Afghanistan: graveyard of development?
On the country’s fraught histories of international development.
The swift collapse of Ashraf Ghani's government in Kabul following the withdrawal of United States' armed forces has renewed critical debates about nation building, development and international intervention on these fronts. Particularly notable has been the militarised, corrupt, and, ultimately, tenuous nature of the US-supported regime of aid and governance in post-2001 Afghanistan. What has often been missing from this conversation, however, is a wider view of development in 20th-century Afghanistan, and the role of international actors in this historical trajectory.
This is the subject of our interview with Timothy Nunan, the author of Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan, an account of development and humanitarianism in Afghanistan, which is based on Afghan, Soviet, Western, and NGO sources and archives. A lecturer in the Department of Global History at the Free University of Berlin, Nunan talks to us about how Afghan leaders and intellectuals negotiated the Cold War geopolitics of development, why NGO-centric humanitarianism replaced Soviet-led developmentalism, and the writers and scholars we should follow to get a more nuanced picture of Afghan society and state.
Himal Southasian: With the fall of Kabul and now Afghanistan under Taliban's control, notions about the country being a 'graveyard of empires' are popular once again. This is a framework you've been critical of, and you have instead argued that Afghanistan was a "graveyard of the Third World nation-state" and a site for contested visions of 'Third World sovereignty'. Could you explain what you mean by that and how that might impact our understanding of Afghanistan today?
Timothy Nunan: In using such phrasing, my attempt has been to centre Afghanistan's relationship to the international order and the ways in which Afghanistan has been a bellwether for the prospects of what we today call 'the developing world'.
Afghanistan, it's worth recalling, occupies a special place in the history of decolonisation. Though under British influence since the 19th century, Afghanistan was never formally colonised in an age when the majority of the world was ruled by colonial empires. This made it an especially productive site for intellectuals and activists from the Muslim world – especially Muslim intellectuals in India and the Ottoman Empire to think about what it would mean for a state to be 'Islamic' but also recognised as a sovereign entity within international society. When Afghanistan won its formal independence from the British in 1919, it was again something of an outlier. After World War I, the British and French had expanded their rule over Africa and West Asia through the League of Nations Mandate System. Along with Turkey and Iran, Afghanistan again became a site for what it meant for states, especially Muslim-majority states, to find their place within the international system yet chart their own path toward development and modernity.
The Cold War turbocharged this dynamic. During the 1960s, when many states in the Global South won their independence, Cold War dynamics prompted the United States, the Soviet Union, and smaller actors like West Germany and Czechoslovakia to shape Afghanistan into a laboratory for their vision of postcolonial economic development. Rather than seeking to conquer Afghanistan or dismiss it as hopelessly 'tribal', as Joe Biden recently has, both Washington and Moscow sought to make Afghanistan into a model of development for the Global South. They sought to connect it to regional economic networks, whether one centered around trade with Pakistan and, through it, the 'free world'; or one around the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it modelled Afghanistan along the lines of other Third World Marxist regimes, like Ethiopia and Angola.
All of this is to say that Afghanistan's history cannot be understood in isolation or as a backdrop for imperial folly. Afghanistan has been a place onto which outsiders have projected visions of development for the postcolonial world writ large. In terms of how this impacts our understanding of Afghanistan today, it means realising that the place is not 'medieval' or a land before time; it has been a laboratory for visions of the future. When the US occupied the country and engaged in nation-building in the early 2000s, for instance, it brought with it templates for nation-building that it had developed in the Balkans in the years before. To understand Afghanistan, we need to see it in terms of these genealogies of state-building and development – whether older Ottoman and Indian Muslim projects, or, more recently, militarised American development that leans heavily on NGOs.
HSA: One point you stress in your book is the dense involvement of foreign governments and international agencies in development activities in Afghanistan from the 1960s, which preceded the period associated with direct political and military intervention from the Soviet Union and the United States. How did this history affect Afghan politics and state-making projects?
