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Thomas Barfield named president of American Institute of Afghanistan Studies

CAS anthropology chairman aims to advance the study of the war-torn country

Thomas Barfield. Photo by Fred Sway

Thomas Barfield, a professor and chairman of the CAS department of anthropology, was named president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) in October.

Founded in 2003 through the cooperation of the U.S. State Department and the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, the institute enables more than 50 U.S. colleges and universities to revitalize connections between the American and Afghan academic communities.

Among researchers, there has been a renewed focus on Afghanistan since the toppling of the Taliban regime after September 11. During two decades of civil war, scholars couldn’t travel there, so out of frustration many of them shifted to other fields. But now academic interest is surging, according to Barfield, who has conducted extensive fieldwork on nomads in northern Afghanistan. “We’ve been busy promoting scholarship on Afghanistan,” he says, “especially since there hasn’t been too much research going on there in the past 20 years.

Soon after it was founded, AIAS established an American overseas research center in Kabul. Duke University has housed the institute’s U.S. secretariat, but Barfield has proposed moving the administrative headquarters north to Boston University. He hopes this will be accomplished in early 2006.

Since its inception, AIAS has been obtaining governmental and private funding to provide fellowships for scholars engaged in advanced study on any aspect of Afghanistan. “We have people studying a wide range of subjects, including Afghan folklore, archaeology, architecture, political science, and economics,” he says. For example, doctoral candidate Noah Coburn (GRS’07) is conducting an ethnographic study of the country’s market towns for his dissertation.

AIAS is also interested in helping rebuild academic and other institutions in Afghanistan that suffered “during a period of turmoil,” Barfield says. Under the institute’s auspices, Kevin McNamara, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, traveled to Kabul in April 2004 as part of a USDA team to help with agricultural reconstruction efforts.

“We’re also asking American colleges and universities to sponsor Afghan students for degree study,” says Barfield.