A Brief History of American-Afghani Diplomatic Relations of the 20th century

By Maria Santana

Kennedy Fried Chicken is a well-known restaurant ‘chain’ in New York City. The restaurant was founded by Zia Taeb, an Afghani who immigrated to the United States in 1972. Taeb opened his first restaurant three years later in Nostrand Avenue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC has tried to enforce their trademark rules by filing a lawsuit against Taeb for copyright violations. The lawsuit has proven difficult for KFC because although many of the owners are Afghani, Kennedy Fried Chicken locations are independently owned. There are many Kennedy Fried Chicken locations in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland and California. Taeb has also experienced problems with the other Kennedy Fried Chicken’s because he believes they are misleading and do not follow his chicken recipe. KFC’s main complaint against Kennedy Fried Chicken is that it can confuse a consumer.

This information was provided in an interview for the New York Times in article titled ‘A Chicken War in New York, Where Afghans Rule the Roost’ by Dan Bilefsky published in 2011. Taeb worked in a Kansas Fried Chicken in his first years as a new immigrant. It was there where he decided to open up a fast food restaurant. Taeb chose the name Kennedy for the restaurant “because Afghans are fond of the former [American] president.” The quote is interesting because not many could imagine that the United States had diplomatic relations with Afghanistan before the September 11 terror attacks.

The September 11, 2001 terror attacks changed the United States and the world forever. Two hijacked airplanes had struck the Twin Towers in the World Trade Center that led to its collapse. It was the deadliest attack against civilians in American soil killing men, women and children. Members of law enforcement, firefighters and volunteers died that day and in the future months and years after trying to find survivors and human remains under the rubble. Some of these heroes have diseases due to the toxicity of the air after the terror attacks. The news showed images of United Flight 93 airplane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania heading to the Capitol Building. Finally, another airplane hit the Pentagon that is the military headquarters of the United States in Arlington, Virginia. There were 19 terrorists involved in the terror attacks that were members of al Qaeda and were planning the attacks for years.

President George W. Bush led the country and its allies to the Global War on Terrorism. As a response to the attacks, the United States and a coalition of forty countries would invade Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 in Operation: Enduring Freedom. It was to find Osama Bin Laden and members of the al-Qaeda and Taliban network. Bin Laden had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for a long time.

The aim of this article is to provide a historical timeline of American and Afghani Relations before the September 11 terror attacks. Firstly, we will begin with an American Quaker named Josiah Harlan, the first documented American to have visited Afghanistan in the mid 19th century. This American hero and significant historical figure may have inspired a well-known work of literature by Rudyard Kipling. Harlan then managed to become a ‘King’ in Afghanistan for short time. Though his reasons for visiting Afghanistan were for exploration and political power, his visit put Afghanistan on the map. His return to the United States and his celebration by the American press may have inspired curiosity about Afghanistan in that time period.

Then we will explore the official recognition and diplomatic relations established between the United States and Afghanistan during the Interwar Period. This happened after the defeat of the British Empire in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The United States did not join the League of Nations, an international organization set on establishing peace and security, but Afghanistan was a committed member. So, committed that the country adopted a policy of neutrality during the Second World War. This was considering the that Afghanistan had a close diplomatic relationship with Germany dating back to the late 19th century.

Finally, we will look at the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan during the Cold War period with some specific focuses. Afghanistan was crucial to both the United States and the Soviet Union because of geopolitics. Afghanistan was a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, a political organization consisting of countries that were not under the sphere of influence by the Americans or the Soviets. The visit of Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan to the White House in September of 1963 to meet with President John F. Kennedy. The meeting had to do with Afghanistan remaining free but as history shows, this did not end up being the case. Also, the discussion of Zahir Shah’s unexpected ousting of power while being abroad brought Afghanistan into greater chaos thereafter. In response to this will be concluded with the American sponsorship of the mujahideen from 1979 until 1989 during the height of the Cold War.

Josiah Harlan, I do not own this image

Ben Macintyre, a British Historian was conducting historical research on Afghanistan until he stumbled upon the name Josiah Harlan. His research and fascination with Harlan inspired him to write ‘The Man That Would Be King: The First American In Afghanistan’ in 2004. Harlan is the first documented American to have traveled and lived in Afghanistan not for diplomacy but to become king. Harlan’s life and travels inspired Rudyard Kipling’s book ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ in 1888. In order for Harlan to achieve such an unfeasible goal of becoming king, he had to get involved with local politics and the military. Harlan would later be known as the Prince of Ghor.

