Introduction by Shiva Balaghi

Three decades after the United States undertook what the scholar Mahmood Mamdani called “the largest CIA paramilitary operation since Vietnam,” expertise on Afghanistan remains insufficient to meet the policy needs the US faces in this critical region. At the start of the 21st century, the traditional regional organization of area studies at many American universities hampers our ability to construct a more effective policy in Afghanistan, a critical arena of US engagement. Area studies at American universities are largely a product of the geo-strategic parsing of the world in the mid-twentieth century. At that time, an organization of regions within the US intelligence and diplomatic apparatus emerged to address the prevailing political, economic, and security concerns of the Cold War era. With the establishment of Title VI in the US Department of Education, this mapping of area studies was absorbed by many leading American universities.

Afghanistan lies in the interstices of area studies. Overlapping three world areas – Middle East, South Asia, Russia and Central Asia – it has never been fully integrated into the normative regional academic constructs. Coupled with the difficulties that decades long war presents most academic researchers, the cadre of university based Afghanistan experts is rather slim. Studies show that this state is reflected in think tank, diplomatic, and to some extent US military circles as well. This is an ironic outcome, given that Afghanistan was “the high point in the Cold War” as Mamdani argued and that six consecutive US administrations have counted Afghanistan as a critical foreign policy arena. There are too few Afghanistan specialists working as journalists, think tank experts, or university-based academics.

Engaging Afghanistan brought together scholars, journalists,filmmakers, artists, and policy makers with expertise relevant to the region. We focused on key themes:

  • Democratic possibilities and Afghanistan
  • Militarization’s impact on the US and Afghanistan
  • Afghanistan’s borderlands and regional importance
  • How publics engage the current war and its long term effects