Back to the Future: Afghanistan in 2050

A nurse instructs a group of young mothers on post-natal care.

Two women flip through records in the local shop, asking questions of the gentleman who works there.

Young girls laugh in the sunshine as their Girl Scout leader teaches them a song.

This is Afghanistan in 2050; it looks remarkably like Afghanistan in 1950. Men and women walk the streets without fear of death by stoning; women choose to shop with uncovered heads; education is widespread and equally available for all Afghans.


The differences between Afghanistan pre-Taliban and Afghanistan post-Taliban are challenging to conceive. From 1996 until the invasion of the United States in 2001, the world as Afghanistan knew it changed dramatically, and undeniably for the worse. The lot of women under the Taliban’s harsh regime was devastating. But perhaps the greatest hope for Afghanistan in 2050 is to look into its past.


From the ’50’s to the ’70’s, Afghanistan was a largely stable country under the rule of Mohammed Zahir Shah. The King steered his country slowly into modernization, opening it to the West and allowing his subjects greater political freedom. The culture of the time also liberalized, providing social freedoms for both men and women. Notably, women were allowed into the work force, chose whether to cover or uncover their hair and bodies, and had more substantial agency over their own lives.


This, then, is the challenge Afghanistan should undertake: undo the last sixty years of repression and throw as much weight as possible behind the cause of Afghan women. As Afghanistan pushes, and is pushed, towards control of its own destiny over the next four decades, perhaps the best hope for the country’s future lies with its female citizens.

Social freedoms. By endeavoring to return to the mid-twentieth century’s quality of life, Afghanistan sees a greater level of equality between men and women. Women’s lives are not consolidated in the private sphere but are expanded outward into the public sphere. Women take part in public works and enterprises, seek employment and enrichment outside the realm of the family culture, and express their own agency through their fashion, creative efforts, and social choices. Girls have the same access to education as boys, and a majority of young Afghans can expect a secondary education.

Economic reforms. The use of microloans and other economic projects directs capital to Afghan women, encouraging them to engage in private enterprise that dovetails with the social freedoms allowing women more access to the public sphere. Independent economic vitality pushes against political restrictions, building up the political voice and goals of Afghan women in their national and local governments. Political action affects government economic policy, loosening restrictions on female entrepreneurship and providing mechanisms for further investment in local business, including female-run entities. More local business helps to bolster Afghan’s struggling economy, pushing back against revenue from poppy farming and black market timber sales. Afghanistan invests in itself, spurred by its investment in women.

Religious tolerance. Afghanistan is, and will always be, an Islamic state. But as the combination of social and economic reforms changes the relationship of citizens to state, so too does it change the relationship of state to religion. Not unlike Syria or Jordan, Afghanistan gradually reduces the state-based restrictions on its population, particularly its female citizens, moving religious doctrine from the governmental realm to the private realm. Previously imposed restraints on public and private behaviour are eased and individuals gain more self-selection when it comes to how they choose to express their religion.

What I describe here is not a panacea; these changes, should they come, are gradual and slow-moving in nature. Alleviating the quality of life of women in Afghanistan will not solve the country’s many ills in every sector of its society. But these changes are most assuredly a necessity, to answer in part for twenty years of repression, poverty, and hardship.

From the vantage point of 2010, these changes seem very far away. But rather than view these three aspects of Afghan society–social, economic, religious–as unknown progressive leaps forward, I argue instead that Afghanistan should look into its past for frameworks with which to build upon. At one time, Afghanistan grasped each of these aspect of society, and were headed down a path of greater individual freedoms and reforms for its citizens. To meet its future in 2050, Afghanistan and its people must reclaim its 1950 past. Perhaps in four decades we will again see women walking uncovered past women in niqab and know it to be the result of individual choice and freedom.



Karaka Pend is a philosopher by training and a FP junkie by passion. She blogs at Permissible Arms and has an abiding love for the Misfits. Images respectfully pulled from Foreign Policy and the NYT Lens Blog. Many thanks to Chicago Boyz for allowing me to contribute.

7 thoughts on “Back to the Future: Afghanistan in 2050”

  1. Well done, Karaka. The pictures are sobering. It reminds you of the stakes for some, doesn’t it?

    – Madhu

  2. Another well done from me.

    That said, I think your list of what is needed needs one thing at its head.

    The Pashtun Hill country was not where those pictures were taken, were they? Kabul and its surrounding valley is *not* the sum of Afghanistan. Even before the 1970’s coups the Girl Scouts did not operate in Konar, did they? The male culture that makes stoning, and other atrocities, easy there was and is strong. Economics, and legal reforms, and social intervention to create networks can help a lot. But without one thing, they will be smashed by those who want women at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy. What is it?

    Women trained and armed with projectile weapons. Maybe it’s 9mm pistols. Maybe it’s an updated rocket pistol that can be light and without the blast and recoil of a conventional weapon. Whatever the specifics, something in that line of training and arming is needed for women.

    Without that, honor killings will have no disincentive for the males. Without that, the isolation by kidnap of a woman by theologically justified “Tribal Elders” is easy. Why? Other women will have a too high a cost in defending a member of their network to do it regularly and promptly enough to be effective.

    Humans are a species of large obstreperous primates that change their behavior when the incentives get personal, and decisive for their own lives. In Afghanistan, farming in small villages keeps the majority of its people alive. The women there cannot be supported outside those villages for 3-4 generations. In small villages, defending women’s networks can only be done by those benefiting directly from the networks, because there likely will be no one else to do it.

