Afghanistan in 1950s and '60s when Kabul had rock 'n' roll, not rockets vs. horror of today
BY MOHAMMAD QAYOUMI ............ On a recent trip to Afghanistan, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox drew fire for calling it "a broken 13th-century country." The most common objection was not that he was wrong, but that he was overly blunt. He's hardly the first Westerner to label Afghanistan as medieval. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince recently described the country as inhabited by "barbarians" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.
But that is not the Afghanistan I remember. I grew up in Kabul in the 1950s and '60s. When I was in middle school, I remember that on one visit to a city market, I bought a photobook about the country published by Afghanistan's planning ministry. Most of the images dated from the 1950s. I had largely forgotten about that book until recently; I left Afghanistan in 1968 on a U.S.-funded scholarship to study at the American University of Beirut, and subsequently worked in the Middle East and now the United States. But recently, I decided to seek out another copy. Stirred by the fact that news portrayals of the country's history didn't mesh with my own memories, I wanted to discover the truth. Through a colleague, I received a copy of the book and recognized it as a time capsule of the Afghanistan I had once known -- perhaps a little airbrushed by government officials, but a far more realistic picture of my homeland than one often sees today.
A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.
I have since had the images in that book digitized. Remembering Afghanistan's hopeful past only makes its present misery seem more tragic. Some captions in the book are difficult to read today: "Afghanistan's racial diversity has little meaning except to an ethnologist. Ask any Afghan to identify a neighbor and he calls him only a brother." "Skilled workers like these press operators are building new standards for themselves and their country." "Hundreds of Afghan youngsters take active part in Scout programs." But it is important to know that disorder, terrorism, and violence against schools that educate girls are not inevitable. I want to show Afghanistan's youth of today how their parents and grandparents really lived.
The rugged terrain of Afghanistan has often found itself at the centre of some of the world's major conflicts. The pictures on our television screens show a country virtually destroyed by war. Yet it wasn't always so: film footage from the 1970s paints a very different picture, of an open and modern society. The capital Kabul buzzes with life, its streets filled with cars, bicycles and pedestrians. At this time, Kabul was famed as an exotic stop-off point on the hippy trail between Europe and India. "That was a golden period for the Afghans," reminisces Dr Ahmed Abdul Javid, former Chancellor of Kabul University. Until the Taliban enforced an Islamic year zero in 1996, Afghanistan was a relatively liberal Place. Farah Hawad, a female journalist who left Kabul for Britain in 1994, describes the country's progressive attitude towards women back then: "Afghanistan was the first Asian country that had women in parliament." But even during this so-called golden era, tensions existed between the country's different ethnic factions, which finally ignited after the Soviet defeat. The task of establishing a lasting peace between these various ethnic groups is likely to be a long and complex one. If Afghanistan is finally freed from the foreign intervention that has dogged it for so long, perhaps new kind of society will finally be able to flourish in this ruined land.
The physical campus of Kabul University, pictured here, does not look very different today. But the people do. In the 1950s and '60s, students wore Western-style clothing; young men and women interacted relatively freely. Today, women cover their heads and much of their bodies, even in Kabul. A half-century later, men and women inhabit much more separate worlds.
In the 1950s and '60s, women were able to pursue professional careers in fields such as medicine. Today, schools that educate women are a target for violence, even more so than five or six years ago.
When I was growing up, education was valued and viewed as the great equalizer. If you went to school and achieved good grades, you'd have the chance to enter college, maybe study abroad, be part of the middle class, and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. Education was a hallowed value. Today, I think people have become far more cynical. They do not see the link between education and a better life; they see instead that those who have accumulated wealth and power have not done so through legitimate means.
This infant ward in a Kabul hospital in the 1960s contrasts sharply with one I visited in 2004 in Mazar-e-Sharif. There I found two babies born prematurely sharing the same incubator. That hospital, like many in Afghanistan today, did not have enough equipment.
In the 1960s, about half of Afghanistan's people had access to some level of medical care; now a much smaller percentage do. Today's hospitals are crowded, the facilities limited; nearly one in four babies born in Afghanistan today does not reach its fifth birthday.
