Afghanistan in the 20th Century

Kandahar Airport

Kandahar Airport, 1969. While the sweeping Eero Saarinen-designed arches of the Kandahar Aiport evoked supersonic modernity, the airport in southern Afghanistan's largest city quickly became a white elephant as jet liners made the former stopover in Kandahar on the Tehran-Kabul route obsolete. Photograph taken by Harrison Forman, all rights reserved to The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Afghanistan: to most Anglophone audiences today, the name of the Central Asian country triggers images of war, violence, and "the graveyard of empires."

Yet these stereotypes conceal as much as they reveal. It would surprise many to learn that during the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan became one of the most charged laboratories for state-building and economic development in the world. Deprived of free access to the sea by the formation of Pakistan and seeing their state coffers dwindling due to changing terms of world trade and bungled earlier American development projects, Afghan elites sought to leverage the emerging Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States to continue their own nation-building project. While Moscow in fact had a long-standing relationship with Kabul (the USSR was the first country to recognize Afghanistan in 1919), the key turning point arguably came in 1954-55, when - after American Secretary of State refused to grant Afghanistan military aid - Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev announced a major military and development aid package to the USSR's southern neighbor.

Soon, Soviet economists and engineers had arrived in the capital and select other parts of the country - above all in Jalalabad, in Eastern Afghanistan - to construct Soviet-style enterprises and infrastructure: bread factories, dams, and kombinaty (combines) for constructing concrete apartment buildings. The streets of Kabul, once primarily dirt, were paved by Soviet road-graders and with Soviet asphalt. Fearful of "losing" Afghanistan in the same way that Vietnam threatened to drift out of the Western column, the United States and its allies - above all West Germany, which itself had a complicated history in the country - dispatched their own coteries of economists, engineers, and nation-builders to transform the nation. All across the country - but most vividly in selected sites like Kabul, the Helmand Valley, Paktia Province, Jalalabad, and the gas fields of northern Afghanistan - Afghanistan became subject to the latest theories and methods of economic development, imported straight from American consulting firms, the Soviet Union's planned economy, and German forest science institutes.

Khrushchev and Bulganin in Kabul

Nikita Khruschev visits Kabul in December 1954. The surprise trip by Khrushchev and Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin capped a major Soviet trip to South Asia in the autumn of that year, part of a broader outreach to the Third World during the middle of the 1950s. Further, coming not long after Washington's humiliating refusal of Afghan requests to join CENTO, the Soviet outreach remained lodged in Soviet and Afghan memories as a symbol of the USSR's genuine friendship with its southern neighbor.

Cold War Competition: The Soviet Union

It is impossible to understand the history of Afghanistan in the 20th century without taking into account the Cold War, the mid- to late-20th century global struggle for power and influence between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. While historians like Odd Arne Westad, Nick Cullather, and Matthew Connolley and others have debated the proper "location" of the Cold War - whether it was really a European conflict or better seen as a global phenomenon - and the extent to which other major twentieth century trends like de-colonization and globalization interacted with the Soviet-American rivalry, what does remain clear is that Afghanistan became inextricably entwined with the great power competition between Washington and Moscow.

Why it happened this way demands some explanation. After all, the territory of 20th-century Afghanistan was sparsely populated, largely bereft of resources, and distant from many of the core arenas of the Cold War, like Germany, the Persian Gulf, or East Asia. The rationale for Soviet policy planners and leaders was relatively easy to understand. After China and Mongolia, Afghanistan shared the third-longest border of any country with the Soviet Union. Many of the southern areas of the Soviet Union, such as the Tajik SSR (now independent Tajikistan) had only really been brought under the control of Soviet power in the early 1930s, and many of the rebels who staged anti-Soviet rebellions had simply walked across the border to northern Afghanistan. And in an age of nuclear bombs and jet airplanes, control over Central Asian bases and airspaces became of especial existential value to Moscow. Gary Powers' 1960 U-2 flight over the Soviet Union (which was shot down by Soviet air defense) launched from Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, underscoring how quickly nuclear-armed American bombers could reach critical Soviet territory. With Iran and Pakistan already firm American gladiators, facing a string of bases from Frankfurt to Ankara to Herat to Islamabad would have curtailed Soviet geopolitical ambitions.

Moreover, by the 1970s, as Soviet intellectuals, social scientists, and Party leadership became aware of growing population rates in Central Asia and an Islamic revival in much of the rest of the post-Persianate world, maintaining Afghanistan as a stable, socialist state was crucial to Moscow's domestic strategy of maintaining Central Asia as a string of locally-managed fiefdoms - not a belt failed states demanding handouts from a sclerotic Soviet economy. Underscoring all of these motives was a genuine sympathy - emotional and ideological - for the Afghan people, or at least the Afghan Left. After all, Afghanistan - served as the prime example of a state whose history had been pockmarked by unjust Anglophone imperialist interventions. And although the USSR prided itself in its alliance with the Musahiban royal monarchy, Soviet policymakers and even most experts on Afghanistan at the time considered the country to be in a state of "feudalism" - which was intended less as a pejorative than as an analytic description for a country that was, by necessity of History, on the road to Socialism. The Soviet Union, as the world's first socialist state, bore a genuine moral responsibility to assist less "developed" countries to fulfill the global logic of History, shattering imperialism and building socialist societies free of exploitation. 


