Before The Kabul Retreat
Kashmir Life|August 22, 2021
Described as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, Afghanistan was always termed to be at peace when it was at war. But the land-locked desert country that was always in turmoil and one of the worst targets of the Great Game suffered immensely throughout, especially in the last 40 years, Masood Hussain writes
Masood Hussain

Before the American troops and their NATO allies landed in Afghanistan, days after the 9/11 twin tower attack in 2001, Afghans’ respected Americans. They had helped them fight the Soviet occupation through Pakistan and literally undo the USSR. The Kabul-Washington relation had evolved over the decades if not centuries.

INDIVIDUAL CONTACTS

There might have been a lot of contacts between the two cultures separate by faith and high seas but the first recorded one was somewhere in the 1830s when Josiah Harlan, an American adventurer and a Pennsylvania political activist sailed to India with the wildest imagination of becoming the King of Afghanistan.

Soon after his arrival, the situation in the region evolved so fast that becoming a king of Afghanistan seemed not a tall order. There were two claimants to the Durrani throne - Shuja Shah Durrani and Dost Mohammad Khan. This led to the first war between British India and Afghanistan, known as the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–1842). The war, however, was not an ordinary one. From around 16500 invading the British army only one returned home alive – Dr William Brydon.

Before the war, Harlarn had worked for both the claimants and is credited for fighting many battles for Dost Mohammad till he became the Prince of Ghor. Harlarn is the one around whom Rudyard Kipling’s short story, the man who would be king was written. In 2002, Ben Macintyre, an editor at The Times London authored an extensive book The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. This marked the beginning of contact between the two nations.

The second contact is barely a century old when in 1911, a former General Electric employee, AC Jewett reached Afghanistan with a modest objective of building a powerhouse in Kabul. He became the Chief Engineer for King Habibullah Khan and helped electrify parts of Jalalabad and Kabul.

DIPLOMATIC CONTACT

British managed to create a friendly regime in Afghanistan after the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80) but the protectorate rebelled in 1919 (the third Anglo-Afghan War) that eventually led the Empire to surrender Afganistan’s foreign affairs, the only authority they had had for around four decades.

Somewhere in 1921, Afghanistan signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi with British India. Afghan diplomats visited the American mission and sought to establish diplomatic contact. The then US President Warren G Harding sent his good wishes to Kabul and some aid started flowing to the desert country.

The diplomatic contact was established but the American envoy would operate from Tehran. William Harrison Hornibrook was the envoy in absentia for two years till 1936. Louis Goethe Dreyfus served for another two years till 1942. Then Americans started travelling to the region with Major Gordon Enders becoming the first military attaché to Kabul, followed by Cornelius Van Hemert Engert represented and Ely Eliot Palmer between 1945 and 1948.

THE ONSET OF COLD WAR

The onset of the cold war between the USA and the USSR marked the beginning of a stronger relationship as US President Harry S Truman visualised. Kabul sent Habibullah Khan Tarzi as the first full-fledged ambassador to Washington in 1953 and the US Louis Goethe Dreyfus as its Ambassador to Afghanistan from 1949 to 1951.

In 1953, Richard Nixon, then the Vice President, flew to Kabul, met residents and strolled around. Five years later, Afghanistan Prime Minister Daoud Khan spoke to US Congress in Washington in 1958. During this visit, he met President Eisenhower, signed a cultural exchange agreement. Though Khan sought defence cooperation, Washington preferred economic assistance.

It was the era of the Cuban crisis. During the Cuban Revolution between 1953 and 1959, the USSR would support Fidel Castro, and the US would focus on Afghanistan, as its strategic partner in the region as the desert country was in the immediate vicinity of the USSR. The idea was to checkmate Communism. It was simply because of these compelling factors that

President Eisenhower flew to Kabul in December 1959. Landing at the Bagram Airfield, Eisenhower drove in a huge cavalcade to Kabul, where he met King Zahir Shah, his Prime Minister Daoud Khan and other Pathan notables.

In 1963, the Kabul king went on a return visit. This visit helped Kabul to cement its relations with the John F Kennedy administration. Habibullah Karzai, Hamid Karzai’s uncle, was part of the king’s team.

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