History of the West's relationship to Afghanistan over past 200 years


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009

All posts on "Adam Curtis Blog" in the category: Afghanistan


Part One - 1971
There are many individuals and fragmentary events that have led to the present situation in Afghanistan. But there was a moment in 1971 when four separate things happened in and around Kabul that in their different ways reached back into the past and forward into the future.

That year the BBC sent a film crew to Kabul to recreate the first great military disaster of the British Empire - the retreat from Kabul in 1841. The BBC began by gathering Afghan tribesmen together to be extras. They acted out being taught cricket by the British. The Afghans then pretended to be fierce rebels storming out of the Kabul Bazaar to attack the British camp outside the city.
The BBC's adviser was Louis Dupree. He was an American who had lived in Kabul since 1955. He will appear in many different ways in this story. But for the moment all you need to know is that he had once walked the route of the British retreat alone in winter, and also that he knew everyone in power in Kabul.

Dupree had noticed that the demonstrations by the students at Kabul University were increasing, and often degenerating into fights. At the end of 1970 he took a photograph of one. It is grainy and indistinct, but he had caught a moment which was to have immense consequences for everyone in Afghanistan, and around the world.
Kabul university had been created by the West, in particular by America and West Germany. Then the Soviet Union decided they had to pour money in too. So they built the enormous Kabul Polytechnic.

Both were seedbeds for western ideas, Foreign students and teachers from the west had flooded in and with them came the modern revolutionary ideas from the campuses in Europe and America. And very quickly the Kabul students set up a wide range of Leninist and Maoist groups.

Dupree had captured the moment when those groups had begun to confront a new group of revolutionaries on campus. They were the Islamists. The Islamists too had taken revolutionary ideas from the West but they had fused them with Islam. One of the Islamist groups had found a poem written by a Leninist student that praised Lenin using a term reserved only for the prophet Mohammed.They sneakily showed it to a group of conservative mullahs in Kabul and all hell broke loose.

All sorts of people were in and around the demonstrations and battles that followed and many of them will appear later in this story.Kabul was trying to imitate the West in other ways. Abdul Habib Aziz had recently opened the only supermarket in Afghanistan. Then in the spring of 1971 one of Italy's leading conceptual artists turned up in Kabul and decided to buy the building above Mr Aziz's supermarket and turn it into a hotel. The artist was called Alighiero e Boetti. Boetti is a fascinating and mysterious figure. He was part of the artistic avant-garde that emerged from 1960s radicalism in Italy.

Boetti was fascinated by chance and randomness. He would post letters to other artists he knew with the wrong address and then show the ones that were returned. His works often had secret codes built into them. Some of the codes have been cracked, others remain mysterious. No-one knows if the hotel was a conceptual art-work in itself or just somewhere for him and his friends to stay. But what is certain is that Boetti saw in Afghanistan a way of solving what he saw as the central crisis in the West, the overwhelming belief in the individual as an inspired creator.

Boetti had started as a member of the Arte Povera group. Like many avant-garde groups at that time they wanted to challenge the 'system', and to do that they attacked the notion of self-expression and the creation of things and objects - which they believed was central to consumer capitalism. Boetti said that what he saw in Afghanistan was the opposite. It was a country empty of created things.

"Afghan homes, for example, are empty: no furniture therefore no objects commonly placed on furniture. There are only a few carpets and mattresses on which people lie down, drink, smoke and eat. I also like the fact that Afghans wear the same clothes at day and at night. Nothing has been added to the landscape. Rocks are moved and used to build cube houses. The resistance with which Afghans oppose our civilisation has always amazed me."

Following his principles Boetti found Abib and Fatima. They were embroiderers, and he gave them maps of the world as it was then in 1971 with all its borders. It was, he said, a given diagram of power in the world. He asked the two women to create a series of embroidered maps where each country would be coloured by its own flag. After that Boetti said, I did nothing. And 500 women started making the maps overseen by Abib and Fatima.

Just as the Afghan student revolutionaries had strange dreams of the west which they were going to try and impose on Afghanistan, so Boetti was trying to use a strange fantasy version of Afghanistan to free himself from the conventions of the west.

Meanwhile the BBC crew had moved location along the road to Jalalabad. They were retracing the terrible retreat of British soldiers when out of 16,000 only one man made it the 115 miles. Again the BBC used local tribesmen to act out the massacre - showing how their ancestors had poured fire down on the terrified British soldiers.

The tone of the BBC programme is of its time. It is determined also to show the dark side of the British Empire, the horrific acts of cruelty ordered by the British high command. It is saying - we may have lost an empire but we have become better people, and such horrors will never happen again.

At the end of the film is a scene showing how the British would tie Indian rebels to cannon muzzles and blow them to pieces. But a few years ago that section was edited out and you have to get special permission to show it. Things had changed again.

It is very horrific and absolutely not for the squeamish, but if you want to have a look at it - here it is.

As the BBC were filming a group of students from Nottingham University drove past. They were a group of mountaineers who were on their way to their first expedition outside Europe. They were going to climb a peak in the Hindu Kush called Koh-i-Khaaik. Their leader was called Peter Boardman. He would become one of the world's most famous climbers, but this particular trip was going to go terribly wrong.

In 1977 Boardman recorded a description to camera of what happened both literally, and inside his own mind during his terrifying ordeal. And how Afghanistan had haunted him ever since.

Last edited:


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
KABUL: CITY NUMBER ONE (continued):part Two 1972 - 1772

In early 1970s the Italian conceptual artist, Alighiero e Boetti often visited the hotel he had bought in Kabul, Number One Hotel. By 1972 it was being used not just by Boetti's friends but by more and more western travellers.

All around them in Kabul revolutionary forces were emerging who wanted to overthrow the King. One of these forces was Islamism. The westerners heard odd stories about a man called The Engineer on the university campus. He was supposed to be going round throwing acid in the faces of girls who didn't cover their heads.

Two hundred years before, the first modern Islamist had emerged to the north of Afghanistan, in the Caucasus. He was called Sheikh Mansur. Mansur fused ideas of nationalism and anti-colonial struggle with Islam and used them to lead a struggle against the Russian forces that were trying to occupy Chechnya and Daghestan.

In 1876 a professor in Turin discovered a collection of letters written by Sheikh Mansur to the professor's father. In them Sheikh Mansur reveals that he was in reality an Italian from Turin called Giovanni Battista Boetti.

He was a direct ancestor of Alighiero e Boetti.

The letters tell an amazing story. Giovanni Boetti had been born near Turin. In the early 1770s he had run away from home and become a monk for the Dominican order. He then travelled as a missionary in Asia Minor and had all sorts of adventures and scandalous intrigues and love affairs. Then at some point Boetti converted to Islam and became a "Mussulman Prophet" with the power to raise and lead an army of thousands of Muslims.

From other accounts of Sheikh Mansur it is clear that this power came from the fact that he had fused what were modern western ideas of nationalism and anti-imperialism with Islamic ideas. Up to that point the resistance to the growing Russian empire had been from secular leaders in Chechnya. And they had failed.

Mansur-Boetti was something new and mysterious.

Then the Russians noticed Boetti. In 1785 General Potemkin wrote to Catherine the Great:

"On the opposite bank of the river Sunja in the village of Aldy a prophet has appeared and started to preach. He has submitted superstitious and ignorant people to his will by claiming to have had a revelation"

The Russians decided to send an army of three thousand men to destroy this prophet. They marched though the mountains and the farmland where Grozny now stands and across the river into the village of Aldy. But when they arrived they found no-one there. It was as if Boetti and all his army had disappeared. "As though they were ghosts" wrote one Russian.

The Russians destroyed the village completely and then set off on the return march. But Boetti had hidden his army in the forest covered mountains and he had set up an ambush. The Islamists slaughtered over half the Russian force and most of the survivors drowned trying to flee across the Sunja River. It was the start of what the Chechens today see as a 200 year war to remove the Russian occupation.

Here are photos of Giovanni Battista Boetti and his descendant Alighiero e Boetti. Both were cultural warriors - the fake Sheikh struggling against the Russian attempt to destroy Chechen national identity, the later Boetti struggling against the culture of individual self expression which he believed was corroding the west. The Sheikh used armed struggle, his descendent used the possibly less effective weapon of performance art.

But maybe its not true. Over the last 100 years scholars have argued about the authenticity of the letters.

Possibly they were extraordinary fantasy? An elaborate fiction about Islam and the west written by the older Boetti. Or possibly forged and planted in the archive by someone else? Noone knows for sure.

By the mid 20th century the force of Islamism had disappeared from the western mind. In the simple world of the cold war it seemed as if the dangerous complexities of nationalism and politicised religion had virtually disappeared. Here is part of a film made for the BBC in 1961 by Fitzroy Maclean. He was an upper class British adventurer who had links to the Secret Service. He was also reputed to be one of the models for James Bond.

Maclean's film is about Khruschev's attempt to wipe out all national identity in the Soviet Empire. Maclean is suspicious, he travels to the Caucusus and sees another possible unified future. A world where everyone will become American.

But he also adds a warning. He points out that throughout Asia and Africa the Soviets are doing precisely the opposite - encouraging nationalism as a weapon in their cold-war struggle with America. Might this not have unforeseen consequences for the Soviet Union in the future?

Last week six Italian soldiers died in a suicide truck bomb-blast in Kabul. The deaths shocked Italy and a state funeral was held in Rome. At the funeral Prime Minister Berlusconi became the first western leader to call for the western troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

But Roberto Saviano the expert on the Neapolitan mafia - the Camorra - pointed out that Italy's relationship to Afghanistan was far more complicated. The soldiers who died, he said, came from the south of Italy, an area where their life chances have been blunted by corruption and organised crime. Their only option out of the trap was the army - which had then taken them to Afghanstan. The country that produces 90% of the heroin in Italy and the rest of Europe.

And it is that heroin that fuels the power and corruption of organised crime in Southern Italy.

But back in 1972 that trade with Afghanistan did not exist. Until the westerners began taking heroin. In his hotel in Kabul Boetti was one of the first, but many, many more would follow.

At the same time he was still pursuing his project of using Afghanistan to attack the western belief in the artist as individual creator. He got the Afghan women embroiderers he was working with to embroider another coded piece. But this time the code numbers referred to the anniversary of his birth and his predicted date of death - he was still trapped by individualism

The Afghans responded to the westerners' desire for drugs - for hashish and heroin - by selling them to the westerners. Then the drugs began to be smuggled out of the country. To start with the smuggling was done by the westerners themselves

This is a section of a BBC film shot in the summer of 1977 on the Afghan - Iran border. The customs officers are searching the line of travellers coming back from Afghanistan towards Europe. Then their eye is caught by the VW bus of an Italian lawyer and his wife.

The film returns to the Italian lawyer few days later in Mashhad prison. It is a brief but very moving interview. 18 months later the revolution in Iran was going to begin, and Mashhad prison would become one of the places where the revolutionary regime locked up its prisoners. It then became a place of mass execution as the Islamists around Khomeini hi-jacked the revolution.

I have tried to find out what happened to the lawyer - Roberto Sagressi (?). There is no "programme-as-completed" form for the film in the BBC archives. He just simply disappeared. It would be good to know what did happen to him.

In the face of Berlusconi's demand for withdrawal the other western leaders have asserted that they must continue the fight against the Taliban.

But who are the Taliban? They - like everything else in this story - remain a mystery. We never see them on the TV. They are always just out of sight behind the trees in the shots.

And again and again journalists who accompany the troops report that when they enter a village from which they have been attacked, which they have then bombed and shelled, there is no-one there. There are no bodies, not even blood on the ground. But they know the fighters have been there. The Taliban have disappeared the soldiers say "like ghosts"

Here's a fascinating report - both written and filmed - by Sean Smith of the Guardian. It was filmed during Operation Panther's Claw this year.

There are also growing reports that the Taliban are no longer a fundamentalist group. That those politics and ideas have been destroyed by greed for the power and profits that the drugs trade brings. They too have become the victims of heroin. They are gradually becoming are an eastern version of the Camorra. Both groups shaped and supported by the insatiable consumer demand in the West.

We aren't fighting what we are told we are fighting.

Here is a bit from a really good report by Stephen Grey which Newsnight broadcast. The troops enter a Taliban town. All "the ghosts" have disappeared - but they have left behind 11 tons of heroin.