    This tactic will take a bit of doing itself. Still, a standard part of moving into a valley should be training and arming the women, mostly by units modeled on the “Lioness” teams the Marines used in Iraq. All women, and all obviously highly competent at killing.

    My observations of decades ago showed the greatest negative for actually shooting a gun by women is the bang, flash, and recoil. That’s why I included the suggestion for a suppressor equipped rocket pistol as a standard. There’s plenty of time to develop one. We’ll be there quite long enough.

    It won’t solve everything, much less overnight. It *will* keep the women’s networks from being kicked to pieces in the hour after soldiers leave the valley.

  3. Tom, these pictures are definitely from and of Kabul. I thought about qualifying so at the beginning of the post, but felt it was an ancillary argument. Good point, though.

    I’ve read some thoughts on the arming of women, for many of the reasons you mention, and I have to say it unsettles me. Not because I don’t understand the idea, but because I think any path to empowerment that stems from an inherent positioning of violence is questionable at the least. I agree that there is a protectionist element involved in the idea, and that has some value, but I don’t think a violent offense is the best way to secure power in the long term. It just makes the women who are weaponized more of a threat, becoming both an existential expression of power and a very real one. Society, by which I mean powerful men, would both pursue hunt and kill missions without discrimination, and likely oppress and terrorize other women in retaliation. There has to be a better, more long-term method for securing the female population’s power.

  4. “… any path to empowerment that stems from an inherent positioning of violence is questionable at the least.”

    Wrong. The only question is why you don’t know the most basic facts about the historical struggle for freedom.

    Oppressors are defeated by armed force, or the latent threat of armed force.

    The medieval republics defeated their feudal oppressors with pikes and crossbows. The English cut their kings head off when he tried to strip away their freedom. The Americans went to war over a few pennies of taxation because they refused to submit to arbitrary rule. The French aristocracy kept its boot on the throat of the people until the people exploded and swept them away centuries of oppression in a few bloody years. The Tsar abolished serfdom because the serfs were burning down manor houses.

    The myth of nonviolent resistance cannot withstand a second of scrutiny. Gandhi and King succeeded because their oppressors knew that if the peaceable protest was quashed, a hurricane of violence would be unleashed. The Blacks in the American South succeeded in the civil rights struggle because they were increasingly able to obtain firearms.

    As to arming women, in America, concealed carry laws protect women better than the police could ever do. A would-be rapist may weigh 100 lbs more in pure muscle than his intended victim, but that is irrelevant is she has a gun. The would-be oppressor ends up a heap of inert, bleeding, screaming meat, prostrate on the cement, his spine severed by a 9mm bullet from she from the gun she was carrying her purse. That is freedom. Anything less, any submission to the attacker, is not freedom, it is slavery.

    Oppressors do not yield power unless there is a gun levelled at them, and even then they usually need to be shot down. Choosing to be an oppressor means you have chosen to run the risk of that bullet.

    Oppressed groups have a human right to possess lethal force to defend themselves. All empowerment is founded on the potential of using lethal force against actual or would-be oppressors.

    Claiming that arming the oppressed is bad because it might provoke the oppressor to worse behavior is craven and wrong. It is submitting to oppression, submitting to terrorism and conceding victory to the part most aggressively willing to use violence. The proper response to the reality or threat of oppression is resistance, up to and including lethal force is necessary.

    Afghan women are oppressed. They are murdered or mutilated for trying simply to live as human beings. They don’t need sympathy. They need pistols.

  5. Women’s suffrage wasn’t accomplished through violence against oppressors. Access to jobs and the privileges of working in the Western world did not come from riots but from necessity, and were retained through the normalization of the practice after World War II. Laws protecting the individual rights of women were not created after women blew the heads of those who violate, but through dogged persistence and the rationality of their arguments. You overstate the case for violence against the oppressor.

  6. Women’s suffrage in the United States was not accomplished by guns.

    But American women were not being honor-killed, kept in purdah, or having acid thrown in their faces if they tried to learn how to read in the United States.

    That is crushing, violent oppression. If it is not met by equal or greater force, it will persist.

    There is no analogy between American women, who inherited 2,000 years of Christianity and Germanic folkways and a thousand years of English law to the situation in Afghanistan. The cousin-marriage world of Afghanistan is from another planet. American women already had nearly full legal equality, by world standards, even at the time of the Revolution. Getting the vote was icing on the cake. The idea that American women faced oppression anything like slaves, or women in other countries where they are virtually chattels, is a self-congratulatory fantasy.

    Privileges of working people in America came through strikes or the potential for strikes, and the latent potential for worse violence if political accomodations were not made. See, e.g. Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence In America by Louis Adamic. Read about when the CIO unions took over plants in the USA, even when they had the law on their side. Lots of skulls got cracked. Lots of blood on the sidewalk and on the factory floor.

    Rational argument happens between equals. When a real, serious, committed oppressor sees that continued oppression will cost him pain, including if necessary pain from flying bullets, then you can have a rational conversation. Rational conversation is not the first resort between the powerless and the powerful.

    We do agree that any hope for Afghanistan to actually reform, actually improve and actually become a tolerable place to live is for Afghan women to escape from the oppression they suffer under.

    We differ on what means will be needed.

    One hopeful sign is the increase of female Afghan police. Afghan women + guns = some hope. More please. Faster please.

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