The central government of Afghanistan once oversaw various rural development programs, including one, pictured here, that sent nurses in jeeps to remote villages to inoculate residents from such diseases as cholera. Now, security concerns alone make such an effort nearly impossible. Government nurses, as well as U.N. and NGO medical workers, are regular targets for insurgent groups that merely want to create disorder and terror in society.
Afghanistan once had Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. In the 1950s and '60s, such programs were very similar to their counterparts in the United States, with students in elementary and middle schools learning about nature trails, camping, and public safety. But scouting troops disappeared entirely after the Soviet invasions in the late 1970s.
I also remember a playground a few hundred yards away from the theater, where mothers used to take their children to play. Now, only men loiter in the city parks; it is unsafe to bring children outside.
Light and medium industry, like this metal shop in the Kabul suburbs, once held great promise for Afghanistan's economy. But today, how could you run such an operation without ample electricity? Now there are only small shops, people who work at home -- no major industrial centers. Currently, Afghanistan's chief export is opium.
With German assistance, Afghanistan built its first large hydropower station, pictured here, in the early 1950s. At the time, it was state of the art. It is still in operation, but unfortunately, in the last eight years, Afghanistan's government has not been able to build a single large power plant of any kind. The only sizable accomplishment has been the expansion of a transport line to Uzbekistan so that power can be imported from the north.
If you flipped through the radio dial in the 1960s, you would hear broadcasts of world news, local news, music programs, funny skits, political discourse, maybe an art program, a children's show. Radio Kabul, a state-run station whose old offices are pictured here, was launched in the 1930s.
Modern Afghanistan actually has a greater number of private radio stations, as well as broadcast and satellite television shows. This is one bright spot. But access to radio and TV depends on electricity, and so in a practical sense, the audience is therefore limited. Only the most well-to-do families have private generators to ensure uninterrupted electricity to power electrical devices.
During the annual commemoration of Afghanistan's independence, Kabul was lit up at night in late August and early September for nine evenings in the early 1960s. Now the city is dark. Even driving at night gives an eerie feeling. There are hardly any lights on; the streets are desolate, and there is no night life.
The education level of Afghanistan's cabinet today is far less than it was 50 years ago, when this photo was taken. Back then, most high-ranking government officials would have had master's or doctoral degrees. Western dress was the norm. These days, government meetings in Kabul are conducted among men, many with long beards, big turbans, and traditional garb.
Afghanistan's once strong and functional defensive forces are today only a memory. After the Soviets left, Pakistan was instrumental in destroying the country's armed services. Since the 1990s civil war, the subsequent Taliban takeover, and the U.S.-led intervention, domestic security forces have proved extremely difficult to build, even as security remains a top concern.
What I Learned in Afghanistan – About the United States
by Dana Visalli...................... I was surprised on my recent trip to Afghanistan that I learned so much…about the United States. I was in Afghanistan for two weeks in March of this year, meeting with a large number of Afghans working in humanitarian endeavors – the principal of a girls’ school, the director of a school for street children, the Afghan Human Rights Commission, a group working on environmental issues. The one thing that all of these groups that we met with had in common was, they were penniless. They all survived on rather tenuous donations made by philanthropic foundations in Europe.
I had read that the United States had spent $300 billion dollars in Afghanistan since the invasion and occupation of that country ten years ago, so I naturally became curious where this tremendous quantity of money and resources had gone. Many Americans had said to me that we were in Afghanistan "to help Afghan women," and yet we were told by the director of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, and we read in the recent UN report titled "Silence is Violence," that the situation for women there was growing more violent and oppressive each year. So I decide to do some research.
95% of the $300 billion that the U.S. has spent on its Afghanistan operation since we invaded the country in 2001 has gone to our military operations there. Several reports indicate that it costs one million dollars to keep one American soldier in that country for one year. We will soon have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, which will cost a neat $100 billion a year.
US soldiers in Afghanistan spend almost all of their time on one of our 300 bases in that country, so there is nothing they can do to help the Afghan people, whose physical infrastructure has been destroyed by the "30-year war" there, and who are themselves mostly jobless in a society in which there is almost no economy and no work.
