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date: 23 February 2024

Developing Afghanistan since 1950free

Developing Afghanistan since 1950free

  • Robert RakoveRobert RakoveDepartment of International Relations, Stanford University


While the story of Afghan development long antedates the Cold War era, the US-Soviet struggle accelerated it and accorded it global significance. Washington, and Moscow, among other actors, financed an array of ambitious modernization projects throughout Afghanistan. Afghan elites, especially Prime Minister (later, President) Mohammed Daoud Khan, consciously stoked the competition. Americans commenced a sizable irrigation and hydroelectric project in the Helmand Valley and subsequently committed to modernize Afghan aviation. The Soviets constructed myriad projects, ranging from the high-altitude Salang Pass tunnel to the Kabul Airport. After years of isolation, Afghanistan enjoyed a surfeit of attention from its industrialized patrons.

Yet development programs often proved to be ill conceived, even counterproductive. The Helmand Valley project had ecologically disastrous consequences, while Kabul’s efforts to finance costly projects sparked unrest, even the occasional revolt. Frustration at unfulfilled promises led to increased upheaval within the capital, culminating in the overthrow of two governments in the 1970s. Yet the accelerated efforts of Afghan Marxists, reluctantly backed by the Soviet Union, brought calamity: a national revolt that led to decades of conflict within Afghanistan.


  • Diplomatic/International
  • South Asia

Prologue: Kandahar, 1959

Rioting wracked the city of Kandahar on the morning of December 21, 1959. Sometime during the morning, a crowd of protesters attempted to enter the city’s principal mosque, the Shrine of the Cloak, but faced a cordon of police blocking the entrance. Fighting broke out between the two groups, the police were quickly overwhelmed, and the enraged crowd began marching in the direction of the governor’s mansion. The mob assaulted a school for girls, attacking both teachers and students present. It turned its fury on a cinema where Western films had screened, setting the building aflame. En route to the governor’s mansion, it passed the local offices of the US aid mission as well as a number of houses occupied by Americans. These went unharmed, but foreigners walked the streets of Kandahar at their own peril, as did Afghans in Western attire. Albert Wisner, the deputy head of the local US aid mission, ran afoul of the mob while driving through the city to warn American families. Stabbed several times, he was rescued by Afghan soldiers and given emergency care. Driven back by the arriving soldiers, the mob began assaulting houses belonging to Americans. Afghan servants mounted a valiant and successful defense of their employers with improvised weapons One wife of an aid worker held the mob at bay with a revolver. Within moments, the attack ended, as the Afghan army arrived in force, opening heavy fire on the angry crowd. The governor, meanwhile, had fled to Kabul.1

Afterward, as Kandahar simmered and Afghan police rounded up suspected ringleaders, foreign observers struggled to make sense of the episode. Their analyses and observances, transmitted via post and telegraph, offer a window into both the tensions wracking the Kandahar region in late 1959 as well as the divisive politics of Afghan development. Subsequent analyses treated the riots as a response to the extension of Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan’s unveiling campaign into the conservative south, and the choices of the rioters lent the explanation considerable plausibility.2

Perhaps the unveiling campaign sufficed to unsettle Kandahar, but other explanations presented themselves readily. Confronting a persistent fiscal crisis, the Kabul government, which had strained to cover the local currency costs of major development projects, had become newly insistent on taxing local landowners. Overly aggressive local efforts by the governor to collect revenue galvanized local opposition. Other complaints reflected the physical transformation of Kandahar and the Helmand Valley. Recent stringent water-control measures along the Helmand River incensed local farmers. The Arghandab and Kajakai Dams, intended to provide hydroelectric power to the region, offended the sensibilities of local religious leaders while submerging once-fertile fields under their waters. French and US observers separately noted local irritation over increased aerial traffic into Kandahar’s limited airport, which US contractors were renovating into a major hub. Nomadic peoples feared the extension of state power into the southern borderlands—an extension that was abetted by the Kabul government’s ambitious roadbuilding plan and motivated by the Afghan army’s voracious demand for conscripts. Allowing that each Kandahari protester might be unhappy in their own way, the US embassy discerned a common thread: “Fundamentally . . . it involves resistance to the modernization and change in their way of life, which they witness taking place with such rapidity.”3

Modernization—a term used coextensively with “development”—represents the central tension in the modern history of Afghanistan. Successive Afghan rulers pursued, in varying ways, the advancement of Afghan infrastructure, productivity, education, military capacity, and health. Their efforts, undertaken on behalf of a weak state pinned between hostile powers, were understandable but fraught. The pursuit of modernization inevitably stood to transform Afghan governance, aggrandizing the power of the government in Kabul at the expense of the traditional autonomy of other regions. The ensuing struggle strained Afghan society throughout the 20th century. Decades before the Cold War, it had sparked a brief but devastating civil war and the ouster of one king. The US-Soviet struggle, however, added wider implications. Kabul’s pursuit of modernization assumed broader symbolic international importance, even as it sparked domestic resistance. Enabled by one or another foreign patron, Kabul elites pursued policies that undermined their own legitimacy, initiating decades of ruinous civil war.

Before the Cold War

A small, vulnerable kingdom, pinned between two empires, Afghanistan had long grappled with the dilemma of modernization, balancing sovereignty against the necessity of foreign assistance. From the late 19th century onward, Afghan rulers confronted the dilemma continually. King Abdur Rahman, who rose to power amid the chaos of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, pursued a mixed-development plan that consisted of importing foreign experts to assist in the development of state capacity and light industry but resisting offers to improve his kingdom’s overland connections. His son and successor, Habibullah, continued and broadened his efforts in the early 20th century. Habibullah founded a military college and Afghanistan’s first secondary school, Habibia College, in 1904. Although initially patterned after the Anglo-Indian educational system, Habibullah’s curricular program shifted to embrace the Ottoman model. He sought to placate traditionalist clergy, who feared the importation of foreign influences. “It is your duty to acquire knowledge,” he proclaimed upon a 1907 visit to the Islamic College of Lahore. Concurrently, he endeavored to promote local industry and his kingdom’s connections to the world. The first car entered Afghanistan in 1905, as did the kingdom’s first film projector.4

