Remembering the Past: The Early Years of U.S.-Afghan Relations

The history of modern Afghanistan began in the 18th century with the coalescence of Afghan tribes during the reign of Ahmed Shah Durrani. The ebb and flow of borders crystallized into something resembling the current map through the leadership of Dost Mohammed in the following century. With the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi in August 1919, the modern nation of Afghanistan was formed under Emir Amanullah. In 1921, the Emir sent a delegation led by Mohammed Wali on a tour of Western nations to solicit diplomatic recognition for his fledgling country. Upon their return to Kabul, the envoys brought a letter that caused great excitement: greetings from President Warren G. Harding of the United States.

President Warren G. Harding.
Marion, Ohio, 1920
Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.
AL03540.

To President Harding, as to most Americans at that time, Afghanistan was a mysterious and exotic land on the other side of the world. Harding’s salutation provided the initial spark for what would become a long and fruitful relationship between the two nations. This was characterized by successes that often are forgotten to history, but remain vivid in the memories of those who experienced them. Over half a century after Mohammed Wali’s historic visit, the U.S. government had spent more than $500 million on assistance and development programs in Afghanistan. By the 1970s, numerous American teachers, engineers, doctors, scholars, diplomats, and explorers had traversed Afghanistan’s rugged landscape where they lived and worked alongside its citizens. These visitors were moved by the unparalleled beauty of the country and the incomparable kindness of its people. Similarly, countless Afghans had gone to the United States for academic studies, training, employment, business, and official meetings, and had cultivated close relationships with Americans. The ultimate goal of these partnerships was to create a group of Afghan professionals and specialized workers whose skills would benefit future generations.

The encounter between President Harding and the Afghan mission took place in July 1921. The delegation arrived in New York City at the same time as an Afghan expatriate calling herself “Princess Fatima.” Both parties expressed interest in meeting the President, with Fatima and her entourage visiting the White House just days before the official Afghan representatives. President Harding later realized that the Princess’s visit was the result of a personal, rather than an official, initiative. American diplomat Cornelius Van H. Engert traveled to Kabul in 1922 and wrote a detailed report about Afghanistan. The Wali and Engert trips were important steps toward the establishment of diplomatic relations, but were not the first examples of Americans and Afghans coming into contact. Between 1828 and 1841, a young Pennsylvanian named Josiah Harlan lived in Afghanistan and his story may have inspired Rudyard Kipling’s famous tale The Man Who Would Be King. Despite the paucity of historical records, secondhand sources suggest that a handful of Americans went to Afghanistan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While not as well known as Harlan, one of the most interesting Americans to live in Afghanistan in early times was A.C. Jewett, originally an engineer for the General Electric Company, who was employed by Emir Habibullah from 1911 to 1919. Jewett’s success in building the country’s first hydroelectric plant at Jabal Seraj near Kabul was a powerful example of technical expertise and goodwill. He left such a positive impression that Jeanne Van Coover, a New Yorker who went to Kabul in 1923, wrote of her experience there, “In spite of . . . [my] lack of any knowledge of the language of the country, I managed very well and found the word ‘American’ the key to all hearts.” Jewett’s work, in addition to President Harding’s letter, also opened the door to Afghan-American business ventures, among them the “Vanderlip Syndicate” in 1922. Toward the end of the decade, two U.S. writers from Asia magazine journeyed throughout the country and offered insight into the land and its people. Gradually, Americans were beginning to learn about Afghanistan.

Ernest Fox surveys for gold with Afghan tribesmen in Badakhshan.
Duang, 1937-1938
Courtesy of the Fox-Swindler Collection.

During the 1930s, the number of travelers from the United States increased. Among them were tourists, businessmen, writers, and scholars. In 1933, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., cousin of the then newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his wife stayed in Kabul. They were greeted with much fanfare and encouraged to return to the United States with King Nadir Shah’s consent for future collaborations. No doubt A.C. Jewett’s continued fame contributed to the Afghan government’s request for American engineers to work in Afghanistan, among them Rex Vivian and Ernest Fox in the mid-1930s. It is not coincidental that this period saw the importation of U.S.-made Caterpillar tractors. Afghan leaders also recognized the value of hosting English language teachers from America, including instructors who would become well known in the capital and elsewhere such as G. Felix Howland and Wilbur V. Harlan, the latter a distant relative of Josiah Harlan.

