Posted by: Christian | November 17, 2008

Expats in Afghanistan: A Brief History

From a 1980 article by Eden Naby, in regards to the Soviet expatriates who worked in Afghanistan from the 1960s onward:

Soviet advisers in Afghanistan have expended more effort in learning about the country and people than have most western advisers. The Soviets have adhered to modest living conditions in the country, thus projecting an image of equality rather than superiority to Afghans. They have not had Afghan servants, nor have they access to social elites, and are thus forced into contacts with their co-workers and with the middle classes.

How does one survive like this?

Because they have not acted or been treated like elites, they have had to learn the Persian language at least to a degree that would allow them to live and function in Afghanistan. In fact, many Russian and other Soviet advisers over the years have lived very much the way that Peace Corps volunteers have lived.

So everybody loved the Soviet advisers?

While this has not made them popular, it has provided many of them with a deeper understanding of the country, the people, and their problems.

So the Soviets were intercultural geniuses? Not according to Louis Dupree:

…few Russian technicians speak fluent Farsi or Pashto, nor do they mingle unrecognized in the Afghan population, in spite of myths spread to the contrary.

But they were better than the Americans, right? Dupree remarked:

If it is any comfort to Americans, several high-placed Afghans have remarked to me: “Why, we found out that the Russians are just as stupid as the Americans.”

Dupree went on to discuss the level of luxury that American expats enjoyed in Kabul and the resentment of the locals. But he also noted that Soviet technicians working on development projects outside of Kabul lived in conditions as good or better than their American counterparts. And while Dupree discusses the “covered wagon complex” (think Indians circling the wagons, but just the wagons and no Indians and the wagons are luxury accommodations) of the Americans, he notes that “Soviet blue collar workers live more clannish lives and fraternize less than do American technicians.”

Some Americans were quite clueless about life outside their compounds. When the Pak-Afghan border was closed for a spell in the early 1960s the “provisions” started to run dry:

The first reaction among many Americans was: “What happens to the commissary?” Afghan reaction to this type of American reaction was […] “Now maybe Americans will leave their isolated ghetto and act more like Americans do in the States.”

Some desperate Americans, in their desperate desperation, desperately departed to the local bazaar. Dupree describes the wide assortment of international goods the astonished expats found there and also noted their delight in finding out how good the locals fruits and vegetables were (as if Afghans eat dirt or something).

How about the valiant Brits?

…the UN and British embassy commissaries also suffered shortages, especially of whiskey.

oh, the humanity.


Louis Dupree. 1973. Afghanistan. Princeton University Press.

Eden Naby.  “The Ethnic factor in Soviet-Afghan Relations” Asian Survey, Vol. XX, No. 3, March 1980.


  1. A shortage of whisky is not to be sniffed at.

    The history of expats in Kabul goes back further than that. Peter Hopkirk’s ‘The Great Game’ is quite interesting on the British expats of the 1840s:

    “Every kind of entertainment was laid on, from cricket to concerts, steeplechasing to skating, with some of the Afghan upper classes joining in the fun. Much of what went on, particularly the womanising and drinking, was to cause great offence to the Muslim authorities and the devout majority.”

  2. I think it would be fascinating to compare these accounts of expat life with the luxuries of the modern-day FOB.

  3. I think one could probably write an entire book about western expats in Afghanistan, from the first Anglo-Afghan war to the present, and most of it critical. But of course there are a wide variety of expats. Take Louis Dupree for example, while he pokes fun at other expats, he and his wife were (and she still is) not anything like the stereotype of the secluded expat. And many of the agricultural advisers had a high degree of interaction with locals outside of Kabul.

    But the non-seclusion can go a bit extreme, take hippies back in the day, for example: stoned out of their minds while making out under a tree in Kabul. They could have used a bit of seclusion.

  4. Thank you very much wonderful topic


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