The Asia Highway Rally 1970

Before The Taliban: When Kabul Was The 'Paris Of Central Asia'

The Asia Highway Rally 1970

Expressions of westernisation, modernity and women's equality are not matters we may immediately associate with Afghanistan today, which, after the withdrawal of NATO forces, could be facing Taliban rule for the second time in 25 years. 

US and UK military operations began in Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC. For 20 years, more than 100,000 UK troops served in the country, resulting in the loss of 457 British lives. 

The American-led operations of 2001 brought an end to five years of Taliban rule, during which the population of Afghanistan faced devout Islamic conservatism. Dalliances to laws set by the Taliban was met with serve punishment. It was a period when women's rights were all but eradicated, with women banned from leaving home without male chaperones and those accused of adultery stoned to death in public spaces. 

However, for decades in the 20th Century, Afghanistan was a country rich in potential. A place where women could enroll in university education and be able to wear miniskirts in public. 

"The Paris of Central Asia" - as Kabul was known - was a city booming in hope with tourists flocking to its streets from all over the world.

But then everything changed. 

Here, as the 20th anniversary of British operations in Afghanistan draws closer, we explore the differences Afghans have endured through wars, coups and invasions.

Kabul in the 1960s. UN
A view of the Kabul Great Circle Sign showing the distance in kilometres to various capitals and major cities in the world, 1970. Credit: UN

An Independent Afghanistan – A Potted History

The Third British-Afghan War ended in 1921 with defeat for the British. This established Afghanistan as an independent nation under the rule of Amir Amanullah Khan. Five years later, in 1926, Amanullah declared the country a monarchy and appointed himself King. 

However, by 1929, critics of the King had taken up arms and forced him to abdicate. This resulted in Zahir Shah becoming King – who ruled Afghanistan for the next 40 years.

During his reign, the country experienced a semblance of stability, among a rath of matters including the construction of national roads, widespread equality for women and the country becoming formally recognised internationally. 

But in the 1950s, faced with growing economic challenges, the country became more and more influenced by the Soviet Union, resulting in the two nations becoming close allies by 1956. During this time, the United Nations also invested resources into programmes of Agriculture to help the nation feed itself. 

UN funding agriculture 1950s
UN funded agricultural programmes aided government schemes to help Afghaistan's rural communities to survive well. A clear, dry day at harvest time, providing good working conditions for this group of field workers, 1960. Credit: UN

In secret, in 1965, the Afghan Communist Party was formed under the leadership of two men: Babrak Karmal and Nur Mohammad Taraki. 

The 1970s was a decade of political upheaval that resulted in the USSR invading Afghanistan and occupying the country for the next decade. 

The political instability began in 1973 with a military coup by pro-Soviet General Mohammed Daoud Khan – the King's own cousin. Khan then installed his own regime, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The monarchy was abolished. In its place, Khan appointed himself President. 

During the next three years, President Khan continued his efforts to widen equality for women (by allowing them to work, having early pushed through women's admissions to universities) and committed to modernisation policies for Afghans. New roads were built, and the construction of new buildings increased.

These advances came at a price, however. 

UN Funded agriculture in the 1950s
The livestock industry was a major element in the economy of Afghanistan. Here, grazing lands in northern Afghanistan with livestock present, 1967. Credit: UN

In 1978, conservative Islamic and ethnic leaders began an armed revolt in large parts of Afghanistan in response to the social changes that had been brought in by President Khan. This led to the establishment of the Mujahedeen - out of which, one day, the Taliban would emerge.

That same year, President Khan was killed in a communist coup led by Afghan Communist Party leaders Babrak Karmal and Nur Mohammad Taraki. Taraki became President, Karmal the deputy Prime Minister. 

Under this new regime, secured under violence, Afghanistan declared itself independent from Soviet influence. The country's politics were realigned to Islamic principles – quite at odds with the preceding decades of promise Afghans had become accustomed to. 

At the top of the Afghan Communist Party, in 1979, in-fighting and attempted coups led to the death of President Nur Mohammad Taraki. Additionally, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was killed, leading to the US cutting off assistance. These matters allowed for the USSR to invade Afghanistan on Christmas Eve. By December 27, pro-Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Babrak Karmal emerged as the Prime Minister. His enemies were executed. 

In response, violence spewed out nationwide. This resulted in the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War.

From that conflict, which ended in 1989, groups such as al-Qaeda (led by Osama Bin Laden) and the Taliban arose. 

By 1996, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. A strict ultra-conservative Islamic law ended all hopes of renewed modernisation, and women's equality was dissipated.