Harlan was born June 12, 1799 in Pennsylvania to Quaker parents. As a child, he had a fascination with Alexander the Great who went on to conquer territories such as the Balkans, Egypt and parts of south central Asia. Inspired by this hero, Harlan in adulthood traveled to India and China as a member of the Free Masons. After a heartbreak caused by a broken engagement, Harlan set on never returning to the United States. He enlisted himself as a surgeon for the East India Company while not having any formal training. At that time, he read a very famous book titled ‘An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and Its dependencies in Persia, Tartary and India, comprising a View of the Afghaun Nation and history of the Dooraunee Monarchy’ about Afghanistan written by Mountstuart Elphinstone that later inspired him to visit there.

While in a town called Ludhiana on the Indian border, he met an Afghan King named Shah Shujah al-Moolk, who was living in exile because he was deposed. This was the beginning of his involvement in Afghani politics where he proposed that he organize a rebellion against Dost Muhammad in exchange to become a vizier or a governor of whatever terrain available. Shujah agreed and Harlan organized a mob to overthrow Dost Muhammad in Kabul in 1827. Harlan met and engaged in conversation with Muhammad. Harlan traveled to another town in Afghanistan where he was asked to help create a military for the Hazaras, a minority group that speaks Persian.

Here in an excerpt of MacIntyre’ s book, it explains why Harlan decided to help the Hazaras: ‘In 1838, Harlan set off on a punitive expedition against the Uzbek slave trader and warlord Mohammad Murad Beg. He had multiple reasons for doing this: he wanted to help Dost Mohammad assert his authority outside of Kabul; he had a deep-seated opposition to slavery; and he wanted to demonstrate that a modern army could successfully cross the Hindu Kush.’ The Hazaras were afraid of being kidnapped and sold into slavery by the Tatars.

After his success, Harlan was given the title Prince of Ghor but it was short lived. This was caused by the British taking over Afghanistan during a period known as the Great Game. The Great Game were a series of wars between the British Empire and Imperial Russia to invade and control Central Asia during the 19th century in central and south Asia. Harlan disliked the way the British mistreated the Afghani people possibly having to do with his Quaker sensibilities. King Shuja under British influence was put back into power known as the Emir in Kabul who was a cruel and oppressive leader.

Harlan’s loss of power disappointed him but the placement of Shuja bothered him even more. He returned to the United States where the press considered him a national hero. He skillfully played the press, telling them not to dwell on his royal title, as he “looks upon kingdoms and principalities as of frivolous import, when set in opposition to the honourable and estimable title of American citizen”. Ben MacIntyre is quoted as saying Harlan came to Afghanistan “first as a visitor and a spy, then as a courtier…now as a prince, he had absorbed and been absorbed by, the civilization he once disdained.”

Harlan’s time in Afghanistan did not inspire any diplomatic relations with the United States. It may have been because the country was not independent and under British control. Over the next few decades, Afghanis would continue to have more wars for independence with the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878 and the Third Anglo Afghan War of 1919. The British Empire does lose power and some influence of their colonies around the globe after World War I.  The American press did forget about Harlan but it was not until the humiliating and disastrous defeat of the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War that put Afghanistan into the minds of people. General Sir Elphinstone was massacred by Afghani soldiers with swords and experienced a horrendous death. Harlan tried to market off of that tragedy but failed by attempting to write a book about his experiences in central Asia. He continued to live a fascinating life where he fought during the American Civil War on the side of the Union.

American-Afghani Relations Interwar Period Until end of WWII

The US Department of State had been notified by British authorities on August 9, 1919, that Afghanistan was “officially free and independent in its affairs” After the signature of Treaty of Rawalpindi. The United States recognized Afghanistan on July 26, 1921 when under the leadership of King Amanullah. Afghanistan gained its independence when the British lost the Third Anglo-Afghan War. King Amanullah wanted Afghanistan to modernize and in order for this to happen, he looked to the West.     