In 1791 Giovani Batista Boetti was captured. He was taken to Catherine the Great who wanted to see the man who had used Islam to defeat the Russian mighty army. He was then locked up in St Petersburg fortress. He wrote one last letter to Professor Ottino's father. Posted from St Petersburg. Then he died in 1794.

But maybe the letter was a fantasy written by Boetti. And really Sheikh Mansur came from the village of Aldy outside Grozny. No-one knows

Almost exactly 200 years later his relative Alighiero e Boetti died - of cancer - but also weakened ,some believed, by his addiction. It was 1994. The day he died the Taliban began their march from the south to take over Kabul and they promised they would destroy the drugs trade. They were supported by the west.

At the same time the Russian army invaded Chechnya to suppress the insurgent nationalism and Islamism. Here is one of the earliest photos - a Russian helicopter downed in the same forests that Boetti - aka Mansur - had destroyed the Russians in 1785.

Alighiero e Boetti had asked that his ashes be scattered in the seven coloured lakes of Afghanistan called Bandi A Mir. But because of the fighting between the Taliban and the warlords it couldn't happen. His ashes still remain in Italy.

He had missed the predicted date of his death by 29 years.

Last edited:


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Kabul: City Number One - Part 3


When you look at footage of the fighting in Helmand today everyone assumes it is being played out against an ancient background of villages and fields built over the centuries.

This is not true. If you look beyond the soldiers, and into the distance, what you are really seeing are the ruins of one of the biggest technological projects the United States has ever undertaken. Its aim was to use science to try and change the course of history and produce a modern utopia in Afghanistan. The city of Lashkar Gah was built by the Americans as a model planned city, and the hundreds of miles of canals that the Taliban now hide in were constructed by the same company that built the San Francisco Bay Bridge and Cape Canaveral.

Here is what Helmand province looks like today.

The story of this strange forgotten project started with the holocaust which had the unforeseen consequence of making Afghanistan very rich.

The fur trade in Europe which had been predominantly run by Jews was closed down. It moved to New York where there was a growing demand for astrakhan coats - made with the fur of fat-tailed sheep from Afghanistan. Here is a classic piece of Afghan promotion of their key export. And a fat tailed sheep.

As a result dollars poured into Afghanistan and by 1946 the country had $100 million in reserve. The King, Zahir Shah, decided to spend the money on a dam. His aim was to create a modern state - and with it spread the power of the Pashtun tribes. So he hired the giant American firm Morrison Knudsen who had built the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, and they began surveying Afghanistan's biggest river - the Helmand.
Here is a page from the Morrison Knudsen Magazine that expresses the ambition and scale of the project. Little America in Afghanistan.

I want to thank Nick Cullather from Indiana University both for this and for many of the extraordinary details in this story. He is a brilliant historian.

And in the early 50s one of the MK engineers called Paul Jones wrote a book about his time in Helmand. He called it Afghanistan Venture. Here is bit from the book. It gives an idea of the idealism of the Americans involved - and possibly of the Afghans too.

But almost immediately things started to go wrong. In 1949 the first, small diversion dam was built. But it raised the level of the water table in the whole area. And that brought salt to the surface.
The American engineers realised this meant that the whole project probably wouldn't work. But at that very moment President Truman made a speech promising to give aid to poor countries. It was the start of the Cold War and Truman was going to use development projects and American money to stop countries from becoming communist.

The Americans liked dams. They were a way of challenging the communists because they would create more fertile land - so people could be better off without having to redistribute land through a revolution. In 1952 the Helmand Valley Authority was set up. It was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority - the TVA - created by Roosevelt in the 1930s.

Faced with this the engineers' doubts about the project were buried and forgotten. Massive loans poured in from America and two giant dams were built plus 300 miles of big canals.

But more problems emerged. Everything became waterlogged which led to weeds. Salt kept on suddenly appearing. And the reservoirs and the canals made the water cooler which meant that there couldn't be any vineyards and orchards any longer. In future they could only grow grain.

But again all the doubts and worries were overwhelmed because the American technocrats and politicians had become fascinated by a new idea. It was called "Modernization Theory". It said that there was a way of using science and technology not just to stop countries like Afghanistan going communist, but to actually transform them into democratic capitalist societies like America.

Modernization Theory had been invented by an ambitious academic at Harvard called Walt Whitman Rostow. He said that if you put the right technologies in place and educated key elites then the countries would inevitably develop into advanced capitalist societies. They would go through a series of logical stages (there were five) until you got what he modestly called "Rostovian Lift-off".

Rostow laid out his theory in a book he called "The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto".

Rostow's theories obsessed the American development agencies and they came up with all sorts of ideas about how to turn countries like Afghanistan into modern democracies.

One of the oddest was the belief that it was possible to scientifically discover who the crucial "transitional personalities" were in the society. These were people who had underlying "capitalist personalities" that they were unaware of. A psychologist called David McLelland invented a way of discovering who had these traits - and techniques to then develop what he called "the need to achieve". He was convinced you could use behavioural psychology to turn people throughout the world into model Americans.

Here are some sections from a public information film about McClelland and his belief that you could change the course of history by using his scientific methods.

McClelland worked tirelessly to prove his case. Here is one of his diagrams that shows that the frequency of achieving imagery in children's books in the late 19th century leads inevitably to a rise in inventions in America as they grow up - as shown by the number of patented inventions.

Out of the theories of Rostow and McClelland came a wave of educational and behavioural psychology projects to transform the Afghans into modern, motivated human beings. The Afghan government and the American agencies produced books full of photographs that showed these modernised beings in their new modernised world

And for the Americans the heroic figure in all this was the Engineer. They poured millions into building a brand new engineering department in Kabul university. Here is a promotional photograph of the new engineersBut there was one transitional personality that the Americans were worried about. He was the Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud - he was also the King's brother in law and cousin. Daoud was a Pashtun and he wanted the Pashtuns to have permanent control over Afghanistan. He was a ruthless politician and spent his time playing the countries who wanted to give him aid off against each other.
Here is Daoud with Eisenhower and Khruschev and Chou En-Lai and other powerful peopleSo the Americans decided to give Prime Minister Daoud the thing he dreamed of. They would turn Helmand province into a settled Pashtun area which would consolidate the Pashtun's powerful grip on the whole country.
It was an extraordinary project. The Americans set out to take thousands of families of Pashtun nomads who spent their time roaming the border area with Pakistan and settle them in small-holdings in Helmand. They would be turned into sedentary farmers. It was a giant piece of social engineering. Even Swiss experts were flown in to teach the Pashtuns how to use long-handle scythes to cut grass for their sheep.

The Americans liked it because it would take a lawless group of nomads who were always straying over the border into Pakistan and starting local wars and turn them into peaceful farmers.

Prime Minister Daoud liked it because it was an opportunity to increase Pashtun power - sometimes in not very nice ways. One of his political critics put it bluntly:

"He wanted to use these new settlers as a death squad to crush the uprisings of the non-Pashtun people of the southwest and central part of the country"

Out of this came not just new homesteads but a giant modern infrastructure. At its centre was the modern planned city of Lashkar Gar. As many of the engineers working there described it - like an American suburb. A model world that would help transform the warlike and unruly tribes people into democratic and achieving citizens.

Here is a link to a fantastic site of photographs taken by Michael Yon showing Lashkar Gah today. In this photo you can see the remnants of an American suburb of the 1950s

It was at this very moment that a world famous historian called Arnold Toynbee visited Helmand. Toynbee had spent his life studying the giant sweep of History to find out what made different civilizations rise and fall.
Toynbee drove from Kandahar to Lashkar Gah past all the giant canals and dams. He was shocked. What he was seeing, he said, was not a new civilization but "a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape. The new world they are conjuring up at the Helmand river's expense is to be an America-in-Asia"

Toynbee quoted Sophocles' warning: "The craft of his engines surpasseth his dreams"

What he meant was that you couldn't change history with just machines and science. Toynbee believed that what led to civilisations rise and fall was culture and religion.

A year after he returned Toynbee gave a series of lectures called "America and World Revolution" which was published as a book . In an interview with the BBC in 1962 he warns of the neglect of religion and religious values in this rush to modernity. It was the beginning of the conservative reaction to the techno-utopian dreams of progress of the 50s and 60's.

What is fascinating is that his argument - that religion is the only real force in the west that can give meaning and purpose in life - is exactly the same as the new political Islamist ideas that were beginning to emerge on the campuses of Cairo, Kabul and Islamabad.

Toynbee was an atheist, but he believed that without such meaning social structures in western society will corrode. It is the same conservative argument that you find in the writings of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Mawdudi in Pakistan. But the King of Afghanistan loved the American modernisation project, and he now set out to transform not just the urban elite, but every Afghan into "transitional beings". And to do this he was going to get rid of the Burqa. Here is film of him at the parade for his birthday in 1961.

One of the most perceptive observers of that period in Kabul was the American archaeologist Louis Dupree, who will become central to this story. He had just arrived in Kabul and he wrote a letter describing the model the King had approved for women during the transition period:

" All the women wear the costume accepted for the transition period. No facial make-up, dark glasses, headscarf, a duster or a raincoat or a dress tailored to resemble a coat, and gloves. Some wear the dark glasses indoors others do not"

The project was the main talking point at a party in the US embassy, and a group of American women in Kabul decided to help push the King's transitional aims even further.

They were the wives of the American executives who ran the Afghan national airline, Ariana. Even the airline was part of the development project and it was owned and run by Pan American Airlines from San Francisco. The wives decided they would put on a fashion show to demonstrate to the Afghan women how to be truly modern

Pan Am in the US thought it was a good idea and approached Vogue Magazine to help. Here is the press realease from Pan Am public relations that tells what happened.

Pan American Airways, Inc - all their records are held at the University of Miami's Special Collection Department

And here are some of the Vogue sewing patterns from 1960. Images of what the airline wives hoped Afghan women would become.

I am sure there are both photos and film of the fashion show. I have been looking for them without success. It would be great to see them.
All this vast dream of modernity and, with it, the King's power, was entirely based on the success of the development projects - above all the Helmand dam and irrigation scheme. The trouble was that they were not a success in any way or form. In reality Helmand was a disaster.

There was so much water in the ground in some areas that houses and mosques were crumbling into a growing bog. Even worse, underneath the new man-made oases, the engineers had discovered hard rock which made them even more waterlogged. So they had to dig deep bore drains - which removed 10% of the area from cultivation.

Then a study showed that crop yields were steadily falling. But the academics advising the American development agencies had a new theory that explained this. It was called Dual Economic Theory. It said that you not only had to modernise the infrastructure you also had to bring agriculture up to date.

So the American planners turned to the most up to date theory. It was called The Green Revolution (as opposed to The Red Revolution the Russians were exporting). It was based on the new type of high-yield wheat that had been developed by a scientist called Norman Borlaug. And the development agenicies brought in 170 tons of the experimental dwarf wheat developed by Borlaug in Mexico.

By now many of the nomads had settled and divided the land in Helmand into small plots. The problem was that to make the green revolution work and the wheat grow effectively the area would have to be turned back into vast open spaces. In other words the whole settlement system would have to be put in reverse.

Undeterred, the US Dept of Agriculture proposed that the Helmand Valley Authority remove all the settlers. Then they would "level the whole area with bulldozers and redistribute the property in large, uniform smooth land plots". They also said they were going to cut down all the trees.

But when they tried to do this the bulldozers and the American technocrats were confronted by the Pashtun farmers with rifles. They refused to allow their new homes to be destroyed.

The USAID reported back to Washington "this presents a very real constraint on the project".

Much of all this had been inspired by the ideas of the American academic Walt Rostow. By now Rostow had become one of the most powerful men in America, special adviser for National Security. And he was developing these ideas even further in another country. Vietnam.

By 1965 the Americans were fighting a bitter guerilla war against an unseen enemy, the Vietcong. The Vietcong hid among the thousands of villages in South Vietnam - from which they attacked the Americans. Rostow was convinced that you could use modernization theory to transform the country and defeat the communists.

He was a supporter of an idea called "Strategic Hamlets. The theory was simple - you took all the "good" Vietnamese out of the villages and resettled them in new planned villages which would be protected by the Americans. There the villagers would be educated by psychologists and special cadres to become new "modern" citizens devoted to democracy.

