M. Drephal: Afghanistan and the Coloniality of Diplomacy

Afghanistan and the Coloniality of Diplomacy. The British Legation in Kabul, 1922–1948

Drephal, Maximilian
Anzahl Seiten
XXIII, 366 S.
€ 85,60
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Francesca Fuoli, Historical Institute, University of Bern

Maximilian Drephal’s book is a rich study of the British Legation in Kabul from its foundation in 1922, when the Kabul Agency transitioned to diplomatic status following Afghanistan’s independence in 1919, to its epilogue after the end of the British Raj, when it was replaced by the diplomatic representation of Great Britain. The central argument of this study is that after 1921 the Legation became the conduit for remaking Anglo-Afghan relations from their 19th century colonial framework and Afghanistan’s position as vassal state of the British Raj. Confronted with the country’s independence, the government of India adapted to this new reality without significantly breaking from the past (p. 1). Instead, throughout nine chapters, the book highlights the continuities in terms of knowledge and practices that existed between Afghanistan’s colonial and postcolonial periods (p. 152).

The introductory chapter provides a short overview of the Legation’s history, pointing to this diplomatic representation as a key example for understanding the “application of colonial ideas beyond colonialism’s remit” (p. 5). It offers a historiographical overview, focusing on the “great game,” colonial knowledge, the colonial state, and the Indo-Afghan borderland as analytical terms. The author notably emphasises that this historiography, concerned with the histories of the state and modernity since the 1960s, has lacked a historical focus on modern diplomacy. Drephal’s approach posits to analyse diplomatic history in conjunction with empire and looks at how, in the case of Afghanistan, the colonial and postcolonial dimensions coexisted.

Chapter 2 illustrates the anomality of Afghanistan’s independence within a world still largely shaped by imperial dynamics. It looks at the rounds of negotiations between the government of amir Amanullah Khan and the British Indian government in Rawalpindi, Mussoorie to Kabul from 1919 and the signing of the Treaty of Kabul in 1921. The central point, which is also the main argument that sustains this work as a whole, is that, despite the outward trappings of international sovereignty that Afghanistan started to display with the establishment of a system of embassies abroad, its relations with the Raj remained caught in a “colonial twilight” (p. 48). While the unilateral declaration of independence by the amir in 1919 rearranged the system of layered sovereignty that had tied Afghanistan and British India, this did not erase the influence that empire continued to maintain over the country’s international relations.

Chapters 3 and 4 trace the Legation’s “collective biography.” They illustrate its internal working, in particular the role of subordinated employees. Although these figures have often helped build diplomatic archives, their life histories are not usually part of these repositories and have seldomly found a place in diplomatic histories. Drephal focuses first on the subaltern operative and support staff, which included office clerks and the menial establishment of cleaners, launderers, horse-keepers, water-carriers, watchmen, cooks and servants. Despite starting to recruit locally in the long run, the Legation segregated Afghans as an ethnicity to be mistrusted. Unlike the practice adopted in Indian princely states, where personnel were recruited locally, the Legation drew most of its menial employees, as well as the institution’s security staff and munshis, from among the Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province.

Moving up on the Legation’s internal hierarchy, the author highlights how the biographies of its officials – Francis Henry Humphrys, William Kerr Fraser-Tyler, Richard Roy Maconachie – rendered Kabul “an emerging unit in the colonial state’s imperial apparatus” that connected native states, diplomatic missions, frontier posts and districts around the British Indian empire (p. 119). To be sure, throughout the 19th century the North West Frontier and Afghanistan had been integral to the career trajectories of British officials and knowledge exchanges across the empire, as Benjamin Hopkins’s recent book has further confirmed.[1] Nonetheless, Drephal’s point is important because it shows that the Legation’s embeddedness into the transregional fabric of colonial institutions institutionalised the role of British diplomatic representation in Afghanistan as transmitter of colonial practices and models of colonial governance.

Chapter 5 offers rich detail on the performative dimension of diplomatic relations enshrined in the act of accreditation at the Afghan court. It makes the fundamental point that, despite their official status as corps diplomatique, British officers of the Legation did not consider themselves as diplomats, and indeed were instructed by the government of India in this sense. Diplomacy was considered as just one among other forms of colonial rule. Drephal highlights that the Legation’s ministers continued to hold the Indian empire as their framework of reference and drew on the accounts, perceptions and prejudices of their predecessors Pierre Louis Cavagnari, George Curzon and Henry Dobbs (p. 175). In line with this legacy, the Legation’s archives memorialised numerous reports discrediting Afghan elites as unsuited for official ceremonials, their lack of dignity and temperament, and their generalised failure as actors in international relations.

British ministers’ assessments of Afghan royalty and other members of the ruling class also entailed judgments on their physique and mental state (p. 236). Chapter 6 shows that the physical health of the ruler was synonymous with Afghanistan’s stability and the bodies of Afghan monarchs were assessed on the basis of their appearance, health and intelligence. Drephal argues that this “diplomatic body,” intended not only as the ensemble of accredited diplomatic staff but also as the body of the diplomat, became a means of communication, contact and interaction with Afghan elites (p. 236). On the one side, the focus on athleticism, physical and mental health and the “peculiar conditions” of Kabul prompted the definition of “an ideal diplomatic body,” which was rooted in the manliness and physical strength typically demanded from the members of the Indian Civil Service. On the other side, Kabul’s level of civilisation was assessed on the basis of its suitability for and effects on the bodies of the Legation’s staff in terms of sanitation, security, comfort and continuously compared to the colonial experience in India.