In 1935, the United States and Afghanistan established diplomatic relations. Afghanistan joined the League of Nations in 1934. The same year, Afghanistan established diplomatic relations with the United States. Abdul Hussein Aziz served as the first Afghan Ambassador to the United States and returned to Kabul with a letter from President Warren G. Harding. William Hornibrook was appointed as the first U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, on November 14, 1935. The United States was interested in helping countries that were underdeveloped and it contributed to them wanting to strengthen their relationship with Afghanistan. Although controversial during the Second World War, Afghanistan and Nazi Germany had relations with one another but the country’s foreign policy was of neutrality. That relationship between the two countries goes back to the Treaty of Gandomak in 1879 and was mainly for modernization of their arms for the Afghan military and geopolitics.

After World War II, the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan became even more important. Apart from Afghanistan’s need to modernize, the United States saw the threat of a potential Soviet invasion. As history has shown before, Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union during the Cold War have tried to conquer Afghanistan. In the 195os, the United States provided economic aid to Afghanistan to focus on developing its infrastructure. Then that aid shifted to technical skills that would in turn educate the Afghani population in order for them to learn to build their country.

It was during the Cold War period that Afghanistan declared itself to be a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. NAM was established in 1961 and consisted of countries that had no allegiance to the Capitalist West or the Eastern bloc. It was founed by Josip Broz Tito of the former Yugoslavia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Jawahralal Nehru of India and other important world leaders of that period.

During the reign of Zahir Shah, the country experienced peace and its citizens had rights given to them because the country had democratic principles. Zahir Shah and Queen Humaira Begum visited the White House September 9, 1963. It was a rainy day but as John F. Kennedy said in his welcoming speech to the Afghani royal family”. The guests were welcomed with a fifteen minute ceremony in the White House with crowds. The visit was good because both countries vowed to fight for freedom.

Afghan King Zahir Shah and Queen Humaira visit President John F. Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy in the White House, September 9 1963. Film is in Kennedy Library. This is not my video.

Things took a turn for the worse in Afghanistan a few years later. In 1974, Zahir Shah was ousted from power in a surprise coup when he was undergoing medical treatment in 1973 by his cousin and prime minister Muhammad Daoud Khan. Khan converted Afghanistan from a monarchy into a republic with Soviet backing. Zahir Shah remained in exile until the Taliban government was ousted. The Soviets did not trust Khan and lost favor for him where in 1978 during the Saur Revolution. He and members of his entire family were killed and buried in unmarked mass graves discovered in 2008. The revolution was led by the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or the PDPA. His assassination led to a civil war in the country. The Republic of Afghanistan ceased to exist and became the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Nur Muhammad Taraki was the new president of Afghanistan.

All of these changes in Afghanistan was the powder keg for the Soviet-Afghan War that lasted 1979 until 1989. It was a Cold War proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan sponsored the mujahideen and smaller Communist factions. While the Soviets supported the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. There was tension between the traditional Afghanis from the rural communities and political dissenters. The United States provided the mujahideen $3 billion dollars in military aid.

The situation in Afghanistan was messy where Taraki was assasinated by second in command Hafizullah Amin and became president in 1979. The Soviet Union was angry and sent their army to Afghanistan where Amin was assasinated that same year. Babrak Kamal was a Soviet loyalist was put into power in Afghanistan. Karmal was then taken out of power by the Soviets when Soviet reformist Mikhail Gorbachev replaced him with Mohammed Najibullah in 1987.

The Cold War ended and many of the communist states that depended on the Soviet Union for support experienced difficulties with Afghanistan being no exception. The mujahideen managed to invade different parts of Afghanistan. Najibullah knew that his life was in danger and lived in a United Nations compound in Kabul until he was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by members of the Taliban. His body was hung in the streets so the public can see. Afghanistan became known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that radically changed the lives of the people lasting from 1996 until 2001. After the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban government was deposed.

After researching Afghanistan’s history and its diplomatic ties to the United States, it answered the sentiment that Afghanis have for President John F. Kennedy. The United States after its founding had to fight for its independence with the Revolutionary War and later with the War of 1812. A lot of lives were sacrificed in order to establish the free republic that the United States is today. Afghanistan had been struggling for independence by the British, Russians, and the Soviets.

Both President John F. Kennedy and King Mohammed Zahir Shah were moved by the ideas of freedom because they each understand each others history. This is while acknowledging that both countries have a tremendous distance not just physically but culturally and historically. Their meeting was to discuss economic development and social progress. Perhaps the video recorded welcoming of Zahir Shah and his governance of Afghanistan is nostalgic of peaceful and progressive times for the country. The country did reach political turmoil after Zahir Shah was ousted from power and took many decades to recover until American intervention.


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