Dr Elisabeth Leake


I trained as a historian at Yale University and the University of Cambridge, where I completed my PhD in 2013. I held a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Royal Holloway, University of London, from 2013–16, before taking up a permanent position at the University of Leeds in 2016. I left the University of Leeds in autumn 2022 to take up the Lee E. Dirks Chair in Diplomatic History at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. I remain a research associate at the University of Leeds.

Research interests

My research is broadly focused on the relationship between decolonization and the Cold War. My first book, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936–65, rethinks the political development of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I ultimately ask the question of why this region has remained largely autonomous to this day, despite Pakistani and Afghan state-building activities and interference from British and later American policymakers.

This book distinctively reintegrates South Asia’s border zones into twentieth-century international history, placing the subcontinent and its peripheries in a wider trans-Asian and global context. I reflect on the impacts of decolonization and US Cold War policies on local political and social developments in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, as well as local populations’ reactions to these shifts. Using the frontier’s Pashtuns as a case study, I demonstrate the crucial role that peripheral, potentially ‘anti-state’ actors can play in influencing social, political, economic, and strategic relationships at all levels of governance.

My other publications have further developed my interests in borderlands as sites of regional and international significance and in studying South and Central Asian countries in international context. I have published about the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands in Modern Asian Studies, Journal of Contemporary History, International History Review, and Afghanistan. These articles address the tribal area’s influence on British interwar military planning, CIA understandings of Afghan resistance politics during the Soviet invasion, and US attempts to integrate Pakistan into its Cold War policy, respectively.

I also have published research into comparative state-building and border regions. An article comparing state-building in Baluchistan and Nagaland has appeared the Historical Journal, and I have co-written an article with Dr. Daniel Haines on border-making and sovereignty in postcolonial South Asia for the Journal of Asian Studies. I additionally have co-edited a volume considering global intersections between decolonization and the Cold War, Decolonization and the Cold War: Negotiating Independence

My second monograph, Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan, was published by Oxford University Press in April 2022 (July in the US). This is a new global history of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979–89, interweaving local, regional, and international histories of the civil war of the 1980s. Looking at the People's Democratic Party of the Afghanistan, the mujahidin, and Afghan refugees, alongside international actors from the Soviet Union, the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran, and China, I explore how 'Afghanistan' was constructed as a postcolonial state and 'Afghan' as a political identity.

I am one or the organizers of NIHSA (New International Histories of South Asia), a research and public engagement network that explores South Asia’s global engagement in historical context.

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/dir/research-projects">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>

Student education

I predominantly teach on the International History and Politics undergraduate degree programme, where I offer modules on twentieth-century international history, the global Cold War, and anti-colonialism and the end of empire. My final-year special subject focuses on the history of Afghanistan and Pakistan from the beginning of the nineteenth century through the present day.

I also contribute to the MA in Race and Resistance. My teaching emphasizes the importance of non-Western actors in international history and prioritizes actors from and events within the Global South.

I welcome prospective doctoral students interested in any aspects of twentieth-century South Asia, global decolonization, and the Cold War.