World War I greatly complicated Afghan modernization efforts and forced a difficult geopolitical balancing act upon Habibullah, who faced considerable pressure to side with the Ottoman Empire and its German allies. The monarch successfully played for time, thus delaying but not entirely forestalling another Anglo-Afghan War. His assassination brought his son Amanullah to power in 1919. Amanullah declared Afghanistan’s independence from the United Kingdom in the spring and waged a brief, bitter war, followed by two years of diplomatic confrontation with Kabul’s former suzerain. An energetic campaign of diplomatic outreach sought to broaden Afghanistan’s contacts with the world and to import foreign expertise. His success here proved uneven. Alongside efforts to rationalize Afghanistan’s tax code, Amanullah hoped to improve domestic light industry and to establish a national bank. He pursued aerial, road, radio, telegraph, and postal connections with the world. Amanullah’s ambitions evoked admiration decades later from his successors, but he proved inattentive to growing conservative unrest. Foreign technicians in Kabul were objects of suspicion, and two judicial cases—after separate attacks on European experts—complicated Afghan relations with Germany and Italy. An extensive international tour from 1927 through 1928, intended to advance Amanullah’s modernizing agenda, sent it into overdrive, sparking a violent conservative backlash at home. For his successors from a rival branch of the royal family, his subsequent overthrow constituted a powerful cautionary tale.5

Amanullah’s cousins King Nadir Shah and Prime Minister Mohammed Hashim Khan pursued modernization thereafter, amid the global downturn of the 1930s. Such efforts remained perilous. Afghanistan was caught between the British Empire and the Soviet Union; each might look askance at the influx of experts from the other in Kabul. Technicians from third countries posed other complications. The distant United States appeared least likely to infringe upon Afghan sovereignty or to irk the kingdom’s powerful neighbors, but it generally failed to respond to Afghan entreaties. An extensive national oil concession, proffered to an ambitious but inexperienced US petroleum firm, imploded in spring 1938. Ties to the fascist powers, especially Nazi Germany, yielded greater dividends. Younger elements of the Afghan elite—the wildly successful banker Abdul Majid Zabuli chief among them—viewed German nationalism sympathetically. A series of bilateral agreements brought hundreds of specialists into the country, while Berlin provided generous credits for industrial purchases . The elder generation, notably Prime Minister Hashim, evinced a greater caution, wary of angering the United Kingdom.

Such concerns were apt, as the onset of World War II impeded meaningful Afghan-German commerce. Adolf Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union led to an unprecedented joint Anglo-Soviet demand for the expulsion of all German and Italian residents of Afghanistan, save those bearing diplomatic papers. Fearing an Allied invasion, Hashim’s government capitulated. A handful of Japanese specialists continued their work, but the Axis presence had been effectively curtailed, and Afghanistan faced mounting war-related shortages of finished industrial goods, especially automobiles. Wartime commerce with the United States, abetted by the belated opening of a diplomatic mission in June 1942, offered the kingdom a shaky economic lifeline. At times departing from strict coordination with their allies, US diplomats lobbied for the importation of vital goods into Afghanistan while quietly pursuing further opportunities in the kingdom. US Minister Cornelius Engert wrote enthusiastically in 1943, “I should like to stress the tremendous influence the right kind of Americans could exercise here both during and after this war.”6 After Kabul yielded to Allied pressure and expelled four Japanese engineers who were assigned to an irrigation project in Helmand Province, Engert and his colleagues labored to find replacements, with only partial success.7 Promises made in wartime could only be fulfilled after the defeat of the Axis but not without their own unforeseen complications.

The Postwar Moment, 1945–1953

“I was told again that Afghanistan is ‘just beginning,’” US diplomat Charles Thayer wrote in Kabul on June 1, 1942. “I wish they wouldn’t begin. Modernization for them holds only misery and discontent—they should be happier as they are.”8 After years of wartime deprivation, accentuated by Afghanistan’s geographic isolation and limited productive capacity, few among the Kabul elite would have agreed with Thayer. Following the conflict, amid continued shortages and upheaval in the Pashtun borderlands, Kabul intensified its entreaties for US assistance. Preoccupied with the problems of the peace, particularly European reconstruction, Washington proved intermittently responsive. Yet contacts that were forged late during the war facilitated one collaborative project of transcendent importance. Early in 1946, the Kabul government reached terms with the Morrison-Knudsen construction firm on an ambitious array of projects. The Idaho-based firm benefited from close ties to the US government, which recommended it heartily to the Afghans.9 While wracked by inflation and domestic scarcity, Afghanistan had accrued sizable wartime earnings from its sale of karakul lamb hides. This small windfall tempted the new government of Prime Minister Shah Mahmud, who succeeded his ailing brother Hashim in 1946, to pursue long-held ambitions. Among myriad choices, Kabul invested much of its wartime nest egg in the development of the Helmand Valley and the expansion of roads connecting the region. Dams would provide inexpensive hydroelectric power, while new irrigation canals enabled the cultivation of previously marginal lands by newly settled nomads. The choice was far from foreordained. Richer lands lay north of Kabul, in regions peopled by non-Pashtun minorities. The postwar years witnessed occasional suggestions that Afghanistan’s reserves would be better distributed across an array of modest investments rather than concentrated in one region or a single interrelated complex of projects.10 Viewed with even a modicum of hindsight, the choices of the mid-1940s cry out for explanation.

The hydroelectric dam enjoyed unparalleled mystique in the midcentury, and Americans were perhaps its most fervent and convincing evangelists. The Tennessee Valley Authority offered a tempting blueprint for far-reaching rural development, one which postwar presidents invoked repeatedly through the 1960s.11 Afghan visitors to the United States visited both the dams of the Tennessee Valley and the Hoover Dam, which Morrison-Knudsen, alongside five peer firms, had helped to construct. Yet more than salesmanship explains the choice. Perhaps encouraged by tales of the Tennessee Valley, Shah Mahmud’s government hoped to settle Pashtun nomads in the south, thereby strengthening its control over the region and binding them to the state. Political objectives superseded economic goals and led Kabul and its American contractor alike to overlook flaws apparent to casual observers.12

Successive crises beset the Morrison-Knudsen enterprise. The firm spent lavishly, to little apparent effect. American contractors flooded conservative southern Afghanistan but struggled to complete their assigned projects. In Washington, Morrison-Knudsen representatives protested that the Kabul government had revised its agenda abruptly, giving the firm scant time to adapt. Afghan representatives complained about rapidly escalating cost estimates that had grown far beyond what their government had initially budgeted. Washington had recommended the firm as a versatile, independent actor, whose participation in the project would theoretically free the government from direct responsibility. Yet Afghans viewed it as an appendage of the United States, and US representatives in Kabul warned of the political consequences of failure. “Abandoned [Morrison-Knudsen] camps will stand as monuments of American inefficiency,” advised the veteran US Ambassador Louis Dreyfus, recommending a loan to Afghanistan from the Export-Import Bank.13

The Helmand Valley project rightly commands outsized attention in the history of Afghan development. Its importance—political, social, and economic—can hardly be overstated. Yet the story of postwar Afghan modernization ranges far beyond this single endeavor. Kabul cast a wide net postwar, and individual ministers within Shah Mahmud’s government pursued different, at times conflicting, agendas. American mining engineer Myles Walsh arrived in Afghanistan with glowing recommendations from his government but ran afoul of a growing backlash against US expertise and its exponents within Kabul. Afghans who had championed the contract faced growing public criticism; others courted different patrons. Geopolitical prudence also spurred Afghans toward this end. By mid-1947, US-Soviet hostility increasingly defined the postwar international system, and Soviet officials and media excoriated the US presence within Afghanistan. Joseph Stalin’s deputy, Andrei Zhdanov, included the kingdom in a September 1947 litany before the newly assembled Cominform, in which he accused the United States of using Afghanistan as a staging area for aggression.14 In Kabul, Soviet diplomats demanded explanations for the presence of US specialists. It behooved the Afghans to placate their suspicious northern neighbor, to the extent that was possible.