Mazar-i Sharif Airport Plaque

Signs of US-Afghan cooperation: this plaque, photographed by Harrison Forman at the airport in Mazar-i Sharif (in northern Afghanistan), reads in English and Pashto: "During the reign of his Majesty Mohammad Zahir Shah the Mazar-i Sharif Airport was constructed with the assistance of the people of the United States of America." The choice of language itself is telling: Pashto was not the majority language in Balkh Province, while the 1964 Constitution explicitly designated Pashto and Dari as "the official languages among the languages of Afghanistan."

Cold War Competition: The United States

Compared to the Soviet Union - which bordered Afghanistan and had relations with the Kingdom since 1919 - the United States' relationship with Afghanistan had always been more complicated. While members of the Afghan intelligentsia and diplomatic elite around Amanullah tried to secure diplomatic recognition from the United States in the early 1920s, they were rebuffed. Starting a theme that would continue - for better or for worse - for many decades, relations with Afghanistan were viewed as secondary to those with Reza Shah Pahlavi's Iran; from 1935-1941 relations were conducted by a Special Envoy based in the Iranian capital. Business relations proved troubled, too: initial agreements between American corporations and Afghan state officials to develop natural gas fields in northern Afghanistan were scuttled as vast reserves were discovered in the coastal regions of Saudi Arabia, which went on to become a major US regional stalwart in spite of its (compared to Afghanistan) arch-conservative political orientation. A lack of US interest, pressure by the British Empire to limit Afghanistan's diplomatic freedom of action, and the absence of real economic or commercial interests combined to make US-Afghanistan relations relatively unimportant in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Cold War changed Washington's calculus, even if one could argue that the structural dynamics of the relationship did not change. The Eisenhower Administration, seeking to implement a doctrine of containment against the Soviet Union, moved to solidify and build ambitious regional alliance systems that wrapped around the Eurasian Communist empire: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in western Eurasia, the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)in Middle Asia, and the Southeast Treaty Organization (SEATO) in East Asia. A belt of countries from West Germany to Greece to Turkey (member to both NATO and CENTO) to Pakistan (member to both CENTO and SEATO) provided Washington with a belt of reliable partners who, their monarchical or non-democratic practices withstanding, could contain Soviet expansionism. Paladin states like Pakistan proved crucial in this strategy, particularly as the Shah of Iran wavered between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Locating itself a strong (British-inherited) tradition of "martial races," the Punjabi- and Pashtun-dominated military elite in Pakistan seemed like an ideal partner for Washington to hold off Soviet advance in Central Asia and became, particularly under Ayub Khan (1958-1969), both a close military partner to the United States and a model for authoritarian modernization.

But this alliance with Pakistan left USA-Afghanistan relations in a snag. Many Afghan elites basically denied Pakistan's right to exist, slamming it as a "Punjabi dictatorship" that deprived Pashtuns (of whom more in a moment) of their right to national self-determination. To leaders like Mohammad Daoud Khan, Anglicized, "Punjabified" Pashtuns like Ayub (whose mother tongue was Hindko, related to Punjabi) represented a future of "de-Pashtunization" that would see the Pashtun people of the frontier – more of whom lived in Pakistan than Afghanistan itself – stripped of their national traditions and right to a majority-ruled state while being forcibly integrated into the structures of world imperialism. Self-determination and non-alignment, not kow-towing to the United States, constituted the real future for the region. That said, Afghan leaders still wanted in on CENTO, petitioning to join the organization in 1954. Yet when Prince Mohammad Naim Khan (the cousin of the King) visited Washington in October 1954 to press the issue, he was denied even a meeting with John Foster Dulles and told that "After careful consideration, extending military aid to Afghanistan would create problems not offset by the strength it would generate. Instead of asking for arms, Afghanistan should settle the Pushtunistan dispute with Pakistan." 

