After centuries of poverty-ridden isolation, Afghanistan is again becoming the crossroads of Asia. Kabul's only hotel is not only about the cheapest east of Suez (two dollars a day all-inclusive) but also the most cosmopolitan. Its austere rooms are crowded with Russians, Americans, Germans, Japanese, Persians, Turks, Indians, Ceylonese, and Arabs. Numerous airways, including Dutch, Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian, find it worth while to run regular flights into Afghanistan from the west and south, while the Russians, now busy with plans to build a modern airport at Kabul, offer cut-rate trips, payable in black-market afghanis, to Moscow and other points north.

Unlike those in the past who came to loot and strip the land, many modern visitors come with gifts. For this is the era of competitive coexistence, and nowhere is the competition more obviously competitive than in Afghanistan. Hearts and minds are the prize, the Soviet Union and the United States the principal competitors, and rubles and dollars the weapons.

Afghanistan's needs are almost bottomless. Slightly larger than Texas and dominated by the towering ranges of the Hindu Kush mountains, which rise to 20,000 feet and isolate the richer northern provinces from the southern deserts, it is completely landlocked. It has no railways; its four thousand miles of rough, all-weather roads are used mostly by donkeys and camels; and its rivers are of little use for navigation.

At least two million of the perhaps twelve million population are nomads. They move with the seasons and live either in a Central Asian yurt that looks like a beach tent and is made of felt, or in a rectangular construction covered with goat's hair cloth.

Subsistence Farming

Agriculture employs nearly three quarters of the rest of the population, yet less than 3 per cent of the land is cultivated, and of this the greater part is in the little-populated region south of the Oxus River, which forms the border with Russia. Fruit grows well in small, fertile pockets among the stark and barren folds of the Hindu Kush, where a hot summer sun and melting snows combine to produce juicy peaches, grapes, apples, melons, pears, and apricots.

In periods when relations with Karachi are amiable, fruit is exported to Pakistan and India, while the United States is a good customer for the karakul (Persian lamb skin) crop, the country's principal earner of foreign exchange. Nevertheless, agriculture generally is on a meager, subsistence level. Most of the population never gets enough food to eat or clothes to wear in winters that are as bitter as the summers are hot.

Little is known of hygiene. The open sewers in the streets of Kabul are used for washing and, in the summer, for reviving watermelons that have withered in the heat. The infant mortality rate is extremely high: even in Kabul, which boasts a very large proportion of the country's two hundred doctors, one child in every seven dies in the first year of life. Village folk rely on herbalists, snakebite men, and the Muslim mullahs to treat them for their many ills.

The annual per capita income has been estimated at twenty dollars, a sum that does not go far toward providing even the turban, sleeveless jacket, and baggy pants that make up the rural Afghan's wardrobe, or toward helping city dwellers to achieve the ultimate in sartorial elegance—full Western dress, topped with a karakul cap.

Medieval Cities

The cities are few and small. Kabul, the capital and principal stopping place for the camel caravans that ply between Central Asia and India, has a population of about three hundred thousand. It has entwined itself around the stark hills that once guarded the city gates, with the new grafted onto the old, a form of growth that has deprived it of the character one sees in other towns, where the country's turbulent history is graphically expressed in the architecture.

Built like medieval forts, with high, square, turreted outer walls, these towns emphasize the historic need for defense. The houses follow a similar pattern, turning their windowless backs on the streets, the better to assure the safety of the inhabitants. Kandahar, in the southeast, is Afghanistan's second city. Here about eighty thousand people crowd behind mud walls and battlements built, so the legend goes, by Alexander the Great in 327 B.C.

For more than two thousand years Afghanistan was either the center or an important part of great Central Asian kingdoms and empires. Later, in the era of British and Russian expansion in Asia, Afghanistan learned that survival depended primarily on its ability to play one great power against another. Thus, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Afghans wove their way through the plans and plots of London and St. Petersburg, until, in 1919, they finally threw off British "protection" and won full independence.

A Royal Oligarchy

Modern Afghanistan officially describes itself as a constitutional monarchy. This is not strictly accurate. Though there is a National Assembly of 171 deputies elected from different parts of the country, its members—and the 45 senators, who are appointed by the King for life—do not enjoy freedom of expression. They may oppose the Supreme Council of State, or cabinet, but only within officially approved limits.

Real control is vested in a royal oligarchy: King Mohammed Zahir Shah, his cousin, Prime Minister Sardar Mohammed Daoud (who is also minister for defense), and two other senior members of the family, Sardar Ali Mohammed, who is the first deputy prime minister, and Sardar Mohammed Naim, second deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs.

Although the cabinet meets once a week, most important decisions appear to be made at the weekly Thursday night dinners in the Palace, where male members of the royal family meet for free and frank discussions on the government of their wild and rugged state. But their writ is far from absolute. The loyalty of many tribesmen depends on the size and regularity of the government's subsidies.