Some effort is made to see that the remaining 5% of the $300 billion spent to date in Afghanistan does help Afghan society, but there is so much corruption and general lawlessness that the endeavor is largely futile. We were told by a female member of the Afghan parliament of one symbolic incident in which a container of medical equipment that was purchased in the US with US government funds for a clinic in Ghawr province, west of Kabul. It was shipped from the US, but by the time it arrived in Ghawr it was just an empty shell; all the equipment had been pilfered along the way.
Violence against women is increasing in Afghanistan at the present time, not decreasing. The Director of the Afghan Human Rights Commission told us of a recent case in which a ten-year-old girl was picked up by an Afghan Army commander in his military vehicle, taken to the nearby base and raped. He brought her back to her home semiconscious and bleeding, after conveying to her that if she told what had happened he would kill her entire family. The human rights commissioner ended the tale by saying to us the he could tell us "a thousand stories like this." There has been a rapid rise in the number of self-immolations – women burning themselves to death – in Afghanistan in the past three years, to escape the violence that pervades many women’s lives – under the nine-year US occupation.
Armed conflict and insecurity, along with criminality and lawlessness, are on the rise in Afghanistan. In this respect, the country mirrors experience elsewhere which indicates a near universal co-relation between heightened conflict, insecurity, and violence against women.
My God why is Kabul being destroyed? sings a boy in Afghanistan. A young girls lies in hospital screaming. Her amputated leg hangs in the air. The people of Kabul are bitter, besieged on all fronts by the Taliban army. Women haggle over sacks of airlifted food. Their only hope of survival is Defence Minister, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Known to his enemies as the 'Lion of Panjshir', he is frantically driving across the snow topped desert to brief his Commanders. A freezing winter has halted the Taliban advance. In the respite, he tables a meeting to re-structure his army. We are granted a rare interview with Massoud as he talks of human rights, democracy and rights for women. We also have secret footage of Taliban leaders as they recommend amputation as punishment for stealing. In Kabul's hospital we talk to the victims who have been hit by Taliban rockets. They lie in ramshackle wards with little or no facilities. The Red Cross estimates that a million people are starving to death. Having funded the Mujahadeen in its fight against the Soviet Union, the West has lost interest. Massoud is alone in attempting to defend his city against Islamic fundamentalists.
Once one understands that the US military presence in Afghanistan is not actually helping the Afghan people, the question of the effectiveness or goodwill of other major US military interventions in recent history arises. In Vietnam, for example, the country had been a colony of France for the 80 years prior to WW II, at which point the Japanese invaded and took over. When the Japanese surrendered, the Vietnamese declared their independence, on September 2, 1945. In their preamble they directly quoted the US Declaration of Independence ("All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness….").
The United States responded first by supporting the French in their efforts to recapture their lost colony, and when that failed, the US dropped 10 million tons of bombs on Vietnam – more than were dropped in all of World War II – sprayed 29 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange on the country, and dropped 400,000 tons of napalm, killing a total 3.4 million people. This is an appreciable level of savagery, and it would be reasonable to ask why the United States responded in this way to the Vietnamese simply declaring their inalienable rights.
There was a sideshow to the Vietnam war, and that is that the United States conducted massive bombing campaigns against Vietnam’s two western neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos in a operation consisting of 580,000 bombing missions – equal to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. This unprecedented, secret bombing campaign was conducted without authorization from the US Congress and without the knowledge of the American people.
The ten-year bombing exercise killed an estimated 1 million Laotians. Despite questions surrounding the legality of the bombings and the large toll of innocent lives that were taken, the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs at the time, Alexis Johnson, stated, "The Laos operation is something of which we can be proud as Americans. It has involved virtually no American casualties. What we are getting for our money there . . . is, I think, to use the old phrase, very cost effective."
One Laotian female refugee recalled the years of bombing in this way: "Our lives became like those of animals desperately trying to escape their hunters . . . Human beings, whose parents brought them into the world and carefully raised them with overflowing love despite so many difficulties, these human beings would die from a single blast as explosions burst, lying still without moving again at all. And who then thinks of the blood, flesh, sweat and strength of their parents, and who will have charity and pity for them? In reality, whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffer."
In Cambodia, the United States was concerned that the North Vietnamese might have established a military base in the country. In response, The US dropped three million tons of ordnance in 230,000 sorties on 113,000 sites between 1964 and 1975. 10% of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having "unknown" targets and another 8000 sites having no target listed at all. About a million Cambodians were killed (there was no one counting), and the destruction to society wrought by the indiscriminate, long-term destruction is widely thought to have given rise to the Khmer Rouge, who proceeded, in their hatred for all things Western, to kill another 2 million people.