TN: The aid that the Soviet Union and the United States provided in the 1950s and 1960s affected the country in numerous ways, some of which persist to this day. Much of the country's infrastructure was built by the superpowers. Perhaps the most obvious example in light of recent tragic headlines is the international airport in Kabul, which was built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The ring road that connects the country's major urban centres with one another was a joint production, built by the United States in the south (so as to connect Afghanistan with Pakistan) and the Soviet Union and the north (so as to connect it with Central Asia). A Soviet-built tunnel completed in 1964 connected northern Afghanistan with Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, shaping national markets. There are many other examples of concrete development projects that materially transformed Afghanistan during these years: forestry programs in eastern Afghanistan; American agricultural and hydrology programs in southern Afghanistan; and Chinese and Yugoslav programmes about whose history we know little.
Probably the most important impact of the involvement of foreign governments during this period, however, was that Afghans came to see themselves as actors within the ideological conflict known as the Cold War. Many Afghan intellectuals were attracted by the Soviet model of development. Soviet communism had transformed a 'backwards' country, namely Russia, into a superpower in mere decades. The Soviet Union had put a man into space, developed the bomb, and defeated Nazi Germany (itself a source of fascination for some Afghans in the 1930s). For these reasons, many Afghan intellectuals saw Soviet communism as the best model to transform Afghanistan from a 'feudal' or 'backwards' society into a nation that could claim its place in the sun.
However, this sense of living in the middle of a global ideological competition spurred reactions to communism. Some Afghans who admired Soviet models of communism were also Pashtun nationalists, which repelled ethnic minorities. Some Hazara, a Shi'a minority in Afghanistan found in Maoism an attractive model of revolution for agrarian Afghanistan, plus a way to criticise Moscow and urban Pashtun communists. Other Afghans looked to models of Islamic politics, whether that of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Shariati, or Ruhollah Khomeini as ideological alternatives to communism. Obviously, Afghans adapted these foreign ideologies to their own needs, and Afghans also generated new ideas about socialism and Islamism themselves. But I would say that this sense that politics was necessarily about these grand ideologies, about the future of mankind, was among the most important legacies of the Cold War for Afghanistan.
HSA: In this Soviet-supported context of 'real existing socialism' in Afghanistan, and the larger global context of West-aided state-centric modernisation efforts, how did non-state humanitarian organisations eventually emerge as a dominant actor in state-making projects? What led to this transformation from a state-centric model of high-development to what you call a 'NGO-centric' order?
TN: As I see it, the emergence of non-state humanitarian organisations in the Afghan arena had very much to do with the discrediting of socialist utopias in the 1970s. Throughout the Vietnam Wars, many Western European intellectuals in countries like Sweden and France had sympathised with the Viet Cong as a peasant people struggling against a superpower. Events like the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 had tarnished the image of socialism, to be sure, but for many, the North Vietnamese conquest of Saigon and the Khmer Rouge's seizure of Phnom Penh were world-revolutionary events.
However, as scholars like Anne Vallaeys and Eleanor Davey have pointed out, subsequent years discredited socialism as an emancipatory politics for many Western intellectuals. There were many factors at play here: we might consider the publication of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago beginning in 1973, reactions to the 'German Autumn' in 1977, or the Sino-Vietnamese War between two 'revolutionary' Asian powers in early 1979. But one important factor was the refugee crisis created in the wake of the Vietnamese seizure of power. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled the country on dinghies or makeshift vessels. French medical NGOs in particular engaged in rescue actions to save the 'boat people' and bring them to safety.
As I suggest in Humanitarian Invasion, catastrophes like the boat-people crisis (and the Khmer Rouge's genocide in Cambodia) had two effects. First, the violence of Southeast Asian Marxist regimes dispelled activists and intellectuals who were formerly part of a nominally anti-imperialist left of any sympathy for Third World Marxism. Second, former revolutionaries who sought to perform 'internationalist' looked less toward performative violence and more toward humanitarian aid toward victims of 'socialism'. The more that the Soviet Union and Cuba counted regimes like those in Addis Ababa or Angola as its progressive allies, the less and less sympathy it could count on among what we might call a Western anti-imperialist left. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to shore up a model case of 'real existing socialism' in Kabul, it created a perfect storm against itself. Not only did Muslim activists from around the world converge on Peshawar to reinvent Islamist internationalism and help the Afghan jihad, more than that, an alliance of doctors, aid workers, and many former revolutionaries found in the Afghan jihad a morally pure struggle against an odious Third World Marxist regime.
