Writer challenges Western views on Afghanistan

Dr Jonathan Lee

A Snells Beach writer has written a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, which has drawn high praise from academics around the world.

Dr Jonathan Lee, a social and cultural historian, moved to Snells Beach in 2007, but has lived in and visited Afghanistan at various times since 1971, furthering his studies there and undertaking consultancy work with non-governmental organisations.

He says he’s had his fair share of scary moments, particularly during coups in 1977, 1978, and in 1992 when the Mujahidin took over and law and order broke down.

He says things got worse after 2002 due to the increasing militarisation of aid.

“Insurgents increasingly regarded foreigners as an arm of what they deemed was a military occupation by foreign and infidel forces, and hence ‘fair game’,” he says.

Dr Lee’s book, Afghanistan – A History from 1260 to the Present, took 10 years to write. His sources included Afghan government officials, British government and India Office archives, CIA reports and WikiLeaks documents.  

He says he wanted to produce a comprehensive and understandable history for the general reader.

At the same time, he wanted the book to be corrective – challenging what he calls the “increasingly discredited colonial discourse about Afghanistan” and the rhetoric promoted by the Afghan monarchy to justify its monopoly on political and economic power.

Dr Lee also challenges the continual linking of Afghanistan with terrorism.

“One should not regard the actions of a few radicals as being representative of the nation as a whole.

Sadly, it has become a common presumption in much popular western discourse to equate Afghans – and Muslims in general – with terrorism.

He says one of Afghanistan’s perennial problems has been its failure to establish participatory government.

Dr Lee says successive foreign powers – Britain, the USSR, the US and NATO – have all thought they could fix the problem by military intervention and occupation, but have only made matters worse.

“Until the issue of nation building, civil society and good governance is seriously addressed by the dominant military powers and donor states, one is just propping up an unsustainable model and tinkering with a broken system,” he says.

Academics who have praised Dr Lee’s book include Michael Semple of Queen’s University, Belfast.

“This work is an encyclopedia of the ways in which the past helps shape the ideas and possibilities of the present,” he says.


Mahurangi Matters has one copy of Afghanistan – A History from 1260 to the Present to give away. To go in the draw, email editor@localmatters.co.nz with your contact details. Put “Afghanistan” in the subject line. Competition closes March 25.


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