Afghanistan is once again facing a watershed moment as another superpower ponders its future course in the country.
But as Afghans and the world debate the country’s potential future, efforts are underway to promote the work and legacy of one of the most prolific chroniclers of Afghanistan’s past.
Two years after his death, the family, friends, and fans of historian Hassan Kakar are working to preserve his legacy by promoting an understanding of Afghanistan’s checkered history.
“We need to better learn our past to search for lessons to address our current challenges,” says Kawun Kakar, Hassan Kakar’s son.
He was instrumental in launching a foundation this month to help “scholars to carry out research on history and publish new historical works.”
Kawun, a lawyer, says the major aim of the Kakar History Foundation is to facilitate and encourage research that illuminates Afghan history.
“We will call university students to write articles and publish them,” he said. “We will also publish scholarly books by other authors and host academic seminars.”
The foundation plans to support research in social science disciplines such as historiology, culturology, anthropology, and sociology.
Significantly, it also aims to translate and disseminate the works of Kakar, his contemporaries, and predecessors who formed a centuries-old intellectual current that ebbed and flowed as Afghanistan emerged as a major regional empire in the 18th century before it became one of the poorest and underdeveloped war-ravaged nations in the 21st.
“My father always stressed that, instead of praising him, people should read his books,” Kawun said of his father’s eagerness for Afghans to understand their history.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a former academic and friend, recalls the golden era of the 1970s when he and Hassan taught at Kabul University.
“Despite his fame, Kakar was a very humble man. In academic and private discussions, he never alluded to the fact that he was trained in the leading universities in Britain and the United States,” Ghani told the inauguration ceremony of the Kakar History Foundation on January 5.
Kakar’s long and eventful life reflected many of the major changes his country went through over a century. Born in 1928, he moved through the nascent Afghan academia to become one of the first Western-educated historians in the 1960s.
Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank, remembers meeting Kakar in a peaceful and prosperous Kabul in the 1970s.
“Teaching at the time at Kabul University, Kakar stood out as one of the few professional Afghan historians of any note in the country,” Weinbaum recalled.
Kakar’s 18 books and hundreds of academic papers and media articles are a testament to his meticulous research on 19th-century and contemporary Afghan history. His most famous books include two seminal studies on the later part of the 1800s.
Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir ‘Abd Al-Rahman emerged out of his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s. Kakar dug deep into the archives to write A Political And Diplomatic History Of Afghanistan, 1863-1901.
Like many in his country, Kakar endured suffering and tragedy amid the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Beginning in 1982, the Afghan socialist regime imprisoned him for five years. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience at the time.
Yet after his release and subsequent exile into Pakistan and the United States, Kakar resumed his passion and wrote Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion And The Afghan Response. First published in 1995, the book is still a must-read for those attempting to understand the roots of ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
He dedicated the book to Afghan intellectuals killed during the tumultuous years following the 1978 communist coup in Afghanistan.
“An outstanding attribute of his early books, based on his academic dissertation, is that these are written after a thorough comparison of Afghan and British sources,” Ghani noted. “He diligently employed British, Indian, and other sources, which helped him to offer an excellent analysis of contemporary Afghanistan.”
Abdul Bari Jahani, an Afghan poet, historian, and journalist, says throughout his writing career Kakar attempted to stick to the high standards of his early works, when he pioneered modern research methods in Afghan historiography.
Jahani says that unlike many other Afghan academics and intellectuals, Kakar refrained from pursuing other careers and dedicated his life to writing history until the final illness that led to his death in January 2017.
“His character and dedication were unmatched among his contemporaries,” he noted. “We only had a handful of individuals that can match his character, and his writings reflected this.”
In Pakistan, historian and former academic Fazal Rahim Marwat agrees. He counts Kakar among the pioneers of scientific methodology in researching social sciences.
“Among the Afghan historians, late Hassan Kakar was the first to write about modern Afghanistan with a new perspective in English,” he noted. “In his books, he cited original indigenous Persian and Pashto sources in addition to Western and English sources and introduced new research methods in his country.”
Marwat says Kakar is a leading light for future generations of Afghan historians.
“He is the pioneer and trendsetter for the young generation of Afghanistan with a new outlook, and he tried to change the stereotypical approach of the Afghan court historians,” he said.
In Kabul, Kawun is gathering resources to build an institution capable of preserving his father’s work and legacy. The foundation’s immediate aim is to translate his English-language writings into Dari and Pashto.
“The positive response to the [inauguration of the foundation] is a clear indication of the strong desire of the people of Afghanistan to learn about and support in-depth research of Afghanistan’s history,” he said.