David B. Edwards

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Children of History: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad

The current book project of David B. Edwards, 1998-99 SAR resident scholar, is a sequel to his first book, Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier, and the continuation of a long interest and involvement in the Afghan conflict. Titled Children of History: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad, the book explores the ascendence of Islamic political authority in Afghanistan by looking at three leaders who played important roles during the formative period of the war. The three leaders are Nur Muhammad Taraki, the secretary-general of the Marxist political party that took power in 1978; Samiullah Safi, the head of one of the first tribal uprisings to break out against the Marxist government; and Qazi Amin Waqad, one of the leaders of the radical Islamic political parties that came to dominate the Afghan resistance from the time of the Soviet invasion until the emergence of the Taliban militia movement in 1995.

"My approach in both this book and my earlier work has been to use individual lives as a lens for viewing wider political processes," explains Edwards. "My first book used oral family histories, miracle tales, and royal proclamations....This book centers on autobiographical accounts of men who have played important roles during the early stages of the current conflict in Afghanistan." Edwards also uses such texts as tape cassettes of jihad poetry, speeches, propaganda photographs, and political pamphlets to place these leaders in historical and cultural context.

"This project is humanistic in a more profound sense as well," says Edwards, "in that my ultimate goal is to understand the cost of the war in human terms. The three leaders were chosen not only because of the positions of authority and prestige they have occupied, but also because of the various ways in which they exemplify the dislocations and uncertainties of Afghan society over the last forty years. While some of their deeds would be considered 'heroic' in Afghan terms, the meaning of these deeds is ambiguous at best, and my highlighting of that ambiguity is meant to trouble our understanding of the war's significance, which has been vastly simplified and distorted in the western media...One of the goals of the book then is to capture a sense of what went wrong: why did these men choose the paths they did, what were the implications of those choices, and what does this history tell us about the trajectory and possibility of political community in the late twentieth century?" Edwards adds.

Since 1975, Edwards has spent approximately four and a half years in Pakistan and Afghanistan, most recently in the summer of 1995 when he travelled throughout eastern Afghanistan. He has conducted research in Afghan refugee camps, has visited a number of mujahidin bases, and has conducted extensive interviews with more than eighty prominent Afghan political, tribal and religious figures. This summer, he is planning on returning to Afghanistan to complete research on a third book, tentatively titled Mirror of Jihad: Afghanistan, Ethnography and the New World Order, which will bring together his personal experiences and observations from over twenty years of research on Afghans and Afghan political culture.

"As someone who originally studied literature and creative writing," Edwards observes, "the accurate and sensitive treatment of lives and times has always been of central concern to me, and it remains so today. My goal in this third, and I hope final book on Afghanistan is to leave behind a human-scale history that will help people understand the immense tragedy that unfolded in Afghanistan in the last quarter of the twentieth century."

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Anthropology and Sociology, Williams College

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