Early Conquests

Introduction of Islam

Various Empires

Beginnings of Afghanistan

Western Powers

Formation of Afghanistan


Soviet Occupation

Current Crisis


Many routes of the Silk Road crossed the Afghan area.



Until the beginning of the 19th century, Afghanistan's history was characterized by centuries of local resistance to various conquerors who marched through the area and by in-fighting among local leaders when there was no foreign power to oust. All these incursions have left their mark, either in archeological treasures or in cultural and religious influences.

Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in Afghanistan from as far back as 50,000 BCE The artifacts indicate that the indigenous people were small farmers and herdsmen, as they are today, very probably grouped into tribes, with small local kingdoms rising and falling through the ages.  



Early Conquests

The first of the conquerors who marched into Afghanistan was Darius the Great, who in 500 BCE expanded the Zoroastrian Achaemenid Empire as far east as the Kabul-Jalabad-Peshawar area. The modern Afghan solar calendar shows the influence of Zoroastrianism in the names of the months, which are familiar to us in the shape of the astrological year. The Dari/Pashto words for the month starting March 2, for example, is ‘ram,’ and for the month starting April 21 is ‘ox.’

Alexander the Great also marched through Afghanistan in 329 BCE, extending his own empire to the northernmost and easternmost parts. Alexander had to battle the local inhabitants for every bit of territory he gained control of. Afghanistan is "easy to march into, hard to march out of," he is said to have commented.

The next major incursion into the Afghan area was in the 1st century BCE The Kushans, a confederation of central Asian nomadic tribes, took Afghanistan from the Greeks and held power over the area for several centuries. Around this time, the Western world established cultural and economic ties with China, and many of the routes of the Silk Road ultimately ran through the Afghan area: Several overland routes ran from north of the Pamir Knot through the valleys of the Hindu Kush then westward into Persia, and a route from India to China ran through the Kabul area. The Silk Road carried Buddhism northward from India. One of the greatest cultural achievements of the Kushans was the carving in the third and fourth centuries CE of the world's largest Buddha figures –one of them 175 feet tall, the other 125 feet– in the sandstone cliffs close to present-day Bamiyan. (It was those statues that the Taliban blew up in 2001, amid much publicity, on the premise that as representations of the human form, they were offensive to Islam.)



Islam was introduced into Afghanistan in the seventh century.


Introduction of Islam

Islam was first brought into Afghanistan in the seventh century CE by Muslim Arabs who were remarkably successful in carrying their religion and cultural influence abroad. Within 100 years of the prophet Mohammed's death in 632, they had established a new Muslim empire that reached as far as Spain in the west and to central Asia and India in the east. Even the well-established Persians fell under the Muslim Arab influence, although the Arab Empire borrowed much from the Persians, in the same way that the Roman Empire was influenced by the conquered Greeks.



Genghis Khan marched through Afghanistan in 1220.


Various Empires

For the next several centuries, Afghanistan was under the power of one conqueror or another. Genghis Khan marched through Afghanistan in 1220, conquering (and destroying) as he went. After his death some local Afghan chiefs established independent principalities, while others remained under Mongol rule. This state of affairs continued until the end of the 14th century, when Tamerlane conquered a large part of the country and established Herat as his capital. Under Tamerlane's successors, the Timurids, the area prospered for the next century or so.

Early in the 16th century, Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, made Kabul the capital of an independent principality. Babur captured Kandahar in 1522 and in 1526 established the Moghul empire, which lasted until the middle of the 19th century and included all of eastern Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush. During the next 200 years Afghanistan was parceled between the Moghuls of India and the Safavids of Persia. The Moghuls held Kabul and the regions north, up to the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush, while the Safavids controlled Herat and Farah. Kandahar was for many years in dispute.



The Durrani Empire was second in size to the Ottoman Empire.


