I recently came across a document in the archives, a reminder that the march of “progress” in Afghanistan sometimes seems more reminiscent of a never-ending marching band reliably circling a parade ground. The martial metaphor here isn’t accidental: As elsewhere, security forces have been central to nearly every attempt to make Afghanistan a “modern” nation-state, a pattern echoed in today’s Beltway anxieties over how many local troops are deemed “ready” to take over in the event of a US withdrawal.

What makes modernization talk in Afghanistan (mostly by foreign “experts”) perhaps slightly unusual is how often it ignores earlier efforts, as if starting from scratch in a country deemed even more backward than most others in the global south. And just as resolute as the assumption of Afghan newness to modernity is the cheerful, seemingly beneficent, and perhaps reality-impervious need to declare “progress.” A few thoughts follow from this:

1) From a Defense Department memo to the State Department dated August 21, 1957 reporting on the progress of several Afghan officers undergoing training at Fort Benning, Georgia:

 Excerpt from 1957 State Department memo

a. Having benefited considerably from the opportunity to adjust to the school environment in the Associate Infantry Company Officer Course, which they completed 31 May 1957, these officers have demonstrated a slight overall improvement in their academic work….

b. These officers continue to apply themselves conscientiously to their classwork. Their attitude is excellent.

Fast forward nearly 50 years to a 2006 report by a Provincial Reconstruction Team in the eastern part of the country released by WikiLeaks:

 Excerpt from 2006 military report on eastern Afghanistan

Police Training and Advisory Team conducted Quik [sic] Reaction Force training with 10 Afghan National Police officers today. The subject covered was Close Quarters Combat to include room entries with paper targets and dry fire exercises. We are on week 3 of the 6 week training and the Officers are making good progress. They all have good attitudes towards the training even during Ramadan.

It seems the US knows how it likes its Afghans: diligent, cooperative and not too fussy about Ramadan.

2) There is more of interest here than an easy plus ça change joke. The half-century that elapsed between the two documents was filled with modernizing projects in Afghanistan of all kinds beyond the military, including in urban planning, higher education and cinema production. For much of the Cold War, Afghanistan heavily courted aid from both sides of the Iron Curtain, fostering a “competitive coexistence” between the superpowers, especially in infrastructure. The nerve center of today’s American military presence, the Bagram air base, was originally built by the Soviet Union — not during the war of the 1980s, but decades earlier, when it was completed in time to welcome Dwight Eisenhower (US engineers, meanwhile, finished building Kandahar’s airport in 1982). These projects were used to showcase competing visions of superpower modernity; in 1956, the US government even erected a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller at a fair in Kabul.

Despite “competitive coexistence,” Afghanistan turned mostly to the Soviets for military training and equipment from the 1960s onward. Perhaps the most famous trainee was air force pilot ‘Abd al-Ahad Momand, who literally rocketed to fame when he served as a cosmonaut aboard the Mir space station in 1988.

The final generation of Soviet-trained officers today populate the senior ranks of the Afghan National Army. “Typically these ‘Soviet-influenced’ officers are easy to identify,” notes a US military magazine (also published at Fort Benning). “They are typically majors or higher in rank. Many wear a ‘Stalin-style’ moustache and can still understand if not speak Russian.” In other words, US military strategy in Afghanistan currently relies on the very men and women (yes, the Soviets were training Afghan women to fight long before Laura Bush adopted their cause) who Washington invested billions of dollars to kill during the 1980s.

Hand-drawn map from 1907 Ottoman colonel's book of military geography3) Military modernization and the importation of foreign “experts” in Afghanistan long precede the Cold War, of course. They are arguably part and parcel of the project of state building. In 1907, an Ottoman colonel called Mahmud Sami took charge of the newly established Royal Military College in Kabul. NYU’s Afghanistan Digital Library features over a dozen manuals that he introduced on subjects as diverse as artillery, horsemanship and cooking. Adjacent is a page from Sami’s military geography handbook.

According to a 1909 travelogue penned by a Young Turk hired as an adviser to the Afghan government, Mahmud Sami was training an army that was to be a model of progress for surrounding Muslim countries, with photographs of smartly dressed cadets to demonstrate the point (not knowing Ottoman, I rely on the summary in this article).

Portrait of four young Ottoman cadets, 1909

Like its successors, Turkish-led military modernization in Afghanistan promised “progress” but reaped bloodshed as populations were pushed to insurrection. After the British-backed Muhammad Nadir Shah seized power in 1929, Mahmud Sami was imprisoned and shot. While they likely have never heard of him, Sami’s Soviet and American heirs — whether facing Afghan military defectors to the mujahideen in the 1980s or “insider attacks” nowadays — can likely relate to his story.

How to cite this article:

Darryl Li "“Progress” in Afghanistan, Then and Now," Middle East Report Online, April 24, 2014.

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