International assistance seemingly offered a new, less problematic instrumentality. To an under-recognized degree, Afghanistan emerged as an early showcase for embryonic technical-assistance programs for the United Nations and its affiliated agencies (see figure 1). In November 1949, an Afghan representative requested technical assistance in seventeen projects, ranging from hydroelectric-power assistance to roads and dairy-livestock assistance. A prestigious American expert, Owen Lattimore, headed the initial technical-assistance survey mission until his tenure was cut short by the demagogic campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who falsely accused Lattimore of Communist sympathies. Early reports by the UN mission noted instability in Shah Mahmud’s government, a lack of basic information about the Afghan economy, and general difficulty in prioritizing projects. Everyday concerns also bedeviled UN personnel: a dearth of adequate housing, inadequate food, and frequent health complaints. Coordination of UN and US efforts posed a further, especially dangerous problem, as the former had good cause to fear that its own programs would become implicated in a potential Cold War contest within Afghanistan.15

Figure 1. Students taking part in a UNESCO-supported education program within Afghanistan.

Source: Photo courtesy of USNA, College Park, MD.

Despite considerable hurdles, the international experts commenced and expanded an ambitious program. Experts from UNESCO drafted an ambitious plan for village-level education but faced both resistance and the local level and skepticism in New York and from peer agencies. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) labored alongside a Soviet-established program to combat rinderpest by inoculating cattle. Use of a new freeze-drying technique for transporting the serum helped eradicate the disease.16 Other FAO personnel introduced new hoes and scythes that promised to assist Afghan farmers. The World Health Organization (WHO) made Afghanistan a battlefront in its global campaign to eradicate malaria while pursuing concurrent efforts against typhus and venereal disease. Health-focused efforts fostered positive publicity for the United Nations. The UN mission celebrated a near-total reduction in typhus cases in Kabul and Kandahar after a massive campaign to dust residents with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) powder.17

Relatively inexpensive grassroots-level operations that used creative, culturally adroit solutions and that were abetted by close local partnerships achieved palpable results and earned Afghan goodwill. Symbolically, two of Shah Mahmud’s daughters enrolled in a WHO midwifery course.18 Visiting Scottish journalist Ritchie Calder postulated that such efforts offered a “route to emancipation” for Afghan women.19 Capital-intensive industrial and infrastructure projects, however, failed to advance, as they were hampered by disorder within Shah Mahmud’s government and by disagreements among experts and Morrison-Knudsen. Stymied by material shortages, the firm championed additional development projects to improve its local supplies. While Morrison-Knudsen championed building a cement plant, a French expert charged that the firm had overstated local demand beyond its own requirements. Vehement Soviet objections, meanwhile, impeded UN efforts to develop Afghanistan’s oil reserves, foreshadowing a new era of geopolitical competition in the country.20

The Cold War Aid Race, 1953–1963

Moscow had previously played a lesser role in Afghan development, constrained by its own postwar shortages and by longstanding Afghan mistrust. Veterinary cooperation against rinderpest and the construction of petroleum-storage facilities marked the most meaningful early postwar development program staged by Stalin’s government. After the dictator’s March 1953 death, his successors proved more willing to aid Afghanistan. A combination of idealism and threat perception motivated the Kremlin. The newly inaugurated administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to encircle the Soviet Union with alliances while embracing Pakistan and overthrowing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in an August 1953 coup. Afghanistan’s ongoing feud with Pakistan worsened after Shah Mahmud’s September 1953 resignation and the elevation of Daoud, an ardent advocate for Pashtun self-determination within Pakistan. Moscow courted Daoud, hoping to stave off Afghan absorption into a Western alliance system. Symbolic objectives also appealed to the Soviets. A predominantly rural, conservative, and pious society, Afghanistan held scant immediate prospect of socialist revolution. Soviet travelers—General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev among them—were struck by its poverty and at times discomfited by local culture. Demonstrating Soviet goodwill in a society so different from their own would yield powerful dividends elsewhere in the postcolonial world, validating Moscow’s rising doctrine of “peaceful coexistence.”

Thus, the Soviets began with alacrity. Moscow offered the Afghans a $3.5 million credit to construct two grain silos, a flour mill, and a bakery in Kabul. After the US government unwisely rebuffed an Afghan request to pave the streets of the capital, the Soviets seized the opportunity, achieving—at least momentarily—a visible propaganda coup. The closure of the Afghan-Pakistani border in spring 1955 furnished them with a further opportunity to engage their southern neighbor. While the passage of goods to and from Karachi, Afghanistan’s principal port, remained impeded, Soviet products flowed freely across the Amu Darya River. During his December 1955 visit, Khrushchev promised fifteen buses, a one-hundred-bed hospital, and—to the shock of his Cold War adversaries—a $100 million credit toward further development projects.21

To an extent unimaginable years earlier, Afghanistan emerged as a symbolic battleground within the Cold War. While Western analysts were prone to exaggerate the aid provided by Moscow and its bloc allies—Khrushchev’s credit only constituted a promise, but establishing the fine print of individual projects required detailed, time-consuming negotiation—Soviet aid assumed impressive quantities and visibly reshaped the Afghan landscape. Early in 1956, the two countries agreed on a package of major projects, including several hydroelectric dams, a large airfield outside of Kabul at Bagram, and improvements to the kingdom’s northern connections, such as a river port at Qizil Qala and a high-altitude highway tunnel at the Salang Pass. The last project in this list epitomizes the energy and urgency of the Soviet effort within the kingdom at the height of the aid contest. The tunnel extended 1.67 miles through mountain rock, at an altitude above ten thousand feet. Inaugurated in 1964, it required the labors of thirteen thousand Afghans and six hundred Soviets over six years. It dramatically shortened the travel time between Kabul and northern Afghanistan, notionally enhancing the authority of the government in hitherto remote regions.22

The Western powers contemplated, by mid-decade, the prospect of Afghanistan’s economic or political absorption into the Communist Bloc. Daoud’s government unnerved them; key ministers within it favored statist economics. While Daoud himself did not appear sympathetic toward Communism, the risk that he would nevertheless unwittingly steer Afghanistan into Moscow’s unyielding embrace loomed large. Yet the United States and its allies, chiefly West Germany, committed to a counteroffensive. Their choice attests not only to the geopolitical and symbolic value that they ascribed to Afghanistan but also to astute, canny Afghan diplomacy. As the latest practitioners of Afghanistan’s traditional form of nonalignment—bi-tarafi—Daoud and his more extroverted brother, Foreign Minister Mohammed Naim Khan, endeavored to keep the Western powers engaged, assuring US diplomats of their continued interest in assistance and their determination to remain free of the Communist Bloc.

