Helmand's Golden Age
Afghanistan once faced the future with confidence.
Caught here on film, it's an era the world has forgotten.
Under the skin
When a young American engineer Glenn Foster arrived in Afghanistan, he found a country rushing towards the future. The people are “exploding out into the open,” he said later.
The spirit of a new era is driving them at a furious pace.”
It was 1952. Afghanistan was still a kingdom, and King Zahir had hired foreign technicians - including American engineers and construction specialists - to help build the new post-war Afghanistan. Post-World War Two, that is.
Afghanistan faced the world with confidence. Revenue from its main export, the karakul lambskin, had grown steadily as the furriers, milliners and clothiers of a stricken Europe decamped to the United States. Although poor and undeveloped, Afghanistan in the late 1940s held $100m dollars in reserves.
Glenn Foster carried with him a 16mm camera, and in the seven years that he was to live and work in Afghanistan he shot hour upon hour of film - of Afghan life and landscapes, of engineering projects, of Christmas parties in the American community. And in those hours of film he captured the country in a hopeful moment of its history that is all but forgotten.
Foster’s films are mainly shot in southern Afghanistan, in Kandahar, the old capital of the south, and in Helmand, an area that has often made headline news as a bloody battleground since the US led foreign forces into Afghanistan in 2001.
The same area was at that time the centre of an immense project to develop the south through the building of roads and dams, to irrigate the desert and electrify the cities.
Through Foster’s lens we meet Americans and Afghans sharing the same space with amusement and curiosity - comfortable with one another and working side by side. No-one worried about their personal safety then, or was afraid to visit someone’s house for dinner or a wedding.
Foster took his camera into workshops and villages, out on the road and into the desert. The country slipped under his skin.
In some of these scenes, Foster is standing in a Kandahar street - as street vendors, their shoulders draped with numerous coats, smile for the camera.
It was Glenn’s son Robert who rediscovered the cans of silent film 60 years later in a box-shaped suitcase at the family home in Oregon, where Glenn’s widow, Lucia still lives. He also found a diary of his father’s years in Afghanistan, and came across - remarkably - a reel-to-reel tape on which Foster recorded his observations, before appearing on a TV travel show.
On the tape we hear his thoughts, untempered by what happened next or hindsight but fresh, caught at a time when no-one knew what the future might hold.
There may have been other people who filmed Kandahar and Helmand through the 1950s but if there were, their work has not made it across the chasm between that time and our own. So far as we know, Foster’s films stand alone.
Glenn Foster was born in 1921, and grew up in hard times on a small rented farm near Watsonville, California. He was the eldest of five children; their father was ill with polio. There was no electric power at the farm, so on Saturdays his father would take a battery into town to be charged so they could listen to the radio during the week.
As a 13-year-old schoolboy, Foster began driving, working on farms and fixing valves at the gas station at the weekends. He loved machines and had a way with them.
Years later, after a war spent in Alaska and then France, he returned to Watsonville to work as a truck driver so as to put himself through engineering college.
When Foster set out for Kandahar, he was 31. He worked as an engineer and doubled as a cameraman taking still photographs and films as a visual record of the project and of the numerous official visits by King Zahir, visiting heads of state, diplomats and company grandees.
When US vice-president Richard Nixon visited Kabul in 1953, Foster was there. Every two weeks he would despatch his work back to his company, Morrison Knudsen (MK) in Boise Idaho.
Foster needed an assistant, and took on a bright young man, Mehtabuddin, who had been with MK since he was 14, working as a “grease monkey” in charge of the trucks. Mehtabuddin’s world changed with the arrival of Foster. He learned to develop film and set up a photo laboratory. The two travelled far and wide on trips.
The Afghanistan of the films is full of promise of good times ahead. The fields are green, the streets are clean. People smile into the camera.
“Afghans like to dance, to sing, to have fun,” he records. Plentiful food - fried fish, meat, fruit and sweets - features often in the films.
Their diet may not be abundant but you don’t see the hunger that you do in some countries and beggars are seldom seen. Even though there are masses of people the country seems able to feed them all.”
“Scores of brick kilns are growing up in every village of the kingdom to supply the materials to build the new Afghanistan,” Foster records after one of his road trips with Mehtabuddin. These villages were to house farmers on the newly irrigated lands and to settle the nomadic peoples, the Kuchi, whose grazing routes had been cut by the contentious creation of the Pakistani border.
Foster’s one regret was that the old Afghanistan of craftsmen and artisans would soon be swept away. He noted:
The tourist of the future may not see what we see.”
The dam builders
When King Zahir hired the Morrison Knudsen company in 1946, he was signing up one of the most prestigious engineering companies in the world. Its engineers – who called themselves Emkayans - built anything, anywhere, not only dams but airports, roads and bridges in every quarter of the globe.