Here is a picture of Rostow showing President Johnson his ideas.

And here is part of a BBC film shot in 1966 which vividly shows the system the Americans had created in Vietnam in all its weirdness. By now it had become the central strategy in the counter-insurgency.

In 1969 the Afghan government and the American planners finally promised "the year of yield take-off".

But there was a drought. The Helmand river became a trickle. The main reservoir created by the project dried up completely. Wheat yields were the lowest in the world - 4 bushels to the acre - Iowa's yield was 180 bushels to the acre. This created a massive food crisis which began to destabilize the government and the King.

There were student strikes. Many of the student leaders came from the engineering department which was now full of communist and Maoist cells. Then one of the communist students defected to a new group of revolutionaries - the Islamists. He was called Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, and he became notorious for his violence. Some say he went round throwing acid in the faces of women without headscarves, but he denies this and says that if he lived in the west he would sue for libel. He was given a nickname - The Engineer.

In 1972 parliament was suspended and a year later the Prime Minister Daoud joined with the army to mount a coup that got rid of the King. It was the beginning of the chaos that would lead the country into anarchy and disaster. And the end of the dreams of the Helmand Valley Project. The Americans began to leave, abandoning a vast infrastructure that started to decay.

But during the Soviet war both sides found a use for the remains of the project. The giant reservoir was used to dump bodies tortured and killed by the Khalq communists. While the Mujahedin used the water chanels for cover when fighting the Russians

And the new soil was very suitable for a new crop - the opium poppy. It grows well in dry climates and in alkaline and saline soils, and poppy-growing increased massively in Helmand in the 1980s. And with it the heroin trade.

Then in 1994 the Taliban movement began in Helmand province as an alliance of Pashtun clans
While in power the Taliban government finished a central part of the Helmand valley project that the Americans had left unfinished in the 1970s. It was a hydroelectric plant that would use Kajaki dam to bring electricity to the city of Kandahar. The Taliban finally finished it in early 2001.

Then later that year American B52s bombed the plant. Here is the BBC news report of the American attack on the dam in November 2001.

But even that wasn't the end. In 2007 British troops found themselves fighting the Taliban amongst the ruins of the American dam project. Here is a news report. The reporter makes no mention of the extraordinary and tortuous history that sits behind him in the wall of the dam.

It's followed by a report from 2008 when a convoy battled through Taliban attacks to bring a new turbine to the dam. The aim - the British said - was to start a development project which would finally help Afghanistan become a modern country.

Last edited:


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Kabul: City Number One - Part 4

The more you dig into the history of the West's relationship to Afghanistan, the stranger and more complicated it gets.

In 1978 a group of Afghan marxists overthrew the royal family who had ruled Afghanistan for 150 years. They set out to turn Afghanistan into a modern socialist utopia but it quickly descended into bloody horror.

Many in the West saw it as the Soviet Union trying to turn Afghanistan into another satellite. But if you trace back where the "communist" ideas that inspired the revolutionaries came from you find something very odd. The revolutionary ideas didn't just come from the Soviet Union.

They also came from somewhere else. From America.


In 1963 the King of Afghanistan had sacked his Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud

Ten years later - in 1973 - Daoud deposed the King and declared a republic.

But Daoud was the King's first cousin and his brother-in-law. So power remained in the hands of the royal Durrani clan.

His only opposition were a small group of revolutionary marxists called The Peoples' Democratic Party of Afghanistan. But like all revolutionaries they had split into different factions and hated each other.

Then Prime Minister Daoud got paranoid. He decided the marxists were preparing a coup against him. So he ordered that they be arrested. But something strange happened. Hafizullah Amin, who was one of the marxist leaders, was not arrested. When the police arrived at his house they just confiscated lots of leftist pamphlets and surrounded the house. No-one knows why.

Amin was very jolly. Everyone liked him. Even the Islamists nicknamed him 'the infidel', but everybody in Kabul knew that he could never be trusted because he lusted after power so much.

Here are some frame-grabs of Amin.

As the police stood outside, Amin decided he really would stage a coup. He used his children to send out instructions to the revolutionary cells he had built up in the Afghan military, and within hours tanks began to rumble towards Kabul and the Presidential Palace.

Here is a bit from a wonderful film that Amin had made which tells the story of that night. It stars himself as himself. This extract shows the police coming in and seizing the literature, then he gives his wife some money and spends the night directing the coup over army radio and finally rides into power on a tank.

Prime Minister Daoud knew nothing of all this and thought the marxists were under arrest. All the military commanders in Kabul were told to order their troops to sing and dance to celebrate the arrest of the "kafirs" - the communists.

But the next morning Daoud woke up to discover the coup underway. His Minister of Defence rang the local base commander and ordered him to move his troops to protect the Presidential Palace. The Commander replied:

"How can I? They're all out singing and dancing as you ordered - and have been for hours"

Then he rang the 8th Rocket Division. The Commanding Officer said he would send the rockets, but instead he told his troops to keep dancing. He was waiting to see which side won.

Here is some film of an Afghan man dancing followed by some slowed-down film of Amin announcing the coup at the radio station. You can get a sense of what he was like as a person.

Finally at 7pm the Minister of Defence and three of the Chiefs of Staff were found hiding in a chicken coop behind the palace. The rebels shot them and then went upstairs and slaughtered Daoud and 30 of his family. It was the end of a royal dynasty that had ruled Afghanistan for 150 years.

The new President of the revolutionary council was Mohammed Taraki. Hafizullah Amin was made Foreign Minister. At their first press conference Taraki insisted that they were not communists but socialists and politically democratic. Here is one of the first TV reports after the revolution. The reporter is neutral but suspicious.

In the West it was assumed that the revolutionaries were just Soviet puppets who had been trained in Moscow. But in Kabul one American decided to find out if this was true. He was an anthropologist called Louis Dupree who worked in Afghanistan for the American Universities Field Staff.

What he discovered was rather surprising. Out of the 21 members of the revolutionary cabinet only one civilian had been educated in the Soviet Union. Three of the generals had received military training in the USSR, but none of the revolutionaries had ever attended or been invited to international communist meetings.

Dupree firmly concluded their revolution had not been born in Moscow.

In reality much of it may have been born in another country: America, where many of the revolutionaries had studied and had been indoctrinated with all sorts of new ideas about how to transform Afghanistan.

Out of the top revolutionary elite who had taken over Afghanistan many had studied in America, and 14 of them had studied at just one American University - Columbia University in New York. They had gone there as part of what Columbia called "The Afghan Project" - an attempt to produce a new generation of teachers who would go back to Afghanistan and transform a tribal people into modern western style individuals.

They had been at Columbia in the 1960s when American universities had been swept by revolutionary student politics and this had done much to radicalise them. Above all Hafizullah Amin - who would organise the coup and be the main ideologist of the Afghan revolution.

Amin told Dupree that his radicalisation had happened when he went from Columbia to a course at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1963. Madison at that time was the main centre of what was called the "New Left" - a movement which was about to break out and take over most American universities. Here's a page from 'The Badger' - the 1963 Wisconsin-Madison University yearbook.

Madison was full of foreign students. One of the leading leftists Nina Serrano - who called herself "A Madison Bohemian" - described them in the 1950s:

'the foreign students stood out in a sea of blonds. I'd never seen so many Middle Eastern, African and Asian people. Among them were two out of place Afghan students. They were even more disorientated than I. Religious practice made them afraid to eat hamburger because they thought it might be made of ham. They survived the first few weeks on cakes and other deserts. I identified with them as a fish out of water, but they were afraid to speak to me. They frequently visited our one-room apartment, but I could never get a response from them when I joined the conversation. I was shocked when I found out it was because I was a woman and a friend's wife.'

The key figure at Madison was an historian called William Appleman Williams. He was determined to create a new framework for radical politics so it could escape from the trap of the Cold War - the conflict of two giant monoliths. He did this by reaching back to a forgotten radical tradition in America, Progressivism.

Progressivism had been born in the 1890s in Wisconsin as the battle between the independent farmer on the land and what were called "The Interests". They were the bankers and the big industrial corporations on the East coast who sucked the life-blood of the farmers and crushed their individual freedom.

The hero of the Progressive movement was the senator for Wisconsin, Robert La Follette. He spent his lifetime struggling against the politicians in Washington who had been bought and corrupted by the bankers and the giant railroad companies. Villains like JP Morgan and Rockefeller whom La Follette believed were destroying the true revolutionary tradition of America. Here is a cartoon of La Follette. Appleman Williams awoke the ghost of La Follette and remade Progressivism. It became not just a battle against bankers and corporations, but also against the giant structures erected by governments on both sides in the Cold War. It was a struggle of the individual against a new totalitarianism run by Soviet and American elites that was crushing both their peoples' freedom through fear.

But at its heart, this New Left radicalism still had its roots in the simple image of the mid-western farmers free on their land. The most romantic expression of this came in the songs of Woody Guthrie in the 1930s and 40s. Guthrie saw himself as a communist, but he never joined the Party - he wanted to be free to roam wherever he wanted.

Here is Pete Seeger singing the radical verses of "This Land is Your Land" that had been dropped and forgotten by the 1960s. Followed by Guthrie himself singing the rest. Its the song that most perfectly expresses the Progressive dream.

These were the ideas that Amin would have listened to in the summer camps at Madison in 1963. How far they inspired or shaped his political ideas is impossible to know. Everyone from that time is dead.

What is absolutely clear is that Amin and the others who led the revolutionary Council had become marxists. And they looked for help and military aid from the Soviet Union. The Kabul Times was full of Marxist slogans and attacks on what were called "the bowel-lickers of imperialism" (although it was later altered to "bowl-lickers" after complaints)

But their reform programme was like an American Progressive dream. The making of extortionate loans to the peasant farmers was banned. Every farmer was to be allowed to own their own land. There was no mention of collectivization. There would be equal rights for women, and forced marriages were banned.

The only problem was that the peasant farmers hated it. They were deeply conservative and didn't want change. They weren't interested in progress. Then the Islamist parties told them that the new regime was godless - and armed revolts began to break out.

Here is film of one of the early parades in Kabul promoting reform, and film of the young idealistic revolutionaries going out into the countryside to measure out the new small-holdings. The grateful peasants kiss their new land certificates.

But this wasn't the first time that Afghanistan had met the dreams of American Progressivism. In the 1830s a lone American had risen to great power in Kabul, and had dreamt of turning the country into what he called "An Empire of Liberty"

He was called Josiah Harlan. Harlan was an extraordinary adventurer and mercenary who had ended up in Kabul in 1828. He was fascinated by the reigning Amir - called Dost Mohammed Khan. Dost Mohammed maintained his power only by his prestige and a constant flow of bribes to the tribal chieftains who ruled different areas of the country. As they talked, the prince asked Harlan about America.

'"How was America ruled?", he said. I explained to him the nature of our government which he pleasantly remarked resembled the Afghan system of tribes"

Here is the only photograph of Harlan, and the sketch he made of Dost Mohammed Khan in Kabul.

After many adventures Harlan ended up running Dost Mohammed's army for him. And in 1838 Harlan set off on an epic journey north from Kabul to defeat a rebellious warlord. Harlan led the way seated on an elephant. As they crossed a mountain pass Harlan saw a small animal peering at him and he asked the Afghans what it was. They told him it was called a "mountain ant". It was a marmot. Harlan decided to keep it, and he rode on to war with the marmot in his pocket.

Here is a picture of a Marmot.

But then Harlan had a transforming experience. High up in the north he met the Hazara tribes. Harlan decided he had stumbled on a people unlike any other in Afghanistan. They lived a life driven by a code of honour which was, he wrote, "the foundation of a pure system of moral virtue"

He especially admired the role of the Hazara women. They weren't hidden behind veils or trapped in their houses. They lived and worked and hunted - and even fought alongside their husbands. Above all they were involved in public matters:

For centuries the Hazara had been an oppressed minority. Their leader, Mohammed Reffee Beg, asked Harlan to help him conquer his enemies. In return he made Harlan the Prince of Ghor, the new leader of the Hazara people.

Harlan hated the British Empire and the brutality of its rule. He was driven by the romantic revolutionary ideas of America's founders. They had fled the corruption of old Europe and its repressive empires to found a new kind of society in the west. A new empire, but one based on the ideal of individual freedom.

