United Kingdom: Tavistock Publications Limited 1972.
[9] Dennis A Gioia, Kevin G Corley, and Aimee L Hamilton. “Seeking Qualitative Rigor in Inductive Research: Notes on the Gioia Methodology,” Organizational Research Methods 16, no. 1 (2013): 15–31.  

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