The Asia Highway passing through Afghanistan
A bridge carrying the A-1 route of the Asian Highway over the Hari Rud (river) in Afghanistan, April 1964. Credit: UN

Kabul In The 1960s – A Post Card

With Soviet and other support, nationalistic efforts to improve infrastructure and attract tourism to cities such as Kabul made significant ground in the 1950s and 60s. 

This included constructing new, western-style buildings, increasing commerce locations, and the UN-funded establishing of the Asian Highway – a new motorway linking countries continent-wide that passed through Afghanistan.

To help publicise the new major road network, the UN's Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) held the Asian Highway Motor Rally, the second of which in 1970 ran at 6,800 kilometres from Teheran to Dacca (East Pakistan) via Kathmandu, passing through five countries - Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal.

Asian Highway Motor Rally, 1970. Credit: UN
Asian Highway Motor Rally, 1970. Credit: UN

Women's Rights In Afghanistan Before The Mujahedeen 

Women in Afghanistan experienced, in some cases, more rights than women in other parts of the world, including in places such as the USA. Interestingly, some women in Afghanistan were given the right to vote in 1919, a whole year before the United States introduced a similar law. 

In 1921, King Amanullah outlawed forced marriage and introduced measures to control polygamy. Families were also encouraged to send their girls to schools. He gave ubiquitous encouragement for the unveiling of women and for there to be a more westernised approach to dress. 

Later, in the 1950s, gendered separation (known as purdah) was abolished. By 1957, women could enrol in universities and enter the workforce. 

In the 1960s, a new political constitution allowed for yet further political equality for women in Afghanistan, and in 1978, under the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the Afghan Women's Council was formed. By then, women held jobs as scientists, teachers, doctors, and civil servants. 

Kabul in 1960s record shop
A record shop in Kabul circa 1960s showing the increasing Western influence at the time. Credit: Alamy

Women's Rights Under The Taliban

The rights of women under Taliban rule in the late 1990s were centuries behind those seen in earlier decades. According to Amnesty International, Women and girls were:

  • Banned from going to school or studying.
  • Banned from working.
  • Banned from leaving the house without a male chaperone.
  • Banned from showing their skin in public.
  • Banned from accessing healthcare delivered by men (with women forbidden from working, healthcare was virtually inaccessible).
  • Banned from being involved in politics or speaking publicly.

Source: Amnesty International UK

Amnesty International UK say that alongside these harsh rules, women could be "flogged for showing an inch or two of skin under her full-body burqa, beaten for attempting to study, stoned to death if she was found guilty of adultery.

"Rape and violence against women and girls was rife. Afghan women were brutalised in the law and in nearly every aspect of their daily life. A woman in Kabul had the end of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish, for example, in 1996."

afghans in 2001. UN
An Afghan boy at Gudham Shahar Camp in Mazar-i-Sharif, 2001. Credit: UN

Taliban Destruction Of Culturally Significant Monuments 

In 2001, with international action against them drawing closer, the Taliban increasingly engaged in radical acts to enrage the outside world. This included efforts to destroy Afghanistan of its pre-Islamic "icons". 

This involved the demolition of two monumental Buddha figures at Bamiyan standing at 58 and 38 meters tall, which proved, reports at the time said, remarkably difficult for the Taliban to dismantle. 

The group initially tried to destroy the monuments with anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank mines. However, the world watched on as holes were bored into the structures and filled with dynamite, resulting in significant damage to the 6th Century structures. Today, the structures remain destroyed, although discussions have occurred with international bodies such as Unesco about ways to reassemble them.

bamiyan destruction by taliban
The site of the Buddha figures at Bamiyan after the Taliban destroyed the 6th Century monuments. Credit: Jumpstory

Is Taliban Rule Likely To Return To Afghanistan?

Since the decision to withdraw western forces from the country, there has been worsening violence across Afghanistan, leading to criticism of the US and NATO by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Ever since the UK, the US and other NATO troops began the final withdrawal from the country earlier this year, the Taliban has been targeting provincial capitals, including Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, near where Camp Bastion used to be.

There are fears for the safety of Afghans who worked with NATO during the 20 years of operations, including interpreters. Some of them have had their UK resettlement claims rejected.  

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has promised to "personally review" each of the rejected resettlement claims. On Twitter, Mr Wallace said:

"Decisions are based on the threat to the civilians' life, their eligibility and the security of UK citizens. identities and eligibility.

"We have streamlined checks to help as many civilians as possible, but we must continue to verify claimants' identity."


Cover image: The Second Asian Highway Motor Rally 1970. Credit: UN

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