Four days after Vietnam declared its independence on September 2, 1945, "Southern Korea" also declared independence (on September 6), with a primary goal of reuniting the country – which had been split into north and south by the United States only seven months before. Two days later, on September 8, 1945, the US military arrived with the first of 72,000 troops, dissolved the newly formed South Korean government, and flew in their own chosen leader, Syngman Rhee, who had spent the previous 40 years in Washington D.C. There was considerable opposition to the US control of the country, so much that 250,000 and 500,000 people were killed between 1945 and 1950 resisting the American occupation, before the actual Korean War even started.
The Korean War, like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, was an asymmetrical war, in which the highly industrialized and mechanized US pulverized the comparatively primitive North Korean nation. One third of the population of North Korea was killed in the war, a total of three million people (along with one million Chinese and 58,000 Americans). Every city, every sizable town, every factory, every bridge, every road in North Korea was destroyed. General Curtis LeMay remarked at one point that the US had "turned every city into rubble," and now was returning to "turn the rubble into dust." A British reporter described one of the thousands of obliterated villages as "a low, wide mound of violet ashes." General William Dean, who was captured after the battle of Taejon in July 1950 and taken to the North, later said that most of the towns and villages he saw were just "rubble or snowy open spaces."
More napalm was dropped on Korea than on Vietnam, 600,000 tons compared to 400,000 tons in Vietnam. One report notes that, "By late August, 1950, B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons a day on the North. Much of it was pure napalm. Vietnam veteran Brian Wilson asks in this regard, "What it is like to pulverize ancient cultures into small pebbles, and not feel anything?"
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein came to power through a U.S.-CIA engineered coup in 1966 that overthrew the socialist government and installed Saddam’s Baath Party. Later conflict with Saddam let to the first and second Gulf Wars, and to thirteen years of severe U.S.-imposed economic sanctions on Iraq between the two wars, which taken together completely obliterated the Iraqi economy. An estimated one million people were killed in the two Gulf wars, and the United Nations estimates that the economic sanctions, in combination with the destruction of the social and economic infrastructure in the First Gulf War, killed another million Iraqis. Today both the economy and the political structure of Iraq are in ruins.
This trail of blood, tears and death smeared across the pages of recent history is the reason that Martin Luther King said in his famous Vietnam Speech that the United States is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Vietnam veteran Mike Hastie expanded the observation when he said in April of this year (2010) that, "The United States Government is a nonstop killing machine. The worst experience I had in Vietnam was experiencing the absolute truth of Martin Luther King's statement. America is in absolute psychiatric denial of its genocidal maniacal nature."
A further issue is that "war destroys the earth." Not only does, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1960, "Every rocket fired signify a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed," but every rocket that is fired reduces the life-sustaining capacity of the biosphere. In an ultimate sense it could be argued that those who wage war and those who pay for and support war, in reality bear some hidden hatred for life and some hidden desire to put and end to it.
What are our options? The short answer is, grow up. Grow up into the inherent depth of your own existence. After all, you are a "child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars, you have a right be here." There is no viable, universally inscribed law that compels you to do as you are told to do by the multitude of dysfunctional and destructive authority figures that would demand your compliance, if you acquiesce.
"If we led our lives according to the ways intended by nature," wrote French author La Boétie in his book The Politics of Obedience," we should be intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become slaves to nobody." La Boétie wrote this in the year 1552, but people today remain slaves to external authority. "Our problem," said historian Howard Zinn, "is not civil disobedience; our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty."
Do you want to spend your life paying for the death of people (executed by the US military) that you would probably have loved if you have met them? Do you want to spend your life paying for the arsenal of hydrogen bombs that could very well destroy most of the life on the planet? If not, if you want another kind of life, then as author James Howard Kunstler often suggests, ‘You will have to make other arrangements." You will have to arrange to live according to your own deepest ethical standards, rather than living in fear of the nefarious authority figures that currently demand your obedience and threaten to punish you if you do not obey their demands on your one precious chance at life.