Hidden histories: Afghanistan

We all know about Afghanistan – a poor and predominantly Muslim nation that’s never really made it out of the Middle Ages, right?

Well, it turns out that’s simply not the case: retconning Afghanistan as a backward barbarian enclave has probably been useful for the global psyops propaganda machine (because what does one do with backward nations but export some much needed corporate democracy, in the hope of neutralising the threat that our earlier meddlings have created?), but as recently as the 1960s, Afghanistan was a modern progressive country… and to look at photographs from that era, you’d be hard pressed to tell at a glance that you weren’t looking at the science classrooms, record stores or factories of some Western nation [via MetaFilter].

Makes you wonder how much of our own national mythology has been carefully constructed retrospectively in order to tell a story we find comforting. For example, I’ve read quite a few books that suggest Britain’s “stiff upper lip” during World War Two was a long way from being as universal as we like to imagine. We’re also pretty fond of mentioning how we stopped the slave trade, but the fact that we played a large part in kickstarting that particular transAtlantic business model is usually left unvoiced…

So, a user-contribution opportunity for a Friday: share a conveniently glossed-over moment from the history of your preferred nation-state!

9 thoughts on “Hidden histories: Afghanistan”

  1. The Obama administration used similar spin tactics when forcing the hand of the Pakistan government into putting down the historically independent tribal enclaves.

    There was a lot of talk of the Pakistani Taliban being only 12 hours from the capital or something but that’s a bit like saying that the IRA were 12 hours from London… it plants images in the mind that the place is some kind of raging warzone whereas the reality is completely different.

    Note that this is not always spin. A lot of the time, policy makers simply don’t know any better. Big organisations get locked into certain mindsets. Personalities play a part. Media pick up on certain narratives better than others… And now we’re drifting into my PhD so I’ll shut up.

  2. I’m not sure what 1960s photographs prove other than Afghanistan was a progressive modern state in the 1960s. These photos might not even be representative of the true country in the 1960s, but propaganda efforts for some reason or another. Not saying they are, just that its easily a possibility.

    If these photos are representative of Afghanistan in the 1960s the progressive modern government obviously failed at some point (probably the Soviet invasion, but I havn’t reserached it) or the Taliban wouldn’t have gained power. Thus, I don’t see how portrying them as backwards barbarians is as far off as you claim. Was it overdone? Probably. Is the backwards image as off base as you suggest, probably not.

  3. Not saying the portrayal is necessarily off-base, Chad (barbarism is a strong word, and one with a long, long history of meaning essentially “foreigners whose customs are repellent to us”, so I dare say many of the people using it are using it accurately with respect to their own opinions and feelings), but I was trying to raise the point that the barbarous state is implied to have been historically continual; the nation had its narrative rewritten, if you will.

    I don’t know much about Afghanistan’s decline either, but the point about the Taliban taking power as a result of the Russian invasion is pretty spot on… largely because the Taliban’s forerunners were on the CIA payroll for their sterling work against the invading Commies. You ever seen the dedication to “the gallant people of Afghanistan” at the close of Rambo III? Sure, they were “barbarians” by that point, but they were useful barbarians, which apparently makes a big difference to how you portray them and talk about them in public… the enemy of my enemy is my friend. At least for now. And look how that worked out in the long run… understandable why you might want to gloss over that period of history if you worked in certain places.

    In other words, I’m using a specific point to illustrate a general one. We narrativize other nations in the exactly same way that we make narratives of our own individual lives, to make sense of the events they contain in a way that lets us sleep at night.

    The truth is a rare thing, and it must be mined for and displayed at every opportunity, IMHO; it’s how we become better people, how we learn when we’ve been lied to. Hence the post. 🙂

  4. One bit of history that took me a while to find out was the fact that the US was on the French side in the Napoleanic wars. We call it the war of 1812, and count it as a win because we did achieve our objective of keeping the Brits from conscripting our soldiers. The fact we were allied with the losing side gets conveniently left out.

  5. I have studied and researched a bit into the History of Afghanistan and indeed it was a pretty modern nation until the Soviet Invasion which led to the CIA funded Mujaheddin groups to surface with the help of the Pakistani government and secret service institutions. The main incentive was a nationalist movement to fight the Soviets, however, the war effort required more Afghan – and then foreign fighters – to replenish the ranks…this is where the idea to instill a religious spin to the war led to the rise of Islamic based fighters. These fighters after the Soviets left soon came into power after a few civil wars with the Taliban rising as the ultimate winners. With the Wahhabi doctrine in one hand and veteran Afghan and foreign fighters in the other…the Taliban were able to and still do to this day pose a significant and in many manners a formidable opponent. They are still using the same tactics used against the Soviets with their guerrilla tactics and blending into the population.

    But I digress from the original idea of this post…indeed national mythology allows one to hang on to an idea and adopt it as truth as ones own identity. Case in point: Nationalism is in reality an idea that people adhere to as a significant marker for identification. Every nation is prone to this and the few who don’t are a minority who don’t see themselves as part of that nation or see themselves as part of another identity be it religion, race, ethnicity, language and in parts a part of a larger global community.

  6. Excuse me, but I do not see in these photos a persuasive argument that Afghanistan was a modern country in the 1950s and 1960s. I see a persuasive argument that Kabul was a modern city in the 1950s and 1960s. The one photo outside Kabul shows nurses conducting what amounted to an outreach program to the rural population; this echoes the activities of doctors and nurses to American Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s. On its face, it suggests that conditions were less modern outside Kabul.

    Can you give any evidence of modernity in the Afghan hinterlands during the same period?

  7. Mr Raven, I do not fault you, sir. The author of the piece made the claim, not you. But even if the claim for all Afghanistan is an exaggeration, the evidence that Kabul was socially advanced 50 years ago comes as a welcome surprise.

  8. @Raven
    I missed your point slightly in your post, but got it in your response, “We narrativize other nations in the exactly same way that we make narratives of our own individual lives, to make sense of the events they contain in a way that lets us sleep at night.”

    And, I agree with you:

    “the enemy of my enemy is my friend. At least for now. And look how that worked out in the long run”

    It didn’t work out well. I know the actual Soviet invasion vs. CIA history well, but it was the prior history of Afghanistan I didn’t know.

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