The Beginnings of Afghanistan as a Nation

In the meantime, native Afghan Pashtun tribes were beginning to gain power and exercise influence over increasing areas of the country. In the 18th century, one of these tribal confederations, the Durrani, was granted authority over their homelands around present-day Kandahar. Their leader, Ahmad Shah Durrani, formed a Muslim empire in the late 18th century that was second only to the Turks' Ottoman Empire. After Ahmad Shah's death, the empire was beset by rebellions on the part of local tribal chiefs, causing Ahmad Shah's son Timur to move the capital from Kandahar to Kabul in 1776.

Ahmad Shah's grandson Zaman seized the throne after his father's death in 1793. Zaman was interested in reestablishing power in India, but the British, who were well established in India by this time, persuaded the shah of Persia to divert Zaman's attention from India by threatening the western side of his empire. The shah obliged by furnishing Mahmud, governor of Herat and a brother of Zaman, with the resources to take over Kandahar. Mahmud took Kandahar and proceeded to Kabul. Zaman hurried back to Afghanistan in 1800 and was handed over to Mahmud, who blinded and imprisoned his brother.

This kind of struggle for power–tribe against tribe, family against family, brother against brother–characterizes the intertribal relationships among the Afghans, and continued as their territory became crucial to the interests of greater powers, most notably the czarist Russians in the north and the British in the south.  



The 19th Century Russians and British fought over Afghanistan.


Western Powers and the Great Game

The influence of the British in the local struggles for power after Ahmad Shah's death marked the beginning of Western interest in the Afghan territory. The British had established a strong holding in India in the 18th century, as part of its imperialist drive. At the same time, czarist Russia was in great need of warm water ports, and one of the possibilities considered was through India to the Indian Ocean, a route that involved Afghanistan. The resulting tension between Russia and Britain is referred to by historians as the Great Game, and was characterized by a morass of political alliances and maneuvering among the Western nations and equally convoluted maneuverings among those nations and the local powers.

From Afghanistan's point of view, the most relevant result of the Great Game was the series of wars that the British fought against the Afghan Pashtuns in hopes of keeping the Russians at arm's length. These wars, which were unpopular in Britain and occasioned much controversy among the British troops fighting them, ultimately failed: The Pashtuns retained control over their areas. The first of the wars lasted from 1839 to 1842 and the second from 1878 to 1880.  



Afghanistan's modern boundaries were established by foreign powers.


The Formation of Afghanistan as a Nation

At the end of the second war, Abdurrahman Khan, a Durrani Pashtun and a fine soldier who had learned military strategy from a British mentor, declared himself amir of Kabul, and over the next 10 years engaged in a series of skirmishes with tribal leaders, gaining control over area after area until he controlled almost all of modern Afghanistan.

Hemmed in by the Russians in the north, the British in the south, and Persia (which was protected by the Russians and British alike), Abdurrahman concentrated on establishing a single kingdom. To do so, he had to break the power still held by local khans and tribes, and he accomplished this in part by forced movements of enemy Pashtuns to non-Pashtun areas north of the Hindu Kush, where their descendents still live. Another of his strategies that divided the tribes was the establishment of provincial governorships, the boundaries of which did not coincide with tribal boundaries.

It was during Abdurrahman's reign that the modern boundaries of Afghanistan were established. In 1891, after much saber-rattling, the Russians and the British, with Abdurrahman as observer, agreed that the Amu Darya would form the boundary between Russia and the Afghan territory, leaving the fertile agricultural area between the river and the mountains in Afghan control. They also decided to include the Wakhan Corridor in Afghan territory, as a buffer between Russia and British India.

In 1893, the Durand Line was drawn to establish the spheres of interest between Afghanistan and British India. The line was named for Sir Mortimer Durand, who used subsidies and subtle threats to persuade a reluctant Abdurrahman to agree to the boundary. While the Durand Line was not originally intended as a physical boundary between Afghanistan and India, it ultimately became that and now forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  



A series of cautious and moderate governments brought political stability.


