1960s Afghanistan presents a stark contrast to the war-torn region we recognize today. Take a peek at the way Afghanistan was — and how it can be again.
The peaceful hues and smiling faces that fill images of 1960s Afghanistan are a far cry from today's photos of a country struggling with violence and corruption — which is just one reason this collection has never been more important.
Dr. Bill Podlich Captures The Heart Of 1960s Afghanistan
In 1967, Arizona State University professor Dr. Bill Podlich and his family swapped the stark, sultry summers of Tempe, Arizona, for the environs of Kabul, Afghanistan.
After serving in World War II, Podlich wanted to promote peace, and for that reason, he teamed up with UNESCO to work for two years at the Higher Teachers College of Kabul, Afghanistan. With him were his children, Jan and Peg, along with his wife, Margaret.
When not building relationships with his Afghani cohorts, Podlich developed something else: his Kodachrome film, which captured a modernizing and peaceful Afghanistan that stands in stark contrast to the harrowing images from the war-torn country we see today.
That is why, in Peg Podlich's eyes, her father's photos are so incredibly important. Says Podlich, these photos "can encourage folks to see Afghanistan and its people as they were and could be. It is important to know that we have more in common with people in other lands than what separates us."
What Afghanistan Before The Taliban Looked Like
The 1950s and 1960s were a hopeful time for the inhabitants of Afghanistan. Internal conflict and foreign intervention had plagued the area for centuries, but recent decades had been relatively peaceful ones.
In the 1930s, the young and progressive king Amanullah Khan had determined to modernize Afghanistan and bring the social, political, and economic achievements he witnessed on his tours of Europe to his own lands.
He asked the world's wealthiest nations for help bankrolling his projected reforms, and, seeing the strategic value in a modernized Afghanistan friendly to their own interests in the region, world powers agreed.
Between 1945 and 1954, the United States sunk more than $50 million in loans into the construction of the Kandahar-Herat highway. By 1960, U.S. economic aid to Afghanistan had reached $165 million.
Most of that money was improving the country's infrastructure; when it came to capital investments, American entrepreneurs were wary.
But the Soviet Union had no such scruples. By 1960, the U.S.S.R. had paid out more than $300 million in loans. By 1973, this number had risen to nearly $1 billion. They were also not shy of investing in the region's oil and petroleum industries, and as a result, Afghanistan received more financial aid (per capita) from the Soviet Union than any other developing country.
Kabul, the capital and largest city in Afghanistan, was first to see the changes. Modern buildings began to appear next to traditional mud structures, and new roads spanned the length of the city and beyond.
Women had more educational opportunities than ever before — they could attend Kabul University, and burqas were optional. Some pushed the boundaries of their society's traditionally conservative fashion and sported miniskirts.
The country attracted visitors from around the world, and its tourists returned home to tell their family and friends of beautiful gardens, stunning architecture, breathtaking mountains, and friendly locals.
The money from two emerging superpowers would, in the end, be so much kindling for a growing political firestorm — but for two blissful decades, things finally seemed to be going right.
The Golden Age Of 1960s Afghanistan Gives Way To The Violence Of The 70s
It all went wrong in the spring of 1978, when the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) staged a coup against the country's current president, Mohammed Daoud Khan. They immediately embarked on a series of reforms, including land redistribution and the overhaul of the largely Islamic legal system, that the country wasn't ready for.
By the fall, the eastern part of the country was rebelling, and the conflict escalated into a civil war between the Pakistani-funded mujahideen rebels and the new government.
The Soviet Union backed the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and with Cold War tensions running high, the U.S. quickly moved to counter what they perceived as Soviet expansionism, quietly supporting the mujahideen rebels.
When an internal schism within the People's Democratic Party resulted in the assassination of President Taraki and the appointment of a new PDPA leader, the Soviet Union decided to get their hands dirty. They waded into the conflict themselves and set up their own regime.
The United States redoubled its support for the mujahideen rebels and sent billions in financial aid and weapons to Pakistan, the country funneling resources to the rebels next door.
The conflict, referred to as the Soviet–Afghan War, lasted ten years and left as many as 2 million Afghanis dead. It displaced 6 million as air bombings destroyed the cities and the countryside — the very roads and buildings that 1960s Afghanistan had just begun to enjoy.
The developing country Bill Podlich had photographed was gone, and not even the end of the war could bring it back. Even after the Soviet Union withdrew, fighting continued, and some of the mujahideen rebels formed a new group: the Taliban. Afghanistan plunged deeper into chaos and terror.
Why We Remember Bill Podlich And 1960s Afghanistan
In light of what has happened to Afghanistan in recent decades, it's more important than ever to remember the country that Bill Podlich captured in his photographs. According to Said Tayeb Jawad, the former Afghan ambassador to the United States, many today tend to think of Afghanistan as an ungovernable collection of competing tribes with differing viewpoints and a history of bloody grudges that can't be laid to rest.
Its critics say that the country's ethnic conflicts are intractable, perhaps to the point of being unsolvable. But Podlich's photos of the 1960s give the lie to this way of thinking.
In the 1960s, Afghanistan experienced a period of prosperity unlike anything that had come before. Just because groups disagree doesn't mean resolution is impossible. After all, Mr. Jawad dryly points out, "Afghanistan is less tribal than New York."
For more information on life in Afghanistan today, consider watching this Vice series on Afghanistan since the American-led invasion in 2001:
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