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When Afghanistan Was Just a Stop on the 'Hippie Trail'

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When most westerners think of Afghanistan nowadays, chances are they imagine a place locked in eternal warfare, deeply distrusting of the outside world and fanatically devoted to the most backward forms of obscurantist Islam. In fact, though, Afghanistan is a place whose complex history encompasses many aspects that aren't neatly captured by these stereotypes. There's no question that the past 30 years -- spanning the Soviet invasion, the civil war among the anti-Soviet mujahedin, and the post-9/11 fight against the Taliban and its allies -- have left behind few modern institutions upon which to build when U.S.-led troops withdraw next year.

But whether the government of President Hamid Karzai can survive the departure of foreign forces will depend to a considerable degree on whether he can persuade Afghans to unite around memories of a different Afghanistan -- a country whose hopeful efforts to achieve prosperity and modernity were wiped out by the Russian invasion in 1979. In this excerpt from his new book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, journalist Christian Caryl takes a look at Afghanistan in the era before its people went to war against communism.

IN THE EARLY 21st century, we tend to think of Afghanistan as a place cursed by eternal warfare, an endlessly bleeding wound in the global body politic. What we tend to overlook is that this image of the country is a recent invention, one conditioned by its recent past. In the 1970s, before war broke out, the common view of Afghanistan was starkly different -- more Bali or Bhutan than geopolitical trouble spot. These were the years of the "Hippie Trail," when self-designated "world travelers" piled into used Volkswagen vans and embarked on a path of self-discovery that led from Istanbul to Katmandu.

Afghanistan was not the end of the road, but it was definitely one of the high points. "Herat [on the border with Iran] was the first real destination on the hippie trail," one traveler recalls. "The paranoia of oppressive control in Turkey and Iran was left behind for a wilder but welcoming state of anarchy." Afghans seemed to love foreigners. You could always find someone who was willing to take time off for a friendly chat -- or for a shared sampling of the fine local hashish. Everyone seemed to be smoking it. And the prices were hard to beat. Yes, of course, this was the result of local impoverishment. But surely the best remedy for that was to spend your own money.

In Kabul you could stay at Sigi's Hotel, a landmark on the Trail. Since the dollar or the D-mark went such a long way in 1970s Afghanistan, you could easily linger for weeks, getting high, feasting on cheap kebab or venturing out to the fantastic archeological sites that dotted the city and its environs. (True hippies especially enjoyed communing with the giant Buddhas carved out of a hillside in Bamiyan, a day's drive away from the capital.) Then, when the time was ready, you could continue the journey all the way to Nepal, the El Dorado for recreational drug users. Still, Trail adventurers later recalled their sojourns in Afghanistan -- easy-going, soporific Afghanistan -- with particular fondness.

But they weren't the only ones. The Westerners who actually lived in Afghanistan in the 1970s, on their tours of duty with the Peace Corps or European-sponsored development projects, loved the place for its laid-back exoticism. If you needed a bit of modern luxury, all you had to do was pop over to one of the foreigners' clubs, which offered all the amenities, or pay a visit to the Hotel Intercontinental for a dip in its fine pool. And crime was minimal. An American high-school student whose father was doing a stint at the University of Kabul thought nothing of riding alone on the bus to Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, for the weekend.

Such views were not entirely illusory. As the 1970s dawned, Afghanistan was unquestionably poor and backward, but it seemed to be making remarkable progress in its efforts to embrace modern life. In the 1971 edition of her guidebook to Kabul, the American author Nancy Hatch Dupree bemoaned the difficulties of tracking the attractions of a city in which "change is rampant." But she was determined to document the many charms that remained -- like the Khyber Restaurant on the first floor of the Finance Ministry in Pushtunistan Square: "It is a popular meeting place in Kabul, especially during the summer when sidewalk tables set under gay umbrellas beckon weary sightseers. The Ariana Cinema next to the restaurant shows foreign pictures in many different languages."

There were magnificent museums and countless historical sites -- all of them catering to the influx of foreign tourists: "Rounding the curve on Mohammad Jan Khan Wat, one notes many modern stores and small hotels which have sprung up in the last few years to attract the ever-increasing number of visitors to Kabul." There was also the Nejat School for Boys, which "will soon shift to ultra-modern quarters currently nearing completion on the road to the airport, across from the area hotel." (More and more of Kabul's schools, as she noted, were going co-ed.) Dupree also pointed out the Kabul Zoo, which received some of its animals from its sister institution in the West German city of Cologne. There were the bazaars where you could purchase yarn or lentils or the garlands of paper flowers that were used to decorate cars during weddings, and the shops were you could buy lapis lazuli or dried fruits or karakul skins, "for which Afghanistan is justly famous."

