Architecture and Crafts Against the Soviet and U.S. Invasions of Afghanistan



We begin with a literal understanding of the notion of insurgent architectures: those erected by Afghan militants against the invasions of the Soviet Union in 1979 and the United States in 2001. Feda Wardak also describes the regional transmission of building crafts as fundamental anti-imperial practices too.

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Rohani Wardak, Amin Wardak, and Mustapha Wardak, three brothers who led the resistance for 12 years in Wardak Province, then in Ghazni and Kabul (early 1980s)

At the crossroads of great Empires, Afghanistan has long remained sealed to foreign invasions. The country was late unified, often coveted, sometimes dominated but never colonized by various colonial powers, some which nevertheless have amputated part of its territory. Since the creation of the Pashtun State in 1747, various Afghan tribes and ethnic groups have expressed the shared objective to secure their territory and make it independent from their neighbors (mainly Persia and colonized India). For over two centuries, the series of conflicts have never left sufficient time for the central power to implement its ambitions in terms of structuring a centralized modern state. Often, the desire of political elites to import modernity from abroad has been violently confronted with local realities. This has translated into the emergence of resistance processes embodied by various Afghan communities in order to preserve the social, spatial, and cultural identity of their microcosms. This resistance has manifested through strategies of urban guerrilla and the introduction of insurrectional architectures intended to preserve local heritage in peril. Better grasping these resistance mechanisms requires us to put them in perspective with the intentions to modernize the Herat-Kandahar-Kabul road, which will be used as colonial infrastructure by the various invaders of Afghanistan.

The Herat-Kandahar-Kabul Road and Spatiotemporal Contextualizing of the War Against the Soviet Union ///

At the beginning of the 20th century, Afghanistan — a landlocked territory — attempts to open up to the ‘modern’ world, whose influences were already starting to penetrate the country. This great discrepancy between customs disturbs the central power that precipitates the implementation of certain reforms directly inspired from the societies of European colonial powers. Ulamas, the theologists of Islam, as well as some tribe leaders from zones located near Pakistan refuse the imposition of customs changes — that they deem radical enough to put in peril their cultural identity and the spaces they practice within. So they revolt. The British Empire decides to support the rebellion in order to stabilize their positions in the region, and in turn the Afghan Kingdom’s ambitions goes up in smoke. Thereafter, patience will be the privileged path of action for implementing new reforms, given the ambivalence between the ruling class who continues to strive after a foreign culture, and the population who is fixed in what they know.

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Spina Kala is the symbol and rear base of Jaghatu district resistance. Built in the early 20th century, it was burned and destroyed several times by the various leaders of central power who have never managed to seize power in these remote areas. It has been rebuilt in a traditional way by local artisans (1979).

However, in 1953, Mohammed Daoud Khan becomes Prime Minister in a coup. He is moved by the desire to give new momentum to the country and address two main issues: the Pashtunistan (the Pashtuns’ land) question and that of the country’s development. In 1947, the creation of Pakistan confirms the contour of the Durand line established by the British, separating Afghan Pashtuns from their Pakistani brothers despite their simultaneous demand for unification in a single Pashtunistan. Daoud Khan — himself a Pashtu — hears their claim and grants the Pathans diplomatic and military support. But Pakistan retaliates by blocking the road to Karachi, an axis supporting over seventy-five percent of all Afghan trade. This diplomatic and commercial split marks the beginning of an Afghan crisis that will force Prime Minister Daoud Khan to step down in 1963.

Afghanistan then turns to the USSR for economic assistance. In the context of intense Cold War-induced tensions, the U.S. also intervenes out of fear of losing strategic ground in the region. A substantial amount of infrastructure is built by experts from both competing powers on the Afghan territory, including airports and roads, forming important strategic investments. For the Kingdom and its rulers, tarring this ancestral road and optimizing it constitutes an asset to strengthen their control on rural areas. Finally, the development so ardently wished by the kings at the beginning of the twentieth century is happening. However, self-blinded by the desire to imitate a development model imported by western powers, the central power ends up unwittingly allowing the development of infrastructure that will serve future invasions.