Thus, at the height of the Afghan Cold War, Daoud and Naim adroitly courted dueling bids from the blocs. The contest was not quite even. Afghanistan’s distance from the United States and dire proximity to the Soviet Union left Americans skeptical that they could or should outbid their Communist rivals. Moscow clearly ascribed greater importance to the unfolding competition and might have responded forcibly in the face of adverse developments. Yet Afghanistan could not be abandoned entirely, and Daoud and Naim succeeded in convincing the Eisenhower administration that they would not willingly act as Soviet proxies. The United States and its allies committed to at least a symbolic competition within Afghanistan.

Aviation constituted the central front of the US counteroffensive. Afghan leaders had sought for decades to expand their aerial links to the world—the German airline Lufthansa had opened a sparsely ticketed route to Kabul in the 1930s—but struggled to reach terms with major carriers after World War II. Cold War competition amplified Kabul’s leverage. It founded Ariana, Afghanistan’s first domestic carrier, in 1955 and invited foreign airlines to bid for stock in the firm. Pan American World Airways, an experienced collaborator with the US government, successfully bid for 49 percent of Ariana, with Washington,’s active support (see figure 2). A generous aid package supported the purchase of aircraft, equipment, and airports across Afghanistan. Washington sought rights to modernize the airfield at Kabul; finding that the contract had gone to the Soviets, US aid personnel resolved to construct a better airfield at Kandahar that might serve as a national hub and regional waystation. Despite Afghan misgivings, Morrison-Knudsen won the contract, simply by virtue of being the sole US construction firm with a local presence. The airport was intended to bolster the US position in southern Afghanistan, which remained Washington’s regional beachhead within the country.23 Conversely, however, local grievances over its construction fueled growing local unrest toward Daoud and his government and jeopardized the sizable US expatriate community.

Figure 2. Pan American Captain Everett Wood confers pilot’s stripes upon Ariana Captain Enaam-ul-Haq Gran.

Source: Photo courtesy of USNA, College Park, MD.

The Helmand Valley project remained a source of great chagrin to the US government and its diplomatic mission in Kabul. There was a renewed burst of activity after the Export-Import Bank extended a $21 million loan toward completion of the project, despite its own misgivings. Accelerated construction, however, only revealed fundamental ecological flaws in the enterprise. Morrison-Knudsen and its government allies had overlooked or dismissed prescient warnings that the soils of the Helmand Valley contained significant saline and alkaline concentrations, which rose to the surface as irrigation commenced (see figure 3). Farmers who had only recently settled in the region balked at substandard housing and anemic crops; many understandably chose to return to nomadism. Confronting a potential calamity, which might discredit its programs throughout the wider region, the Eisenhower administration resolved to throw good money after bad. A second Export-Import Bank loan followed, enabling the project to muddle along. After Morrison-Knudsen departed the valley, Washington dispatched experts from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation.24

Figure 3. Water flows from the Helmand River into an irrigation canal.

Source: Photo courtesy of USNA, College Park, MD.

Superficially, Afghanistan benefited from the surfeit of attention. Cold War patrons, engaged in similar contests around the world, found Kabul’s incessant requests for aid exhausting. Daoud’s predilection for playing the blocs against each other was transparent, but neither combatant felt able to disengage. After Washington committed to financing a road between Kabul and Kandahar, the Soviets offered grant aid to pave a Herat–Kandahar highway. Afghanistan brimmed with externally funded projects but struggled to meet its own obligations. Its five-year plans resembled project lists rather than coherent economic agendas and relied upon optimistic estimates of inbound foreign aid. By the end of his presidency, Eisenhower faced growing legislative skepticism as to the utility of development aid. In Afghanistan, persistent deficits driven by Daoud’s extensive development agenda impelled him toward further efforts to improve domestic tax collection. These enjoyed uneven results at best and at worst fostered unrest in areas subject to aggressive enforcement—Kandahar among them. Military modernization, abetted by Kabul’s Communist Bloc patrons, helped the center maintain control. In that sense, it was more fitting than ironic that the Americans of Kandahar were rescued from the rioters by Afghan army soldiers in Soviet-made vehicles. Nevertheless, Daoud was attempting an inherently difficult balancing act as the Cold War intensified and his own troubled relationship with Pakistan worsened.

In late August 1961, Pakistani President Mohammed Ayub Khan closed all Afghan consulates and trade agencies within his country. Daoud retaliated within days while refusing to devise alternate arrangements to allow cross-border commerce. High-level mediation by a senior US diplomat and personal friend to President John F. Kennedy failed during the autumn. The effective closure of the Pakistani border blocked the passage of goods required for Western projects across Afghanistan, which ranged from highways to airports and the central campus of Kabul University. Afghan suggestions that goods be shipped overland from Iran were infeasible. The crisis set Daoud’s Pashtun nationalism in conflict with the kingdom’s longstanding development agenda. As the stalemate continued, Daoud and Naim cast about for some way to reconcile their divergent goals. A brief border opening in early 1962 allowed for the entry of goods that were vital to various Western projects; afterward, the brothers renewed their advocacy for the establishment of a viable Iranian route. King Mohammed Zahir Shah, encouraged by others in his family, had other plans. Concerned about the kingdom’s growing dependence on the Communist Bloc and the continued disruption of Western projects within Afghanistan, he obtained resignations from Daoud and Naim in March 1963.25

Negotiating Limits, 1963–1978

Daoud’s exit from office narrowly preceded the resolution of the crisis and the reopening of the border. Afghanistan embarked upon a significant albeit limited project of political reform, as Zahir and Prime Minister Mohammed Yusuf called for a grand assembly (loya jirga) in order to draft a new constitution. Across the ensuing decade, a limited democratic experiment unfolded, and Afghan politics liberalized considerably. Yusuf and his successors nursed comparable development ambitions for Afghanistan and hoped for a continued influx of foreign aid. Fundamental changes in the Cold War, however, reduced their ability to leverage the superpower rivalry. After the near calamity of the Cuban missile crisis, Washington, and Moscow strove to limit and to regulate their competition in the world. Both superpowers shared a weariness with the Afghan aid contest and mounting concern with its fiscal implications for the country.

