We've all seen them. Those photos of Kabul University women students in fashionable mini-skirts around 1970 contrasted with the Blue Burqa wearers of Taliban years. Vogue magazine actually did a spread "Afghan Adventure" for its December 1969 issue, which showcased both Afghan fashion and cultural sites like the (now destroyed) Bamiyan Buddhas. Sometimes the "progressive" photos are from a bit later, even from the years of Communist rule in Kabul when scarf-free women party cadres would attend rallies. But there is something important missing in the facile discourse contrasting the supposed modernizing past and retrograde present.
Afghan King Muhammad Zaher Shah on a state visit to the U.S. with President Kennedy, 1963
Afghanistan, an ancient land turned mostly into a bit of a backwater for much of the early to middle twentieth century, has had the misfortune of living through not one or two, but three ultimately dystopian political nightmares, each offering a deeply ideological, coercive "remaking" of society.
The three utopian disasters were triggered by the overthrow of the Afghan monarchy by Muhammad Daoud Khan in 1973. Himself a prince and cousin of Afghanistan's long-reigning king Muhammad Zaher Shah, Daoud Khan was an arrogant authoritarian who had been eased out of the position of Afghan prime minister a decade earlier and nursed a bitter grudge against the monarchy. The bloodless coup against the king was carried out by Daoud with the help of Afghanistan's communists. Daoud empowered the pro-Soviet People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and even gave them government positions. He would later turn on the communists and try to crush them, but their penetration of the Afghan National Army had gone too deep and they were able to kill Daoud and most of his family in the April 1978 coup that brought the communists to power.
Photo of December 1969 issue of Vogue Magazine featuring a model in Afghanistan
In one of those circumstances all too well known by students of revolutionary history, the first strongman of communist Afghanistan, Hafizullah Amin, had been radicalized not in the countries of the Warsaw Pact but at the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University. Amin and his colleagues killed tens of thousands of Afghans but his rule was so chaotic that the Soviets intervened directly in 1979, killed him and ruled through other stooges for more than a decade. Russia's last collaborator, the secret policeman Muhammad Najib, would hang on to power until 1992.
Afghanistan's second dystopia began with the triumphant mujahideen of 1992. Supported by the United States against the Soviets, they had been cultivated by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who favored the most radical and ideological of the feuding factions, with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami receiving more support than any other Afghan rebel group. Hekmatyar had been deeply influenced as a young man by the works of the Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutub. Infighting by rival Afghan warlords would destroy much of the country once they came to power (Hekmatyar's forces indiscriminately shelling much of Kabul into rubble) before the Taliban entered Kabul in 1996. Jihadist rule along Taliban lines would continue until they themselves would be overthrown in November 2001 by the Americans following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, organized by Al-Qaeda.
American Peace Corps volunteers in Kabul host a "Hootenanny" for Afghan orphans in 1965
The social engineering of the Communists (1978-1992) and the Islamists (1992-2001) was now replaced by the social engineering and nation building of the Americans (2001-2021). The ideologues supported by Moscow and then by Islamabad were now to be replaced by even more exotic notions coming from the Western NGO/Development Industrial Complex funded by USAID with the support of that thick infrastructure of international organizations created to be handmaidens of Western "humanitarian" military intervention. According to experts such as Jen Brick Murtazashvili and Timothy Nunan, the intrusiveness, corruption, and dysfunction of American-funded idealism on a local and national level was disastrous. Afghanistan certainly needed reform but like the Soviet-sponsored dystopian experiment of a decade earlier, the American "laboratory of development" backed up by U.S. marines would flounder on the rocks of illusion and ambition. Some may object to calling the U.S.-sponsored Afghan state of the past 20 years, the one touted for the progress of Afghan women, a dystopian nightmare, but it certainly turned out an expensive, artificial, and exotic import at the end of the day.
The dystopia of the Taliban returning to power, backed by Pakistan and Qatar, seems at least on the surface, less alien than the Soviet and American efforts. The Taliban also seemed to have mastered a much more subtle and polished public persona burnished from years of gilded Doha exile. But it is very likely that at the grassroots and ideological level the Taliban are largely unchanged from their past.
Both Cold War superpowers had turned Afghanistan into a zone of international competition, beginning in the 1950s and 60s, through the use of development aid, but at least the local regime was neither a creation of, nor a reaction to, these foreign powers (the mujahideen were a reaction to Soviet invasion and the Taliban a "purified" version of the mujahideen). In this sense, the long rule of Muhammad Zaher Shah was indeed the best that Afghanistan could have hoped for, mini-skirts for a tiny privileged elite in Kabul, rival road and airport building by the Soviets and the Americans, but under the capacious umbrella of a relatively weak national government that had a good sense of what local society could bear and that had credentials that were in independent of and predated great power competition (the Barakzai dynasty had taken power and ruled on a shaky throne since 1823, the French-educated Zaher Shah becoming king at the age of 19 in 1933). This is also the Afghanistan that nurtured a generation of Western scholars like Louis and Nancy Dupree and my old professor Ludwig Adamec.
Teacher training in Kabul in the late 1960s
In the 1950s Afghanistan was a poor developing Asian monarchy with a GDP not so different from that of Thailand or even that of neighboring Pakistan and India, with a wealthy and privileged elite and a large, poverty-stricken rural population. It was no utopia but also no revolutionary construct hatched by Moscow, Washington, or Deobandism. In retrospect, what were at the time seen as weaknesses under the regime of Muhammad Zaher Shah now look like relative strengths: his tolerance and gentleness, his "indecisiveness," his lack of bloodlust and drive, the modesty of the reforms of the 1960s when Afghanistan got a constitution and elections. It was the hard-charging modernizing cousin who set the fateful train of disaster in motion that would lead to, through Communist rule followed by Jihadist rule followed by metastasizing American social experimentation on an industrial level and now followed by the return of Jihadist rule, 43 years of upheaval.
Kabul University student graduation in the 1960s
Zaher Shah was extremely old when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 (he died five years later) and the Americans made sure that he, or the return of the monarchy, would not possibly challenge the progress of their hand-picked proxy Hamid Karzai. Karzai, no fool in such matters, treated the aged monarch with respect, calling him "His Majesty" and giving him the title of "Father of the Nation." But Zaher Shah's much humbler and more autochthonous Afghanistan was mortally wounded decades earlier at the hands of an ambitious relative in 1973 and finished off by the Communists five years later. The old king has living descendants but perhaps the country's best hope is that the brutal Taliban themselves will be a transitional phase to something else, to something both authentically Afghan and humanistic, and worthy of benign neglect from would-be foreign saviors. And that this transition will be sooner rather than later.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.