This is confirmed in 1973, when Daoud Khan seizes power again in a new coup. He becomes the first ever President of the Republic of Afghanistan, while communist influence grows exponentially in Kabul. Daoud Khan turns a wary back on the USSR while they provide military and economic support to Afghan communists, who end up assassinating the President and taking power in 1978. It is worth noting that in spite of regimes changes in Afghanistan, the will to make all tribes dependent on a single central power remains. Indeed, the new power in place once again has the ambition to implement reforms, in order to make tribal areas evolve towards a socialist society dependent on national policy. This translates into the introduction of agrarian reforms and a secular model applicable to all Afghan provinces. The reaction did not take long to come, as uprisings surface all over the country. Afghan populations demonstrate their strong refusal at the prospect of their social and political organizations being assimilated into what they consider a foreign culture. The Afghan communists were overtaken by these events and requested support from the USSR. Operation ‘’Storm 333’’ is launched on the night of the December 27, 1979, when 100,000 Soviet soldiers enter Afghanistan.

Architectures of War Resistance in the Face of 1979 and 2001 Invasions ///

Fairly quickly, the Soviet army stabilizes the Afghan government’s positions in the big cities as well as on the main roads that connect them. Nevertheless, they had great difficulty in penetrating remote rural areas, mountainous tribal areas, and in changing the customary systems of these regions. Tribal leaders feel both insulted and colonized, thus Djiras (assemblies of sages) start to emerge across the country. Afghans decide to undertake total revolution. This is the beginning of the jihad. Rural and tribal regions become the rear base for the resistance while the roads embody the frontline.

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Entrance to a tunnel dug by the mujahideen. In the background, Amin Wardak in full reading (early 1980s)

This road crosses the Wardak province, south of Kabul. There, tribal leaders decide to devise a strategy of resistance and train combatants. They study the books recounting the urban, architectural and military systems invented in Algeria, Viet Nam, and Palestine to resist colonial powers. Volunteer soldiers become resistance fighters. Each of them receives a general training from more experienced mujahideen before specializing in one area of combat. Some are oriented towards handling anti-air heavy weapons, some make up urban guerrilla units for combat in cities, while others form small mobile groups, each a dozen-men-strong, to set up ambushes on the road, attack Soviet convoys and sabotage enemy colonial and military infrastructures.

Simultaneous to this, the mujahideen had conceived of a spatial resistance embodied in architectural, urban and landscape systems. While visiting Europe to raise awareness regarding the Afghan resistance cause, Amin Wardak, then head of the resistance in the Wardak province, takes inspiration from the Parisian subway, and compares it with the tunnels of C Chi used by Viet Cong combatants. Upon returning to Jaghatu district within the Wardak province, he decides to divert the functional use of karez. Karez forms a millennial underground water supply network connecting tunnels under agricultural lands in villages, to water tables resting under the mountains. This irrigation system built to water the land will become a crucial resistance tool.

Two to three years after the Soviet invasion, the mujahideen came to understand that this war would be a long one and that it would be necessary to implement a long-term resistance strategy. Amongst others, this translated into the construction of markaz (fixed bases) on the summits of the valley. These anti-aircraft systems created by the resistance threatened the Soviet military air force

enough so that they could no longer fly at low-altitudes anymore. This caused airstrikes to lack precision and only very rarely hit the resistance.

To access these fixed bases, tunnels were dug over several hundreds meters with spaces to store the ammunition, treat the wounded and withdraw in case of attacks. The bases were discreet, well-protected and set at a distance of 15 to 20 miles apart. Hence these troglodyte structures, in addition to the tunnels, allowed the resistance to form control lines in the valley. Very quickly, these underground networks were highly protected, renovated and developed by the resistance. Ammunition stores were built underground by digging new galleries or expanding old ones. To achieve this, four to five people were required to work, generally at night, for about six months. The mujahideen often were former peasants. They knew how to work the land, mastered stone cutting, and were experts in soil composition. The equivalent of thirty truckloads of ammunition could fit into these underground chambers. The excavated soil was swiftly removed and taken somewhere else to avoid suspicion. They often created a new farmland on the surface, supplied with water from a karez, in order to pass the activity off as an agricultural one. Effort was thus optimized and this method ensured that military resistance would also benefit civil society. Only the group who was digging the gallery would know about the ammunition store location and they would be the ones dealing with the supply in the future. About thirty such depots existed in Wardak province; hence the resistance never lacked ammunition in case of a sudden attack.