Nevertheless, projects set into motion in the previous decade were not abandoned. Seemingly, the 1960s witnessed the apogee of modernization within Afghanistan. With much fanfare, Daoud inaugurated the Kandahar Airport in 1962. Although hampered by the interruption of regular border traffic, Kabul University’s central campus opened in spring 1964 (see figure 4). Three months later, King Zahir and Soviet envoy Alexei Kosygin cut the ribbon at the opening of the Salang Pass tunnel. “The 1960s were a magical time in Afghanistan,” one Soviet expert recalled.26 In this era, Moscow’s efforts—undisrupted by border closures and guided by a more persistent notion of national interest than Washington’s—attained clear preeminence.

Figure 4. A US-constructed dormitory at Kabul University.

Source: Photo courtesy of USNA, College Park, MD.

Northern Afghanistan, where Western experts only ventured occasionally, witnessed an influx of Soviet and Warsaw Pact expertise and funding. Moscow had deflected sporadic non-Communist programs to develop the region’s considerable hydrocarbon resources while undertaking its own exploration efforts. Here, Moscow’s labors bore significant dividends. Abundant natural-gas fields at Sheberghan could supply the kingdom with vital export revenue and Soviet industry with an inexpensive input. A 101-kilometer pipeline connected the Sheberghan field with Soviet Turkmenistan; another connected the field to Mazar-i-Sharif.27 A Soviet-built hydroelectric plant north of Pul-i-Khumri promised to support local industry, but Moscow had initiated it without data about the Kunduz River’s seasonal water flow. Waning flow in the autumn and winter months, left the plant far short of its nine-thousand-kilowatt capacity, depriving local industry of electricity.28

Kabul, too, was visibly transformed by Soviet aid. Plans to transform the city had been entertained for decades; Morrison-Knudsen had briefly discussed constructing a new, planned capital. Expecting rapid urban growth, the French planner Roger Aujame, employed by the United Nations, called for a revised city plan. A joint Soviet-Afghan commission led by Kabul’s chief architect, Esmetullah Enayat Seraj, and the Soviet urbanist Sergei Kolesnikov drafted a revised twenty-five-year plan for the capital, consulting periodically with Aujame. Their vision of Kabul entailed the wholesale reconstruction of the city center, including much of the old bazaar and the erection of high-rise residential, office, and commercial structures. Urban historian Elke Beyer likens the 1964 plan to earlier efforts in the planned cities of Brasilia and Chandigarh.29

Plans could be drafted, but amid the uncertain years of the constitutional project, the Afghan government declined to move forward. One element of Seraj and Kolesnikov’s plan proceeded in the mid-1960s: the construction of high-density residential districts known as mikroraion. Like other modernist districts, the mikroraion were designed to be integrated and self-sufficient, incorporating shopping centers, sports facilities, and schools. By 1970, dozens of long, four-story apartment blocks had been completed. Kabul grew, but vacancies remained in the mikroraion. Anthropologist Louis Dupree reasoned in 1973 that Afghans were reluctant to abandon the privacy of their traditional homes, but a younger generation might ultimately embrace them. Appropriately, Soviet advisors and Left-leaning Afghans comprised the district’s earliest residents.30

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, West German development efforts proceeded apace. Tensions between the two German states endured amid the semidétente of the decade, and Bonn endeavored to keep its archrival from gaining a diplomatic foothold in Afghanistan, thereby emerging as Kabul’s third-largest patron. The West Germans committed DM 240 million (around $60 million) to Afghanistan’s second five-year plan, funding a range of major infrastructure projects. Usually loath to assume local currency costs, the West German government pledged to cover three quarters of the required afghani expenses.31 Forested Paktia Province represented Bonn’s special sphere within Afghanistan. Visiting American observers gave the West German effort high marks. Some forty technicians and volunteers from Bonn’s Peace Corps manned an experimental farm, and a West German doctor cared for local patients. The Paktia Development Authority employed hundreds of Afghan laborers, compensating them with food. Agricultural techniques appeared to be improved, although the West Germans noted that local landlords resented their presence.32 Efforts to manage precious local forests proved less successful, as locals engaged in illegal wildcat logging operations, which the Kabul government appeared helpless to stop.33

US aid thinned in this period. Earlier fears of Afghanistan’s absorption into the Communist Bloc had proved overblown, and the principal rationale undergirding Afghan aid had been substantially weakened. At the height of the contest, US aid had been approved on political grounds. Diplomats and aid personnel hoped that their projects would prove to be economically beneficial, but they let geopolitical urgency override fiscal prudence. The political scientist Hans Morgenthau approvingly described the program in Afghanistan as a quintessential case of giving aid for expressly political ends, but Congress and elements of the policymaking community increasingly rejected this rationale.34 Consequently, especially under President Lyndon Johnson, Afghan aid shrank as the overall budgetary allotment contracted. Afghan requests faced increased scrutiny within a bureaucracy increasingly intent on reducing down such programs. Washington’s spirit of frugality only deepened after Richard Nixon succeeded Johnson.

Yet Afghan needs and aspirations remained; if anything, they grew as Afghan politics liberalized. Persistent turnover in Kabul, amid the constitutional experiment, limited the kingdom’s leverage in foreign capitals, however. A major drought and the ensuing famine of the early 1970s drew an international response. Crucially, drought relief and development became conjoined, as Western experts and Afghan allies perceived an opportunity to advance key agricultural projects. A Food for Work program, based partially on the Paktia Development Authority, launched in autumn 1971, but pairing relief with development proved to be a tragic mistake. Confronted with evidence of Food for Work’s inadequacies, the Kabul government dispatched the Afghan army—itself a product of modernization—to deliver food to remote, hard-hit provinces.

For younger, impatient, more radical Afghan modernizers, enough was enough. The state’s failure to deal with the famine confirmed criticisms made about the constitutional project since its inception. Allied with Daoud, who had maintained an almost hermetic existence over the past decade, an ambitious cohort of Afghan officers—some tied to the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA)—overthrew the monarchy early on July 17, 1973.

Daoud’s aspirations remained unchanged. Although he had to adapt to changed geopolitical circumstances in the détente era, he still pursued a program of capital-intensive modernization (see figure 5). Soviet assistance continued, but, as before, Daoud remained wary of committing extensively to one patron. US aid programs had shrunk dramatically and changed their orientation toward grassroots-level efforts. Amid the general discrediting of grandiose modernization projects, US officials sought to respond to “basic human needs.”35 Iran, its coffers filled with revenue from oil sales, was less fiscally constrained. Alarmed by the fall of the monarchy and the potential expansion of Soviet influence into Afghanistan, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi committed to an extensive program, promising to finance major infrastructure and industrial projects within Afghanistan (see figure 5). Iranian largesse had one clear string attached: the Shah required Daoud to negotiate in earnest with neighboring Pakistan. Faced again with a choice between confrontation and development, Daoud resoundingly chose the latter, and a localized détente flowered between Afghanistan and its eastern neighbor.

