Early Contacts

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Afghanistan began between the 1920s and 1940s. The first formal contact took place in 1921 when Emir Amanullah sent a mission headed by Mohammed Wali to visit President Warren G. Harding at the White House. American diplomat Cornelius Van H. Engert then traveled to Afghanistan in 1922 and wrote a comprehensive report about his experience. Twenty years later, Engert became the first U.S. Minister (the precursor to a formal ambassador) in Kabul and set the standard for official relations between Americans and Afghans.

Unofficial contact between the two countries began nearly 100 years earlier. Between 1828 and 1841, a young Pennsylvanian named Josiah Harlan lived in Afghanistan, and his adventures may have inspired Rudyard Kipling’s famous tale The Man Who Would Be King. Not as well known but equally impressive, were the activities of A.C. Jewett, an American engineer who worked for Emir Habibullah between 1911 and 1919 and built the country’s first hydroelectric plant at Jabal Seraj near Kabul. Jewett’s work created a precedent for the long line of American engineers and other professionals who collaborated with Afghan partners in developing the country’s infrastructure, social services, and educational system.

A number of well-known Americans visited Afghanistan during the 1920s and 1930s. Lowell Thomas, the writer who publicized the adventures of “Lawrence of Arabia,” journeyed there in 1922 with photographer Harry A. Chase and businessman David Wooster King. Over a decade later, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of former President “Teddy” Roosevelt and cousin to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, traveled with his wife to Kabul and met King Nadir Shah. Among the many gifts she received from their gracious Afghan hosts, Mrs. Roosevelt was particularly fond of the sheep given to her by local tribesmen.

Following an exchange of official letters between King Zahir Shah and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, a non-resident American Minister was assigned the next year to oversee communications between the United States and Afghanistan. In 1936, the two nations signed a provisional agreement for “Friendship, Diplomatic, and Consular Representation.” These developments created a favorable environment for shared business ventures, which had been slow to develop due to the distance between the countries. Still, the Caterpillar Tractor Company had been exporting machinery to Afghanistan since the early 1930s while America imported karakul furs and Afghan carpets that were prized luxury items.

Official missions were not established in Kabul and Washington, D.C., until the latter part of Roosevelt’s administration. However, ties continued to grow as Afghans traveled to America for university studies, and Americans went to Afghanistan as teachers, engineers, and advisors. By the mid-1940s, J. Robert Fluker, an American teacher at Habibia College in Kabul, introduced the quintessential American sport of baseball with the enthusiastic support of his Afghan students. In many ways, such activities set the stage for the impressive aid and development programs of the 1950s and 1960s.

A.C. Jewett, Chief Engineer for Emir Habibullah from 1911 to 1919.
The first official U.S.-Afghan meeting.
“Princess Fatima” and her entourage in the U.S. capital.
American businessmen travel to Afghanistan in the 1920s.
Lowell Thomas meets Afghan leaders.
Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and his wife visit Afghanistan.
Afghan students in the United States during the 1930s.
Correspondence between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Zahir Shah.
American engineer Rex Vivian oversees construction of a bridge near Baghlan.
The Townshend Johnson Expedition explores the Bamian Valley.
Ernest Fox surveys for gold with Afghan tribesmen in Badakhshan.
The staff of American diplomat Charles W. Thayer.
King Zahir Shah in his reconnaissance vehicle.
An American teacher coaches baseball in Afghanistan.
Hollywood movie poster at the Kabul Cinema.
Prince Mohammed Naim presents his credentials at the White House.