Harry Morrison and his wife Ann were legendary figures at home in Boise, Idaho, where everyone has a story about them.
For their annual Christmas dinner dance at home on Harrison Boulevard the Morrisons would lay “a specially built hardwood dance floor, built to the shape of their backyard, that dovetailed together”, one former employee remembers. Harry would play the guitar and sing.
Abroad, Harry and Ann were the royalty of the construction world. When they toured the world from project to project, in Iran or Tunisia or Algeria, the local newspaper logged their progress.
In hiring Morrison Knudsen, King Zahir was experimenting not only with technology but with what it meant to be a modern nation. The Afghan government had been working on irrigation for the deserts of the south as far back as 1910, thousands of labourers digging long canals with shovels.
Morrison Knudsen brought the latest technology - mechanical diggers and scientific soil analysis. The project increased dramatically in scale. Hand-drawn maps - still stored undisturbed in the old Morrison Knudsen headquarters in Boise - show plans for three main dams along the River Helmand and its tributaries.
At more than 1,000km, from its source in the Hindu Kush to the marshlands of the Iranian border, the Helmand is the longest river in Afghanistan.
The Boghra dam opened first, soon to be eclipsed by the much larger Dahla dam in 1952, then Kajaki. At 97m tall, Kajaki is only slightly smaller than the Aswan dam on the river Nile.
The dams were to be nodes in a web of projects that spread across the south. A lacework of more than 200km of canals was to turn the desert into farmland on a huge scale.
The Emkayans first built roads for their equipment. Every truck, machine, scrap of steel, wire, electrical component, was imported. Most was shipped on steamers to Pakistan, and sent by train to the railhead at Quetta. The rest came from the Gulf through Iran, with which the US then had no quarrel.
The roads would later come into use as export highways, along which fruits of all kinds and factory-made goods could flow to the wider world. The projections the Afghan government and Morrison Knudsen made are astonishingly detailed.
Foster was probably the only film-maker at the grand opening of the Dahla dam in 1952. His high, panoramic view captures the crowds coming in from the villages to watch the sluices open.
Emkayans and Afghans alike believed they were laying the ground for a prosperous, stable Afghanistan well placed for trade at the heart of Asia.
But the specialists, scientists, planners, economists, and materials were expensive. Salaries and transport costs alone were tremendous. By 1949, the project had already absorbed $20m of the national reserves. Kabul applied for and received loans of $55m from the US Export-Import Bank.
Some observers were uneasy, in the early 1950s, that the project was too big - too ambitious and on a frail financial footing.
“Different factors joined hands to make the project difficult,” says Farouq Azam, an agricultural expert specialising in the Helmand area:
The government had no experience running such a large project. The Americans didn’t know the area. The investment was not thoroughly examined. The land - the soil - was not surveyed fully.”
The settlers brought in to farm the land, meanwhile, lacked agricultural experience. Unease turned to worry when harvests, rather than increasing, began to fail.
As early as 1954, the water table had risen so much that a large area of land lay waterlogged. An impermeable layer of rock not far beneath the topsoil was preventing proper drainage and meant that salt rose to the surface, leaving fields frosted with white crystals.
In July 1958, Saville R Davis, an American journalist based in Kabul for the Christian Science Monitor, estimated that the Kabul government was pouring one third of the national exchequer into diversion dams and bore holes to drain the land. As an inquiry team flew in from Washington, he wrote:
The frustrations which assailed this project shouldn’t happen to anyone - but they happened to Afghanistan and the United States. Fine dams were built by an American private contractor working for the Afghan government, but nearly everything seemed to go wrong with the use of the irrigated land.”
The Afghan government, along with American engineers, made tremendous and costly efforts to reverse the early disappointments. In addition to the extra dams, bore holes and channels, scientists developed new seeds and cropping patterns. Educators held classes on new farming techniques.
And despite the setbacks, Helmand began to bloom. Residents and visitors alike remember the bright green of the settlements and orchards along the Helmand river.
Farming increased, harvesting a surplus even at times of drought. Farmers grew and exported cotton for cash in thousands of tonnes. Few even recognised the flower of the opium poppy, according to Farouq Azam.
Glenn Foster finally went home to Watsonville when the MK contract ended in 1959.
Now 38, he settled down and married Lucia, who’d also been out in Afghanistan. He continued to work as an engineer, but film-making as a hobby was prohibitively expensive in those days, so he only made a few home movies of his children, then stopped.
Afghanistan had by now become another country, one increasingly reliant on foreign money. In Washington, and in Geneva, the development industry was emerging.
President John F Kennedy created the United States development agency USAID in 1961 to extend American finance into what was now being called the Third World. It was USAID that took over from Morrison Knudsen in Helmand and, along with the Afghan government, oversaw the next phase of irrigation.
Agriculture, especially cotton and grain production, continued to expand until Helmand supplied a fifth of Afghanistan’s wheat harvest.
