Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Lost History Of Helmand



This is the surreal and forgotten story of American policy in Afghanistan since the end of World War II. "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."


The work of trying, with nightmarish results, to turn Afghanistan into a "modern" country patterned after the suburbs of the '50s went on for decades.


This article was written by Adam Curtis, a filmmaker who produced the documentary, "The Power of Nightmares."  His work also includes The Century of the Self, The Mayfair Set, Pandora's Box, The Trap and The Living Dead.

Adam Curtis uncovers the secrets of Helmand

Heroin, hippies and hero engineers

The Lost History Of Helmand


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.

By Adam Curtis

October 21, 2009 "
BBC" -- 13 October 2009 -- When you look at footage of the fighting in Helmand today everyone assumes it is being played out against an ancient background of villages and fields built over the centuries.

This is not true. 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.

Here is what Helmand province looks like today.


The story of this strange forgotten project started with the holocaust which had the unforeseen consequence of making Afghanistan very 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.

Here is a page from the Morrison Knudsen Magazine that expresses the ambition and scale of the project. Little America in Afghanistan.

I want to thank Nick Cullather from Indiana University both for this and for many of the extraordinary details in this story. He is a brilliant historian.


To continue....

 


Two others from this series: 

KABUL: CITY NUMBER ONE - I am researching the extraordinary history of the West's relationship to Afghanistan over the past 200 years. It is a very complex, and sometimes weird, story. These are notes on some of the characters and episodes involved.

KINSHASA: CITY NUMBER TWO - As well as our relationship with Afghanistan, I am researching the legacy of other  European empires - in Africa. We think of those empires as history but actually they still haunt our everyday lives in the strangest of ways.


Related article:

Afghanistan: Electrification Effort Looses Spark - Michael Yon Dispatch which discusses the sad situation with the Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province:

The top-secret mission was Oqab Tsuka, involving thousands of ISAF troops who were to deliver turbines to the Kajaki Dam to spearhead a major electrification project. The difficult mission was a great success. That was 2008.  During my 2009 embed with British forces, just downstream from Kajaki Dam, it became clear that the initial success had eroded into abject failure.
In fact Canada pledged millions of Canadian dollars to the Kandahar economy once the power was plugged into the grid and supplying business in the city.  But the Canadians seem doubtful that power will be switched on before 2014—by which time they will have pulled their troops out of Afghanistan.



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