Book review: Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid



Colonial historiography

A critique of Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid

Ralph H. Magnus and Eden Naby,

Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998, 274 pp.

Hard Cover $ 33.00  Soft cover $ 6.99 (Amazon)


by Hafizullah Nadiri

Following the earliest violent encounter of the Afghans and the first Western aggressive power – Britain (1839-42), which finally resulted in the defeat of the Britons, the latter portrayed Afghans in an orientalist image. In the accounts of the war written by the British commentators and officials, Afghans are represented as savages who are in love with violence [1], even though they were the ones who were attacked by the British in their homeland. Yet as Orientalism is always flexible, this image has been modified depending on who the other warring party was. Thus, Afghans have been transformed into “holy warriors” and then into “warlords” to which “terrorists” were later added. These labels have persisted in part as well because most Western historians of Afghanistan have, in one way or another, cooperated with their respective states in shaping the latter’s policies towards Afghanistan [2], and this book is no exception, at least with one of its authors.

Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx and Mujahid, it is a joint work by Ralph H. Magnus and Eden Naby. Magnus (who died in 2000) had been a cultural attaché at the US embassy in Kabul and later head of an American organization aiding the Mujahideen, and Naby is an Iranian American ethnic-cultural historian of the region. Throughout the book, the influence of these two backgrounds is felt both in the way the Mujahidin are depicted and in the overemphasis on ethnicity in understanding the country’s history.

The book starts with an introduction emphasizing the geography and ethnic composition of the country, followed by the chapter that deals with the history of Afghanistan until 1973. It gets dense as soon as the communists appear on the political scene with Daud ‘s coup in 1973. The book ends with the rise of the Taliban and covers subsequent events in the country until 1997.

The authors believe that there never existed a nation in the country but only ethnic groups. Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Afghan emperor, was head of the Pashtun tribe who was just “extracting tribute” from other ethnic groups (p. 30) [3], and when the communists carried out their coup in 1978, there still did not exist a nation there (p. 99). This belief leads the authors to see no nationalist sentiment among the mujahideen in their war against the Soviets [4] or, when they do see it, for example among the communists, it is downplayed by ethnic and party divisions (pp. 124 &127).

In the absence of a nation in the country, the authors are obliged to confirm the deterministic understanding of Islam as an explanatory element of everything that concerns the resistance [5]. The chapter that treats the Mujahidin is titled: “Holy Warriors, Mujahidin, and Fighting for Islam”. It divides them into three branches: the political leadership, the field commanders, and the intellectuals and administration. Although they are still divided based on ethnicity, traditional (Mullah) and ideological orientations (Mujahid), it is Islam that makes them the enemy of the communists. As for the intellectuals who joined the resistance, the authors acknowledge that there were nationalists among them (p. 146), but that they eventually as well became mujahideen fighting for Islam.

Such an understanding of the Mujahideen leads the authors to equate them with the Afghan people as a whole (p. 135) against whom the supporters of the communist regime are only the party members (p. 129). The authors fail to mention not only RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan) as a movement independent of the communists (the government) and the Mujahidin [6] but also the civilians, part of whom supported the communist regime and part of whom did not support any party.

Giving its pro-Mujahidin tone, nothing in the book is mentioned about the atrocities committed by the Mujahidin during the anti-Soviets war, while the whole book is dedicated “to the Afghans who were and will be maimed and killed by the ten million land mines strewn across their land by the Soviet army during the jehad”.

However, following the Soviets withdrawal, the “resistance” ends, and as a result, the terms to describe the situation and the actors change. The conflict in the country becomes a “civil war” (p. 150), as the external supporters of the mujahideen (especially the United States) have nothing to do with shaping what happened after the withdrawal of the USSR. Similarly, the term “warlords” begins to be used to name the same people who were called “holy warriors” during their war against the Soviets (p. 153). [7] By the end of the book, we get the sense that the Islam practiced in Afghanistan is turning into a threat to the West (pp. 173-4), which opens the door to calling those fighting against the United States “terrorists”.

In terms of sources, it is clear that at least Naby, the co-author, speaks Persian; however, in the book’s references, except in a few specific instances (i.e., p. 262), there seems to be no consultation of Persian or Pashtun sources. In addition, there is not an equal consultation of pro-communist sources. In the bibliography of the book, only two of these sources are mentioned, while the rest of the hundreds of references are made to the “anti-communist” sources.

Reading Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx and Mujahid within the context of the long occidental historiography of Afghanistan, one notices a continuity. In the accounts of Afghanistan’s first encounter with the Western world, the country’s inhabitants were portrayed as stateless savages divided into ethnic groups with no attachment to their land. This view has not been changed much, at least in what can be read in the present book, although written more than a century and a half after those initial accounts.

[1] Stanski, K., “So These Folks are Aggressive’: An Orientalist Reading of ‘Afghan Warlords”, Security Dialogue, 2009, pp. 87-8.

[2] The reader might find it interesting to learn that Louis Dupree, the most famous American historian of Afghanistan (anthropologist with ethnic studies orientation), had collaborated with the CIA. See the speech given in the US Senate in Dupree’s honor following his decease  [] (consulted 30 July 2021).

[3] On ethicizing the Ahmad Shah Durrani and subsequences eras, see: Hanifi, S., M., “The Pashtun Counter-Narrative”, Middle East Critique, 2016, pp. 393-6.

[4] Kakar, M., H., Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid, Ralph H. Magnus and Eden Naby, book review, without a date [] (consulted 30 July 2021).

[5] On Islamic determinism, see: Asad, T., “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” Qui Parle, 2009, p. 4.

[6] Fluri, J., L., “feminist-nation building in Afghanistan: an examination of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)”, Feminist Review, 2008.

[7] The term “warlord” is still used by the US officials and commentators in post-2001 Afghanistan to discredit community and nation ‘s leaders in justifying the “state-building” project – an instrument to excuse US’s interference in the internal politics of the country. See: Stanski, K., …, p. 77.