HSA: The cooption of feminist rhetoric in justifying the US invasion, and later the occupation, is well-known. In your book, however, you document the trajectory of Afghan feminist movements in the 1970s and 1980s, and their encounter with what you call the "ironic, tragic, and violent story of the Soviet Union's outreach to Afghan women". Could you describe what you mean by that and how the 'women's question' was formulated by Afghan feminists and activists in the 1970s and 1980s?
TN: As you say, the United States has to a large extent justified its nation-building operations in Afghanistan through reference to Afghan women's rights. As I show in the book, however, the Soviet Union also presented itself as a force for women's emancipation (not 'women's rights') in the Muslim world. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet officials had launched a so-called 'assault' on customary veiling practices in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, focusing on the horsehair veil. This cultural revolution produced stiff resistance, and many women activists were killed. However, through these measures – as well as the dislocation of collectivisation and wartime evacuations to Central Asia – the Soviets could plausibly claim to have emancipated Central Asian women by the late 1940s, and certainly by the Brezhnev era. Rates of female employment, education, and public health measures were high compared to Muslim-majority countries elsewhere, and veiling was uncommon. Mixed marriages between Russians and Central Asians increased, and huge apartment building programs, particularly in the wake of earthquakes, created new 'European' household environments that changed Central Asian women's domestic roles. When Soviet women's organisations held seminars for the developing world (including for Afghanistan), they held up this legacy of Central Asian women's emancipation as proof of the Soviet model.
Yet like their American successors, Soviet actors encountered in Afghanistan not a tabula rasa but rather many Afghan women who had their own ideas about what emancipation meant. The Afghan monarchy and Mohammad Daoud Khan's regime had promoted a kind of paternalistic politics of women's emancipation. In 1946, a French woman married to an Afghan founded a so-called Women's Society ('Da Mermeno Tolana'), and in subsequent years it was patronised by elite Afghan women. The organisation provided vocational education and literacy programming to women, and it promoted women's employment in banks, libraries, and airlines. But in the context of the ideologisation of Afghan politics in the 1960s, younger Afghan women, often in university contexts, sought more wide-reaching reforms. Some associated with the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the Afghan communist party, looked to Soviet models of women's emancipation and emphasised the importance of women as workers, above all in the state enterprises and the bureaucracy. Others about whom we know less, like one Meena Keshwar Kamal, articulated a kind of left-leaning anti-imperialist feminism, but were also staunchly opposed to Soviet communism.
Actors like Kamal were marginalised by the Soviet invasion and Islamist violence in Pakistan in the 1980s; Kamal herself was assassinated in Quetta in 1987. But as I show in the book, even the Afghan activists whom Soviet women's activists (many of them Uzbeks and Kazakhs) engaged in the 1980s were not particularly interested in the Soviet fixation on de-veiling and working in an industrial workplace. They did not automatically see the mujahidin as reactionary class enemies, and they saw their struggle for emancipation in terms of a century-long local Afghan struggle. To be honest, however, I wish that I could have come across more sources that capture the voice of Afghan women from this period. Much of the material I use in Humanitarian Invasion comes from a Soviet-run seminar for Afghan women, for instance. But between digitisation projects and the holdings of Kamal's organisation, the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, there are opportunities for historians to better understand indigenous Afghan traditions of women's emancipation.
HSA: Development interventions in Afghanistan following the US invasion was significantly more militarised in nature and has been noted for increasing corruption and inequality in Afghan state and society. How does the history of what you call 'humanitarian invasion' of Afghanistan during the Cold War decades impact our assessment of post-2001 failures of US-led projects?