The Modernization of Afghanistan

Abdurrahman set the stage for an Afghan monarchy that was characterized by an interest in Western technology and attempts at modernization. Abdurrahman died in 1901 and was succeeded without warfare–a first in Afghan history– by his son Habibullah. Habibullah kept Afghanistan neutral during World War I but was murdered in 1919. Habibullah's favored son and successor, Amanullah, declared his nation fully independent from the British, prompting the third of the Anglo-Afghan wars, a half-hearted skirmish that ended in a peace treaty that recognized Afghan independence in August 1919.

In 1921, the Afghans concluded a treaty of friendship with the new Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union. Afghanistan thereby became one of the first nations to recognize the Soviet government, and a special relationship evolved between the two governments that lasted until December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Amanullah was open to European influence, and pushed for educational reform and the emancipation of women, proposals that infuriated the mullahs–Muslim religious leaders–and resulted in tribal revolts that led to the seizure of Kabul by the Tajik folk hero Bacha Saqqao and to Amanullah's abdication in 1929. Bacha Saqqao lasted nine months before he was overthrown by the Pashtun Mahammad Nadir Shah, who was declared king by the tribal army that had backed him.

Over the next 40 years, a series of cautious and moderate governments under the Afghan monarchy brought political stability to the country, and allowed it to make substantial strides toward modernization and national unity. Always, however, there was substantial resistance to any attempts at social change from the conservative religious elements of the society. While the monarchy was always Pashtun, it was the non-Pashtun, Dari-speaking Afghans who were more liberal, Western-looking influences in the country.

In 1931, the government drew up a constitution, an amalgamation of Turkish, Iranian, and French constitutions overlaid with aspects of the Hanafi shari'a (set of laws) of Sunni Islam. The constitution established a loya jirga (‘large meeting,’ or, in modern terms, parliament), a term used today in discussions of future governments in Afghanistan. The constitution left power in the hands of the monarchy, gave judiciary power to religious leaders, and created an economic framework that allowed free enterprise. A national economy developed in the 1930s under the leadership of several entrepreneurs who began small-scale industrial projects.

Nadir Shah was assassinated on Nov. 8, 1933, and the 19-year-old crown prince, Zahir, succeeded his father. The first 20 years of Zahir Shah's reign were characterized by cautious policies of national consolidation, an expansion of foreign relations, and internal development using Afghan funds alone. World War II brought about a slowdown in the development process. During the war, Afghanistan maintained its traditional neutrality.

Shah Mahmud, prime minister from 1946 to 1953, and head of the Liberal Parliament sanctioned free elections and a relatively free press. The country's conservatives and religious elements objected and supported the seizure of power in 1953 by Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud Khan, who became prime minister for the next 10 years.

In keeping with the agreement of 1921, Daud Khan turned to the Soviet Union for economic and military assistance. The Soviets ultimately became Afghanistan's major aid and trade partner, but shared the stage with the United States. The competition between the superpowers in aid of nonaligned Afghanistan benefited Afghanistan's infrastructure: Its roads and hydroelectric dam systems were in turn funded and directed by the Soviets and Americans. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviets also aided Afghanistan in developing ports on the Afghan side of the Amu Darya, opposite railheads on the Soviet side. Goods to and from Afghanistan were transported across the river by steamers and barges pulled by tugboats.

Among other reforms that Daud Khan successfully introduced was the inclusion of women in the labor force by allowing them to dispense with the veil if they wished and by abolishing the practice of secluding them from public view.

In 1964, the National Assembly approved a new constitution whose election policies (opening up a number of seats to direct election by the people) had the inadvertent effect of polarizing national politics. Daud Khan seized power in 1973 in a virtually bloodless coup. Leftist military officers and civil servants of the Banner party assisted in the overthrow. Daud Khan abolished the constitution of 1964 and established the Republic of Afghanistan, with himself as chairman of the Central Committee of the Republic and prime minister. The king Zahir Shah went into exile in Rome.



