As the U.S. troop withdrawal approaches its terminal phase, much is being written about the future of Afghanistan. Fears of a Taliban takeover are widespread. Recent meetings between American President Joe Biden and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have done nothing to alter that concern. Perhaps it is useful to remember that Afghans chose a very different path in the past, unlike any seen in recent years.
In the early 1960s, I spent a magical three and a half years living in Kabul with my parents and siblings. I frequently recall the good times I enjoyed there and wonder if some of those memories can be recreated for others to experience in the future.
At the time, highly educated women held senior positions in government and elsewhere; Duke Ellington played to an audience in Kabul; the Buddhas of Bamiyan still stood tall; and matches of buzkashi, a traditional game, entertained foreigners and locals — including Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan.
It was, and is, a beautiful country. Consider the magnificent Hindu Kush mountains blanketed in snow from early fall through late spring, the incredible azure waters of the lakes at Band-e Amir National Park and the wonders of the two Buddhas carved into the mountainside in Bamiyan. I was crushed when the Taliban blew them up in 2001, saddened by the destruction of the two 6th century statues and remembering how mesmerizing it was to stand at their feet and see them towering overhead. Even more fun was climbing through the network of caves alongside one of the statues and standing on the head of a giant Buddha. Perhaps someday they will be restored.
Zahir Shah was in power when I was in Afghanistan, and we traveled the countryside freely to visit some of the historical sites around the country. Duke Ellington came to Kabul in 1963, and my family attended one of his performances. He played before a large crowd at a local stadium and at a smaller venue for the U.S. community and invited guests.
Driving through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar in Pakistan was always a favorite trip. Remnants of the battles fought in the Pass remain, and the winding roads through high mountain passes leave little to no room for error when negotiating turns and passing vehicles. I remember when my father returned from a trip through the pass and told us of coming within inches of his car going over the side after hitting an icy patch. God wasn’t ready for him yet, he said.
We saw the king from time to time in his motorcade and when he attended local events to which the public was invited. One such occasion was a buzkashi match. Buzkashi is similar to polo but with the “ball” being the beheaded carcass of an animal, usually a calf. It can be a very violent “game,” as the riders on opposing sides fight each other to possess the carcass and drop it into a chalked circle at the opponents’ end, thus scoring a goal. It was exciting to watch, and I recall sitting in the stands with a dry “moat” in front of us to prevent the riders from galloping into the crowd.
Many other sights and sounds fill my memories — driving into the hills west of Kabul to Paghman to escape the summer heat; nomadic Kuchis camping on the outskirts of the city as they traveled around the country; a line of wolves on the hillside behind our home during a particularly cold and snowy winter; the horrific sight of a soccer ball sized open wound on the back of a man begging along a walking path to a local fair; riding my bike to local stores to buy toys.
Afghanistan is a country with a rich history and much to offer the rest of the world. It has chosen different paths to peace in the past and though it will be extraordinarily difficult, it has the opportunity to do so again. The question is: Will it?
Paul Sigur (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired U.S. federal government foreign affairs specialist.