TN: One lesson, I think, from my book that my colleague historian Yakov Feygin articulated better than I could is that "without system building, you can't do state building." The history of Afghanistan since at least 1919 has been that of a country on the margins of the global economy whose rulers have tried to find subsidies of one kind or another. Outside actors have at times been willing to pour resources into the country – the US and the USSR during the 1960s; just the USSR during the 1980s; and the US and allies since 2001.
But Afghanistan is often a harsh mirror for the kind of international order that outsiders think they are presiding over. The Soviet Union thought that it was building a model Third World socialist regime, but it turned out to be building a military-intelligence dictatorship and a communist party out of touch with the population. The United States thought it was building up the 'liberal international order', but Afghan elites funneled money to tax havens and bank accounts in Dubai. Perhaps China might be willing to step into the role of an outside donor to Afghanistan, or perhaps there will be a similar dynamic of development competition in the same way that proved a boon for the country in the 1960s. But I doubt it.
HSA: The Taliban-led government has now inherited a state apparatus shaped by two decades of collaboration between the Afghan elites and the US military and government, something that is widely characterised as a failure. How do you see the Taliban negotiating the administrative infrastructure that is left behind? What kind of contradictions could we expect to see as the Taliban pursues its visions of social and political order?
On questions like this, I would defer to scholars like Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, who have done the work in places like Kandahar. Many of the Taliban's publications and pronouncements have been digitised at the Taliban Sources Repository of the University of Oslo, and a nuanced understanding of the Taliban phenomenon has to start there.
That being said, if I had to hazard a guess, I think that there are two or three dynamics to keep an eye on. One is whether the Taliban prove to be as committed to administrative centralisation as was the Ghani government. As the work of scholars like Thomas Barfield and Jennifer Murtazashvili remind us, Afghanistan has often been a very difficult place to rule via central fiat. Some of Afghanistan's most successful rulers left much to be decided at the local level and did not try to enforce a uniform law throughout the country. In contrast, Afghan rulers like Ashraf Ghani and the Marxist Hafizullah Amin – both, incidentally, graduates of Columbia University – attempted to impose their writ over the whole country. That being said, the Taliban's history does not provide grounds for optimism, and the lack of credible media reporting from anywhere outside of the Kabul airport should give us cause for hesitation before making judgment.
A second dynamic is that of international funding streams. The historical conundrum that Afghanistan's rulers have faced since at least 1919 is that they haven't found enough resources inside of the country to finance its own administration. This has historically caused Afghanistan's rulers to turn to foreign patrons to finance development programs. Yet, while countries like China, Russia, and Iran have proven much warmer toward the Taliban than they were in the 1990s, it is not clear yet how they will secure the foreign aid they need to run the state and pay salaries. Afghanistan's Central Bank reserves are located in the United States, but it is not clear whether the Biden Administration will unfreeze these. While we ought to regard talk of a 'new Taliban' or 'moderate Taliban' with scepticism, we should follow how the wing of the Taliban involved in negotiations in Doha attempts to liaise with not only Russia or China, but also the wealthy Gulf Arab states that recognised the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan during the 1990s, namely the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
A final dynamic we ought to keep an eye on is the rivalry between the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province, also called ISIS-K. Here I would defer to scholars like Abdul Sayed and Amira Jadoon who have actually researched this. What I have taken from their work is the need to follow the actual social constituencies and ethnic groups who join ISIS, and not just think about this in terms of 'evil and eviler' and ideology. Somewhat like the perception of Shi'a sectarian rule contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the perception that the Taliban constitutes a form of Pashtun domination may contribute to ISIS-K's popularity among ethnic minorities in Afghanistan.
HSA: What are your thoughts on the recent scholarship coming from or on Afghanistan? What kind of work should we be following to get a more nuanced picture of society and politics in the country?