Figure 5. Construction work at the Kajakai Dam, Helmand Province, 1975.

Source: Photo courtesy of Boise State University Library, Boise, ID.

Daoud’s erstwhile allies in the Afghan military had their own ideas. A rift between the Afghan president and the Marxists had worsened, and the latter—fearing an imminent purge—set a coup into motion. On April 27, 1978, elements of the Afghan army and air force besieged Daoud in his palace, while battles between pro- and antiregime units raged throughout the Kabul area. Daoud and his family were executed sometime on the following morning, and the declaration of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan followed soon after.

Development under Fire, 1978–

More than any other event, the calamity of April 1978 looms as a disastrous consequence of Afghanistan’s Cold War–driven modernization era. In some accounts, the coup constitutes the fulfillment of Moscow’s long-term design within Afghanistan: the gradual Communization of the officer corps. No evidence has surfaced, however, of a direct Soviet role in Daoud’s downfall, and the notion that Moscow established a subversive force within the Afghan military remains unproven. As Antonio Giustozzi and Artemy Kalinovsky argue, it is unlikely that Soviet trainers engaged in direct efforts at indoctrination: it was inconsistent with existing training programs and likely to provoke a rupture with Kabul.36 Nor should it be assumed that Afghan trainees had universally positive or inspiring encounters with Soviet society, as Robert Crews notes.37 Early assessments of the ascendant Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) noted its polyglot character: an unsteady coalition between rival Marxist factions and others within the Afghan military. The Marxists profitably invoked patriotic and nationalist themes, decrying recent concessions made by Daoud to both Iran and Pakistan.

That is not to suggest that military modernization played no role in the downfall of Daoud’s republic or, for that matter, in the ousting of the monarchy five years earlier. Soviet aid and advising transformed the Afghan military—equipping it with modern weaponry, instilling doctrine, and fundamentally affecting the lives of thousands of Afghan trainees.38 More probable is that the experience of training abroad—rather than some grandiose, hitherto undetected subversive program— sparked discontent within the Afghan military, much as Amanullah’s foreign travels intensified his impatience with the slow pace of reform. Nationalism and a general accelerationism, fostered by contact with foreign societies, meshed temporarily with the aspirant Marxism of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, whose two principal leaders, Nur Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, had spent time not in the Soviet Union but in the United States.

Seemingly vindicated, the DRA launched an ambitious program of modernization. As Elisabeth Leake notes, it did not exceed comparable efforts elsewhere in the Global South, yet it was singularly misplaced in Afghanistan, where the extension of Kabuli power remained a relatively recent and unwelcome event. Development had sparked resistance before, but prior regimes had exercised greater caution.39 Notably, the DRA held similarly expansive plans for modernization and continued to solicit aid from Western governments. Washington and its allies pondered the merits of Afghan requests, but escalating repression and the ensuing backlash rendered them moot.

Thus, in March 1979, nearly twenty years after the riots in Kandahar, the western city of Herat erupted into open revolt. Superficially, Herat represented a less likely site of resistance to the Marxists than its southern counterpart did. A center of Sufism within Afghanistan, it had remained quiet during a brief 1975 Islamist insurrection against Daoud. Elements of the PDPA program, especially a campaign against illiteracy, could have otherwise appealed to Heratis, but the regime’s casual brutality and contempt toward Islam polarized the city and its surrounding province against the Marxists. Stationed within the city, the 17th Army Division was charged with suppressing the revolt but mutinied and sided with the rebels.40

Kabul appealed to its Soviet patrons for military intervention. “Hundreds of Afghan officers were trained in the Soviet Union,” an incredulous Kosygin said to Taraki on March 18. “Where are they all now?” “Most of them are Muslim reactionaries,” Taraki replied.41 His regime’s tenuous hold on the officer corps was fraying. Subsequent Soviet efforts to broaden the DRA’s political base backfired, helping spark a fatal schism between Taraki and Amin. Distrusting Amin, who ousted and murdered his former leader in the autumn, Moscow ultimately authorized military intervention. Soviet forces ostensibly sent to aid Amin in his struggle against a growing insurgency, killed the Afghan strongman late on the evening of December 27, 1979.

Once a site of peaceful, symbolic competition, where Americans and Soviets mingled freely and even socialized, Afghanistan became one of the East-West conflict’s worst, most ravaged battlegrounds. Yet the militarization of the Afghan Cold War did not preclude continued efforts at development –both within war-torn Afghanistan and just across the border–among the refugee camps of Pakistan. These endeavors are worth recounting—as sequels to the earlier competition and as forerunners to the conflicts of the post–Cold War era.

Much like its American adversary in South Vietnam, the Soviet Union complemented its military efforts with modernization. Moscow attempted to mechanize Afghan agriculture by providing Soviet-style machine tractor stations simultaneity its client with farm machinery. Much like earlier American advisors, the Soviets urged the use of chemical fertilizer on Afghan farms; unlike the Americans, they also promoted cotton cultivation. Moscow funded improvements in power generation, the expansion of Afghanistan’s natural-gas production, and improvements in broadcast communications. Kabul’s mikroraion districts filled with new residents, as the capital’s population swelled to an estimated 1.5 million; unit availability was now the problem. This, of course, hints at the challenge besetting virtually all Soviet efforts: the depredations of warfare. Soviet-built projects, ranging from tractor stations to schools, offered targets for rebel attacks, and the thousands of Soviet civilian specialists within the country required extensive security. Absent combat, the conflict’s physical and psychological strains exacted a heavy toll on Afghanistan’s infrastructure and economy. Heavy Soviet tanks steadily ground down the country’s rudimentary road system. Threats and despair thinned the Afghan workforce, depleting agricultural and industrial productivity. Moscow could not showcase the virtues of its own system in such circumstances; at best, it could keep its desperate client on life support.42 Far from promoting the further socialization of the economy, Soviet advisors urged their clients to accord space for private enterprise.43 In Kabul, a despairing Czechoslovak diplomat complained about the “absurdities” in the DRA’s economic planning and its incessant requests.44 Eventually, the financial strain proved to be too much for the faltering Soviet government.