The People of Afghanistan

Although Afghanistan means the Land of the Afghans, there is no true Afghan. The nearest claimant to the title is the Pukhtun, tall, handsome, and almost fair. The Pukhtuns comprise nearly half of the population. Tough, proud, warlike, and organized on a tribal basis, their historic role has been one of fierce resistance to the invader. The are today represented at all levels of Afghan society.

Another fair people, the Tajiks, form the second largest ethnic group. They are the artisans and the shopkeepers and nonnomadic farmers. Uzbeks and Turkomen, many of whom fled from Russia during the first days of Stalin's land-reform program and settled on the south bank of the Oxus River, are among the minority groups.

West of Kabul, in a wild and mountainous area, live the Hazaras, a Mongoloid people whose presence in Afghanistan legend attributes to Genghis Khan. While most of the other inhabitants of Afghanistan are Sunnite Muslims, the Hazaras belong to the Shiite sect, whose antagonism to the Sunnites predates Christianity's Reformation split by nearly a thousand years.

Islam came to Afghanistan in 871. It persists in its most rigid and conservative form. With the exception of Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, most Muslim countries are in the processes of abandoning purdah. But not Afghanistan. In Kabul no woman dares to venture into the streets unless clad in the borqa, a shapeless tent that covers the entire body including the eyes, which can see without being seen.

Cabinet ministers are required by law to be Muslims, and everywhere the mullahs exercise great authority. They serve the religious, medical, social, and legal needs of the people. Foreigners are regarded doubtfully. Foreign diplomats stationed in Kabul automatically search their offices and homes for concealed microphones, expect that their private mail will be opened, and have learned to regard their servants as paid spies. By law, no Afghan who travels abroad may marry a foreigner.

Access to the Sea

Suspicious of Russia, Britain, and Pakistan, not especially friendly with Iran, and remote from neighboring China, Afghanistan sought, in 1947, to end its vulnerable isolation by demanding access to the sea. This was to be achieved by the creation of Pukhtunistan, so that the five million Pukhtuns who live in what is now Pakistan, and are close kin to the Pukhtuns of Afghanistan, would have their own state consisting of the former North-West Frontier Province, Chitral, Swat, Buner Baluchistan, and the former Baluchistan States Union, thus making the Arabian Sea their western boundary.

The Afghans based their claim on what they believe to be the illegality of the border treaty concluded by Sir Mortimer Durand and Emir Abd-er-Rahman in 1893 and on the fact that an earlier Afghan Emir, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who died in 1773, had ruled all the land between the Indus and the Oxus Rivers. Through its controlled press and radio in Kabul and by stirring up the tribesmen with money and arms, Afghanistan for many years made Pukhtunistan a hot issue and even provoked Pakistan into closing the border to Afghan trade.

Russian-American Rivalry

Since the Persian border is largely trackless desert, Afghanistan then turned for assistance to its northern neighbor. At times of crisis the Soviet Union kept Afghanistan's four thousand trucks on the road by rushing in emergency supplies of gasoline and in May, 1955, it offered transit rights through Russia.

The United States was not idle during this period, but aid initially came primarily through the Import-Export Bank for a considerable reclamation and resettlement project in the Helmand Valley in the south. Later, it approved wheat loans and grants totaling $3.2 million and $14.5 million for the construction of an international airport at Kandahar, the building and improving of airports elsewhere, and technical and managerial assistance for Aryana Airways, the Afghan airline. The United States rejected a number of Afghan aid projects, including the paving of Kabul's streets, which have a habit of disappearing during the hundred-mile-an-hour gales that sweep down from the Hindu Kush.

The Russians paved the roads, and incidentally made a splendid job of it. They also provided the buses and taxis; a grain silo and a bakery that turns out sour, off-white bread; and a group of gasoline storage tanks.

Russian Roulette

To many Afghans, however, the drift toward ever closer relation with the Soviet Union seems a sort of Russian roulette, fascinating but frightening. The government could not bring itself to refuse Khrushchev's offer of a $100 million loan in December, 1955, but it immediately threw out a lifeline to the West and relaxed its Pukhtunistan demands with the result that relations between Kabul and Karachi are better at the moment than they have ever been. Kabul hopes the Americans will off-set the Russian aid by developing and improving the road and rail links south through Pakistan.

Today almost half of Afghanistan foreign trade is with the Soviet Union; the trade will grow when Afghanistan begins to repay in goods the interest and capital on Russian loans, which include such military equipment as MIG fighters, tanks and artillery.

Afghanistan realizes there are dangers in being too friendly with the U.S.S.R. It hopes it can survive by playing Washington against Moscow, just as it once played St. Petersburg against London.