If you look at footage of the fighting in Helmand in recent years, you might assume it takes place against an ancient background of villages and fields built over the centuries — but you’d be wrong:
If you look beyond the soldiers, and into the distance, what you are really seeing are the ruins of one of the biggest technological projects the United States has ever undertaken. Its aim was to use science to try and change the course of history and produce a modern utopia in Afghanistan. The city of Lashkar Gah was built by the Americans as a model planned city, and the hundreds of miles of canals that the Taliban now hide in were constructed by the same company that built the San Francisco Bay Bridge and Cape Canaveral.
It all starts with the Holocaust — which made Afghanistan surprisingly rich:
The fur trade in Europe which had been predominantly run by Jews was closed down. It moved to New York where there was a growing demand for astrakhan coats — made with the fur of fat-tailed sheep from Afghanistan. Here is a classic piece of Afghan promotion of their key export. And a fat tailed sheep.
As a result dollars poured into Afghanistan and by 1946 the country had $100 million in reserve. The King, Zahir Shah, decided to spend the money on a dam. His aim was to create a modern state — and with it spread the power of the Pashtun tribes. So he hired the giant American firm Morrison Knudsen who had built the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, and they began surveying Afghanistan’s biggest river — the Helmand.
But almost immediately things started to go wrong. In 1949 the first, small diversion dam was built. But it raised the level of the water table in the whole area. And that brought salt to the surface.
The American engineers realised this meant that the whole project probably wouldn’t work. But at 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.
Modernization Theory had been invented by an ambitious academic at Harvard called Walt Whitman Rostow. He said that if you put the right technologies in place and educated key elites then the countries would inevitably develop into advanced capitalist societies. They would go through a series of logical stages (there were five) until you got what he modestly called “Rostovian Lift-off”.
Rostow laid out his theory in a book he called “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto”.
Rostow’s theories obsessed the American development agencies and they came up with all sorts of ideas about how to turn countries like Afghanistan into modern democracies.
You may have noticed that the upper classes in most “developing” countries immediately latch on to superficial signs of western-style progress:
The Afghan government and the American agencies produced books full of photographs that showed these modernised beings in their new modernised world.
The Americans gave Prime Minister Daoud what he wanted:
They would turn Helmand province into a settled Pashtun area which would consolidate the Pashtun’s powerful grip on the whole country.
It was an extraordinary project. The Americans set out to take thousands of families of Pashtun nomads who spent their time roaming the border area with Pakistan and settle them in small-holdings in Helmand. They would be turned into sedentary farmers. It was a giant piece of social engineering. Even Swiss experts were flown in to teach the Pashtuns how to use long-handle scythes to cut grass for their sheep.
The Americans liked it because it would take a lawless group of nomads who were always straying over the border into Pakistan and starting local wars and turn them into peaceful farmers.
Prime Minister Daoud liked it because it was an opportunity to increase Pashtun power — sometimes in not very nice ways. One of his political critics put it bluntly:
“He wanted to use these new settlers as a death squad to crush the uprisings of the non-Pashtun people of the southwest and central part of the country”
Out of this came not just new homesteads but a giant modern infrastructure. At its centre was the modern planned city of Lashkar Gar. As many of the engineers working there described it — like an American suburb. A model world that would help transform the warlike and unruly tribes people into democratic and achieving citizens.
Historian Arnold Toynbee visited Helmand!
Toynbee drove from Kandahar to Lashkar Gah past all the giant canals and dams. He was shocked. What he was seeing, he said, was not a new civilization but “a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape. The new world they are conjuring up at the Helmand river’s expense is to be an America-in-Asia”
Toynbee quoted Sophocles’ warning: “The craft of his engines surpasseth his dreams”
What he meant was that you couldn’t change history with just machines and science. Toynbee believed that what led to civilisations rise and fall was culture and religion.
A year after he returned Toynbee gave a series of lectures called “America and World Revolution” which was published as a book . In an interview with the BBC in 1962 he warns of the neglect of religion and religious values in this rush to modernity. It was the beginning of the conservative reaction to the techno-utopian dreams of progress of the 50s and 60′s.
What is fascinating is that his argument — that religion is the only real force in the west that can give meaning and purpose in life — is exactly the same as the new political Islamist ideas that were beginning to emerge on the campuses of Cairo, Kabul and Islamabad.
Toynbee was an atheist, but he believed that without such meaning social structures in western society will corrode. It is the same conservative argument that you find in the writings of Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Mawdudi in Pakistan.
This all ties in with the Green Revolution:
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.
So the American planners turned to the most up to date theory. It was called The Green Revolution (as opposed to The Red Revolution the Russians were exporting). It was based on the new type of high-yield wheat that had been developed by a scientist called Norman Borlaug. And the development agenicies brought in 170 tons of the experimental dwarf wheat developed by Borlaug in Mexico.
By now many of the nomads had settled and divided the land in Helmand into small plots. The problem was that to make the green revolution work and the wheat grow effectively the area would have to be turned back into vast open spaces. In other words the whole settlement system would have to be put in reverse.
Undeterred, the US Dept of Agriculture proposed that the Helmand Valley Authority remove all the settlers. Then they would “level the whole area with bulldozers and redistribute the property in large, uniform smooth land plots”. They also said they were going to cut down all the trees.
But when they tried to do this the bulldozers and the American technocrats were confronted by the Pashtun farmers with rifles. They refused to allow their new homes to be destroyed.
The USAID reported back to Washington “this presents a very real constraint on the project”.
Much of all this had been inspired by the ideas of the American academic Walt Rostow. By now Rostow had become one of the most powerful men in America, special adviser for National Security. And he was developing these ideas even further in another country. Vietnam.
In 1969 yields were poised to take-off:
But there was a drought. The Helmand river became a trickle. The main reservoir created by the project dried up completely. Wheat yields were the lowest in the world — 4 bushels to the acre — Iowa’s yield was 180 bushels to the acre. This created a massive food crisis which began to destabilize the government and the King.
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 Daoud 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.