Eastward, in the sprawling refugee camps of the Pakistani borderlands, other development efforts took wing. Even in the face of calamity, the United Nations and a growing cast of international relief agencies perceived opportunity. The UN High Commission for Refugees played a leading but far from exclusive role; its efforts were buttressed by the World Food Program, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a host of private NGOs. Retired diplomat and analyst Bruce Amstutz placed twenty-eight organizations in the border regions.45 Unconsciously repeating earlier efforts to foster “self-help,” aid-agency personnel worried about fostering a culture of dependency among refugees and attempted to link relief to work. The International Labor Organization perceived the need to instruct the refugees on trades, domestic crafts, and hygiene. Utterly reliant on donated food, the refugees submitted to a camp system that was, as Leake writes, far more intrusive than anything they had known in Afghanistan—even under the aspiring communists of the PDPA.46

Other actors were better prepared to exploit the chaotic environs of the refugee camps, working amid their traumatized, desperate inhabitants. The camps of the borderlands alienated a rising generation from traditional affiliations. Of the foot soldiers who emerged from the camps, journalist Ahmed Rashid has written, “They had no memories of the past, no plans for the future, while the present was everything.”47 Amid the battered remnants of Afghanistan’s age of modernization, the ascendant Taliban staked its legitimacy on fidelity to an imagined, traditional Pashtun piety. The material promises of its unhappy predecessors and rivals remained unfulfilled.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars of development have played a pivotal role in explicating Afghanistan’s place in the postwar international system. Several pioneering works within the study of development have established the Afghan state’s crucial significance as a site of competing models of modernization while exploring the challenges faced by specific programs and their conceptual paradoxes.

Amin Saikal’s Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival and Jonathan Lee’s Afghanistan are the two best comprehensive histories of the country.48 Dupree’s Afghanistan, compiled through decades of firsthand observation, remains a vital source on programs in the postwar period49 Dupree offers telling criticisms of the Helmand Valley project and concurrent Soviet efforts, yet his relatively optimistic outlook offers a window into precalamity perceptions of Afghan development. Crews’s Afghan Modern is a rich, eloquent depiction of Afghan internationalism and modernism across recent centuries.50 Vartan Gregorian’s venerable The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan remains a vital resource on the early 20th century.51

Elisabeth Leake has written two vital books on Afghanistan. The Defiant Border examines, from myriad perspectives, the implications of the conflict over the Pashtun borderlands.52 Afghan Crucible applies the same nuanced, international approach to the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s.53

Timothy Nunan’s Humanitarian Invasion is an indispensable international and transnational work, examining the paradoxes of postwar development in Afghanistan. Generally focused on Soviet efforts, it boasts informed coverage of concurrent US and West German programs. No work does more to consider the paradoxical weakening of the Afghan state at the hands of foreign modernizers and their elite allies, with coverage ranging into the era of the Soviet-Afghan War.54 Aiding Afghanistan, by Paul Robinson and Jay Dixon, nicely complements Nunan’s work, offering an overview of Soviet projects within Afghanistan and the doctrines undergirding them. Comprehensive appendices establish Aiding Afghanistan’s value as a reference work.55 Giustozzi and Kalinovsky’s Missionaries of Modernity examines the role of Soviet technicians in Afghanistan, amid a broader treatment of advisory missions.56

Building upon a groundbreaking 2002 journal article, Nick Cullather’s The Hungry World, a broader study of US efforts to foster agricultural reform in the postwar world, features an indelible depiction of the Helmand Valley project, examining its origins, conceits, implementation, and ultimate consequences. Other chapters, which range in coverage from Mexico to India, South Vietnam, and the Philippines, help contextualize the book’s material on Afghanistan.57

Special mention should be given to Abdul Ghafoor Arefi’s 1975 Indiana University doctoral dissertation on Afghan urbanization: “Urban Policies, Planning, and Implementation in Kabul, Afghanistan.” Arefi’s dissertation, available through the ProQuest database, offers an informative glimpse of the challenges of Kabul’s rapid urbanization.58 Its author was tragically killed by the PDPA's Khalq faction in 1979.

Jenifer Van Vleck’s definitive study of American ascendancy in aviation, Empire of the Air, depicts Pan American’s pioneering efforts in Afghanistan, although a 2009 journal article offers greater detail.59,60 James Tharin Bradford examines the interplay of antinarcotics policy with Afghan politics in Poppies, Politics, and Power.61

Such works are models of development history; Afghanistan holds its own as a field of study. Yet considerable room remains for further scholarship. A thorough chronicle of the Helmand Valley project, which evolved considerably across three decades, could shed considerable light on changing notions of agrarian development from the 1940s into the late 1970s. Educational development constitutes another worthwhile topic. The University of Wyoming, for example, engaged in a decades-long project of educational modernization in Kabul, joined at times by peer institutions.

The UN mission in Afghanistan, noted in its early heyday, would offer a worthy case study of protracted international modernization efforts. The profound breadth of Communist Bloc efforts within Afghanistan offers myriad opportunities for case studies: the Salang Pass tunnel, the Kabul Airport, and Moscow’s own hydroelectric and irrigation projects are obvious starting points. Afghanistan’s significance as an early battleground, narrowly preceding arenas such as India, Egypt, and Indonesia, accord it significance as a proving ground of early aid doctrines.

International medical efforts within Afghanistan represent another promising topic. The CARE Medico clinic operated in Kabul before the Soviet invasion, while international specialists, attached to the United Nations or other private organizations, pursued campaigns against polio, malaria, typhus, and other major illnesses.

While 21st-century political circumstances make this observation wishful, even whimsical, no area of Afghan development cries out for close study as much as military modernization does, especially the Soviet role in establishing the modern Afghan military. The common belief that Moscow’s military training and aid programs led to the overthrow of both the monarchy and the first republic lends this project special urgency. Conceivably, former Soviet records in other successor republics and in Warsaw Pact allies, especially in Prague, might afford some insights on military modernization, as would the reminiscences of surviving Afghan officers and Communist Bloc trainers. Nunan’s pioneering work on Soviet advisors offers one potential methodological model.

Detailed histories of development within Afghanistan, before the wars, are needed, particularly those that range well beyond Kabul. Undoubtedly, they will uncover additional instances of folly, myopia, or conceptual arrogance—staple themes within the literature. They will depict the troubled interactions of foreign experts, who were acting from unrealistic programs and accelerated timetables, with an Afghan state troubled by internal fractures and limited capacity. Other stories will emerge, however, of meaningful improvements in health, education, and productivity. These stories can usefully dispel static, pejorative images of Afghanistan and perhaps inform future efforts within the country.

Primary Sources

The fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and deepening authoritarianism in Russia render research in Kabul and Moscow uncertain in the early 21st century. Yet considerable Afghan records are hosted online. The Afghanistan Center at Kabul University database contains myriad documents from the 20th century, including economic-planning statements from the Daoud years. The University of Arizona and the University of Nebraska Omaha have digitized and uploaded publications, including the Kabul Times, Karawan, and Khalq. The Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) website has an indispensable collection of Soviet documents, gathered during the 1990s. These are somewhat complemented by a parallel collection hosted by the National Security Archive, some of which remain untranslated.

