Archives for October 2009

Kabul: City Number One - Part 4

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Adam Curtis | 17:13 UK time, Wednesday, 28 October 2009


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. 

amin_grab.jpgAs 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


wisconsin_international.jpgMadison 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.'

appleman.jpgThe 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. 

lafollette2.jpgAppleman 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.

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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.

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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.


harldost2.jpgAfter 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.

marmot2.JPGBut 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:

harlanqu.jpgFor 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.

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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.

hug3.jpgAmin 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"

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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.


Source: Wilson Center Cold War Project

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Kabul: City Number One - Part 3

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Adam Curtis | 15:55 UK time, Tuesday, 13 October 2009



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.


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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.

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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 engineers.




But 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 people.




So 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



lashkargahtreelined.jpgIt 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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Adam Curtis | 18:24 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009


As well as our relationship with Afghanistan, I am researching the legacy of other  European empires - in Africa. We think of those empires as history but actually they still haunt our everyday lives in the strangest of ways.

These are notes on some of the people and events that have formed that strange link with the past.


Just like Kabul, in the 1960s Kinshasa was a place that fascinated Europeans. It was both violent yet exciting. And it became a place where Western dreams of Africa and African dreams of the West met and started to feed off each other.

Here is a report from the night club Saint-Hilaire in Kinshasa in August 1967. For weeks the white population of the city had been in lockdown under the orders of the new President Mobutu. Now they were celebrating what looked like peace.

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At the same time a new fashion was emerging in the Saint-Hilaire and other clubs in Kinshasa. To dress perfectly like Europeans. It had begun 500 yards across the Congo River in Brazzaville but had spread to become a cult of elegance among young Kinshasans.

They were members of what they called La Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes - Sapeurs for short. At the heart of the vision was a dream of Paris. It had started in the 1950s with trying to dress like post-war Parisian existentialists - or "existos", but now it was all about wearing labels like Dior.

Those involved saw it as much more than simply being a dandy. It was an alternative universe to the corrupt politics and the violence that had taken over the Congo. It was a dream of another kind of society with its own beautiful rules and values.

I have tried to find archive of the sapeurs from the 60s and 70s. So far all I can find is is a tantalising shot of Basseka Kandza holding up photographs of himself as a young Sape. It is part of a site of fantastic photographs of contemporary Sapeurs by Hector Mediavilla.
mediavilla.jpgAnother was the Congolese painter Bodo. Here is a painting by him from the wonderful collection of Jean Pigozzi in Geneva. Bodo will reappear in this story along with others painters like his friend Cheri Samba. They believed they could use painting to change the course of history.

Che Guevara was also dedicated to changing the course of history. And in 1965 he came to the Congo to try and transform it into his vision of a socialist state.

Che was convinced the Congo was the weak point in western imperialism. So he made the ultimate sacrifice and shaved off his moustache and beard to disguise himself. Here is a photo of of him shaving and another of him in the disguise.


che_disguise007.jpgGuevara travelled secretly with a small group of Cubans across Lake Tanganyika to the eastern Congo. He had a theory he called Foco which he had developed with a Parisian intellectual called Regis Debray. The theory said that tiny groups of revolutionaries could inspire the people of a country to a big insurrection. To do this the revolutionaries had to set a moral example and then the Congolese rebels around them would be transformed into "New Men"

But nothing went right. Che had given himself the codename "Tatu", which means three in Swahili. The Congo rebels thought this meant he was only third in command and didn't listen to anything he said. He in turn was shocked at how all the rebels believed in magic - Dawa - which would make them invincible to bullets. This meant they didn't bother to train and sat round drinking all the time.

Then Che led the rebels on an attack on a Hydro Electric plant. Some of the soldiers said they had heard an elephant and ran away. The rest closed their eyes and fired their guns randomly. Che was very depressed. Then they tried to attack an army barracks, but the Congo rebels had a superstitious fear of trenches so they wouldn't get into the holes they themselves had dug - and many were killed.

Faced by disaster Che gave in. He told the rebels he had found a witch doctor with more powerful Dawa. As a result things started to go better, until he came up against a group of mercenaries led by Colonel "Mad" Mike Hoare.

Hoare is an interesting man. He had singlehandedly created the modern African mercenary. Groups of European soldiers from the old colonial power who hired themselves out to the new African governments

Here is very degraded footage of the mercenaries attacking the Congo rebels

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And this is part of an interview with Hoare where he is quite honest about the brutality and looting.

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Che spent his days waiting in the mountains for the rebel leader Laurent Kabila to turn up. He gave the rebels classes in how to be "new men" but they laughed at him, he got dysentery, he lost his pet monkey, and then Kabila finally arrived but was completely drunk. Che Guevara gave up any hope of creating a revolution. He wrote Fidel Castro a despairing letter. In it you can feel the 20th century dream of transforming oppressed people into new kinds of powerful beings quietly dying away.

