The current troubling events in Afghanistan brings to mind the bond that the University of Wyoming once enjoyed with that country.
Under George “Duke” Humphrey – UW’s president from 1945 to 1964 – the university began developing international programs to aid in its academic and scholarly expansion. One of the first programs to provide international student and faculty exchanges involved the U.S. State Department’s Agency in International Development (USAID) and the Royal Government of Afghanistan. At that time Afghanistan was a monarchy ruled by King Mohammed Zahir Shah.
During the 1950s and 60s, Afghanistan’s government was quite outwardly facing, making strides toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle. In fact, at Zahir Shah’s behest a new constitution was introduced in 1964 which made Afghanistan a modern democratic state by introducing free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights, and universal suffrage. His wife, Queen Humaria Begum, created the Women’s Welfare Association in 1946, which was the first-ever women’s institute in Afghanistan. Afghan women were able to wear pencil skirts if they liked, attend school with no problems, and mix freely with men. They did not require a male guardian to travel.
USAID chose the University of Wyoming to consult in Afghanistan due in part to physical similarities of the two places—high, dry, mountainous, and never easy to farm.
The agreement initiating UW’s involvement in Afghanistan was signed in 1953, the program was underway by 1956, and the first nine Afghan students—the original class—graduated from Kabul University in 1959 with B.S. degrees in agriculture. The program included exchanges as well; male Afghan agriculture students studied on the Laramie campus during these years.
More than 30 UW professors spent varying amounts of time in Afghanistan. It wasn’t always easy. There were conflicts, UW historian Deborah Hardy notes, over personnel and staffing, there were housing and communications difficulties, and the underlying mission of the program was often unclear. “Politics, too, intervened,” she writes in her history of UW, without elaborating further. “Few complained,” she notes, “although conditions were far from ideal.” She explained further that the UW program “surged and wobbled” and finally was phased out in 1973.
A high point came in September 1963, when President Humphrey and a cohort of Afghan exchange students welcomed Queen Humaira and King Zahir Shah to Laramie. Here are photographic highlights from that visit. Additional images from the visit can be found at the American Heritage Center.
Some months after the royal couple left, a UPI story in the Casper Star-Tribune noted that two Wyoming state troopers, Sgt. J.D. Maxted of Laramie and Lt. A.D. Reese of Cheyenne, had received solid gold medals of honor, the “highest awards given civilians by the government of Afghanistan,” from the king for “services rendered.” Perhaps the troopers had acted as security for the royals when they were here.
Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1973, which may explain why the UW-Afghan partnership ended at that time. He had reigned since 1933, making him longest serving ruler of the country since the 18th century. In late December 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, beginning decades of conflict that continue today.
The American Heritage Center houses a number of collections pertaining to UW’s Afghanistan mission. They include the papers of F. Paul Baxter, Robert D. Burman, Dale and Muriel Fritz, Gerald A. Nielsen, Wilhelm G. Solheim, Grace Willard, and the University of Wyoming President’s Office records.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener. Thanks to Tom Rea and Rebecca Hein of WyoHistory for text included in this post.