And Harlan now had a vision of his own. That with the noble independence of the Hazaris, led by him as King, together they could transform Afghanistan into a new kind of place. "Such resources" wrote Harlan "would, in the hands of an intelligent agent, establish the foundations of an empire."

And he rode off back to Kabul.

One hundred and sixty two years later, in September 2001, the Americans turned up again and asked the Hazaras to help transform Afghanistan into a new kind of free country. But the Hazara had to be persuaded.

By April 1979 the Marxist revolution had become a disaster. Large parts of Afghanistan were in revolt. In response Hafizullah Amin had begun a series of purges. He had already killed the royal supporters and many of the Islamists. But now he started to kill and torture the urban professionals - the doctors and teachers. Then he turned on the different factions in his own party and the revolution began to eat itself. Finally, in September, he had President Taraki killed. Taraki was held down and suffocated with a cushion.

Here are a series of frames showing Amin a few weeks earlier swearing his loyalty to Taraki, the man he was about to assassinate.

Amin now had what he had always wanted. Supreme power. He tried to prove how nice and open he was by publishing a list of 12,000 people who had been killed in the purges. The only problem was that many Afghans have similar names - there are thousands of Mohammed Alis and Abdul Mohammeds - and tens of thousands of people descended on the Ministry of Interior desperately wanting details.

So he stopped publishing the list. Which led to more protests and violence.

The Soviets were horrified. The secret Politburo minutes and telephone transcripts that have recently been published by the Wilson Center - you can find them here - show the Soviet leaders shocked by what Amin was doing to Afghanistan. They are terrified that the country will descend into chaos.

Brezhnev shouted in a meeting in the Kremlin:

"What scum Amin is. You smother a man with whom you participated in a revolution!"

He seemed to have forgotten how many of his predecessors in Russia had behaved. But it was the turning point. The Soviets decided that that they would have to get rid of Amin.

Then Amin rang Brezhnev and pleaded with him for Soviet troops to help fight the Islamists. Much to Amin's surprise Brezhnev said yes. What he didn't realise was that the troops would be coming to kill him.

Rumours began to spread that the Russians were on their way. Here is footage of the Islamist leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar reacting to the news. No-one in the west knew who he was and he is captioned by his nickname. It had been given to him when he studied at the engineering department of Kabul University. "The Engineer"

In 1839 Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor, rode back in triumph to Kabul with the marmot peeking out of his pocket. He was full of dreams of using his military power and his new position to turn Afghanistan into a utopian kingdom with himself as an enlightened leader.

But as he arrived he discovered that the British were on their way. They had marched from Punjab, through Kandahar, and had overwhelmed Dost Mohammed Khan's army. They were coming to put their own puppet ruler on the throne. The British were terrified that Dost Mohammed would make an alliance with the Russians - and so they were going to remove him.

Harlan watched as power began to drain away from Dost Mohammed - and with it his own utopian dreams for Afghanistan. Here is a vivid description from Harlan's journals that are quoted in Ben MacIntyre's wonderful book about Harlan:

"He called for his attendant, but a fallen prince has not even a faithful slave. The guards had disappeared. A servant audaciously pulled away the pillow which sustained the prince's arm. Another commenced cutting a piece of the splendid persian carpet.

In an instant the unruly crowd rushed upon the pavilion, swords gleamed in the air and descended on the tent and the ropes. the carpets, pillows, screens - all were seized and dispensed among the plunderers

The report of an explosion concentrated the attention of the disorganized army. An immense column of white smoke rose into the still, clear air, like a genie conjured by the magic of war. The prince turned his horse towards that dense cloud, and plunged alone into the screening veil that obscured his fallen fortunes."

Harlan stayed in Kabul and watched in mounting anger as the British ignored the complex balance of power between the different tribes and allowed their puppet ruler to exact vengeance on all his enemies. The British military spent their time awarding themselves medals and playing cricket outside the city walls.

But within 18 months all but one of the 16,000 British would be slaughtered by the Afghans.

In December 1979 in Moscow the politburo decided to issue the order to kill Amin and to send hundreds of thousands of troops to take control of the Afghanistan. But one man believed this would lead to disaster. He was the Chief of the General Staff - Marshal Ogarkov. He went to the Kremlin to plead with the Soviet leaders and here is what he told them. It is a remarkable prediction of what was to happen.

But Ogarkov was ignored and demoted. His bad luck continued. Here he is a few years later defending the shooting down of Korean airline flight 007.

On the 12th December the first troops arrived in Kabul to kill Amin.

First they positioned snipers along the main highway. But Amin's convoy drove too fast.

Then they tried again. This time they put poison in his can of Pepsi in the Presidential palace. But Amin's nephew drank it instead.

Then - on the 27th - Amin gave a banquet in a palace outside Kabul. It was surrounded by minefields and protected by 2000 troops. But the Soviets smuggled in a chef who put poison in the food. This time it worked and all the guests slipped into comas.

The Afghans rang Kabul for help - and two Russian doctors turned up. They walked into a banqueting hall full of men and women lying on the floor with their eyes rolling in agony. The doctors found Amin upstairs in his underpants.

The doctors thought he was an ally of the Soviet Union so the pumped his stomach and revived him. Then the Russian troops attacked the palace.

The final image of Amin comes from one of the doctors. He describes watching Amin lurching along a corridor in the palace dressed only in Adidas shorts holding his hands high. They were wrapped in medical tubes which led to needles in his veins. He held the vials full of saline solution "as though they were grenades". He was looking for the Soviets who he still believed would rescue him.

But when he found them they threw a grenade at him. And then they shot him.

The next day the Soviets installed their puppet ruler. He was called Babrak Karmal

Here is extraordinary film of the main Kabul prison being thrown open ten days later. It is on a plain outside the city and it housed the thousands of political prisoners who had survived Hafizullah Amin's wrath. The Soviets had let them out to prove that a new era of openness and freedom was about to begin in Afghanistan.

By the end of the 1960s the New Left in America had collapsed. Many of its members turned their back on politics and went into the commune movement. Rather than try and change society they would change themselves - as independent farmers on the land.

Others turned to revolutionary violence - they thought it would provoke repression in America and that this would make Americans realise that they lived in a fascist state.

But there was a third group of leftists in America who thought both these solutions were stupid. Many of them had started as Trotskyites who believed in Trotsky's theory that you couldn't have revolution in just one country. That to have a real permanent revolution it had to be world wide.

By the 1960s these ex-Trotskyites had given up on the Soviet Union. Instead they pinned their hopes on America as the source of world revolution. They became known as the Neoconservatives. Many of them believed that America's true destiny was to spread its ideals world wide. This would mean overthrowing the Soviet empire - through force if necessary - to create a new global "Empire of Freedom"

A number of very ambitious young neoconservatives who thrilled to these ideas were now serving in Ronald Reagan's campaign. And they seized on Afghanistan as the way to do this.

Josiah Harlan returned to America. He spent his time promoting the use of camels for both farming and for the army. In 1854 the American Camel Company was set up and began to import camels from Asia. They were very good at their job, but American horses and mules hated them. Whenever the horses met a camel they ran away.

Josiah Harlan died in San Francisco in 1871, leaving a few lonely camels in the plains of the mid-west.



Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Kabul: City Number One - Part 5


The King of Afghanistan was called Mohammed Zahir Shah. He believed in modernity.

His family had ruled the country for over 150 years and he was driven everywhere in a black chevrolet.

Zahir Shah loved to show off how modern his country was. The key place was the Kabul International trade fair in 1956. Here is a picture issued by the King showing the site glowing at night.

But the fair became a battle in the Cold War. The Americans discovered that the Russians and the Czechs were planning giant pavilions but the United States had nothing. Then they found a visionary designer called Buckminster Fuller. Fuller had designed vast radar domes in the Arctic as part of America's nuclear early warning system. These domes watched the whole world in case the Soviets launched their Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
Here is Fuller in front of what he called his "radomes"

Fuller believed his domes represented a new way of organising the world as an interconnected system run by computers and managed by an elite group of technocrats, like him, who he called "Comprehensive Designers". He produced visionary schemes including building a vast dome over Manhattan.

Now Buckminster Fuller was given his chance in Kabul. Here he is telling the story.

Here is a still of the talking cow in the Kabul pavilion that Buckminster Fuller was rude about. Plus the talking chicken that was next to it.

The next modern thing the King wanted was a national airline. To get one he went to another cold war visionary called Juan Trippe. Trippe ran Pan American World Airways and, just like Buckminster Fuller, he believed his modern technology - his jet-liners - could create a world-wide system that both extended American power and brought stability to the world.

Trippe set up Afghanistan's national airline - Ariana. Again the King produced glowing images that showed his country had joined the modern world system - "Air Age Globalism"

It didn't all go well. Soon after the first jet, a Boeing 727, was delivered to Ariana it crashed into a house outside Gatwick airport. It was 1.30 in the morning in January 1969. There were 66 people on the plane, 50 died.
Here is a report - including local people who describe rescuing Afghans from the wreckage.

18 months later the King of Afghanistan flew to Britain on an Ariana plane for a state visit. He landed safely and he and his entourage caught the train to Victoria station where the Queen of England was to meet them. As they did so, Valerie Singleton from Blue Peter was organising a very special Afghan way of greeting the King.

But the Pan Am jet planes were only part of Juan Trippe's vision of how to spread American power and help make the world a better place. He also built hotels in the cities that Pan American flew to. They all looked pretty much the same and had one name - Intercontinental. Trippe summed up the idea behind the Intercontinental:

'Mass travel in the jet age may prove to be more significant to world destiny that the atom bomb. For there can be no atom bomb potentially more powerful that the air-tourist - charged with curiosity, enthusiasm and goodwill, who can roam the four corners of the world, meeting in friendship and understanding the people of other nations and races.'

So in 1969 Kabul got its Intercontinental Hotel, managed by Pan American. Here's a postcard of it, and a link to a 3-D model of it you can fly round in Google Earth

The Intercontinental was perched above the city with wonderful views. It was where the western businesspeople, the diplomats and the rich tourists all stayed. But it also quickly became the place for the Kabul elite to go - for tea, for parties, and for weddings. They were the modern people of Kabul who were helping to make the King's vision come true.
They were also a "slimy opportunistic clique" - according to Nancy Hatch Dupree. She was an American archaeologist who knew everyone in Kabul.

And then rock music came to Kabul, courtesy of the Intercontinental Hotel.

The Intercontinental's food and beverages manager asked a musician called Claude Selvaradna to create a house band for the hotel. Claude had been a sergeant in the Sri Lankan army but now he lived in Kabul and he knew that rock music was the future. He brought in some musicians from Sri Lanka and put together a band he called The Esquire Set.

Claude was happy to let the Esquire Set drink, but he was firmly against drugs. He believed that good rock music was possible without drugs. The Esquire Set started at the Intercontinental Kabul in 1971 and soon became a major attraction - especially at themed evenings which included a "Kung Fu Dance".

Here is a picture of the Esquire Set playing, plus a live audio recording of their version of Whole Lotta Love.

And then the hippies came to Afghanistan. They didn't stay in the Intercontinental but instead went to the cheap hotels around Chicken Street in Kabul, including The Number One Hotel started by the Italian conceptual artist Alghiero e Boetti. And they bought lots of Afghan coats. Here is a great postcard of one of their favourite shops. Note the photo of the King in the corner.

The hippies didn't see themselves as tourists. They thought they were against western capitalism and imperialism. But this was a comforting story they told themselves to hide from themselves that all this experience was only possible because of their immense political power. They too were part of the dominion of the west.
They even created their own new global industry. The hippies began the heroin trade between Afghanistan and Europe.

Here are some "travellers" experiencing Afghanistan and Pakistan and philosophizing as they go. Plus a good moment when they meet an Aghan and his camel in a sand storm.

And here is part of an interview with a girl who went on the trail to Afghanistan and beyond in 1970. The still is of the house in England where her parents lived. You can feel a strange uncertainty in her interview. It is the feel of a class no longer comfortable with its own values and its power, confused and adrift in a wider world. Enormous changes were happening all around them which they can only dimly glimpse through the bubble of their own experience.