The Soviets occupied Afghanistan to prevent their Afghan clients from being
A period of anarchy followed the withdrawal of the Soviets.


The Soviet Occupation

The Banner and the leftist Khalq (‘Masses’) parties joined to form the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1977, and together they seized control of the government in 1978. But friction arose between the two factions, and by 1979 their Marxist reform programs had sparked major rebellions in the countryside. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prevent their Afghan clients from being overthrown, but in the war that followed, groups of Afghan mujaheddin were able to mount a successful guerrilla resistance. Millions of Afghan civilians fled into Pakistan and Iran to escape the destructive Soviet military campaigns against the insurgency. The guerrillas kept control of most of the countryside, and the Soviet troops held the cities and those areas near local garrisons.

The United States supported the Afghan rebels, pouring supplies and weapons into the country via Pakistan. U.S.-made Stingers, hand-held antiaircraft missiles, were a key factor in driving the Soviets out. Until the United States equipped the rebels with Stingers, they had been unable to counter air attacks.

The struggle against the Soviets, which was styled a jihad, or religious war, by the Afghan rebels, attracted conservative Muslims to the Afghan cause. One of those was the Saudi Arab Osama bin Laden, who went to Afghanistan in 1979 to join the Afghan resistance. While in Afghanistan, bin Laden founded the Maktab al-Khidimat (MAK), which recruited fighters from around the world and imported equipment to aid the Afghan resistance against the Soviet army.

After years of futile effort, the Soviet Union withdrew its 100,000 troops from Afghanistan from May 1988 to February 1989. Once the Soviets had left the country, the United States withdrew as well, leaving Afghanistan to its own devices. The civil war continued between the guerrilla soldiers and the government, which was still communist. In April 1992, several rebel factions succeeded in capturing Kabul, overthrowing the communist government, and establishing a provisional Islamic republic headed by the Tajik northerner Bernahuddin Rabbani. Rival rebel groups fought among themselves, however, and the civil war continued.

A period of anarchy ensued, during which the government was powerless, and the rival groups seized anything of value in the country to pay and supply the troops with which they jockeyed for power. The economy was in a shambles, and the situation became so bad in the cities that it was dangerous to venture out into the streets, particularly for women.  



The Taliban gained popular support because of their ability to restore civil order after the chaos of preceding years.


The Current Crisis

The Taliban developed in religious schools in Pakistan. (Talib is the Arabic/Persian/Pashto word for ‘student’; -an is the Dari/Pashto masculine plural.) They were mostly Pashtuns, young and poorly educated; many had lost their fathers and uncles in the struggle against the Soviets. They fought off rival mujaheddin and other warlords, and went on to take the city of Kandahar, beginning a successful campaign that ended with their capture of Kabul in September 1996. Their success was largely due to their popular support, gained as a result of their ability to restore civil order after the chaos of the preceding years.

The Taliban restored order by imposing extreme interpretations of Islamic law, with severe restrictions on the activities of women; measures were enforced with public floggings and stoning. Their extreme measures alienated most of the world. Only Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban government, while the rest of the world continued to recognize the Rabbani government, although by then it controlled little of the country.

In 1996, the Taliban extended safe haven to Osama bin Laden, who had returned to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal to work in the family construction business. (He had earlier been given refuge by Haji Qadeer of the Northern Alliance in 1994.) After being expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991 because of his antigovernment activities, he moved to Sudan and was expelled from that country as well. From Afghanistan, bin Laden called for a jihad against the United States

Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by bin Laden, has been identified as the organization behind terrorist acts against the United States, the most recent being the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The United States demanded the surrender of Bin Laden for his part in 9/11, but the Taliban refused to give him up, claiming that Pashtunwali (specifically their concept of hospitality and the responsibility of a host to protect a guest) did not allow them to. In the recent conflict, the Taliban’s fighting force was decimated by pro-American fighters and their rule ended. A provisional government has been established, and the country is tentatively beginning, once again, to rebuild.   



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