There's a tendency for people to mention "Afghanistan is a backwater country and it always has been, and always will be."
I hear this a lot. From people on both sides of rails. Soldiers will say it when in disgust they have been working and fighting so hard, and are tired of the corruption. Anti-war activists, Libertarians, Democrats and even Republicans have said it to infer we should be out or to call for for a draw down of troops and funds. The image of Afghanistan as having toiled in a biblical existence since the beginning of time is wrong.
I take issue with two parts of the statement. First, it wasn't always a backwater country. Second, it has yet to be seen whether or not we will leave it to revert back to its sticks and stones existence. Third, even backwater countries have people who want a better life.
Just recently, I was linked to a set of photographs taken during the late 1950's and 1960's
of life in Afghanistan. Mohammad Rahim, who had grown up in Afghanistan, remembered the photos from long ago, and finally found them. They looked like something out of a magazine like LIFE. They documented what was probably the most progressive strata of society, the ones who had adopted western style of dressing, who went to libraries, public gardens and became nurses or worked in laboratories. All of them underscored what a woman once said to me about her childhood in Kabul: "It was normal, then."
Below is a photo of Paghman Gardens in Kabul 40 years ago. Note the boulevard of cedars, the western dress of all the females in the photo. There's even a blond foreigner. Someone did some digging and over on Jean's Blog,
I found this before and after. On the right is what is left of Paghman Gardens today.
There's a terrific and important site called "Afghanistan Old Photos,"
which is a project to preserve and promote
Afghanistan's heritage through the visual arts. Most of the photos are from the 1900's - 1930's. Here's a photo of Queen Soraya. This was a tough, forward-thinking woman.
Following the assassination of her father in law the king, the new Queen helped her husband with an ambitious modernization program. She wasn't the burqa-wearing type. She was the daughter of an Afghan intellectual, Mahmud Tarzi
, who was fluent in several languages and translated the books of Jules Verne into Dari.
Queen Soraya is credited with setting up the first women's hospital and girls' school, and is thought to be the first woman to have publicly taken off her veil during a Loya Jirga or "Grand Council" meeting.
Unfortunately, politics and more specifically tribal intrigue being what it is, she and her husband had to flee the country in 1928 to Rome. They lived in exile there. She died in 1968. Queen Soraya was taken to Jalalabad, where she was buried.
I can't imagine how heart broken hearted and pissed off this Queen must have been up in heaven watching the Russians and the Taliban destroy everything she had worked so hard for. I can only imagine what she thought when the Taliban aimed cannons at the ancient Buddhas at Bamiyan, or when she saw a portion blasted away at the aforementioned Paghman Gardens.
I remember emails from my husband detailing the thirst for knowledge that many of his patients --both young and old exhibited during his last deployment. He came to have a great love for the Afghan people. Very recent emails from young soldiers are blown away at the poverty. Young children suffering from malnutrition, who would stand with no shoes in the snow. Thousands of Americans have responded by sending care packages of clothing for the kids. All of this is very sad considering that once upon a time, a different Afghanistan existed. It's even worse when one considers that young people growing up in both Pakistan and Afghanistan schooled in madrasas know nothing of their own history.
It wasn't always a backwater country. It's important to remember this country's history before the wars. In addition, it's critical to understand that the blood, sweat and sacrifice of the world's armed forces, contractors, and the Afghan people themselves has revealed the first glimpse of a different life for 40 years.