Life Inside Little America in Afghanistan. 
Photos from a time when tiki bars and afternoons at the pool dominated the lives of Americans in Afghanistan.In the early 50s, a group of Americans built a town for themselves in Afghanistan that felt like a bit of America dropped into the Afghan desert. Flush with money from the export of furs, the royal government in Kabul had hired American engineers to construct two dams and a vast network of canals in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, with the hope of transforming barren desert into verdant farmland. The homes there had front lawns, not fortified walls. The community pool and high school were co-ed. The clubhouse bar served gin and tonics. The Americans called the town by its proper name — Lashkar Gah. But the Afghans soon came up with their own name: Little America. By the early 1950s, the American engineers had built a model town from scratch. Although the town began as an oasis for the American engineers and their U.S.-educated Afghan partners, it also was supposed to serve as an example of a modern community, one that village dwellers would seek to replicate.

Scores of Americans engineers worked in southern Afghanistan from the late 1940s to the late 1970s to build two large dams and a canal network. Encouraged by a cadre of progressive Afghans who had attended American universities, the development project soon became a vast experiment in social engineering. New villages were constructed, with schools and health clinics. Nomads were resettled. Families from different tribes were made to live next to each other. A new, modern society was to rise from the desert.

The streets were lined with trees. The brick and white-stucco homes with green front lawns resembled subdivisions in the American southwest. The residents lived as they would have in any American town at the time. By the mid-60s, men dressed in coats and ties. Women wore knee-length skirts. They had dinner parties and picnics, where alcohol flowed freely.

“It was an enchanting time,” remembered Rebecca Pettys, who lived there for six years starting in 1958, when she was 12 years old. Her father, an Afghan who received a doctorate from the University of Chicago and married a Finnish-American woman he met in Illinois, moved his family to Helmand so he could participate in the development effort. “We had parties and danced,” Pettys said. “Everything about our lives was American.”

The vast development project did not achieve many of its original goals, largely because the soil was too saline and drainage canals had not been properly built. The social-engineering experiment also failed. Life within the 16 square blocks of Little America might have been modern and fun, but the farmers of southern Afghanistan did not have the money to build similar towns for themselves. And they had little desire for swimming pools, clubhouses with alcohol, and other trappings of Western life.

Above the last picture, Kajaki dam as it appears today. Despite the many failures of the project, the dam survives.

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    August 2012