Hmmm. Why, indeed? Besides the intellectual curiosity factor there is the funding and importance factor. Funding is all important in academia; if you have no funding you can not do field research nor can you pursue a PhD. And since 9-11 it has become easier to secure funding for doing Afghanistan-related research (though not as easy as it should be). And every academic or PhD student imagines that their research is important. So if your field of research is in the news then you have that extra motivation to work towards what this fellow below has become.
And speaking of motivation to research something important, this was also the case during the 1980s, but on a much larger scale. There is an obscenely large list of MA theses and PhD dissertations written on Afghanistan from the 1980s. Much more than what is being written at the moment. And like the rest of the West, academia’s attention dropped precipitously once the Soviets withdrew.
Pic: Communists being killed was especially engrossing for Americans in the 1980s.
So how about before the era of conflict (pre-1979) in Afghanistan? That was the era of (mostly) anthropological research. Afghanistan was seen as an area where you could do research in communities that had been “untouched” by “modernity,” “nationalism,” etc… These communities of course held interest for anthropologists in an era where their research was often directed towards the “exotic.”
So pre-1979 saw an era of highly motivated and independent-minded researchers, the 1980s gave birth to some highly political research, the 1990s saw Afghanistan turn into an academic desert, and post 9-11 has become a mix of funding-seekers, politically motivated research, and some independent types.
Oh, and by the way, I’m excluding native and Afghan diaspora researchers from this discussion. And it’s clear that this is a mostly Americanocentric discussion, no?
Pic: Amero-Texicanocentric-Afghan flag display.
And myself? Am I an academic PhD student mercenary following the money? Am I politically motivated with the hope of becoming a person who can help shape policy? Am I interested in the country for altruistic reasons and/or pure intellectual curiosity? My automatic defense is to note that I can dig up my shady pre-9/11undergrad papers on Afghanistan and the surrounding region, plus a pre-9/11 language class enrollment. The argument definitely has the feel of a person insisting that they were a fan of The White Stripes before anybody outside of southern Michigan knew about them and has an old ticket stub from a crappy venue in Ann Arbour to prove it.
I suppose the true test comes when the meager resources being directed towards Afghanistan dry up and there are no-longer any fat consultancies or in-country research funding to be had. I’m sure I can name some of the people who will disappear from the Afghanistan scene and pop up in the newest conflict zone du jour to market themselves. The anthropologists and others who did pre-1979 research stubbornly held on, insisting Afghanistan was important. Who will “stick around” the next time Afghanistan is tossed to the wolves? Will I? I hope I will.