Very few countries that were involved in World War II came out of that conflict richer as a result. One startling exception, believe it or not, was Afghanistan. It wasn’t the drug trade that pulled it up. Through a confluence of historical accidents, it was the fur and wool business that made the difference in this mountainous Central Asian monarchy. One the one hand, the wool was a phenomenally strong fiber that served particularly well in military combat uniforms, particularly in the bomber jackets worn by U.S. airmen who faced bitterly cold temperatures at high altitudes. And on the other, with the German persecution of Jews, the once powerful European fur trade moved its center to New York City, where demand for astrakhan coats was growing exponentially. Afghan fat-tailed sheet were the source of both of these products, deemed to be superior in the eyes of the experts in the field.
By 1946, Afghanistan has amassed a dollar currency reserve of about $100 million (about $1.2 billion in today’s dollar market), and King Zahir Shah wanted his nation to step into the modern world with what he felt with the most incredible technology on earth: a giant dam, able to generate electricity and turn the land around the dam into some of the most fertile farmland on earth… or so he thought. He wanted his people to have new land to grow prosperous. He brought in a main contractor that had worked on building Hoover Dam, focused on the Helmand River.
Like many overseas sites where Americans were employed in insolated regions in large enough numbers – most notably the Arabian American Oil Company where the company towns looked like US suburbs – the Americans knew they’d be here for a while and laid out plans that looked like a normal street grid for an American mini-city. And then they built the houses that bore little or no resemblance to any other. It was “Little America” in the Helmand valley, and this model community was called Lashkar Gah. The plans were big. Lots of smaller temporary diversion dams to allow a larger structure to contain the massive anticipated water supply. Canals linked them all. Construction began on a huge scale.
But in 1949 the engineers learned about the nasty realities of the local soil. When one diversion dam flooded the plain, the earth saturated quickly, sending large amounts of plant-killing salt to the surface. The salinity destroyed the fertility of most of the land that was to be irrigated and turned into fields of productive crops. The project was untenable and the engineers all knew it then, but because the Cold War had begun and Afghanistan was on the Soviet border, it just continued.
“[A]t that very moment President Truman made a speech promising to give aid to poor countries. It was the start of the Cold War and Truman was going to use development projects and American money to stop countries from becoming communist… The Americans liked dams. They were a way of challenging the communists because they would create more fertile land - so people could be better off without having to redistribute land through a revolution. In 1952 the Helmand Valley Authority was set up. It was modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority - the TVA - created by Roosevelt in the 1930s.
“Faced with this the engineers’ doubts about the project were buried and forgotten. Massive loans poured in from America and two giant dams were built plus 300 miles of big canals… But more problems emerged. Everything became waterlogged which led to weeds. Salt kept on suddenly appearing. And the reservoirs and the canals made the water cooler which meant that there couldn't be any vineyards and orchards any longer. In future they could only grow grain… But again all the doubts and worries were overwhelmed because the American technocrats and politicians had become fascinated by a new idea. It was called ‘Modernization Theory.’ It said that there was a way of using science and technology not just to stop countries like Afghanistan going communist, but to actually transform them into democratic capitalist societies like America…
“All this vast dream of modernity and, with it, the King's power, was entirely based on the success of the development projects - above all the Helmand dam and irrigation scheme. The trouble was that they were not a success in any way or form. In reality Helmand was a disaster… There was so much water in the ground in some areas that houses and mosques were crumbling into a growing bog. Even worse, underneath the new man-made oases, the engineers had discovered hard rock which made them even more waterlogged. So they had to dig deep bore drains - which removed 10% of the area from cultivation. Then a study showed that crop yields were steadily falling. But the academics advising the American development agencies had a new theory that explained this. It was called Dual Economic Theory. It said that you not only had to modernise the infrastructure you also had to bring agriculture up to date…
“[Years passed, and unrest was pressing for the removal of the King and his dreams of modernization.] There were student strikes. Many of the student leaders came from the engineering department which was now full of communist and Maoist cells. Then one of the communist students defected to a new group of revolutionaries - the Islamists. He was called Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, and he became notorious for his violence. Some say he went round throwing acid in the faces of women without headscarves, but he denies this and says that if he lived in the west he would sue for libel. He was given a nickname - The Engineer.
“In 1972 parliament was suspended and a year later the Prime Minister … joined with the army to mount a coup that got rid of the King. It was the beginning of the chaos that would lead the country into anarchy and disaster. And the end of the dreams of the Helmand Valley Project. The Americans began to leave, abandoning a vast infrastructure that started to decay…But during the Soviet war both sides found a use for the remains of the project. The giant reservoir was used to dump bodies tortured and killed by the Khalq communists. While the Mujahedin used the water channels for cover when fighting the Russians.
And the new soil was very suitable for a new crop - the opium poppy. It grows well in dry climates and in alkaline and saline soils, and poppy-growing increased massively in Helmand in the 1980s. And with it the heroin trade.” The Lost History of Helmand, informationclearinghouse.com The Soviet War, which helped collapse the USSR, followed for a decade from 1979. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Lashkar Gah is the provincial capital. The Helmand Valley is the same area (near Pakistan) where so many Americans have died at the hand of Taliban insurgents in the recent war. The emptied canals built and then abandoned by the Americans back then have provided excellent trenches for Taliban warriors to move and mount attacks from. And you thought you really knew all about Afghanistan!
I’m Peter Dekom, and the history of America’s presence in Afghanistan appears to be nothing more than a continuous string of broken promises, failed dreams, and completely unrealistic expectations.