The film finds her at the end of the trail on a rooftop in Delhi. The programme commentary later says that she came back to England and had psychiatric treatment. I would love to know what happened to her subsequently.

By 1970 Kabul was becoming one of the central parts of a western network that stretched across the Middle East and into Asia. A dream of a new world order where everyone becomes westernised, listens to rock music and is a tourist - or a traveller. A new global network - just like Buckminster Fuller and Juan Trippe had envisaged.

But there were forces emerging who saw that network as a powerful symbol of their oppression. They were the Palestinians. They believed that the west - and in particular America - was colluding with Israel to prevent them returning to their homeland. And they were about to attack the two central symbols - the jet plane and the hotel.

It began in September 1970 in Amman in Jordan. And what happened there would lead, eventually and in strange contorted ways, to the apocalyptic horror conceived in Afghanistan 31 years later.

First a group of Palestinian terrorists hijacked four airliners all bound for New York from different airports. Two were American - Pan Am and TWA, the other two were BOAC and Swissair. They landed three of them at a desolate airfield in the Jordanian desert. The Palestinians promptly renamed it "Revolution Airport".

Here are some film rushes from the airfield and reports of what happened next. All the passengers - British and American - are struggling to make sense of this new thing, the "skyjack". Then the women and children from the planes are released and driven to safety in the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman.

But at that very moment King Hussein of Jordan decided that he must crush the thousands of Palestinian fighters who were refugees in his country. The hijack had been the last straw, and he unleashed his army on the Palestinians. The hotel immediately became the centre of the battle and the freed hostages found themselves trapped yet again, accompanied this time by a bunch of western television journalists.

For days the westerners hid in the hotel from an enemy outside that none of them could see. The journalists were reduced to interviewing each other. One of them, called Murray Sayle, sees what is going to come towards the west.

And then the Palestinians blew the planes up. But they let all the hostages go before they did it.

In 1973 the King of Afghanistan got hit in the face by a volleyball. His doctor told him he was fine, but the King didn't trust Afghan doctors. So he flew to London to see an eye specialist. Here is the US ambassador telling Washington what has happened.

Then the King went to a rest cure in Italy, and while he was having a mudbath in Ischia off the coast of Naples his cousin (who was also his brother-in-law) deposed him.
Nothing really seemed to change in Kabul. There were strange reports that "religious fanatics" were targeting emancipated women in the city. They threw acid at them. In all two hundred women were hospitalised with burns. One man was arrested and 5,000 Afghan women gathered outside the Prime Minister's office shouting "Give him to us, Give him to us!" But Afghans still went to nightclubs.

And then the first Afghan rock band was formed.

Azam Parwanta lived in Kabul. One evening his cousin Jamal Masumi came round and they went for a long walk. They both confessed to each other that what they dreamed of was forming a band which would play western rock at the Intercontinental. They decided that evening to make the dream happen.

Azam set out to plan his assault on the Intercontinental. There was no sheet music in Kabul, and Azam couldn't really read music anyway. So he listened over and over again to his favourite song on cassette tape until he had worked out all the parts. And then he gave it to the band. It was Nights in White Satin.
Here is audio of The Stars playing Nights in White Satin. The Stars were going to fulfil their dream - to make it big in Kabul - but more of that in a future instalment.

Meanwhile in Britain Afghan fashion had trickled down the social layers - until it reached Jonathan King and Top of the Pops. Here he is in a sleeveless Afghan coat on Top of the Pops (I'm sorry its black and white).

And the Afghan hound had by now become the most popular dog in Britain. Here is a report about its popularity, and film of the new sport of Afghan hound racing at the Wolverhampton Dog Track. But in both cases the Afghan hounds had a terrible tendency not to do what they were told and instead started attacking each other.

Here is a picture of Azam and his cousin rehearsing. They called their band The Stars.


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Kabul: City Number One - Part 6


In November 1975 the first rock festival was held in Afghanistan. It was in the gymnasium of Kabul University. Everyone was very excited, especially as the headliners were one of Afghanistan's two prog-rock bands - The Stars.

And the Stars were excited because they had been approached by Afghanistan's most famous pop star and top heart throb, Ahmad Zahir. He had asked them to help him record his next album.

But things didn't get off to a very good start. Here is some audio of the beginning of the festival. The whole thing was recorded by the American anthropologist Louis Dupree. The festival is introduced by Helmut Gaisberger who was the food and beverages manager of the Intercontinental hotel. Louis Dupree's voice begins it.

At the very same time, in New York, a group of renegade Democrat supporters were meeting. They wanted to find a way of alerting a sleep-walking America to the immediate threat from the Soviet Union. Many of them saw themselves as a new movement and a cynical journalist had given them a new name - Neoconservatives. But they had decided they rather liked it.

They agreed to set up a pressure group called The Committee on the Present Danger. None of them could have imagined that within five years they, and their ideas, would become one of the main influences that led America into its first military intervention in Afghanistan, supporting the Mujaheddin.

One of the leaders of the group was a neoconservative called Norman Podhoretz. The thing he hated most was rock music.

To understand why you have to go back to 1958 when Podhoretz wrote a furious outburst against Jack Kerouac and his "beat bohemianism". Most historians of the neoconservatives see it as the moment when the movement first burst onto the scene.

Podhoretz's article was called "Know-Nothing Bohemians". All the Beats cared about, he said, was their own sensations. That led them to seek out the mad, the bad and the dangerous in their desperation for ever more intense experience - through drugs and even crime.

In the process they were corroding the moral bonds that held society together. The racy publicity they were being given through films made it worse. Here is a poster for the film The Beat Generation. The movement, Podhoretz said, was "hostile to civlization".

And here is Podhoretz being interviewed by the BBC about Kerouac's On The Road and the terrible nihilism it was unleashing in America.

In 1960 there was no pop music in Afghanistan. There was a loose group of westerners who played what was called "cocktail lounge music". They were led by Manfried Wertz who was the son of a world-famous German geologist, and Jan Vanderpant who was described as "a swinging British Dentist."

But then the first rock band was created. Chris and Ursula Hilario had come from the Philippines to Kabul. Ursula ran the USAID staff house and Chris organised the Afghan Boy Scout movement.

Ursula really loved to dance at parties but found the cocktail lounge music not to her taste. So she arranged for a professional musician called Rooney Poliquit to fly from Manila to Kabul.

In 3 weeks he had taught 3 of Ursula's sons and one of her daughters to play (she had 7 sons and 3 daughters in all). Then they formed a band and put on a dance at the USAID Staff House. They called themselves The Blue Sharks and they were an immediate sensation in Kabul.

Here are some photos of the Blue Sharks - and a photo of Mr and Mrs Hilario.

Sadly there seem to be no recordings left of the Blue Sharks. Danny Hilario (bass) says that his younger brother Chris Jr (drums) accidentally taped over the only cassette he had of one of their performances.

But it is not an exaggeration to say that The Blue Sharks brought western pop music to Afghanistan. Their music fascinated many of the children of the new Afghan middle-class elite that was growing up around the King. One of them was the young Ahmad Zahir. He had gone to Habibia High School in Kabul and had started to perform with the school band.

Here is a photo of him with the band - Habibia Amateurs.

Plus a recording of The Amateurs with Ahmad Zahir singing and playing the accordion. The music is an extraordinary collage. It includes Indian classical and Persian, plus the beginnings of a pop beat sensibility, all mixed with a marching drum sound which musicologists say comes from the Afghans hearing the British military bands in the 19th century.

I think the whole sound is just wonderful - especially the quality of the recording.

In 1963 Norman Podhoretz's hatred of the liberal counterculture in America was about to get much much worse.

Podhoretz wasn't a simple conservative reactionary. He came from the left and some of his criticism's were very sharp. He spotted the Achilles heel of the hipster movement in the way that it fetishised the "instinctiveness" of black culture, especially the music.

"Their love for negroes is tied up with this worship of of primitivism, not with any radical social attitudes. Ironically enough, in fact, to see the Negro as more elemental that the white man, as Ned Polsky has acutely remarked, is an inverted form of keeping the ****** in his place".

Podhoretz had become the editor of a highbrow magazine called Commentary, and these arguments drew him close to the black radical James Baldwin. Here is part of a film made by Baldwin for Panorama about the black experience in the northern cities.

In an interview in the film Baldwin argues that the white liberals were only pretending to be "the negro's friend". In reality they were ruthlessly using black culture as a weapon in their quest for power. He was agreeing with Podhoretz.

But then Baldwin betrayed Podhoretz.

Podhoretz had commissioned Baldwin to write an article about the Black Muslim movement and Malcolm X because of its anti-white separatist strategy. Baldwin agreed and set to work. But then he went suspiciously silent, and after a few weeks Podhoretz discovered that Baldwin had taken it to The New Yorker, who paid him a lot more. It was then published as The Fire Next Time - which became one of the bibles of the sixties counterculture.

Podhoretz was furious. But no-one he told seemed to sympathise with him. They all took Baldwin's side.Then the realisation dawned on him. They were doing this only because Baldwin was black. To Podhoretz it was a new way of being patronising and racist to black people.

Podhoretz then stormed round to Baldwin's apartment and ranted at him for hours. After a while - probably to get rid of him - Baldwin told him to go and write his anger down. Podhoretz did just that - and published it as an article called "My Negro Problem - and Ours".

The article said that all white liberals secretly had a twisted hatred and envy of blacks, and that integration would never work. You can read it here. It caused a sensation and Podhoretz became a celebrity. But only because everyone despised him.

But Podhoretz decided this just proved he was telling the truth. All the liberals in America were a corrupt elite just like the elites who ran the Soviet Union, while people like him who dared to tell the truth were "oppressed" just like the dissidents in Russia. He was the Solzhenitsyn of America.

It was the beginning of the the neoconservative conviction that, unlike the liberals in America, they could see the truth about how power really worked in the world.

In Kabul pop culture was taking off, and the rising star was Ahmad Zahir. He had done something unique with his music. He had taken high classical traditions from both Indian music and Persian poetry and fused them not just with a pop sound - but with the ability to make Afghans feel he was communicating his own personal experience through the music. Something no-one had done before and Afghans adored him for it.

Here are lots of photos of him - all from the fantastic Ahmadzahir.org.

Ahmad Zahir was part of a phenomenon that was happening across the Muslim world. A wave of modernity had led to the rise of new powerful elites, and it was the children of those elites who were creating a new fusion of western pop with music and poetry from inside their own countries.

Next door in Pakistan a film actor and singer called Waheed Murad almost singlehandedly created Pakistani pop when he produced and starred in a film called Armaan in 1966. Because of the war with India the previous year all Indian films were banned - and Armaan, directed by Pervez Malik, smashed all records. It had lots of songs written by Sohail Rana who was the son of a famous Urdu poet.

Together these rich kids created what became called "filmi pop" - and the film Armaan is the vehicle through which they did this. The most famous example in the film is "Ko Ko Koreena" which I think is just wonderful.

Armaan, Film Arts, 1966

And on the other side of Afghanistan in Iran the same young elite was emerging. Here is a report from Panorama in 1961 about life in modern Tehran. The reporter sees it all through the prism of the cold war, while the young people interviewed want to talk about the new openness. What neither of them are aware of is the extraordinary time-bomb that was building up around Tehran. Just as in Kabul and Karachi the modernisation had led to millions of peasants flooding into the cities. But they - and their children - were completely excluded from the good life of the elites.

And Western rock stars came to Afghanistan. In the early seventies James Taylor came and did some impromptu performances in Kabul. Louis Dupree said this had a big influence on aspiring Afghan musicians in Kabul. James Taylor, like Ahmad Zahir, was also the child of a ruling elite. His family was directly descended from America's Founding Fathers. And he too wrote about personal experience. But in his case it was about drugs and death. Here he is performing Fire and Rain - it's about the suicide of a friend and his own addiction to heroin.

James Taylor went back to America and he became the first rock star to do a benefit performance for a politician. It was for George McGovern who was the Democratic presidential candidate.

The Neoconservatives hated George McGovern, not only because he wanted to give up in Vietnam but also because he supported lesbians, gays and all kinds of radical causes. And what was worse George McGovern had insulted Norman Podhoretz's wife.

