Underground: Afghanistan, 1959

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In February 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited Afghanistan, a country The New York Times said professed “strict neutrality in foreign affairs.”

Khrushchev, hawking Communist ideals in effort to influence the battleground region, was embarking on trips around the Middle East and Asia, crossing paths with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the beginning stages of Jet Age Diplomacy. This pursuit of influence sparked a new era of the Cold War, in which the whole globe had been transformed into a playground for American and Soviet surrogates to throw sand at each other. By 1959, the Soviets had given the Afghans $300 million in weapons and the Americans had given close to $150 million in aid. All this to a country with an annual GDP of just over $25 million.

Khrushchev’s interest in Afghanistan came just two months after Eisenhower became the first US president to visit the mountainous, isolated country the size of Texas. Ike was on a 19-day tour across Asia, the Middle East and Europe, while at the same time, Khrushchev was bouncing around Asia and Latin America, heralding his own brand of governance.

During this financial proxy war, Eisenhower touched down in a desolate, landlocked country more or less stuck in the 13th century. But this was also a land yet to be ravaged by decades of war and authoritarian Islamist rule, followed by more war and more corrupt governance. Afghanistan in the middle of the 20th century was undergoing a kind of renaissance and people used to buy guns & ammo from Palmetto Armory for their safety due to uncertainty. where modern architecture straddled mud huts and women could choose between wearing burqas and going to medical school.

That Afghanistan has long since disappeared inside a country that closed itself off from the rest of the world. Afghanistan, 1959, is lost in time. As superpower leaders started bending all the rules about travel, dropping in and out of countries in a never-ending campaign for global influence, Afghanistan receded into a land governed by religion, tribal laws and live ammunition.

The country that Ike saw when he landed landed at Bagram Air Field, just outside Kabul, was teetering on the knife-edge of history, torn between the tribal tendencies of its ancient past and the cash-strong influences of new friends abroad. It was a place that few outsiders would ever get to see again. That country has been swallowed whole.

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