The last twenty years have seen much excellent work on Afghanistan, both from Afghans in the country as well as scholars based in the Global North. One thing I try to emphasise to students and audiences is how different both the 'memory landscape', if you will, as well as the state of publications, are in Afghanistan from in Germany (where I teach) or the United States. The average age in Afghanistan is about 18 years, as compared to 34 in Sri Lanka or 45 in Germany. The 1980s are about as historically proximate for the average Afghan as the 1960s are for Sri Lankans, or the 1950s are for Germans. This combined with a very open and contentious media and publishing scene after 2001 led to a kind of renaissance of works by Afghan intellectuals, historians, and not least the participants in Afghanistan's recent history. In writing on the history of Afghan Communism and the history of the PDPA's international relations, I found myself using the memoirs of Abdulwakil, Najibullah's foreign minister, From Absolute Monarchy to the Fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The Afghan intellectual Arvand Atiq compiled an invaluable collection of primary source texts from Afghan communists from the latter half of the twentieth century, Either Socialism or Barbarism. Another scholar, Mir Mohammad Yaqub Mashuf, has written an invaluable study of Afghan Maoism and ultra-leftism called The Current of New Democracy: "Eternal Flame" (referring to the name of an early Afghan Maoist group).
Then there are equivalents among Afghan Shi'a, whose political activism before and after 1979 is a major focus of my current work. I've found a history of Afghan Shi'ism by Sayyid Mohammadbaqir Misbahzadeh (the son of a prominent Afghan cleric) as well as a book on 'left Islamism' by Said Mohammadreza Alavi, Unsaid Things of the Intellectual Movement of Afghanistan, to be extremely helpful in piecing together the ideological landscape of 1970s Afghanistan and the Shi'a resistance to the Soviet occupation. Tying together the facts and arguments in these books with Iranian sources can be as complicated and time-consuming as bringing Afghan socialist sources into conversation with sources from the former Soviet bloc. But if we want to get the history right and not just tell a story of foreign ideologies washing over inert Afghans, we have to do the work. As I see it, going ahead, one major task for both historians of socialism and Islamism is to show how local actors reworked, modified, or rejected ideologies that came from 'centers' like Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran. The best Western histories of modern Afghanistan, like Robert Crews' recent Afghan Modern, go in this direction, portraying the country in terms very different from the usual 'graveyard of empires' narrative.
HSA: Going back to the question of 'sovereignty', one critique of mainstream civil-society engagement in the Global South has been that these groups effectively undermined popular and national sovereignty of the developing world. While some recent scholarship has convincingly made a nuanced version of this claim, similar-sounding arguments are increasingly deployed by reactionary, often anti-democratic, groups and governments. As a historian of international development, did you come across movements that tried to overcome the binary between undermining the state and being subsumed by the state? In other words, were there forms of civic activism other than those that were deflated by the great power struggles, whether during the Cold War, or in more recent years?
I didn't come across such forms of civic activism so much in my own work, but this is perhaps specific to the subjects that I cover in Humanitarian Invasion. As I mention in the book, one reason why the anti-statist bent of groups like Medecins sans Frontieres and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan was necessary was that the Soviet Union and the Communist regime in Afghanistan were very restrictive about letting UN agencies or the International Committee for the Red Cross conduct humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. These international bodies had the legitimacy that non-state humanitarian NGOs lacked. But the more that Moscow and Kabul sought to use their numerical advantage (along with other socialist or Third World states) in United Nations bodies to limit their activity in humanitarian emergencies, the more convincing the justification became for outsiders to go around these limits. In this sense, the very statist move of regimes like the PDPA to limit international monitoring of their crimes produced and legitimised this anti-statist response.
This is not to say that there were other possible scales of political organisation. Because groups like Medecins sans Frontieres and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan were understandably concerned with saving Afghan lives from the Soviet Union and the PDPA, they gave less thought to how a Third World country like Afghanistan could stand up to the forces of economic globalisation and neoliberalism. This is noteworthy, since the time period I'm describing in the book dovetails with the defeat of the New International Economic Order and the rise of global economic governance via the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and multinational corporations. However, in other contexts where the dynamic of saving lives and fighting Communism was not so dramatic, there were NGOs that were quite committed, I think, to national sovereignty and legitimacy. I think here of progressive public interest NGOs like the Consumer Association of Penang about which Paul Adler writes in a recent book. Groups like these (working together with Western NGOs like Public Citizen) campaigned against corporate-led globalisation and for consumer protections. Because historians have only just begun to look at the 1980s as an object of study, I eagerly await more studies that will challenge or nuance the period as a time of unchallenged neoliberal dominance.