While trying to stabilize their positions in the rural areas of the country, the mujahideen also developed urban guerrilla tactics in the cities. In Wardak province, they aimed to shake up the Soviets after bombings in thereafter-empty Ghazni. Similarly to what had been done in rural areas, they developed an underground strategy, making use of the wells in abandoned houses as transit and communication routes. These were sometimes several miles long and allowed them to approach enemy positions unnoticed. Half the city was thus under the control of the resistance, which nevertheless comprised of different groups with their own control zone. They learned to coordinate collectively against their common enemy by using the underground channels. Each group had guides for underground and surface movements. While the Soviet technology granted them great intelligence efficiency resulting in heavy and precise military interventions, the mujahideen decided to leave them a certain degree of control over the surface and in the air, while anchoring a resistance of attrition down in the tunnels and abandoned houses. The mujahideen also set up antipersonnel mines near Soviet bases in order to threaten enemy positions and preserve their own.

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The Mujahideen watch the valley from the fixed bases. Poetry and singing accompany their day. / Photo by Pascal Pugin (1988).

Failing to truly affect the resistance and feeling harassed, the Soviets decided to conduct very aggressive interventions in rural areas on civilians. Their intention was to hit the resistance at the root and drive rural populations away so as to deprive the mujahideen of their support base. During these intense raids, the resistance would withdraw within the infrastructure they had implemented and weather the storm. From then on, the Afghan resistance devised a counter-strategy aimed at stabilizing local population by protecting their local cultural identity. They built and preserved infrastructures, architectures, and production spaces. Drawing from the tradition of collective construction, they set up agricultural cooperatives, rebuilt schools and micro-clinics to care for the wounded.

In the face of this reaction, the response from the Soviets was not long awaited. They decided to arm and fund Afghan militias gifted with great knowledge of the territory. This Soviet-fueled fratricide conflict would lead to archaic and authoritarians power takeovers following the mujahideens’ victory in 1992. Though the Soviets withdrew, they retained certain political authority over the country through their connection with warlords who would trigger the Afghan civil war from 1992 until 1995. Most mujahideens refused to partake in this conflict and returned to their autonomous territories. On the Herat-Kandahar-Kabul road, ruins have replaced the colonial infrastructure.

Architectures of Cultural and Artisanal Resistance Against Neocolonialism ///

Slightly over 20 years after the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan is invaded once again. This time, the U.S. are undertaking their “War on Terror.” In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, drones were sent on location-tracking missions on Afghan territory. The U.S. army is well aware that guerrilla warfare has often been a thorn in the side of great powers. Rather than face the enemy head-on, the insurgents make themselves invisible, strike and disappear. The U.S. army understands the subtlety of this strategy and reverses theirs. They themselves become invisible and deprive the Afghans of an enemy. The rebels don’t have a target anymore and their struggle becomes impossible. The weeks and months following this invasion are marked by terrible bombings that mentally and physically break the Taliban regime.

This has cleared the way the U.S. to find positions on the ground. Very quickly, they understand how crucial the Herat-Kandahar-Kabul road is for the deployment of troops. It is the country’s backbone, connecting Iran to Pakistan and the North to the South through Kabul, hence George W. Bush invests the necessary means to re-tar the road.

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Government-funded businesses and their colonial architecture made of concrete are abandoned and unexploited.

However, the U.S. bombings continue to massacre part of the civilian population in rural and tribal areas. This creates a strong sentiment of rage amongst the younger generation, one that is turned towards both the invader and the central authority. A few years after the airstrikes, groups grow stronger and form an opposition to the U.S. and the Afghan army.

When the invader builds military bases to protect the road, the armed opposition counters with guerilla tactics to attack them. When the invader establishes checkpoints and mobile convoys in response to the guerillas, the armed opposition counters by digging tunnels under the roads at night to set up mines. When the invader calls on metal detection technologies, the armed opposition counters by using plastic jerricans to go around the metal detectors. When the invader surrounds itself with mine detection dogs, the armed opposition counters by spreading spices on the road to mislead their sense of smell. When the invader fills the sky with dirigible balloons full of cameras and detectors aimed at controlling and locating the enemy, the armed opposition counters by retreating, diverting, and adapting abandoned architectures along the road in order to prepare for future attacks. When the invader uses drones to target and bomb insurrectional architectures, the armed opposition counters by melting into civil society…

As a result, the civilian population suffers the collateral damage of clashes between an