US Governmental Collections

The US National Archives (USNA) in College Park, Maryland, are an underrecognized trove of research on Afghanistan. Although US representation in Kabul began relatively late, in 1942, diplomats compiled extensive records on Afghan politics and the economy. These may be found principally within two record groups (RG): 59 and 84. The former represent the central files of the State Department in Washington; the latter contain records of the US diplomatic mission in Kabul. RG 59 offers a surer bet, as it tends to be more comprehensive in scope, yet the mission files in RG 84 may contain unique documents not transmitted to Washington. Within RG 59 are both the central files and the files of various bureaus and desks, generally known as lot files. Changing geopolitical conceptions of Afghanistan entailed that it was first associated with the Near East (a bygone geopolitical concept) and later with South Asia. The central files were organized initially on a numeric basis, akin to the Dewey Decimal System and then, from 1963 to 1973, by a confusing alphanumeric system. In 1973, the State Department shifted to a digitized system. Cables from 1973 onward are available online at the Archive of American Diplomacy. Accompanying memoranda and long-form, noncabled embassy reports (akin to despatches or airgrams) were microfilmed into the P-Reel files and are not available online. As of 2023, only files through 1979 are available.

Two other RG detail the activities of aid agencies in Afghanistan. RG 469 captures the activities of the various pre-1961 agencies, while RG 286 contains files following the establishment of the Agency for International Development. Some pre-1961 files will appear within RG 286, especially if they pertain to a project commenced earlier and completed after the transition. Research in aid files is potentially useful but often less predictable than research within State Department records.

Although records from the 1940s do not feature extensively within the series, the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States volumes otherwise provide a rich array of White House and diplomatic records, frequently touching on aid and development questions.All print volumes are now available online.

A useful but at times frustrating database is Gale’s Afghanistan and the US, 1945–1963, which features digitized records scanned from prior microfilm collections (all from file series within RG-59).62 The quality of the database is uneven. It offers superb coverage of the late 1940s but only nominal material on the 1950s, while its coverage of the early 1960s falls somewhere in between and is marred by fragmentary files. Curiously, it also features files from the 1930s attesting to Kabul’s quest to open full relations with Washington. Properly used, it can save considerable time and expense in the archive, but some degree of annoyance awaits. It cannot be accessed without a library subscription.

Richard Scott, an indefatigable agricultural expert, has posted his personal files related to the later years of the Helmand Valley project online.63

European Governmental Collections

Washington’s allies spent less in Afghanistan but often proved to be keen, informed observers on development questions. British records at the UK National Archives (UKNA) in Kew illuminate the often trenchant (sometimes acerbic) views of London’s diplomats. Records from the former India Office, housed in the British Library, are useful for the pre-1947 period. The same may be said of French diplomats. Records from the French Ministry of External Affairs are housed north of Paris at La Courneuve. Embassy records are stored in Nantes. Of the European allies, West Germany proved most active in Afghanistan, and its diplomatic files are stored in the Auswärtiges Amt, in Berlin. West German files related to various forms of assistance are available at the Bundesarchiv, in Koblenz.

In addition to the CWIHP records, noted in “Primary Sources,” the files present in the archives of former Warsaw Pact countries can illuminate the policies of the Communist Bloc. Prague is by far the best place to research. Czechoslovakia had a visible role in Afghanistan preceding World War II and acted as Moscow’s chief ally in Kabul for much of the Cold War. Czechoslovak experts participated on major projects throughout Afghanistan. Present to a lesser degree were Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, while Hungary played a seemingly nominal role. East German records pose a special case. East Berlin did not open formal relations with Kabul until 1973 and only established a mission there after the April coup. Thereafter, the East Germans worked closely with the Soviets. The former Yugoslavia was a nonaligned friend to Afghanistan; records housed in Belgrade may be particularly illuminating.

A helpful collection of Soviet records, somewhat overlapping with the CWIHP but also increasingly distinctive in its treatment of the final years, is Pierre Allan, Sowjetische Geheimdokumente zum Afganistankrieg (1978–1991).64

UN records in New York are a potentially rich source on development and relief programs within Afghanistan. Lamentably, records from the early years of UN technical assistance do not appear to have been preserved in New York (some sources attest to a UN archive within Kabul). A considerable number of UN records from the New York archive are now available online.65

Nongovernmental Collections

Boise State University holds several collections related to the Morrison-Knudsen firm. Regrettably, few surviving documents there pertain to Afghanistan, and State Department records (ironically) offer a better record of the Helmand Valley project. An intriguing collection of photographs survives, however. The American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming, offers a richer array of Afghanistan-related collections. The mining engineer Walsh bequeathed his papers there, and the accumulated files of the University of Wyoming depict the school’s multidecade efforts within Afghanistan. A wealth of Afghanistan-related materials is stored at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Special Collections center. Particularly useful are the organizational records of economic consultants Arthur Paul and Robert Nathan. Nathan separately bequeathed his diary and personal papers to Cornell University. The papers of the former Pan American Airways can be found at the University of Miami.

The Institute Afghanica, in Bubendorf, Switzerland, hosts thousands of rare Dari and Pashto publications and records related to West German development programs in Afghanistan. An extensive collection of rare photographs further graces this unique, underused archive.

Further Reading

  • Beyer, Elke. “Competitive Coexistence: Soviet Town Planning and Housing Projects in Kabul in the 1960s.” Journal of Architecture 17, no. 3 (June 2012): 309–332.
  • Beyer, Elke. “Building Institutions in Kabul in the 1960s: Sites, Spaces and Architectures of Development Cooperation.” Journal of Architecture 24, no. 5 (July 2019): 604–630.
  • Bradford, James Tharin. Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019.
  • Crews, Robert D. Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015.
  • Cullather, Nick. The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
  • Franck, Peter G. “Technical Assistance through the United Nations: The UN Mission in Afghanistan, 1950–53.” In Hands across Frontiers: Case Studies in Technical Cooperation. Edited by Howard M. Teaf and Peter G. Franck, 13-64. Leiden, The Netherlands: Sijthoff, 1955.
  • Giustozzi, Antonio, and Artemy M. Kalinovsky. Missionaries of Modernity: Advisory Missions and the Struggle for Hegemony in Afghanistan and Beyond. London: Hurst, 2016.
  • Gregorian, Vartan. The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880–1946. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969.
  • Leake, Elisabeth. Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.
  • Lee, Jonathan. Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present. London: Reaktion, 2022.
  • Nunan, Timothy. Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Rakove, Robert B. Days of Opportunity: The United States and Afghanistan before the Soviet Invasion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023.
  • Robinson, Paul, and Jay Dixon. Aiding Afghanistan: A History of Soviet Assistance to a Developing Country. London: Hurst, 2013.
  • Saikal, Amin. Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival. London: I. B. Tauris, 2012.
  • Van Vleck, Jenifer. “An Airline at the Crossroads of the World: Ariana Afghan Airlines, Modernization, and the Global Cold War.” History and Technology 25, no. 1 (March 2009): 3–24.