Afghanistan is in the news these days as the Taliban, ousted from power following the US -led invasion in 2001, has returned to power after a surprisingly short-lived, but strikingly successful, military campaign against the incumbent government. Afghanistan’s future is uncertain as the memory of the Taliban’s brutal regime of religious dictatorship between 1996 and 2001 comes back to haunt the international community. There are widely shared fears that the reincarnated Taliban might simply be a recreation of murderous misdeeds of the past driven by religious zealotry.

While reflecting on the future of Afghanistan, it would be worth noting that Afghanistan had a relatively prosperous and peaceful past, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, some estimates of long-run per capita GDP suggest that Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s was richer than China and South Korea. Decades of conflict have rendered Afghanistan so poor that per capita GDP in 2020 was apparently lower than in 1950 (see Figure below).

Others have compiled a photo montage of Afghanistan of the ‘60s conjuring an era of a modern looking country. As Alan Taylor, writing in the Atlantic, notes wistfully:

In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle, while trying to maintain a respect for more conservative factions. Though officially a neutral nation, Afghanistan was courted and influenced by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, accepting Soviet machinery and weapons, and U.S. financial aid. This time was a brief, relatively peaceful era, when modern buildings were constructed in Kabul alongside older traditional mud structures, when burqas became optional for a time, and the country appeared to be on a path toward a more open, prosperous society. Progress was halted in the 1970s, as a series of bloody coups, invasions, and civil wars began, continuing to this day, reversing almost all of the steps toward modernization taken in the 50s and 60s.

Picture taken in 1962 at the Faculty of Medicine in Kabul of two Afghan medicine students listening to their professor (at right) as they examine a plaster cast showing a part of a human body. (Source: The Atlantic, July 2, 2013)

A panoramic view showing the old and new buildings in Kabul, in August of 1969. The Kabul River flows through the city, center right. In the background on the hilltop is the mausoleum of late King Mohammad Nadir Shah. (Source: The Atlantic, July 2, 2013)

Contrast the seemingly idyllic pictures shown above with the one below as the Taliban insurgents occupy the Presidential palace in the wake of their triumphant return to Kabul. All we seem to have are armed mullahs projecting their invincibility to the rest of the world.

As one ponders the future of this conflict-ridden country which apparently had a peaceful and reasonably prosperous past, how should one respond to the claims of the US and its allies that Afghanistan in the post-2001 era went through a major phase of progress that is now likely to be reversed?

Was there significant progress? The per capita GDP figures shown above does not support that claim. A broader measure of well-being – the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) – suggest some positive changes between 2000 and 2010 and a tapering off afterwards. Afghanistan has languished in the low human development category (HDI) for decades. Between 2014 and 2019, its international ranking (in terms of HDI) has slipped five places. Today, it is ranked 165th out of 189 countries.

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