One of the most conspicuous features of Afghanistan's tentative modernization was the prominent role of outside sponsors. On the outskirts of Kabul, Dupree noted the construction of the Mikrorayon, "a series of high-rise apartments being constructed with assistance from the Soviet Union." For years Afghanistan had been playing both sides in the Cold War. As part of their strategic rivalry in Asia, both the Soviets and the Americans were willing to contribute significant amounts of aid in return for Kabul's friendship. The trick with "non-alignment," as this policy was known, was keeping one's balance -- and King Zahir Shah, who began his four-decade reign in 1933, managed to do just that for many years.

Afghanistan dispatched students to the U.S. on Fulbright scholarships for business degrees; others headed off to the USSR to study the technical professions. Foreign aid poured in. The Americans helped build dams and schools, West Germans trained the police force, and the Russians laid out natural gas pipelines and power plants. Development money also helped the Afghans to jumpstart local-run businesses, like textile factories. And some of the funds were also used to build up the institutions of government. Every year, it seemed, Kabul erected yet another ministry building in the brutalist concrete style that was supposed to signify enlightened modernity. Each month brought a new announcement about some new agreement on technical assistance or foreign investment. The country was moving ahead. Peace reigned. The last serious uprising against the government had taken place in 1929.

Gradually, however, the Soviets began to gain the upper hand. In 1973, however, when the king's cousin Mohamed Daoud Khan seized power in a coup and declared the end of the monarchy, he did so with the support of the Kremlin and the Afghan communists. From that point on, Afghanistan would find itself drawn increasingly into the Soviet orbit.

Daoud and his communist allies were eager to build a strong, modern state. Yet even in the 1970s Afghanistan was a country deeply fragmented by ethnic, linguistic and regional differences. If there was one thing that could be said to unite the Afghans, it was religion: virtually all Afghans are Muslims (and the overwhelming majority of them are Sunnis). Foreign observers often remarked upon the simple piety of the people in Afghanistan. All activity stopped whenever the call to prayer sounded from the local mosque. References to God and the Prophet punctuated everyday speech. Public figures were expected to invoke the supremacy of the Almighty at every turn.

Yet this did not mean that religion and politics seamlessly overlapped. Throughout their history Afghans had known rule by kings, not religious leaders. Village mullahs, who performed a variety of religious services in exchange for fees, were often regarded as corrupt or buffoonish, the butt of jokes rather than figures of respect. There were, of course, some religious figures who enjoyed privileged status -- Islamic scholars, perhaps, or pirs, Sufi spiritual leaders. But none of these individuals had any clearly defined institutional power over the others. The diffuse quality of Afghan Islam was also a product of practices that many other Sunni Muslims would have regarded as heterodox -- such as the veneration of saints, whose graves, beflagged and decorated, were treated as holy places. In Iran, the Shiite religious elite presided over a clearly defined hierarchy, which greatly increased the power of the clerics. In Afghanistan, there were no central religious institutions to speak of. Islam was flat, localized and fragmented.

There was something that young religious radicals, infected by the ideas circulating among their contemporaries elsewhere in the Muslim world, were eager to change. In late 1960s some of these young men, taking their cue from communist practice, had decided to form their own semi-clandestine political organization, which they named the "Muslim Youth Organization." Some of them went well beyond the usual religious platitudes by agitating for the creation of an "Islamic state" in which sharia (Quranic law) would reign supreme and the government would be in the hands of people who followed the example of the Prophet.

A lot of Afghans didn't know what to make of such talk. Afghanistan had been ruled by kings right up until the fall of the monarchy. When the Islamists tried to stage a coup against Daoud Khan in 1975, few in the society at large paid attention, and the government easily suppressed them: the ringleaders were captured and shot, the rest chased into exile. The religious establishment back at home -- the village mullahs, the religious scholars, and the Sufi notables who were all tightly bound into the status quo -- didn't lift a finger in the rebels' defense. And why should they have? The Islamists, after all, had come to their cause through the universities, not the madrasas. They had few ties with the traditional clerics, whom they tended to view as backward and corrupt.

In the final analysis, though, Afghanistan was still a bit player. If someone had asked you, in the middle of the 1970s, to name a country that would have an impact on the world's affairs in the decades to come, Afghanistan would have been near the bottom of the list -- perhaps along with Bangladesh and Bolivia and some of the more obscure African countries. It was just too poor, too underdeveloped. Someone like Mohammed Daoud was probably its best bet: an enlightened dictator, secular, "progressive," with a clear vision for the future. Little did he and his supporters realize that the way of life they represented would soon become extinct.

Excerpted with permission from Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.