The two men had arranged to have dinner. Podhoretz arrived late and McGovern complained that while waiting he had had to sit looking at two ugly women. Podhoretz turned round and looked at the women."One of them is my wife" he said. Podhoretz later denied that the incident ever happened.

Here is a news report from the Democratic Party convention in Miami in 1972. It is about the "Non-delegates" - the forces of the counterculture who had descended on Miami and were demanding to participate. This was Norman Podhoretz's party and he was despairing of it.

But the Neoconservatives were by now a powerful dissident movement within the Democratic party. One of them was a young strategist called Ben Wattenberg.

In 1970 Wattenberg published an analysis of American voting patterns called The Real Majority. It argued that the country was now divided between a liberal elite preoccupied with cultural issues like race, sexual politics and abortion, and a vast forgotten hinterland who were "unyoung, unpoor and unblack". Wattenberg's heroine was the 47 year-old housewife from Dayton who feared and despised the liberal elite. Harness that power, he said, and you can change the world.

But then the Neoconservatives got screwed yet again. Richard Nixon, the Republican President, read Wattenberg's analysis and stole all his ideas. In the 1972 campaign Nixon deliberately set out to win over the disaffected Democrat voters that Wattenberg had identified. Again and again in speeches he contrasted them and their traditional values with the liberal counterculture and its corrupt hypocrisies.

Here is Nixon campaigning in 1972 along with a typical speech. Plus a wonderful bit where Nixon is booed in a vast stadium by some radicals. If you look at his face you can see the scorn he feels - and the sheer pleasure as he realises how much work the protestors are doing for him.

And it worked. Nixon won re-election with one of the biggest majorities ever in American history.

At the same time a new conservative force was being unleashed across the Islamic world. And, like in America, it was the mass of the new urban lower middle classes who despised the liberal elites.

One of the events that started this was the death of President Nasser in Egypt in 1970. Nasser had been the great symbol of a new, modern Arab world, and when he died the frustrations felt by the millions of new city-dwellers began to emerge. Like in America these new urbanites were fundamentally conservative - and if someone could harness their power they too could change the world.

Here is a BBC reporter in 1970 in Cairo trying to do a piece-to-camera announcing Nasser's death. What then happens illustrates in an odd but vivid way the new, unruly forces that had emerged in the cities.

By the mid 70s rock music in Kabul had moved on from singer-songwriters to prog-rock and disco. At the end of 1975 the first rock festival was held in Kabul. After its shaky start things got going at about 4pm in the afternoon. It was headlined by the only two rock bands in Afghanistan. The Stars and The Four Brothers.

The Stars looked down on the The Four Brothers as being a little too experimental. And the two groups disagreed on the western bands they liked - except they both thought Emerson Lake and Palmer were really good.

Here are the Stars doing their version of "Rock the Boat" by the Hughes Corporation.

Followed by the Four Brothers doing an "experimental" version of "Black Magic Woman"

Ahmad Zahir had also moved more towards rock. Here is a photo of him with The Stars. It was taken during the album they recorded together in Kabul.

And he had also embraced the new phenomenon of the pop video or "promo". Below is a link to one of the two he made - with the requisite late-psychedelic video overlays. Its a song called Khuda Bowad Yaarit.

And Ahmad Zahir had also done what good rock stars were supposed to do. He had become political. In the mid-70s both Islamist radicals and leftists began to challenge the regime of President Daoud - and Ahmad Zahir reflected the new, darker mood in the lyrics of his songs.
Then, in 1978, the Marxists seized power in a coup. It quickly descended into bloody horror, and Zahir became an open critic of the regime. His songs were banned from Radio Afghanistan. In one of them he played with words. He repeatedly used the Persian word "tariki" which means "darkness'. It was an explicit reference to President Taraki who headed the regime.

Then Taraki was killed by his deputy, Hafizullah Amin, and things got very bad for Ahmad Zahir. There are all sorts of stories about Zahir during 1979. One was that he and Hafizullah Amin's daughter fell in love. He also continued to criticise the regime, modelling himself on one of his heroes, John Lennon. He saw himself playing the same role as Lennon did in the west - telling the truth through rock music.

Then one afternoon in June 1979 he and his best friend went on a drive with two others out of Kabul. They went north and in the evening they arrived at the road just outside the Salang Tunnel. Noone knows what then really happened. The police say there was a traffic accident and Ahmad Zahir was killed. But everyone who saw the body says that the back half of Zahir's head had been blown off by a bullet.

His best friend and the two others have sworn a vow of silence as to what happened.

Zahir's death stunned Afghanistan. It was seen as symbolising the end of an incredible period of openness and freedom, as the regime continued to kill and torture thousands of others. Here is a picture of his grave and a picture of what the Taliban did to it when they arrived in Kabul 17 years later.

Meanwhile the Neoconservatives brooded. It was obvious to them now that they were going to have to take the final step and ally with the Republicans. Norman Podhoretz became one of the leading members of the Committee on the Present Danger. Here is a bit from one of the films made by the Committee - trying to convince America that the Soviets were preparing to take over the world. Most of the film is incredibly boring but at the end they include a speech given in America by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the voice-over translation gets more and more hysterical.

Then in December 1979 just what the Neoconservatives had been predicting seemed to come true. The Soviet army came through the Salang Tunnel and occupied Afghanistan. The next year Reagan swept to power and 50 members of the Committee on the Present Danger were appointed to the Reagan administration.

And at the same time John Lennon was assassinated in New York. To the Neoconservatives it symbolised the end of a terrible corrupt era in America. It was the death of the hated counterculture.

Norman Podhoretz's daughter had married another Neoconservative called Elliot Abrams. After Lennon's death Abrams gave his opinion - using words that could have been lifted from his father-in-law's rant about liberal hypocrisy and blacks 15 years before:

"I'm sorry. Why is John Lennon's death getting more attention than Elvis Presley's? Because Lennon is perceived as a left-wing figure politically, anti-establishment, a man of social conscience with concern for the poor. And therefore, he's being made into a great figure. Too much has been made of his life. It does not deserve a full day's television and radio coverage. I'm sick of it."

Elliot Abrams went off to help support the Contras in Nicaragua for President Reagan, while many of the other Neoconservatives set out to persuade the president to send sophisticated weapons to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan

Then they found the most surprising ally.

Ahmad Zahir's sister Zahira had fled to the US. She set up a hair salon in Washington DC. It was in the Watergate building. This led her to get lots of high-profile clients, and then one day in the early 80s President Reagan asked her to cut his hair.

Her business took off - and in the years to come she would cut Mrs Thatcher's hair when she visited Washington, then George Bush Snr's hair. And finally George Bush Jnr.

When she was cutting President Reagan's hair they talked about what was happening in Afghanistan and the terrible effect the Soviet invasion was having. Zahira urged the president to send the mujahideen Stinger missiles that could shoot down the Russian helicopters. The president said he would go away and think about it.


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Afghanistan Christmas Special: Hound of Hope and Glory

Blue Peter seems to have had rather an obsession with Afghanistan in the 1970s - not only did they take some Afghan hounds to see the King of Afghanistan when he came to visit the Queen of England, but in Christmas 1976 they found an Afghan hound that could sing. You have to watch the whole thing through to see its version of Land of Hope and Glory. It's wonderful - especially the growl at the end.

By the way the BBC is now allowing me to show most of the video material on this website internationally. Some will still not be viewable for rights reasons (and I'm afraid the It Felt Like a Kiss film is one of them) but the majority should be available by the end of this week.

And here's another dog, called Bruno, from a BBC News item in the 1970s. I've always wanted to use this somehow but as you can see it's very hard to fit it into any film about how power really works in Britain. It's very odd. I've tried to find out if it's a fake but I don't think it is.

Kabul: City Number One - Part 7


Afghanistan didn't just defeat the Soviet army. It reached out and corrupted and corroded the Soviet Union's faith in itself. Above all it destroyed what was left of the dream that communism was the future universal model for the world.

The fascinating question now is whether Afghanistan is beginning to do the same to us in the West. Bit by bit, as we accept torture, corruption and rigged democracy, is our faith in the universalism of our European idea of democracy beginning to falter? And with it our power.

This is the story of two individuals who tried to save their countries from terrible crises caused by their involvement in Afghanistan. They did this through radical extreme projects that they were convinced would change the course of history. But their actions were to have the most unexpected and terrible consequences. They would find themselves still haunted by Afghanistan, and both would die sad, untimely deaths.

Both were children of powerful dynasties who had shaped the destinies of their countries.

One is Yegor Gaidar who was the architect of Shock Therapy in Russia. The other is Benazir Bhutto who helped to create the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yegor Gaidar's grandfather was one of the heroes of the Russian Revolution. He was called Arkady Gaidar. In private he was haunted by the terrible memories of how at the age of 14 in the Red Army he had brutally killed people in the civil war as he suppressed anti-communist rebels. He wrote in his diary:

"I dream about the people I killed when I was young, in the war"

So he decided to write children's books.

His most famous was called "Timur and his Squad". It is about Timur who gathers a group of children who come to help familes whose fathers have gone off to war. Arkady wrote it at the end of the 1930s - convinced that another terrible war was coming. Here are some pages and a photo of Arkady Gaidar.

In 1941, Arkady Gaidar volunteered to fight the Nazis. But he was killed in the first few weeks. "Timur and his Squad" became the most popular children's book in the Soviet Union ever.

Arkady's son was called Timur. He grew up as part of the revolutionary aristocracy. Timur Gaidar was taught that he was part of an elite who were transfoming the world - they could create a new kind of future. Here is a bit from a Soviet promotional film of the 1950s. It gives a sense of that optimistic vision, but it also has a mood of the strange and artificial feeling of life in the Soviet Union during that time - as young men and women at a New Years Eve dance in Omsk in 1960 are watched through a two-way mirror.

Timur became a defence correspondent for Pravda. He reported on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1962. Yegor grew up travelling the world with his father and meeting all sorts of famous people.

Yegor believed in the Soviet system. It was good to him and his family. But then the Gaidars became friends with the Strugatsky brothers. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russia's most famous Science Fiction writers.

Although James Cameron denies it, many Russians believe that much of the story and many of the ideas in Avatar are taken from the Strugatskys' "Noon Universe" sequence of novels that they wrote in the 1960s. Even down to the planet name - Pandora - and the humanoid race called the Naves.

But the novel that fascinated Yegor Gaidar was "Roadside Picnic" written by Arkady Strugatsky. It is about a strange and enormous place called The Zone. It is a magical area that has been created on earth by an alien visitation. Inside the Zone among the ruins are alien artifacts that have dangerous powers - and daring individuals called Stalkers go into the zone to get the artefacts.

The Zone is ambiguous. On the one hand it is coded criticism of the Soviet experiment - a ruined empty world that no one understands any longer. And it opened Yegor Gaidar's eyes to a new and critical way of looking at the world around him.

But on the other - somewhere at the centre of The Zone - is a Golden Sphere which if found will grant the deepest desires of the person who discovers it.

Roadside Picnic was turned into a film - Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979

Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Pakistan's most famous and charismatic politician, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

In 1967 Bhutto formed the Pakistan Peoples Party. He challenged the military who ruled Pakistan and their slavishness to America. He wanted to create a new kind of socialist society.

His slogan was "Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people."

Here is Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at the UN in 1971. You can get a sense of his power and charisma. He is trying to stop the UN recognising the breakaway East Pakistan as an independent Bangladesh.

In 1971 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became President and set out to transform Pakistan into a planned socialist society. And Benazir became an international princess.

And behind her was the power and confidence of one of the great feudal dyansties of the Sindh province. This is her grandfather Sir Shahnawaz .

But then it went wrong. Many of Bhutto's reforms failed. His government was riddled with corruption. To hang on to power Bhutto rigged the next election, and amid mass violence his favourite general, General Zia, took power in a coup.

Zia then sentenced Bhutto to death. And Benazir Bhutto began to change. Here she is describing the moments before her father was hanged. It is followed by the moment her two brothers - Murtaza and Shahnawaz - come out of her family house early in the morning to announce their father has been hanged.

The Bhutto family vowed revenge. Benazir stayed in Pakistan and was held under house arrest. Her two brothers - Murtaza and Shahnawaz - fled to Kabul. The communist regime in Afghanistan gave them one of the old Royal Palaces. Murtaza put a sign outside saying "Pakistan Peoples Liberation Army" - although he and his brother, three of their friends, and Murtaza's alsatian dog called Wolf were the only members.