Following the Soviet arms and development deal two months later, the United States was forced to try to change course. Washington dispatched advisers – economists like Robert Nathan and Arthur Paul – to Kabul to try to influence Afghan economic policy and prevent too much of a drift towards the Soviet Union. More ambitiously, in southern Afghanistan, by the early 1960s USAID took over the management (along with Afghans) of the complex Helmand Valley Project, an enormous effort to build canals and improve irrigation and drainage systems in Helmand Province. American engineering know-how – having tamed river systems and badlands from the Colorado River Basin to the Third World – could transform the arid lands of southern Afghanistan into a blooming garden. Or so the thought went: by the early 1970s, some growth in crop yields aside, it became clear that American engineers had spoiled much of the trust they had with locals (who feared that Kabul- and American-led teams would bulldoze their land and resettle them to marginal area) while over-ambitious resettlement schemes meant that more and more "foreign" Afghans were crowded into barren territories. In any event, given the Soviet Union's larger aid outreach, and the marginal position a small country like Afghanistan occupied in the Nixon Administration's vision of international relations, US-Afghanistan relations became small fry by the mid-1970s. The main focus remained a general fear of Afghanistan being taken over by a small but growing domestic Communist Party (of whom more in the next section).

Remnants of an Army

Elizabeth Butler's 1879 painting Retreat of an Army is perhaps the most famous painting associated with Afghanistan and the Great Game, but an often-tendentious obsession with the Anglo-Afghan Wars and Afghanistan's role as a "graveyard of empires" arguably obscures more than it reveals about the country's role in 20th century international history.

Cold War Competition: Precedents

The new Cold War competition over Afghanistan was charged with the ideological stakes of Western capitalism versus Soviet Communism, but structurally the conflict echoed earlier episodes of great power competition over Middle Asia. Perhaps most famously, in the 19th century, the region we know now as "Afghanistan" served as a buffer zone between the Russian Empire in Turkestan and the British Empire in South Asia. Famously, in the buildup to the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838-1840, pro-Empire propagandists in London touted the threat of rampant Russian expansionism into Afghanistan, hence justifying a catastrophic attempt to re-install the quisling Shah Shuja on the throne in Kabul that resulted in the near-total destruction of the British-led Army of the Indus.

Less well-known but arguably more similar structurally was a period of competition between the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany over the future configuration of the region in the inter-war period. Whereas Afghans (along with many Iranians and Indians) saw even Adolf Hitler's Germany as a relatively benign European power whose rise could help facilitate their struggle to free themselves from British colonialism. As Russian scholars like Yuri Tikhonov have shown, at the same time, the Soviet NKVD sought to counter German intelligence and development activity in Kabul as part of a larger grand strategy against Hitler's Third Reich. In short, Afghanistan has long been a site of intrigue among European (and regional) powers' schemes for global order, reflecting the superpower architecture of the age even as the country was threatened to be crushed by this same dynamic.

Durand Line

The Durand Line and the Pashtunistan dispute became one of the core divisive issues in the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship during the 20th century and the Cold War. Indeed, disputes over a just resolution to this British Imperial and Partition-era inheritance continue to this day. During the Cold War, Afghan élites sought by various means to encourage the formation of either an independent "Pashtunistan" to the east of the Durand Line or the addition of the Pashtun territories of Pakistan (some 30 million people) to the Afghan state. Pakistan's leaders disagreed both on the grounds of Afghanistan's prior committments with British India, their own national security concerns, and the incompatibility of Two-Nation Theory and Pakistan's rejection of minority politics with the demand for Pashtunistan.

In Search of Pashtunistan

Yet in spite of its superficial resemblance to the Great Game of the late 19th century, the Cold War situation in Central Asia differed from its late 19th century predecessor in key respects. Chief among them was, as highlighted above, the so-called Pashtunistan issue. The question of the political future of the region's Pashtuns had a complicated history. In 1893, then-Emir of Afghanistan Abdurrahman Khan signed an agreement with the British Raj agreeing that the British - while still forbidding Aburrahman from conducting foreign diplomacy – would not seek interference in affairs beyond a 1,640 mile-long (2,640 kilometer) border delimitating the northwestern regions of British India from the Kingdom. In 1919, following the Third Anglo-Afghan War, Kabul accepted the Durand Line as an authoritative border between Afghanistan and British India as part of the Treaty of Rawalpindi that granted Afghanistan foreign policy independence and an end to British Imperial subsidies.

The formation of Pakistan in 1947 changed the situation dramatically. Partition in South Asia is often remembered as something that occurred in the Punjab and Bengal – fair enough, since it involved enormous migrations and death tolls - but it also bears understanding how the dissolution of British India reified borders on the Central Asian frontier, too. In the summer of 1947, voters in the Northwest Frontier Province of British India – primarily Pashtuns – were granted the choice of whether to join India or Pakistan, but, frustrating many activists, no option was given to form an independent state of "Pashtunistan." In the Tribal Areas, meanwhile, a loya jirga was held, with local elders deciding on the same terms. Many Pashtuns boycotted the elections, but in both districts, those who did vote or decide chose overwhelmingly (around 97 percent) for Pakistan, rather than India. Hence, much of the western districts of the former British Empire in India, like Balochistan or the Khanate of Kalat, were also brought into Pakistan, without – or so some would say – given their full right to exercise national self-determination. Making this issue still more complicated was that Pakistan's leaders accepted the Durand Line as the rightful international border between their state and Afghanistan. Yet Pakistan, Pashtun nationalists protested, was not a successor state to the British Empire and hence all border treaties had to be renegotiated.