By 1932, a contingent of young Afghans had begun studies at several prestigious American universities. These students, and those who followed, returned home to become doctors, engineers, teachers, ambassadors, and even prime ministers. Following President Roosevelt’s 1934 acknowledgment of Mohammed Zahir Shah’s accession to the throne and the appointment of a non-resident U.S. Minister (the precursor to a formal ambassador) the next year, Afghans saw opportunities for the United States to become a partner in their social and economic development. In 1936, the two nations signed a provisional agreement for “Friendship, Diplomatic, and Consular Representation.” Although the Great Depression delayed the establishment of a U.S. mission in Kabul, the United States and Afghanistan found intermediate ways to communicate. The inauguration of the American diplomatic post occurred in 1942 when Minister Plenipotentiary Cornelius Van H. Engert, twenty years after his initial visit to the capital, presented credentials to King Zahir Shah. A lifelong friend and advocate of Afghanistan, Engert was aided in his efforts by other U.S. diplomats such as Charles W. Thayer and Major Gordon Enders, the Military Attaché.

The staff of American diplomat Charles W. Thayer.
Kabul, 1942-1943
Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Charles W. Thayer Papers. 2008-1112.
Photograph by Charles W. Thayer.

Thayer later published his memoirs, and the sections on Afghanistan point to a period of friendly cooperation. He recalls how his beloved Belgian shepherd “Midget” was chosen to breed with the King’s prized German shepherd, producing five puppies that were distributed as gifts to the Royal Family. Thayer even learned the ancient art of falconry from the Court falconer, Abdullah. At the same time, Minister Engert and Major Enders secured a war-issue Dodge Reconnaissance Car for King Zahir Shah. In 1943, Abdul Hussain Aziz, the first Afghan Minister to the United States, was received by President Roosevelt and began to make the rounds of Washington, D.C. A golden era of U.S.-Afghan relations had begun.

By 1948, Americans were reportedly the largest Western expatriate community in Afghanistan. This was due in considerable part to the 1946 involvement of Morrison-Knudsen, a construction company charged with implementing a massive project to promote industry and create a strong agricultural base in the country’s southwest quadrant. Later known as the “Helmand Valley Authority,” the HVA was one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind. It aimed to provide Helmand Province with sufficient fertile land and electricity to support a growing Afghan population by building enormous dams to supply water for agriculture, hydroelectric power stations, and hundreds of miles of irrigation canals. The HVA eventually led to improvements in agriculture, the creation of a health and education infrastructure, land reclamation and development, and the building of an administrative center – the model city of Lashkar Gah. The early stages of this affiliation between Afghanistan and Morrison-Knudsen opened the door for common ventures involving the American and Afghan governments during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1949, the United States approved a loan for construction in the Helmand Valley and within several years the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) had established headquarters in Afghanistan. Working in tandem with the Afghans, it oversaw a remarkable array of projects during the 1950s and would become part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1961. Such undertakings were concomitant with a long-standing desire of the government of Afghanistan to improve the national infrastructure and ensure that promising young Afghans were trained to carry out activities on behalf of the public. Graduates of programs in the U.S., and those individuals associated with initiatives in Afghanistan managed by ICA and its contract organizations, entered ministries, taught fellow citizens, and assumed leadership roles in their areas of expertise. Americans also learned from their Afghan counterparts, and participants from both countries took pride in achieving common goals.


Afghan students at Washington National Airport en route
to the University of Wyoming.

Washington, D.C., 1953
Courtesy of the Cudney Collection.

Examples of collaborative programs included educational advancement and exchanges through Columbia University Teachers College, the University of Wyoming, and others. Additionally, a new campus was built for Kabul University, and long-distance highways were completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A partnership between Ariana Afghan Airlines and Pan American World Airways resulted in training for Afghan pilots and flight crews. The construction of the Qandahar International Airport was also a shared venture. The Peace Corps sent American volunteers to work in the education, health care, and clerical sectors. They carried out duties in ministries, participated in rural development, and formed close friendships with Afghans. The Asia Foundation provided support in myriad fields, while CARE and other private agencies were also active.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, visits by Afghan ministers to the United States and by American officials to Afghanistan strengthened relations between the two countries. Highlights included King Zahir Shah’s uncle Shah Mahmood’s trip to meet President Harry S. Truman in Washington, D.C., and Vice President Richard Nixon’s 1953 sojourn in Kabul. Additionally, Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud went to America in 1958 where he addressed the United States Congress and met President Dwight D. Eisenhower before undertaking a nationwide tour. These contacts culminated in 1959 with the historic arrival of President Eisenhower in Kabul. Thousands of Afghans from miles around lined the road to catch a glimpse of “Ike,” and the groundwork was laid for the King and Queen to see the U.S. and meet the American people.

The visit of King Zahir Shah and Queen Homeira to the John F. Kennedy White House took place in September 1963. The Royal voyage was enormously successful, traveling to ten cities in only twelve days. The King rode in parades in New York City and Washington, D.C., was feted in San Francisco and at Disneyland, and learned about the U.S. space program at Cape Canaveral. He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wyoming with which the Afghan government had a long-standing agricultural program. Only weeks after their return to Kabul, the King and Queen were shocked to hear of Kennedy’s assassination and sent condolences to his grieving widow. While the friendship between Zahir Shah and the President was unfortunately short-lived, the goodwill between Afghanistan and the United States would continue in many ways.