Here is Murtaza and his sisters, Sanam and Benazir on a plane in happier times.

Then Murtaza created a terrorist wing called Al Zulfikar. They let off some bombs in Karachi, and in March 1981 they managed to hi-jack a PIA plane (only because the X-Ray machines weren't working at Karachi airport). The plane landed at Kabul when everyone was away in Moscow at the 26th Communist Party Conference in Moscow.

The plane sat on the runway. Murtaza played the passengers a cassette tape of "revolutionary songs". One of the other hi-jackers described the effect.

'I can't express to you what effect these 'revolutionary songs' had on the passengers. Forget the passengers, I myself developed a headache after listening to them. In all my life, I've never heard such crude, unmusical, off-beat, mindless drivel. All of us had to undergo this tuneless torture day after day. At the end of the hijacking I asked Murtaza where these cassettes had come from, but he refused to answer'

The songs had in reality been written and recorded by his brother - Shahnawaz.

Here is a fragment taken over a satellite feed of the hi-jack

Finally Murtaza gave up waiting and ordered a young Pakistani officer on the plane to be shot. General Zia then released some political prisoners and the hi-jack ended. But the Afghan government were fed up with the Bhutto brothers and asked them to leave. They were also fed up with Murtaza because when Wolf went missing he demanded that the whole Afghan intelligence service search the Kabul area for him.

Murtaza and Shanawaz left Afghanistan with two new wives. They were sisters, daughters of a member of the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

The leadership of the struggle against Zia passed to Benazir. Here is part of an interview with her in 1981. She has not only become radicalised, but she can also see clearly how General Zia's support of the mujaheddin resistance in Afghanistan was going to corrupt Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto is looking into the future and seeing the terrible dangers that were coming - the danger of allying with America and the Islamists, in the name of democracy, in their struggle with the Soviet Union.

As Benazir spoke, and Murtaza looked for Wolf in the streets of Kabul, Timur Gaidar was also in Afghanistan. He was the leading reporter for Pravda, and he was reporting on the Red Army's struggle.

Yegor Gaidar is quiet in his memoirs about his father's role in Afghanistan. Whatever he thought politically, Timur believed in the Red Army. By all accounts he wrote pieces announcing the Red Armies "successes" against the insurgent Islamists. Like his father, Arkady, and millions of other Russians Timur saw the Red Army as the guardian not only of the people but of the noble ideals of the revolution.

And the Soviets, as well as fighting the mujahedin, were trying to transform Afghanistan into a version of that revolutionary dream that had begun in Russia. Here are some extracts from a brillant film made in Afghanistan in the mid 80s. It is shot by a man I consider a genius. He is called Erik Durschmied. He has a wonderful eye and in my opinion is the best cameraman the BBC ever had. It begins with the Afghan President, Babrak Karmal, visiting a factory. Watch his face - and know that within a year the Soviets would remove him.

But as Timur Gaidar faithfully reported the Red Army "victories" against the mujahedin, his son, Yegor Gaidar, was becoming radicalised. He was turning against the Soviet system.

Yegor had studied economics in the 1970s at Moscow University. Then he met again the daughter of Arkady Strugatsky, the science fiction writer. They fell in love and married. And as the caption says above the photo in Gaidar's memoir - it was one of the happiest marriages ever.

But Yegor had decided that all of Russia and its empire had now become The Zone.

It is difficult to convey just how weird and alien-like the Soviet system had become by the mid-80s. Nothing was real. Brezhnev would take foreign leaders on fishing trips while underneath the boat Soviet frogmen would place already captured fish on their leader's fishhook. At the same time the giant economic plan had created an absurd and fictitious world. Here is a bit from a film I made for the series "Pandora's Box" just as the plan was collapsing in 1991. It begins with one of the heads of GOSPLAN, the central control for the whole Soviet Plan, showing us round the HQ in Moscow. Within months of the filming it was going to be closed down - in part by the actions of Yegor Gaidar

In the face of this many of the children of the communist elite retreated from the absurdity that political ideology had created. They tried to create worlds that were free of politics.

Here are two extracts from a series called "Comrades" made in 1985. Its about a group of experimental musicians grouped around the noise artist Sergey Kuryokhin. I think the noise that Kuryokhin creates is wonderful. Here is a bit of him conducting his band called "Mechanical Pop". You can see where Beyonce stole many of her moves from.

And here is Kuryokhin playing with a friend's band. They are children of the Soviet elites playing in a house that had been given to one of their familes personally by Lenin. It is Prodigy before Prodigy - and just wonderful, especially the song "Exterminator"

As one of them says - people both in Russia and the West try and force music to have something to do with politics. I don't think music has anything to do with politics he says.

Kuryokhin was going to become one of the central figures in the new Russia in the early 90s. As was Yegor Gaidar.

And like Kuryokhin, Gaidar was also retreating from politics. He was beginning to dream of a new type of economic system that would function efficiently and automatically - free from the corruption of power.

In the early 80s Gaidar joined the All Union Institute for Systems Research. It was modelled on the RAND corporation in Santa Monica, and it was full of young technocrats who sensed that a giant crisis was coming - and were trying to create a radical new idea to save Russia.

Here are a couple of shots of Yegor in the 80s - along with his fried Anatoly Chubais, who was also going to become central to the Shock Therapy project.

At the same time Shahnawaz Bhutto was found dead in his apartment in Cannes on the Riviera. It was where he and his Afghan wife Rehana Fasihudin had gone after being thrown out of Kabul.

Here is Benazir arriving in Cannes for the Coroner's hearing.

Rehana said Shanawaz had committed suicide by eating a cynaide pill left over from his terrorist operation. But Benazir Bhutto didn't believe her. According to Benazir there were signs of violence and his papers had been searched and Rehana seemed to have done nothing to help him. Benazir was convinced he had been assassinated and she speculated that Rehana might actually be an agent for the Pakistan Secret Intelligence Agency, the ISI.

Three months later Murtaza divorced Rehana's sister Fauzia and moved to Damascus with his young daughter Fatima.

A few months later Benazir Bhutto came back to Pakistan. She sensed that Zia's power was weakening. It was an extraordinary arrival. Millions came out to see her - and she promised Pakistanis a new kind of democracy. Here is the extraordinary journey she made in 1986 - from Bradford to the streets of Lahore.

Then, in 1988, General Zia's plane mysteriously crashed and in the election that followed Benazir was elected Prime Minister. But to be a politician she had to be married. So she accepted the Zardari family's offer of an arranged marriage with their son Asif.

Here is Benazir at the wedding. The music is from Shostakovich's ballet The Bolt.

Benazir came to power in a country whose political system and large parts of its society had been completely corrupted by the war in Afghanistan. Senior members of the army were smuggling heroin. The country was awash with weapons. And much of Pakistan's foreign policy was now in the hands of the mysterious intellgence agency, the ISI who along with the Americans had backed the Islamists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

But something else had happened which few people noticed at the time.

General Zia had brought in an Islamic tax - a Zakat. It was a levy to help the poor - and large amounts went to fund religious schools across the country. They were the madrassas - run by the Deobandi movement - and by the late 1980s there were thousands of these schools producing masses of students - many of them Afghan refugees - for whom the pashto word is "talib".

Most "terror experts" conflate Islamists like bin Laden with the Taliban. That is completely wrong. The Deobandi ulemas who ran the madrassas were traditionalists and believed that modern Islamism was a dangerous corruption of Islam and they condemned it.

The founders of modern Islamism, Qutb and Mawdudi, had tried to fuse Islam with modern politics to create a new kind of modern, revolutionary society. The ulemas in the Pakistan madrassas wanted to do the very opposite - to go back into the past. They wanted to retreat completely from the corruption of politics and create an idealized version of an old Islamic society.

Then in 1988 the Soviets gave up and left Afghanistan. As they watched the Islamist mujahedin groups tear each other apart, the young Taliban leaders realized their teachers had been right about the corruption of power.

As the Red Army came home the revolution they had protected and guaranteed collapsed. The Soviet Union was destroyed. And in 1991 Yegor Gaidar was given the task of producing a new reform plan by President Yeltsin. He realised this was his chance to create a new world.

Gaidar gathered a group of idealists around him and they set out to create a utopia that would also be completely free of politics. But his was like a science fiction vision of the future. He was going to create his Zone - a pure and idealised version of American capitalism but without any state or political control. Every state control was going to be removed and the system would find its own order.

Many of the left argue that the 1990s reforms were brought into Russia by Western free-marketeers, and that people like Gaidar were simply western puppets. Whilst it is true that Western bankers, accountants and politicians did all pile in, the more you look into the roots of the shock therapy project it is clear that much ot its strange, innocent simplicity came from Gaidar and the other young idealists.

It was their utopian dream that they created inside the isolated bubble of the decaying Soviet Union in the 1980s.

All price controls would be removed overnight. And all state enterprises woud be privatized. It is followed by a bit from an interview with Gaidar the day the scheme began. He is aware of the irony that he and Yeltsin were going to use harsh political powers in order to destroy the power of politics in Russia.

Here are some extracts from a brilliant series called Russian Wonderland that recorded Russia during that time in wonderful detail. These extracts give a sense of Gaidar's vision as it began to spread. I really want to know what happened to the young girl.

And Afghanistan was about to get its own utopian experiment.

In 1990 Benazir Bhutto was forced out of power by the army. But in 1993 she returned triumphantly to power. To do this though she had done a deal that was going to change the fate of the world.

She had allied her father's party, the PPP, with another party called the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. They represented the Deobandis. Although the Deobandis hated politics they still knew they needed to be represented - and this deal brought them into the corridors of power.

Benazir Bhutto then decided to use her new allies to bring order to Afghanistan. Many of the Deobandi students were Pashtuns and Bhutto was convinced she could create a new force that would bring order to the country. It would also restore Pashtun power.

At the end of 1994 she and her interior minister, General Babar, unleashed the Taliban, backed by vast amounts of Pakistani arms and money. Within months the "students" had taken Kandahar and were advancing on Herat.

And as the Taliban took control of the cities they began their experiment. All they cared about was morality so the only organisation they created was called - "The Organisation for the Commanding of Good and the Hunting Down of Evil". Otherwise they had no interest in any social or political institutions. They just got rid of them all.

And as they did so the Taliban experiment began to look strangely like Gaidar's utopian experiment further north. Because by removing all state control the Taliban allowed the purest and most basic form of commerce and capitalism to emerge. And as it did so merchants, dealers, and transporters in the old bazaars became rich, uncontrolled by any taxes or regulations.

Here is some footage from rushes directed by the brilliant producer Tom Giles in 1996 as the Taliban approached Kabul. First driving from Kabul towards the Taliban lines. And then some long hand held shots on the streets of Herat as the Taliban take over. Holding it long really gives you a sense of the tense and strange mood of that time.

The music is from Stalker.

But things weren't going to work out the way either Bhutto or Gaidar thought.

The force that Benazir Bhutto had helped create would mutate and in the end kill her. While Gaidar would find himself haunted by the political force that had been defeated in Afghanistan - the Red Army. It had defined his family's life for 80 years and it would return to destroy his dream.



Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Kabul: City Number One - Part 8


There is a growing sense in the West that we no longer know what we are fighting for in Afghanistan. The question that is almost never asked is what they are fighting for? What do the Taliban want?

We are told that we are fighting to prevent terrorist attacks in Europe and America. But the reality is that the Taliban have no interest in attacking the West. In the public imagination and in much journalism the Taliban are seen as exactly the same as political Islamists such as bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. The truth is that they are the very opposite of each other.

The radical Islamists see themselves as modern revolutionaries. They want to reshape Islam and fuse it with the modern world of science, technology and mass politics to create a new kind of society. The Taliban rose up because they thought the Islamists had failed to do this. And instead the Taliban decided to go back into the past and try and reinvent an old world.

Seen from this perspective the Taliban aren't for anything. They are a conservative reaction against the failure of a grand revolutionary project begun 60 years ago in Egypt. They tried to force the Afghan people to behave like they imagined good Muslims behaved hundreds of years ago. Other than that they had no idea of the sort of society or institutions they wanted to create.