Che left and went off to try and transform the Bolivian peasants instead.

But almost immediately another person turned up in the very same mountains in the Congo who would be central to the rise of a new liberal idea. The belief that far from being different and superior to nature, we should recognise that human beings are intimately connected to all other species in the "web of life". It is the belief that dominates the west today.

She was called Dian Fossey. Fossey was an American - from California - who was obsessed with gorillas. In 1966 she met the famous British scientist Louis Leakey. Leakey had discovered the fossil skull in a central African gorge that proved Darwin's theory that human beings had first emerged in Africa, descended from the apes.

This is a section from a BBC programme that catches the new mood that Leakey's discovery had created

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Leakey now wanted to study chimpanzees and gorillas from the region to learn more about human evolution at that time. He had already persuaded Jane Goodall to spend her life with chimps, and now he asked Dian Fossey whether she would like to go and live with the gorillas.

Fossey agreed immediately, and in early 1967 she climbed into the Virunga mountains just north of where Che Guevara had fought his battles. Nine days later she found her first gorilla troupe. They charged at her, but Fossey was determined to gain their trust. So she sat quietly next to them pretending to be another gorilla. She mimicked their noises of contentment. She nibbled at wild celery, and spent hours crouched in a submissive posture.

It is an image that the National Geographic Film Department would make famous around the world. Television - especially the BBC - was going to become the central conduit for spreading this new ideology. It did this through these emotional images of a human being uniting with the gorillas. Here is one of the earliest of the National Geographic sequences showing Fossey waiting.

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But even as Fossey waited, the rebellion in the Eastern Congo began again.

Joseph Desire Mobutu had seized complete control of the Congo and he moved against the rebels. This time though the white mercenaries switched sides and worked for the rebels. But they had lost Major Hoare, their old leader, and they rapidly spun out of control. The mercenaries committed horrific acts of violence against Congolese rebels and civilians. To the Congolese it was as though the ghosts of the horrors they had suffered under the Belgian King Leopold had been reawakened.

This is part of an interview with one of those mercenaries. He is remarkably open about both what he did and what he felt as he did it. You don't see anything, but what he describes is really not for the squeamish.

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In response President Mobutu made a radio broadcast warning his people about these white foreigners. Many of his people took this as an instruction to attack the white population. Hundreds were kidnapped and killed, and in August 1967 a group of Congo army soldiers came and took Dian Fossey down from the mountains.

Fossey was shut in a metal cage and she was then raped repeatedly over a period of 16 days.

As the horror mounted in the Congo the western media became fascinated. The underlying implication in much of the reporting was that it proved what those who had run the empires always said - Africans are savages who need to be controlled and guided otherwise they will behave just like the primates they live among.

The BBC programme Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life tackled this attitude. Here is part of it. First a sketch and then a discussion, dominated by a BBC journalist called James Mossman. Mossman is a fascinating character - who will reappear. He had been, and probably still was, a member of MI6.  But much of his reporting of the post-colonial world at the time was driven by his belief that unless we understand the roots of this violence in our own exercise of power through our empires then it will come back to haunt us and corrode our own sense of ourselves.

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At the end of August Dian Fossey managed to escape from the Congo soldiers. She fled across the border into Uganda where Louis Leakey rushed to meet her. He fell desperately in love with her. For four weeks they had a passionate affair. But then Fossey retreated - both literally and emotionally.

She climbed up into the Virunga mountains again - but this time not in the Congo - and set up a new camp. She began to approach the gorillas again and ignored Leakey's desperate appeals of love. She wrote to him:

"You will be very happy to know that I've found a utopia - not only for the gorilla but for me as well. Not only is this area teeming with gorilla, it is beautiful beyond description."

The utopia was Rwanda. And here is the famous National Geographic image of Fossey being accepted by the gorillas as one of their own. Its message is the opposite of the dream Che Guevara had tried to bring to the Congo. He wanted to take the Africans forward, but the Europeans are looking backwards to a prelapsarian past when they were at one with nature - and thus better people.

But both were idealistic dreamworlds using the Congo.

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And as Fossey began again in Rwanda, Che Guevara was captured and shot in Bolivia.

James Mossman was rude to the Prime Minister Harold Wilson on live TV. He was forced to make arts programmes instead. And three years later he killed himself

Many of the mercenaries who had fought in the Congo committed suicide. This  is part of an interview with Mike Hoare about this. Followed by his admission that he was now being approached by revolutionaries who wanted him to arrange coups to topple African leaders. A bit like what Che Guevara was trying to achieve.

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Louis Leakey went to live with Jane Goodall's mother

And President Mobutu decided he had to dress like an African not a European. But he still had all his leopard skin hats made by the best furrier in Paris.



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