Remembering Afghanistan's Golden Age





WASHINGTON — From presidential confidants in the White House Situation Room to anchors on cable television to ruminators at the city’s think tanks, the view has settled in: Afghanistan is an ungovernable collection of tribes that has confounded every conqueror since Alexander the Great. Like a lot of received wisdom, it may well be correct.

But as President Obama debates whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan, and whether, more pointedly, he might be sending them down a black hole of civic hopelessness, American and Afghan scholars and diplomats say it is worth recalling four decades in the country’s recent history, from the 1930s to the 1970s, when there was a semblance of a national government and Kabul was known as “the Paris of Central Asia.”

Afghans and Americans alike describe the country in those days as a poor nation, but one that built national roads, stood up an army and defended its borders. As a monarchy and then a constitutional monarchy, there was relative stability and by the 1960s a brief era of modernity and democratic reform. Afghan women not only attended Kabul University, they did so in miniskirts. Visitors — tourists, hippies, Indians, Pakistanis, adventurers — were stunned by the beauty of the city’s gardens and the snow-capped mountains that surround the capital.

“I lived in Afghanistan when it was very governable, from 1964 to 1974,” said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who met recently in Kabul with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Gouttierre, who spent his decade in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbright scholar and the national basketball team’s coach, said, “I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Afghans today say that the view of their country as an ungovernable “graveyard of empires” is condescending and uninformed. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of overnight experts on Afghanistan right now,” said Said Tayeb Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to Washington. “You turn to any TV channel and they are experts on Afghan ethnicities, tribal issues and history without having been to Afghanistan or read one or two books.”...


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