Military Orientalism in Afghanistan

by Christian Bleuer on 5/22/2010 · 6 comments

Today I’ll do a book review of Patrick Porter’s unfortunately not-hyped book from 2009:

Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. Hurst (UK), Columbia University Press (US), 2009.

Having been in area studies and the generally vicinity for far too long, I cringe when I hear “orientalism.” The term has unfortunately descended into the area studies version of “That sounds like something Hitler would say.” However, the author of this book is not an angry undergrad posting anonymously on a blog, he wrote an entire book. And he’s a professor at King’s College in the Department of Defence Studies. He is not using “orientalism” in an attempt to shut down a debate. He seeks to bolster one side, certainly. And I find his arguments to be very convincing, in that they confirm what I already believe in regards to Afghanistan.

Patrick Porter’s argument is that idea of an ‘Eastern way of war’ is an extremely problematic way of thinking about conflicts in the ‘East.’ Along the way he uses case studies of the Mongols, Imperial Japan, Hizbollah and the Taliban. I don’t know much about the first three, so no comment in regards to those cases. But as for Afghanistan, I’m in full agreement. Porter stresses that using outdated ideas of ‘culture’ in the East will lead to a gross misunderstanding of strategy and tactics employed by the other side.

Porter writes that “The wartime behaviour of Afghans suggests that their culturally-rooted beliefs and taboos are not decisively important.” Based on 13 years of reading about Afghanistan across hundreds of years of history, I fully agree. And I also find myself in full agreement when Porter writes in regards to the Taliban that “It has proven to be pragmatic and innovative. When forced to choose in a trade-off between effective compromise and hard-line dogma, Taliban leaders choose the former [compromise].” By the way, this also describes the mujahideen of the 1980s quite well.

Porter goes on to take well aimed shots at flawed concepts such Pashtunawali, badal, tribalism and religious determinism to bolster his argument. I was already sick of arguments by many journalists, left/right-wing commentators and the military that were based on cultural determinism, arguments that stressed that acquisition of ‘secret Eastern knowledge’ would allow you to understand and predict behavior, especially in times of conflict. This book makes me even more weary of these types of arguments.

I’ll quit here, as I really don’t like book reviews that ramble on forever to the point where you feel you don’t actually need to read the book. But I would like to say that I fully endorse this book and highly recommend that you read it, despite the author being a blogger (shudder). I very seldom recommend a book with this enthusiasm.

And bonus points for being a quick read and a cheap buy: Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), and free delivery worldwide at Book Depository (my favorite).

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TJM May 22, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Christian’s continuous stream of reading recommendations, via his twitter feed and occasional blog posts, is the greatest obstacle between me and a decent GPA.

Reader May 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Do you want a degree or
do you want knowledge?

TJM May 22, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Both would be pretty sweet. But, yeah, I often sacrifice the GPA in pursuit of the knowledge that the degree supposedly represents. I’m a chump. Potential employers beware.

Prithvi May 22, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Thank god there’s people actively refuting the whole Victor Davis Hanson/Robert Kagan cultural deterministic clusterfuck.

The principles of military operations are pretty universal in terms of preparation, discipline, organization, logistics, equipment and the like. When Pashtunwali allows the Taliban to flawlessly track frequency hops between tactical radio sets, let me know.

Homira May 23, 2010 at 4:43 pm

As a Pashtun, I agree 150% with Josh in this bizarre glorification of Pashtuns as other-worldly humans. It’s racist, first of all. David Ignatious really disappointed me last week in his gross oversimplification of what “Pashtun culture” is and isn’t, all based on what? a website called So Pashtuns are a different species altogether, which is why PK has to be treated with kid gloves? honor, shame, pride – aren’t they normal human emotions that exist in all cultures? Afghanistan is only 40% Pashtun, there are other ‘ethnic groups’ that matter too, and hellllo? The Taliban refused when PK kindly offered to switch sides. Why is our news media so slanted?

Thank you Josh, I already ordered this book. You rock.

Christian Bleuer May 23, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Josh? Well, he would probably agree with my book review. 🙁

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