Chapter 7 focuses on the architecture of the Legation’s building, tracing the hunt for appropriate accommodation in Kabul and its construction, completed in 1927, on land purchased on the city’s outskirts. This chapter argues that this building was a manifestation of empire and a symbol meant to overshadow the architectural symbolism of Afghanistan’s independence (p. 277). In the context of Afghanistan’s growing internationalisation, the chapter highlights that the Legation’s residence was also meant to speak to the Soviet, French, Italian, German, Persian, Turkish, Japanese, American, Chinese and Indian diplomatic publics that had set up representations in the city (p. 282).

In the last chapter, Drephal looks at the Legation’s fate after 1947. He argues that the British withdrawal from India highlighted the ambiguities that had characterised British Indian diplomatic conduct in Afghanistan since 1921. The handover of Afghan affairs from the India Office to the Foreign Office and the merger of India’s and Britain’s diplomatic services brought British diplomats face-to-face with the coloniality of the Raj’s international relations. The short-lived attempt to come to terms with the contradictions of British diplomacy did not hinder colonial officials from reinventing themselves as diplomats of Britain, Pakistan and India. However, Britain’s attempt to distance itself from the British Indian rationale of its representation in Kabul, while trying to reinscribe old colonial hierarchies onto its relations with Afghanistan, was effectively countered by Afghan elites (p. 324).

Drephal’s study contributes in important ways to the process of revising and updating Afghan historiography of the first half of the 20th century. Through the inclusion of new archival material and a novel approach to Anglo-Afghan relations, this book is a valuable addition to the growing literature on Afghanistan’s entanglements with the British empire. Afghanistan and the Coloniality of Diplomacy is particularly remarkable for its insight into the human and personal dimension of British diplomacy in Kabul. The author’s delving into the lives, relationships, thought processes and knowledge production of the Legation’s staff offers an original take on this period. In contrast to older volumes, such as Ludwig Adamec’s Afghanistan, 1900–1923: a diplomatic history, this study challenges standard chronologies and the ideas of rupture and continuity associated with some of the region’s key dates, such as 1919 and 1948.[2] The book also complements recent publications, notably Faiz Ahmed’s 2019 book Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires.[3] Together these volumes contribute towards a reconsideration of Afghanistan’s early decades as an independent, sovereign and over all outward-looking polity, interwoven with wider regional and global dynamics.

The book convincingly speaks to the coloniality of the Legation as an institution through which the British colonial state attempted to reinscribe earlier colonial relations onto Afghanistan’s independent era. The book does a remarkable job at delineating the ways in which this diplomatic representation went to great lengths to fashion itself as a “colonial project en miniature” along the model of British residencies (p. 2). However, British India’s attempt to control Afghanistan through international relations after 1919 likely had more to do with the Raj’s own imperial delusions than with the success of this colonial project. The “colonial twilight” about which the author writes was not a reality solely for Afghanistan, able to regain formal control of its foreign relations, but also for the British Indian empire in the economic and political aftermath of World War I. The establishment of an official post of representation had been attempted multiple times since the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839–1842. After the failed attempt to install Cavagnari as resident in 1879, British policy settled for forms of sovereignty that sidestepped official channels, given the impossibility of working through a residency system. In this context, the heavy focus in the book on the discursive and, I would add, performative colonialism of the Legation tells us little about how British diplomatic strategy translated beyond the Legation’s walls. The focus on reproducing the forms, structures and aesthetics of Indian residencies likely had more to do with British India’s preoccupation with maintaining the outward trappings of a paramountcy it was no longer willing, or indeed able, to enforce.[4]

The author’s assertion that the Legation represented the “materialisation of colonial power” should also be pondered with regard to the fact that after 1919 Afghanistan was able to assert its own agency by building formal foreign relations, a consideration that comes a bit short in the book (p. 21). Afghan rulers had already been conducting relations outside of the provision of the Treaty of Gandamak with Persia, the Ottoman empire, the Central Asian khanates and Indian princes. In the 1920s, while the Afghan government set out to open its diplomatic representations abroad, Kabul started to grow into the centre of foreign interests it would establish itself in the second half of the century. At this point, the government of India had to confront the growing competition from other regional and international players. On the one hand, the government of India was well aware of the need to do “nothing to drive [Afghanistan] elsewhere for that help of which she stands in need” (p. 53). On the other hand, the government of amir Amanullah strenuously attempted to redress Afghanistan’s economic dependency on British India and turned elsewhere for assistance. Drephal argues that “in its international dimensions, Afghan independence highlighted the continuation of dependence in other, often new, realms and on even a larger scale.” (p. 64) However, the dependence on foreign assistance Afghanistan saw itself relying on after 1919 had little to do with its position vis-à-vis British India at the turn of the previous century. Amanullah Khan no longer played along the same lines of internal autocracy and divided sovereignty his predecessors had sanctioned, in this way withdrawing the very basis on which the model of British suzerainty had been built. As the author points out, this dependence on foreign aid was akin to the one that befell many postcolonial states throughout the 20th century. The overall question of what the newfound independence meant for Afghanistan and its British Indian neighbour should therefore be appraised in the dual light of a declining British Indian empire clinging to its external trappings of imperial sovereignty and Afghanistan’s role in the growing diplomatic competition that unfolded in Kabul.

[1] Benjamin D. Hopkins, Ruling the Savage Periphery. Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern World, Cambridge, Mass. 2020.
[2] Ludwig W. Adamec, Afghanistan, 1900–1923. A Diplomatic History, Berkeley 1967.
[3] Faiz Ahmed, Afghanistan Rising. Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires, Cambridge, Mass. 2017.
[4] See Lord Chelmsford, viceroy of India, to London, 2 October 1919. This letter is only partially quoted by the author. Compare with Martin Ewans, Afghanistan. A New History, London 2002.

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