HSA: Could you briefly tell us about your current work on what you call 'the globalisation of Islam'? Do you see the unfolding situation in Afghanistan influencing or shaping your approach to your research?
As I completed work on my first book, I became fascinated by how 1979 was an ideological pivot point of the late twentieth century. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seemed like Soviet expansionism at the time, but in reality it was a death knell of Soviet-style Communism in the Third World. As mentioned earlier, the rise of NGO-based humanitarianism and human rights politics in the late 1970s supplanted an earlier romance with the Vietnamese Revolution and Third Worldism writ large. Afghanistan in the 1980s thus appeared to me as a theater for the rise and fall of different visions of what it meant to be on the left and to perform solidarity with the Global South. Journalists and historians have made similar arguments about the late 1970s as a turning point – for instance, Christian Caryl's Strange Rebels; German historian Frank Bösch's Zeitenwende 1979; or most recently Swiss historian Philip Sarasin's 1977.
Yet after writing Humanitarian Invasion, I felt that I had given Islamist actors short shrift. Many Afghan mujahidin saw themselves as engaged not only in a nationalist struggle to reclaim their homeland, but as part of an international 'Islamic revival' or 'Islamic awakening' that could transform global politics. The Afghan jihad, of course, took place against the background of the Islamic Revolution in neighbouring Iran, and there was a sense of both admiration among some Sunni actors in the anti-Soviet jihad (including non-Afghans) that what had happened in Iran was a global event of significance for all Muslims – but that they also had a responsibility to stage a 'Sunni' event of similar import in Afghanistan. I became intrigued by how Islamist activists understood what it meant to 'do' internationalism in the context of the Cold War and decolonisation.
Along those lines, my current book focuses on the rise and fall of the so-called 'Islamic international' that crystallised in institutions like the 'Unit for Liberation Movements' in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I am interested in how lesser known actors like Mohammad Montazeri, Mehdi Hashemi, Jallaludin Farsi, and Mohammad Saleh al-Husseini articulated a kind of Islamist internationalism in the 1970s and turned this into a foreign policy of a state in the 1980s. So, this is partly a story about how the 1970s transformed Islamism. It is also a story about how Iraqis, Lebanese, and Afghans adapted Iranian ideology to their own needs, or in other cases rejected it. I also try to contrast this Iranian revolutionary internationalism with the reactionary pan-Islamism that Saudi Arabia developed over the same time period using the memoirs of actors who worked in the service of the Kingdom's foreign policy apparatus.
In terms of how the ongoing catastrophe in Afghanistan will shape my research, it is hard to say, as events are changing day by day as of writing. One thing that I hope to communicate to readers is simply that Afghanistan is a land of ideas. I happened to be in the United States during the collapse of Kabul, and it was shocking to see how US media and the White House basically portrayed Afghans either as cowards who can't be bothered to defend their own country; or as tribal barbarians who are beyond redemption. As time passes, however, there is the risk that Americans will see Afghan refugees as 'takers'.
One way to push back against that risk is to perform an honest accounting of American foreign policy in Afghanistan since 2001, if not since 1978 or earlier. But beyond this autopsy, historians (ideally in conjunction with Afghan or Afghan American colleagues) can try to communicate how Afghans have thought about their place in the world. Many of the solutions that Afghan actors have sought, from Communism to Islamism to reliance on militarised American development, have proven ineffective or catastrophic. But Afghans have always been thinking about how to survive and thrive in an unsentimental regional arena and a world that has often been hostile toward their aspirations. Ideally, too, it is important to communicate that Afghans have not only thought about political ideologies, but that they have composed music, written poetry, and made art. Although the situation is dramatic and shifting day by day, my hope is that not only Western scholars but also Afghans and those in the diaspora can produce history that will lay the ground for more empathy and recognition.