Placing the last strut in the geodesic
dome at the 1956 Jeshyn Fair.

Kabul, 1956
Courtesy of the Cudney Collection.
Photograph by James A. Cudney.

During the height of U.S.-Afghan relations in the 1950s and 1960s, numerous cultural programs sponsored by the United States government left a positive impression on artists, organizers, and spectators from both countries. Concerts and other performances were given by musicians such as the Golden Gate Quartet and pianist Ann Schein, jazz legends Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, and dance troupes that included the Joffrey Ballet. The United States Air Forces in Europe Band found common ground with local artists and musicians when they played at the 1968 Jeshyn Fair, a celebration held every August to commemorate Afghanistan’s independence. American movies were being shown regularly in Afghanistan by the 1940s, and other U.S. media would follow. The U.S. Information Service (USIS) Library and Cultural Center in Kabul was an important venue for Americans and Afghans to meet and better understand one another. It screened films, hosted theater performances and art exhibitions, and offered English classes staffed by Afghans often trained by Columbia University Teachers College. The Center also provided resources for American expatriates to learn more about the culture and heritage of their new home.

This was also a period of great scientific exploration, notably by American archaeologists and historians interested in the rich and illustrious past of this nation located at the nexus of Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Early visits by author Lowell Thomas in 1922 and the Townshend Johnson Expedition in 1937 were important forays into Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. But it was not until 1949 that true American research began under the co-direction of Harvard graduates Walter Fairservis and Louis Dupree. The latter, working for years with his wife Nancy Hatch Dupree, became one of the most celebrated scholars on and activists for the Afghan people. The University of Pennsylvania Museum began excavations in Afghanistan in 1953 after its museum director Froelich Rainey had seen the wonders of this ancient country firsthand. Scientific endeavors continued through the 1970s. Some noteworthy contributors were Americans who worked closely with Afghan scholars to study and publish articles about the national treasures in the Kabul Museum.

Perhaps the most significant cultural event of this golden age occurred at the 1956 Jeshyn Fair. The U.S. decided to enter the fair months after construction of other national pavilions had begun, and needed to create a building at breakneck speed. The U.S. Information Agency (USIA) turned to the innovative engineer R. Buckminster Fuller who designed and manufactured components for a 100-foot diameter geodesic dome that were immediately flown to Kabul. The completed pavilion, America’s first ever in Afghanistan, caused a sensation, both for its sleek, futuristic shape, and because it had taken a group of Afghan workers only two days to erect. The U.S. would participate in later Jeshyn Fairs, but other pavilions never matched the awe-inspiring “Bucky” dome of 1956.

U.S. Ambassador Robert G. Neumann and Afghan
Minister of Agriculture, Mir Mohammed Akbar Resa,
talk with a Nad-i Ali farmer on Wheat Day.

Helmand Valley, 1969
Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections.
Neumann Family Papers.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of unparalleled economic and social development in Afghanistan, due in large part to the years of U.S.-Afghan partnership on training programs and infrastructure building. In addition to ongoing efforts, the Afghan Family Guidance Association was created to improve Afghan women and children’s health by training a contingent of nurses and midwives from rural areas. The Curriculum and Textbooks Project, sponsored by USAID and the Afghan Ministry of Education, began an innovative program with Columbia University Teachers College to assist Afghans in writing primary schoolbooks in Dari and Pashto. The National Development Training Project advised Afghan government administrators on managerial skills and legal matters. Shared endeavors were bolstered by encounters among high-ranking government representatives in Kabul and Washington, D.C. These included Prime Minister Mohammed Maiwandwal’s meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in 1967, Secretary of State William Rogers’s trip to Kabul in 1969, and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s voyage to Afghanistan in 1970.

With the advent of Mohammed Daoud’s rule in 1973, the United States remained committed to working with Afghans for the betterment of the country. America invested millions of dollars in USAID-funded programs (e.g., the U.S.-Afghan Rural Works and U.S.-Afghan Drainage Projects) and continued support for the HVA, now known as the “Helmand-Arghandab Valley Authority” or HAVA. Educational initiatives, such as the Fulbright Program, continued to bring Americans and Afghans together in positive ways. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Kabul twice during this period, in 1974 and 1976, while Special Envoy Mohammed Naim met President Gerald R. Ford at the White House during the United States Bicentennial in 1976.

Today, nearly sixty years after ICA began its activities and a century since A.C. Jewett’s arrival in Kabul, it is not the specific projects that are remembered. Rather, it is the memories of Afghans who resided in the United States for training and education, and the recollections of Americans who worked in Afghanistan as professionals and volunteers. Such seminal experiences in the lives of travelers from both countries, and the relationships forged between the United States and Afghanistan, should not be forgotten.

Dr. Fredrik T. Hiebert
Dr. Curtis N. Sandberg
Dr. Christopher P. Thornton

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