The plight of Afghanistan remains as relevant a question as ever in 2016. Just what did the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the international...

The plight of Afghanistan remains as relevant a question as ever in 2016. Just what did the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the international occupation of this country accomplish? Will an Afghan government ever exercise effective control over its territory and build a modern, prosperous integrated nation-state? How will Afghanistan evolve in light of the Taliban’s enduring strength and the rise of groups like the Islamic State? What role can regional powers like Pakistan and China play in the future of this nation?

Timothy Nunan (Harvard Academy Scholar for International and Area Studies) offers news ways to think about these questions in his book Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Unlike many existing works, Nunan does not limit his analysis to how Afghanistan became an important aspect of great power politics or Cold War rivalries. Instead, he offers a fascinating history of how ideas about international development and humanitarianism played out in this nation from the beginning of the Cold War to the start of the Taliban’s rule.

Drawing on wide array of archival research and oral interviews conducted in multiple languages, Nunan describes how Americans, Soviets, and Europeans failed to “modernize” Afghanistan in ways that made sense to them. He also explains how events in Afghanistan help elucidate larger changes in the fields of international development and humanitarianism. As the failure to produce a modernized “third-world state” became more obvious, NGOs such asMedecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan deployed new ideas about humanitarianism to justify their interventions in Afghanistan on the behalf of helpless victims.While Nunan deserves credit for exploring the motivations and assumptions of foreign actors, he also never loses sight of how Afghanistan’s complex history shaped events on the ground. In particular, he excels at describing how the idea of Afghanistan as a Pashtun nation-state influenced the way actors conceived of development and humanitarian intervention.

Timely and well-written, Humanitarian Intervention stands out as a thought-provoking international history that elucidates the difficulties involved in building a “modern” nation. It also raises important questions about just how much the “humanitarian interventions” of NGOs can accomplish in a world where the existence of “failed states” often results in mass killing and violence.

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