He could be known as “the Johnny Appleseed” of Afghanistan. Dr. Abdul Wakil, an agronomist and agriculture minister, led projects in the Helmand River Valley in the 1950s and 60s. He moved Afghan farming into the 20th Century with mechanization and seed types that remain a mainstay. A new book co-authored by USIP Afghanistan Country Representative Shahmahmood Miakhel tells the story of Wakil and 26 other Afghans who worked peacefully for the country’s benefit over two centuries.

drawn portraits
Sketch: Mahmad Shah Bahram; Photo Illustration: Casey Garret Johnson

Wakil is the kind of historical figure about whom a whole generation of Afghans know nothing, Miakhel said. Young people growing up through 35 years of war largely believe the country is based on “killing each other,” ignorant of those who worked peacefully to build and develop the nation.

“The average Afghan remembers individuals who have not received much attention from the government or the ‘official’ history.” -- Abdul Qayum Meshwani, co-author of Architects of Afghanistan.

To shine a light on a better history in Afghanistan – and help point the way to a healthier future – Miakhel wrote Architects of Afghanistan as part of USIP’s initiatives to counter violent extremism. With co-author Abdul Qayum Meshwani, the book tells the stories of 27 often-overlooked Afghans who contributed to the country’s positive evolution over 200 years. They include United Nations envoys, agronomists and civil servants.  

Focusing on history often becomes a source of conflict for Afghans, said Assadullah Ghazanfar, the cultural advisor to President Ashraf Ghani. Ghazanfar spoke at the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul during an Aug. 9 event organized by USIP to introduce the book.

“But history should instruct our future,” Ghazanfar told about 100 academics, journalists and government officials who attended the program. “This book, and its examples of how citizens worked together to build Afghanistan, instructs our future.” 

Wakil, who died in 2000, presents a powerful counter-narrative in Afghan history to the former military leaders whose pictures are often plastered to car windows. In the villages, it is Wakil, born in 1923, who is remembered and revered in particular for seed varieties he introduced that grew into the peach, apple and other orchard crops grown today throughout Afghanistan and that serve as vital source of cash sales. Americans are familiar with a similar figure – Johnny Appleseed, the nickname for Jonathan Chapman, a nurseryman in the early 1800s who planted orchards and individual apple trees across the U.S. Midwest. 

Other figures featured in the book include Ghulam Rasool Parmach, who was governor of Balkh province in 1957 and played an important role in building the city structure of Mazar-e-Sharif, and Faiz Mohammad Khan, the governor of Khost province in 1955, who designed Khost city and built most of the roads and several gardens in the province.

Meshwani, an independent scholar and member of Afghanistan’s Academy of Sciences, said the book is as much a tool to help fight corruption as it is a history text.

“We want this book to send a clear message to our current leaders, especially those in the government, that if they work for the people of this country and not just themselves, they will be remembered for ages,” he said.

Field research for the book was conducted during the winter and spring of 2015, with Meshwani and an assistant travelling to Afghan villages far and wide to uncover the stories of the people who shaped the country. 

“When I first began this project, I was puzzled by the gap between the official history taught in schools and in our books, and the types of people that everyday Afghans were telling me made an impact on them,” Meshwani said. “By and large the average Afghan remembers individuals who have not received much attention from the government or the ‘official’ history. These are the individuals who have made great sacrifices for the common people.”

The next book, Miakhel said, will look at the unsung Afghan women who have helped rebuild the nation since 2001.

“The great thing about this book is that it has started a dialogue about what it means to be an important Afghan,” Miakhel said. “At the launch, we received great ideas about other Afghans who have worked for the peace and prosperity of this country but have been overlooked.”

The first edition of Architects of Afghanistan, 4,000 Pashtu and Dari copies, is now being distributed to government libraries in all 34 provinces.

Casey Garret Johnson is a senior program officer and Ahmidullah Archiwal a senior project manager in USIP’s Kabul office.

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