USAID commissioned two 16.5 MW generating units in a powerhouse at the foot of the Kajaki dam. Space was left for a third turbine, the “ghost bay”. Electric power began to flow to Kandahar and Lashkar Gah through a series of substations.
Kandahar International Airport was the next big plan. It was a state-of-the-art super-modern complex built in the early 1960s for around $15m in grants and loans. Under its lofty brick arches, Kandahar International was intended to rival Karachi or Delhi as a stopover for planes and passengers travelling between Europe and East Asia.
USAID contracted Morrison Knudsen to do the job, including site engineer Martin Anderson:
There was to be a huge motel - about 100 rooms. Travellers between, say, Rome and Singapore could stay the night. It was the latest, the latest, technology - six or eight terrific underground fuel tanks with electronic controls, with lines out to the airport aprons. So you could sit in the plane and punch a button, choose which fuel you wanted.”
It was a mystery to Martin how the fuel would arrive in Kandahar. His job was to build. But developments in aircraft technology overtook Kandahar airport before these inventions could come into use.
“When we finished in 1962, the jet engine arrived - planes didn’t need to stop over or refuel,” says Anderson. “You just do what you have to do. The guys took a lot of pride in it. Work like that - it gets in your blood. I don’t know what happened to the motel or the underground fuel tanks. But on the internet I can see the airport now and it looks pretty much as we left it.”
The American engineers, soil scientists and planners who came to Helmand between the late 1940s and 1960s were mostly men in middle age.
Postings could last for years. There were no phone calls home and very few breaks. Their families came along as a matter of course - wives, children and babies.
“Ours was a very particular moment in time,” says Martin Anderson:
Before, there would not have been the technology to bring us to Afghanistan or to build the things we built. Nowadays, there’s the internet and Skype, there’s email, and foreigners go home every couple of weeks. But us, we lived on the job and so did our families.”
Foster’s films catch that moment, showing us an American life lived thousands of miles from home.
Much of this footage is shot at the Morrison Knudsen compound at Manzel Bagh, a royal palace in Kandahar given over to the company by King Zahir as an administrative centre and residential compound. Families at Manzel Bagh lived in small houses with front lawns, single men in a barracks.
The films show a big communal dining hall, a swimming pool and garden. Foster’s fellow Americans seem not to notice his camera. We, the viewers, are taken right inside their community, surrounded by lively details - polka-dot dresses and sling-back sandals, large drinks, endless cigarettes.
Christmas dinners, swimming parties and Fourth of July picnics mark the seasons.
Emkayan mothers sewed elaborate outfits for pageants and shows, while fancy-dress materials were flown in from swinging Beirut or Teheran. The kids ran egg-and-spoon races and held pie-eating contests. Foster recorded that it was the Americans who brought the tug o’ war to Helmand, where, he said, Afghans enjoyed its competitive spirit.
The records families brought for their portable phonographs are a diary of the decade - the Everly Brothers at the start of the Helmand Valley project, Petula Clark at the end.
When Martin Anderson took a rare day off from building Kandahar International Airport he’d go fishing in the Arghandab dam:
Gazelle hunting, that was popular - guys would go out into the desert and get a gazelle for dinner.”
Airlines seemed to make no bones in those days about passengers taking rifles on a plane.
The Andersons lived at Manzel Bagh with their daughter, Anne. Inge, Martin’s wife, recalls standing in the garden by night and watching the streak of light as the first American space traveller, Alan Shepard, flew over Kandahar.
An open-air cinema on Friday nights brought a touch of Hollywood. Foster’s assistant Mehtabuddin enjoyed John Wayne films, others recall Doris Day.
These films were shown in English. However, an Afghan civil servant working on the project, Kamoliddin Mahmood, opened his own cinema in Lashkar Gah, the first in Helmand. Kamoliddin showed all kinds of films from Bombay and Lahore, from Iran and even from the USSR. Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace ran in the early 1970s.
A generation of innovation and investment set Lashkar Gah apart from other provincial cities. By the mid-1960s it had taken on a character and economy all its own. Civic services expanded; the hospital was the pride of the city.
Approximately one million Afghans moved to the Helmand Valley at this time, drawn by the prospect of jobs, good schools and prospects. Very many of these were educated people - their children would be the first in Afghanistan to have the option of single-sex or mixed schools.
People of every ethnicity and many languages lived side by side in Lashkar Gah, some in modern American-built houses with lawns, low fences and front gardens.
“It was such a happy time,” says Saeeda Mahmood, daughter of Kamoliddin Mahmood, the civil servant who also ran the cinema:
We grew up all together. No-one said, you are this, and we are that. Some of our neighbours were Americans. We used to invite them at Eid, they’d invite us for their parties. I remember Santa Claus would come, on a donkey, bringing us all presents.”