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Vernacular architecture resists even during new constructions

Afghan army exploited by a foreign coalition and a heterogeneous armed opposition, some of whose groups are financed by foreign powers. In this context, old mujahideen become known as “grey beards” (the wise ones) and help conceive new forms of resistance. This time, the days of armed combat give way to knowledge transmission and local heritage preservation. 40 years of conflict have considerably impacted the spatial and cultural identity of the various microcosms that make up the Afghan ethnic mosaic. The last craftspeople with ancestral know-how regarding crafts, arts, and architecture are over 60 years old and were trained prior to the Soviet invasion. While the armed opposition makes use of military crafts on the frontline, the civil society in the Jaghatu district organizes to protect its local heritage. This translates into the renovation and implementation of architectures in order to preserve local knowledge and thus maintain heritage and cultural identity in the face of various forms of colonialism.

In the Jaghatu district, the air raids and attacks from the U.S. army have caused substantial damage to traditional infrastructure and architecture related to agriculture and water. Due to agriculture being the main activity in the district, consequences rest heavily on the balance of around a hundred villages making up this tribal microcosm. Bombings have caused many karez to collapse, denying the villages their access to water and leading up to very harsh droughts. The appearance of new players in the conflict along with socio-natural disasters cause an exodus from the Jaghatu district. So the wise ones decide to react. While Afghan cities are under growing influence from the capitalist system, elders from the Jaghatu district organize and respond by achar. Achar is an ancient societal system articulated around collective actions based on traditional non-mercantile processes. When a member of the community asks for an achar, the neighboring villages are told about a set date. Each family appoints one man as a representative to take part in the collective work. At the end of the day, the family who has requested the achar prepares and offers a huge meal. This duty of solidarity exists without involving any monetary transaction of any type.

The first collective actions undertaken revolve around the reinstatement of the karez that was used by the mujahideen during the resistance. The structures are cleared, strengthened and stabilized with the help of karezkan (gallery diggers) and mirab (the prince of water) who is in charge of equal water distribution across the valley. Water flowed again in villages. Desiccated fields are plowed and made fertile. Populations break free from the use of pesticides, which was implemented by foreign troops. Villagers dig reservoir basins in order to create water pockets both for storing resources and allowing fauna and flora development to avoid potential future droughts. Local wood species are planted around the basins to prevent water evaporation and allow trees to grow in order to rebuild stable wood supply. These collective actions have direct impact as evidenced by the substantial harvests made in the months following the interventions.

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Stabilization of the banks to plant local wood species to set up a plant for the next generation. The goal is to continue to build earth and wood. / Both photos by Feda Wardak (2012 & 2015).

In the last few years, a certain amount of schools have been destroyed by conflict and forbidden from reconstruction by the armed opposition. Hence, some sages and religious figures from the region have risen up against the armed opposition, which has resulted in their imprisonment or disappearance. For locals, this is a testimony to the influence certain foreign powers maintain on these armed groups, as instability and loss of culture remain driving factors to better control populations.
Still, there exists a central high school in the district, built by the Afghan government after the U.S. invasion. But its concrete and metal structure is totally unsuited to the local climate. Later, its metal framework was ripped off during a bombing and its façade riddled with bullet impacts. The students can no longer receive a decent education in this building.

In this context, several craftspeople have discreetly united around the mission to preserve their invisible heritage, that of ancestral know-how related to woodwork, weaving, ceramics and more. They argue that their ancestral expertise has played a major role in rehabilitating a certain amount of infrastructures. Confronted with a true rupture in knowledge transfer, induced by the conflict and its players impeding the implementation of educational and pedagogical structures, the elders fear that their work and its symbolism will die with them. They fear that their disappearance entails the extinction of a whole collective memory, for the benefit of a foreign culture.

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Traditional well construction process with karezkan (tunnel digger) to unclog a karez that collapsed during shelling. / Photo by Feda Wardak (2015).

Thus, a new process is being put in place, pushing for the construction of heritage and know-how schools in order to transmit professions to younger generations who are deprived from future opportunities and who sometimes give in to enrolment. Tribal leaders, grey beards and craftspeople carry these architectures within them, as manifestations of Afghan know-how. They claim to be insurrectionary objects whose purpose is to preserve the local cultural, social, spatial identity against the invader and for future generations.