The stage was set for a conflict over territory and different ideas of self-determination, one that continues to this day. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, in particular under the Prime Ministership of Mohammad Daoud Khan, Kabul pressed the Pashtunistan issue on its western neighbor, going so far as to launch minor skirmishes into Pakistani territory in the early 1960s. Pakistan responded by staging economic blockades against Afghanistan, which – having depended on the outlet to the sea in the Pakistani port of Karachi for trade – grew more dependent on the Soviet Union. Domestically, in Afghanistan, the Royal Government of Afghanistan oscillated between promoting full-throated Pashtun nationalism as a tenet of the Afghan state, and encouraging an identification of "Pashtun" national and "Afghan" state identity, seeking to find a balance between pressing Pakistan for territorial demands and not destroying its own legitimacy in the eyes of non-Pashtun or full-throated Pashtun nationalists at home. More than that, the historical and imaginative reconstruction of Ahmad Shah Durrani's empire as a specifically Pashtun Afghan confederacy – even though its founder was from Herat and its core territories lay in the Punjab – stimulated revisionist dreams.

Map of "Pashtunistan"

Approximate map of selected foreign-built developmental "hardware" and Afghan territorial ambitions, c. 1947-1980. Hand-drawn by author.

Even as Daoud's ventures failed – he was sacked as Prime Minister in 1963 and replaced by the more technocratic and meritocratic Tajik Mohammad Yusuf (the first non-Pashtun to occupy the position in the country's history) – Zahir Shah continued to press the Pashtunistan issue in more subtle ways, exploiting the Cold War competition to build cysts of Pashtunistan in Afghan territory itself as part of a bigger nation-building project. Craftily assigning economic advisers from different countries to different border zones (Helmand, Paktia, and Nangarhar) and areas of Pashtun settler colonialism (northern Afghanistan), the Shah managed to outsource the financing and expertise needed to build the "hardware" of Pashtunistan in precisely those locations that looked out across the Pakistani border to a Pashtun and Baluch population that remained impoverished. At the same time, the Soviet Union and its miliary training centers (in the USSR) served as a catchment for young Army officers, helping the Shah again build the economic base and military the country might need to become a representation of modernity and progress to those Pakistani Pashtuns not integrated into the Pakistani Army.

And yet by the country's turbulent 1970s – Daoud replaced Zahir Shah in a coup d'état in 1973 and proclaimed the country a Republic – it seemed unclear whether this vision had any future. Many of the economic development projects implanted in the country by foreigners had failed to achieve their stated aims. In Paktia Province, home to a West German-led forestry project, deforestation and the outflow of the region's valuable cedar woods untaxed to Pakistani markets denuded a diverse regional ecology. The regime's fear of "wild" Pashtun armies overflowing Kabul in rebellions from the east (which had toppled Amanullah Khan in 1929) never materialized, but with Army officers receiving ideological training in Soviet corpuses, arguably something darker was taking shape. Between a small but ideologically driven Afghan Communist Party (the PDPA, founded in 1965 and receipient to Soviet aid) and the muscle of Soviet-friendly Army officers, Daoud was increasingly trapped by a Communist Left and an Pakistani-sponsored Islamist right. Having made his coup with the PDPA, however, and unable by disposition and ideology to turn the country in a more democratic direction – Maoists, non- or anti-Pashtun nationalists, and Islamists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar stalked the halls of Kabul's universities and parks during these days – Daoud was increasingly exposed to a coup from the Left.

Hence, only five years into his reign as President of the Republic of Afghanistan, Daoud was toppled by PDPA-aligned Army officers in a coup on April 28, 1978. Yet the ideologically-driven, Pashtun nationalist leaders who took over Afghanistan – Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin – were ill-prepared to deal with the country's real problems. The economy was stagnant. In spite of the PDPA's claim to represent society, the lack of democratization under Zahir Shah or Daoud had led to a diverse mix of illiberal forces clamoring for control and recognition – things that the PDPA was not willing to concede. To the country's West, since the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, leaders in Islamabad had come to see Afghanistan as a source of "strategic depth" in a putative future war against India. Any calls for greater Pashtun or Baluch autonomy in Pakistan's West was out of the question from Islamabad's point of view. And while the Soviet Union was delighted to have another ostensibly "socialist" ally join the growing ranks of those countries like North Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Angola, some policy intellectuals within Moscow questioned whether the thuggish Communists in Kabul were real ideological, much less strategic, allies. The stage was set for a disaster of epic proportions.

Afghanistan Prior to 1978
Afghanistan in the 20th Century