And when their neo-fundamentalism was rejected by the Afghans, the Taliban were left with nothing. The truth is that we may be fighting an enemy in Helmand - and soon in Kandahar too - that also no longer knows what it is fighting for. Both sides are locked together in a nihilistic war.

But the fascinating thing is that we, the British, have been through all this before in Afghanistan.

In 1919 there was a grand attempt to create a modern Islamist state in Afghanistan. But it collapsed into civil war and horror and led to the resurgence of old Islam coupled with the most traditional and reactionary forces in the country. And the Royal Air Force and British army was left fighting a futile, pointless war in the mountains of Waziristan.

It began when the British refused to allow Afghanistan to attend the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918 as an independent nation. The Afghan king was killed by an unknown assassin, and his son Amanullah took power promising to free Afghanistan from Britain's control.

Here is a picture of Amanullah

Then the British played into his hands. In May 1919 our army, led by Brigadier-General Dyer, massacred hundreds of civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab province over the border from Afghanistan. It was a defining moment for the British Empire. The harsh reality of Britain's dominating will smashed through the liberal fantasy of working in partnership with the new nationalism that had risen up in India.

Here is a section from a series made in the 1970s about the British Empire. It tells what happened at Amritsar. And I have put with it an interview with Pandit Nehru's daughter - shot in the 1960s - about the reaction of Indian nationalists to the massacre.

King Amanullah seized the opportunity. As the Punjab was rocked by protests and insurrections he announced that he was going to war with Britain. He instructed the Afghan army to invade India across the Khyber Pass. At the same time he had done deal with the tribes of Waziristan on the North West Frontier Province - the Wazirs and the Mehsuds. He promised them money and arms - and asked them to back his invasion. He was hoping to ignite a vast tribal uprising.

Here is a wonderful photograph of the moment when King Amanullah announced the jihad to a crowd in a Kabul street. Amanullah has his back to the camera. It is from the Williams Afghan Media Project - at Williams College in Massachusets. The project is an amazing and brilliant historical collection created by David Edwards and his colleagues. The project is collecting photographs and film and video from Afghanistan over the past 120 years. Here is a link to it

And amazingly Amanullah got what he wanted. Within a month he had fought the British to a draw. A ceasefire was called and at the Treaty of Rawalpindi the British gave Afghanistan its independence - promising never to meddle with it or try and control its foreign policy again.

Amanullah was a hero. But he was driven by more than just the dream of Afghan independence. He had been inspired by the ideas of one of the most fascinating figures in Afghan history - Mahmud Tarzi.

Mahmud Tarzi was a journalist and intellectual who believed that the modern revolution Amanullah had begun could lead to a pan-Islamic state running from Pakistan to Syria. Tarzi had begun writing for a Kabul newspaper called Seraj-al-Akhbar - the Torch of News. He used the paper to put forward his argument that Muslim countries would only liberate themselves if they could fuse Islam with the modern world that had been created by the Western powers.

The power of the imperialists came, Tarzi said, from their science and technologies and from the new kinds of socal organizations that their economies demanded. But the imperialists were also corrupt and violent. The solution was to reform Islam and take it away from the dead hand of the traditional Ulema. The modernised Islam could then be used as the guiding principle for the new scientific and technical society, and its new economy. It would also be a moral guide for the new political class running the state.

All this should be done by a new vanguard - the rawshanfikran - of enlightened intellectuals (like Mahmud Tarzi) whose ambition should be to educate the masses. As opposed to the old Afghan elitist concept of knowledge only being suitable for 'noble' brains - a idea that had been ruthlessly used by stupid Ulema to hang on to power.

In this Tarzi is very close to the thinking of Sayyid Qutb - whose ideas for an enlightened vanguard developing a modernised Islam was to inspire the Mulslim Brotherhood in the 1950s.

Here is a picture of Tarzi discussing the editorial content of his newspaper. And another of him at the centre of the king's group of advisers discussing the plans for a new kind of society. The king is at the back of shot.

King Amanullah was captivated by Tarzi's ideas - and he set out to build the new modernised Islamist society. In 1923 he created a new Afghan constitution which introduced modernist reforms including new systems of education for both boys and girls, equal rights, and it overturned the strict dress codes for women.

Amanullah's wife, Queen Soraya, was Mahmud Tarzi's daughter. At a vast public meeting in 1923, Soray got up in front of a thousand people, tore off her veil and ripped it to shreds. It was a dramatic symbol of the new society.

Here is a beautiful photograph of Amanullah and Soraya.

For a brief period this new modernised but Islamist society flourished in Kabul. Despite protests and rebellions in the countryside the ideas of Tarzi took hold in Afghanistan. The world around King Amanullah's court became an interweaving of western dress and manners and a reformed Islam.

Amanullah's older brother - Enayatullah - was an avid photographer. In the early 1920s he recorded this world in thousands of photographs. For decades they were lost, but in the 1970s Nancy Hatch Dupree - who is a brilliant chronicler of Afghan history - discovered them. She printed rough thumbnails of many of them. Here are a few. In their faded photocopy quality they give a strange, ghostly glimpse of the moment when a modern reformist movement flourished in the heart of Kabul.

But it didn't last. At the end of 1927 Amanullah went on a tour of Europe. When he came back in July 1928 he faced a full blown rebellion.

To challenge the traditional power of the Ulema Amanullah was asserting the power of the centralised state. In doing this he was also taking powers away from the local headmen - the maliks. Up till now the local village structure had been the power centre of most of Afghan daily life. But now the maliks found themslves marginalised - so they allied themselves with the mullahs, and a mass movement rose up to overthrow Amanullah.

The rebels put out propaganda to turn the people against the King. Here is a poem about what his modernization was leading to.

Then an armed revolt began. There were risings across the country and they developed into a vicious civil war. Amanullah fled to Kandahar. He knew that his attempt at modernization had failed and to save himself he tried to prove that in reality he was a traditional Islamic monarch. He did it in a final dramatic gesture.

Amanullah went to the Shrine of the Holy Cloak in the centre of Kandahar. He opened up the brass bound chest where the cloak which was reputed to have been the Prophet's had lain for over a 100 years.

Amanullah lifted it above his head and demanded of the mullahs in front of him whether Allah would allow a heretic or an apostate to perform such a sacred act.

Knowing they had won, the mullahs put forward their main demand. The King must get rid of his idea that religious scholars need to be educated. Instead any mullah could become a teacher without producing any qualifications

And all girls sent to Turkey for education should be recalled.

The King agreed. But it was too late to save his regime. At the end of 1929 the British sent a plane to rescue him and his family. Mahmud Tarzi also fled. But here is a strange photograph of the remnants of Amanullah's regime waiting to be executedIt was all over.

Except in Waziristan. Everyone had forgotten about it - but the revolt that Amanullah had deliberately started against the British ten years before had never stopped. For ten years it had rumbled on. Now, suddenly it exploded.

A young Wazir tribesman called Sayid Amir Noor Ali Shah from the village of Jhandu Khel fell in love with a Hindu girl - an heiress called Ram Kori - from Bannu. He persuaded her to run away with him, become a Muslim and marry him. The Hindus were furious and complained to the British authorities. The British sent soldiers to kidnap the girl and bring her back.

The Wazir tribe was furious, and a local hermit from the village of Ipi persuaded them to rise up in rebellion. He was known as the Faqir of Ipi and he used his charisma and religious reputation to unite the Wazir and the Mehsud tribes in a full-blown war against the British.

These were the two most reactionary forces - local maliks and the rural mullahs uniting together to try and force the British out. They had no other aim or vision. The British responded brutally - through what thay called "Air Control" - bombing the Waziristan villages.

In 1935 Group Captain Robert Lister of the RAF was sent out to fight in Waziristan. Lister was a keen amateur movie-maker. Home movie-making was just begining as a leisure activity and he had the most modern equipment available. He decided to take his camera and lots of film with him so that he could film the whole campaign including the bombing raids. Here is part of a programme made with Group Captain Lister in 1980. It interviews him and shows sections of his film. It is absolutely fascinating. It is not only an extraordinary record of a forgotten war - but as you watch Lister talk about bombing villages you can't help thinking about today.

In 1989 the Soviet forces finally left Afghanistan.

And a revolutionionary movement emerged led by radicals who wanted to transform Afghanistan into a new kind of society.

The two most important leaders were the commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Both were political islamists. And both been radicalised as students in Kabul by ideas that came from Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although they were far more violent, both Massoud and even Hekmatyar - despite his conservative elements - were in the same tradition of modernised political Islam as Mahmud Tarzi seventy years before. They were both modern and forward-looking. They were anti-imperialists who, like Tarzi, believed that the only way to free Muslim countries from the west was to create a new kind of revolutionary society in which Islam was fused with the science, technology and economies of the modern world.

And that is what they set out to try and create in Afghanistan

But they failed - because like King Amanullah before them they challenged the local power of both the mullahs and the maliks. During the Soviet occupation local Mujaheddin commanders had come together against a common enemy. But now they fragmented. Hekmatyar's group Hizb-i-Islami tried to unify the groups but was rejected because of its idea of central control. Massoud's army was always at heart an ethnic group of Tajiks. Plus the two men had hated each other since university.

Out of this came a brutal civil war which dragged Afghanistan into chaos.

And the response to that failure was the Taliban. It is important to realise how opposed the Taliban were to the modern revolutionary ideas of people like bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. Far from being modernising Islamists the Taliban were the inheritors of the reactionary ideas that had driven the backlash against King Amanullah back in 1929.

And the roots of the Taliban lie in a Pakistani political party that sees radical Islamism as a rival. It is called Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam - JUI for short. Its aim is not to modernise - but to enforce a rigid and traditional interpretation of Islam. During the 1980s the JUI set up literally thousands of schools - madrassas - in the Pashtun belt running down from Waziristan to Baluchistan. Their aim was to educate young Afghan refugees in traditional interpretations of Islam and Islamic society.

Most of the madrassas were in rural areas and the students were taught by semi-educated mullahs whose interpretation of Sharia was rooted in Pashtunwai, the tribal code of the Pashtuns. The students were taken back into a rigid localised world view of Islam and Afghanistan very similar to the Waziristan the British met in 1919.

In the early 90s the students returned to Afghanistan and set up the Taliban - to cleanse the country of a revolution that had gone wrong, compromised by the futile idea of modernising Islam. And in April 1996 Mullah Omar went to the Shrine of the Holy Cloak. He took out the cloak for the first time in 60 years and waved it from the roof - just as Amanullah had in 1929 - and announced a jihad against the Islamist factions in Kabul.

The BBC producer Tom Giles and John Simpson were in Kandahar that day - and they captured this extraordinary moment on video.

When King Amanullah had held the cloak above his head in 1929 it symbolised the end of his dreams of creating a modern world in Afghanistan. Now - in 1996 - Omar was saying the same thing - forget the future, listen to the ghosts of your past - and follow their rules.

Here are some clips I have cut together - some to music.

It begins with a live outside broadcast from Kabul TV - of a parade for the Afghan leader the Soviets left behind - President Najibullah. The Afghan TV people had been taught by the Soviets how to film parades just like they did in Red Square.

Then there are some bits from a very good documentary made in 1996 about the Taliban It starts in the key madrassa where the Taliban were formed. It then follows a group of Talibs as they go over the border into Afghanistan to fight. You get a very good sense of how they have no idea of the society they are trying to create - they are just the forces of reaction to a failed revolution.

And then there is a bit of John Simpson walking through the ruins of the Royal Palace in Kabul.

But before we in the West criticise the Afghans too much for their failure to uproot the forces of reaction, we should remember that in our own society we have also been unable to eradicate powerful forces of tradition and reaction. In 1997 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Amritsar.

Months before the Indian government asked them not to visit the city. But they did. Indian newspapers reported that most of the population were indifferent. The Queen gave a quick bow - but no apology. And then the Duke caused a terrible row. He found a noticeboard at the site of the massacre which said that 2000 people were martyred that day in 1919. He said that this was wrong and the Indians were exaggerating.

The figures of those killed and wounded have always been disputed. When the Duke was asked how he knew it was wrong he said that General Dyer's son had told him so when they met on a ship once.

Here is the news report - Royal visits to far flung parts of the old empire loyally reported as always by the BBC - the Duke's indelicate comments hardly mentioned.

To be continued

Latest Replies

Global Defence

New threads