By David Kurlander

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to spur debate over the Biden administration’s preparation, the appropriate treatment of Afghan refugees, and the long-term American strategy in the region. The tragic Thursday attack on the Kabul Airport has further intensified this rancor. In this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Afghanistan & American Styles of War,” Heather Cox Richardson said of the current discourse, “All of this comes back to: what is a ‘vital American interest?’” America’s unsure footing in Afghanistan goes back a long way—before the October 2001 invasion, before the 1979 Soviet invasion, and to the dawn of the Cold War. 

Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat landed in Kabul on December 6th, 1953 to a 21-gun salute. “Thousands of Afghans—their faces showing the mixed blood of centuries of invasion—greeted them at the airport,” reported the Baltimore Sun. Nixon visited King Mohammed Zahir Shah’s Arg Palace, strolled through the bazaar, and eventually flew 465 miles across the desert to the Helmand River, where American construction firm Morrison-Knudsen was constructing a $63.7 million dam, irrigation, and residential village project.

The Boise-based “M-K” had served as chief builder for the Hoover Dam and the Bay Bridge. In 1946, King Zahir had awarded the firm’s co-founder Henry Morrison with an opportunity to build three massive dams. The first of the three dams, Dahla, opened a year before Nixon’s visit. The overall project, however, was beset by cost overruns—Zahir had already taken out a $55 million loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The project would continue to struggle through the 1960s. 

Around the time that Nixon viewed the “M-K” project, political power in Afghanistan effectively passed from Zahir to his ambitious cousin, Mohammed Daoud, who accelerated an existent effort to play the U.S. against the Soviets in an effort for further development. Daoud also intensified a push for the creation of a “buffer state” between Afghanistan and its Western neighbor, Pakistan. Dubbed Pashtunistan, the proposed nation was Daoud’s attempt to undo the arbitrary Durand Line established by the British during the colonial period that had displaced ethnic Pashtuns. Pakistani leaders were not enthusiastic about the idea.

The competition with Pakistan made Daoud eager for military aid. In October 1954, Daoud reached out to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to ask for assistance. Dulles declined on December 28th, 1954 during a conversation with Afghan diplomat Mohammad Ludin. “U.S. arms delivered to Afghans might simply create complications with Soviets and impose increased burden on Afghan budget,” a telegram summary of Dulles’ perspective sent to the Afghan embassy read.  

The Soviets did not share these reservations. In December 1955, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev landed in Kabul. They agreed to support the creation of Pashtunistan, to sign a non-aggression pact, and to re-equip the Afghan army and air force through a $100 million credit grant. The Soviets also set up a flurry of building projects to counter the “M-K” undertaking, including a five-lane highway from Kabul to the Soviet frontier and a hydroelectric dam outside of Jalalabad. 

A slew of sensational articles in the mid-1950s covered with trepidation Russia’s increasing activity in Afghanistan. “Fall of Afghanistan to Red Rule Feared,” read a headline in The Washington Post in November 1955. “The Bear That Walks the Afghan Streets,” the New York Times followed in 1956. The Times article ended: “No one can predict the fate of Afghanistan. All that surely can be said now is that, in a few short months, a small, primitive country has shed the cocoon of isolation and that the United States will not soon be able to forget that fact.”

 Between 1955 and 1963, the U.S.S.R. sent over $500 million in aid to Afghanistan, including a number of MiG fighter jets for the Afghan Air Force. That was twice the amount of aid that the U.S. sent in the same period, and much of that money went straight into propping up the continuously maligned Helmand Project. Despite further entreaties from Daoud, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations continued to hold out on military aid. 

 Amid the competition, Dauod and Zahir continued to navigate spiking tensions with Pakistan. In March 1955, Pakistan consolidated its Western provinces into a “One Unit” system, bringing many Pashtuns more firmly under their control. An Afghan mob responded by sacking the Pakistan embassy in Kabul and burning their rival’s flag. In September 1961, amid border skirmishes, Pakistan cut off all diplomatic and trade ties with Afghanistan. President Kennedy—concerned that any all-out war between the two nations would lead to a formal alliance between Afghanistan and Russia—responded by sending Livingston T. Merchant, the American ambassador to Canada, to negotiate between the two nations. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed. 

Despite their entanglements with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Afghanistan remained publicly non-aligned, even inviting Chinese and West German engineers to join in on dam-building projects. In 1962, the U.S. News and World Report called the hodgepodge of international projects “a strange kind of cold war, fought with money and technicians instead of spies and bombs.” 

On September 5th, 1963, King Zahir landed in Washington, D.C. President Kennedy greeted Zahir in the Rose Garden, where they stood without raincoats in a heavy downpour. Kennedy offered measured praise of Zahir’s program. “You have committed your country to maintenance of national independence and sovereignty, and it is a source of pride to us that it has been possible for the United States in some small ways to join you in that great effort.” Kennedy also praised Zahir’s 1959 decree that women could appear in public with uncovered faces and pursue higher education. 

This type of cautious rhetoric—and the withholding of military aid—would mostly continue until 1978, when the Saur Revolution saw the assassination of Daoud and the installation of the communist People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. In the following years, the Soviet Union would invade, the United States would begin arming anti-Soviet rebels, and the fragile, if cynical, equilibrium that had defined the earlier period would be forever gone. 

Now, as the Biden administration seeks to redefine American interests in Afghanistan yet again, America’s initial entanglements in Kabul take on an additional air of innocence and forthcoming tragedy. 

This article relied heavily on Nick Cullather’s fascinating 2002 Journal of American History article “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State.” Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s 2012 Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan also provides a powerful glimpse of the legacy of early Cold War Afghanistan on the 21st century. And last week, the BBC premiered a fantastic short documentary on Afghanistan in the 1950s.

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