Saeeda’s was the first Afghan generation to think about a higher education within the country, rather than abroad in Beirut, or Delhi or Istanbul. “I went to the mixed school, all of us were so ambitious. We girls we didn’t want only to be teachers, we wanted to be lawyers and doctors.”
Young people were thinking and talking aloud about what it meant to be Afghan in the late 20th Century - what sort of country they would build. The opening social and political space began to fill with ideas. Students toyed with communism, with political Islam. Young men of the elite grew their hair, girls shortened their hemlines.
King Zahir was on a trip abroad to Italy in 1973 when his cousin and brother-in-law, Mohammed Daud Khan, deposed him and declared himself first president of the Republic of Afghanistan. Daud had been the royal prime minister, already at the heart of power and of the development projects unfolding all over the country.
He lasted five years before he split with his allies, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Soon afterwards, in April 1978, Daud was assassinated and the PDPA seized power.
Saeeda was at the higher education institute in Lashkar Gah when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in the winter of 1979, to contain what had become chaos along the USSR's southern border. The Americans had flown home in the anxious, rumour-filled months beforehand.
The Afghans who had worked on American projects fled to Pakistan, part of a generation that would find themselves scattered across the world. Among them was Glenn Foster’s assistant, Mehtabuddin. He went to Quetta and was eventually offered sanctuary in the US.
Saeeda and her sisters in Lashkar Gah were afraid to leave their house:
The communists made people march in the streets with red flags, and shout ‘Hurrah for the Revolution!’ They would come at night and arrest people - those people would disappear.”
The girls dressed in old burkas and sandals and slipped across the border as refugees.
I took just one picture. No-one took their photos, their albums with them - it was too dangerous. Photos can show who we really are.”
Then and now
Glenn Foster never lost faith with Afghanistan. “He would set up the projector and show us his films,” says his son Robert:
We grew up watching and re-watching. My father loved Afghanistan. He loved working there and everything about it. The job, the people, everything.”
Glenn Foster died in 1988.
When Robert brought the films to light, one person was especially thrilled - Foster’s assistant Mehtabuddin, now Hajji Mehtabuddin, who is still alive and well. He recalls:
That was a wonderful time, the best time of my life. When I look back, I can’t believe it. It seems like a dream. I liked the Americans, I liked everything about them. Glenn Foster was my good friend.”
Mehtabuddin is now a grandfather, active and up-to-date with his mobile phone, and living in San Francisco. He says he learned all about Americans from his time at Morrison Knudsen, and later at USAID. When he arrived in the US all he had to learn was how to use the bus. He still believes in the power of technology to change lives for the better.
Morrison Knudsen went on to build the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. After some risky ventures, though, the company went bust in the 1990s. It is now owned by the URS corporation.
The hundreds of photographs and reels of film Glenn Foster shot in Afghanistan and sent back to headquarters disappeared in the transition. They were almost certainly destroyed.
All the films seen here are from the reels kept by his family.
Saeeda Mahmood, who grew up in Lashkar Gah, now lives in London, where she is a reporter with the BBC. She returned to Lashkar Gah at the height of Taliban power, and again in 2014 to report on the lives of women and girls who have come through the war.
On her last trip, Saeeda went to find her childhood home, one of the American-style houses with their front lawns. High, protective walls surround it now instead of the low fence but the house is still there.
The dams of Helmand and Kandahar have stood throughout the 30 years of wars that followed the Soviet invasion. Neglect has choked the canals. Land mines turned the fields into lethal traps. The canals became hiding places for fighters. Electric cables carrying power to the cities have been sabotaged and patched repeatedly over the decades.
The symbolic power of the dams, however, remains intact. They are still part of a future, a better Afghanistan.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent since 2001 on the renovation of Dahla and Kajaki dams. It has cost the US roughly $200m to finance a new turbine for the “ghost bay” at Kajaki, transported to the dam by international and Afghan troops in a much-publicised mission in 2008.
Made in China, the turbine was initially ordered by the Taliban, during their short-lived and internationally unrecognised Emirate of Afghanistan.
By the end of 2015, the Afghan national power company Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, is planning to switch on this last and most powerful turbine, sending electricity to 50,000 households in Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.
“Electrification of the country is a top priority for the Afghan Government,” said company chairman Abdul Raziq Samadi at a ceremony in Kabul, in a speech with echoes half a century old.
If the plan does go ahead, it will be 59 years since King Zahir first signed the contract with Morrison Knudsen to change the face of southern Afghanistan. During those six decades Afghanistan has changed in ways the king could hardly have imagined.
There will be, no doubt, scores of digital cameras and mobile phones among the crowd catching the moment, numerous TV crews jostling for position where Foster once stood by himself. It’s hard to imagine that any of those images will be found in a box in decades to come to release the hidden story of their era.