by Dr. James M. Beard
Afghanistan is located in South Central Asia on the routes connecting many of the ancient and medieval civilizations. Because it occupied the area just to the east of the Himalayas, warriors, traders and missionaries could move through the high passes and valleys of Afghanistan between such places as Russia and India, or China and the Middle East and Europe. Until the advent of large scale ocean commerce, the routes through Afghanistan were important for trade and cultural exchange.
Afghanistan is a mountainous country with the Hindu Kush Mountains running from the Northeast across the center of the country. High mountains also run along the eastern edge of the country forming the border with Pakistan. In these mountains is the world famous Khyber Pass. Most of the population of Afghanistan lives in valley areas which make a roughly circular path around the outside of the country. Because of the many mountainous areas, it has been difficult for outside armies to conquer Afghanistan; the tribesmen could simply retreat into the hills and mountains. On the other hand, Afghanistan has been difficult to govern because the various tribes and sub-tribal groups were fiercely independent and thus found cooperation difficult.
The ethnic makeup of Afghanistan includes at least four major tribal groups plus a number of smaller groups. By far the largest group is the Pashtuns who make up roughly 40% of the population. These people, who live mainly in the southern part of the country, speak a language related to Persian and have historical and ethnic ties to the tribes in Pakistan. The other major tribes come from the central or northern parts of the country. The Tajiks and the Uzbeks come from north of the Hindu Kush, but the Tajiks, who constitute the second largest ethnic group, have spread south across the Hindu Kush as far south as Kabul. The Hazaras are found in the central mountainous part of the country. Obviously, Afghanistan is made up of many diverse groups. This was not necessarily a political disadvantage in ancient times, when Empires often dominated many ethnic groups, but it has proven a serious problem in the modern age of nation-states.
Aryan people from Central Asia probably entered the area of Afghanistan sometime around 2000 B.C.E. Over the next 2500 years a number of invaders entered this mountainous region, including the Persians, Medians, Mauryans, Bactrains, and the Greeks. The most well known invader was Alexander the Great, whose armies moved across most of what is currently known as Afghanistan in the 4 th Century B.C.E.
One of the most significant invasions occurred in 642 C.E. when Arab armies swept in from the west. These armies introduced Islam to Afghanistan. The Islamic religion was probably introduced quickly in a forceful manner in the valleys and urban centers; however, the mountain people converted to Islam on their own over a long period of time. Over the next six centuries, Afghanistan was part of various Islamic Empires and Islam shaped its culture.
In 1221 Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies swept out of central Asia and inflicted massive death and destruction across Afghanistan. The Mongols destroyed the urban centers and much of the valley agriculture. The Mongols, however, had less success in controlling the tribesmen in the mountains, and some of these tribes were never completely subdued. In time the Mongol menace lost its hold and the Afghans came back out of the hills. Many of the descendents of the Mongols remained, principally in the central highlands of the Hindu Kush and are the group we know today as the Hazaras.
During the next 500 years Afghanistan once again was ruled by a series of empires. In 1747, following the assassination of the Persian Ruler who controlled Afghanistan, the first Tribal Council or Loya Jirga was held. Ahmed Khan, from a small sub-tribe, was elected as King. When he was crowned, he was given the name Ahmed Shah Durr-i-Durran, but he was generally known as Ahmed Shah Durrani. Durrani stepped into a power vacuum in the area and managed to conquer a small empire that included all of what is now Afghanistan. Many consider Ahmed Shah Durrani the founder of the Afghan nation.
In the early part of the 19 th century two of the major players on the world stage were Britain and Russia. By the 1830s Afghanistan found itself situated between the Russian Empire and British India. Britain was anxious to prevent a Russian threat to India through Afghan territory. In 1839 Britain sent an army into Afghanistan to control the country and keep an eye on any Russian movements. Although the British were in charge for a while, the situation rapidly deteriorated, and eventually the British Army was overwhelmed and force to retreat. During that retreat the army was picked apart by Afghan fighters descending from the hills and mountain. Only one member of the British Army made it out alive, which made this one of the worst defeats in British military history.
The British still felt a need to control Afghanistan and, in addition, wanted revenge for their humiliating loss at the hand of the Afghan fighters. The second Anglo-Afghan war was fought between 1878 and 1880. Although it wasn't an easy victory, the British were able to assert control over Afghan foreign policy. This situation continued until King Amanullah Khan, whose father had been assassinated for being too pro-British, led a broad rebellion against the British in 1919. Having just fought through the Great War (World War I), Britain was exhausted and facing a movement for independence in India. Therefore, the British granted Afghan their demands and gave them complete independence. Afghanistan considers the date of the signing of the treaty, August 19, 1919, as their independence day.
King Amanullah felt that Afghanistan should be more involved on the world stage. He established diplomatic relations with many countries, especially the Soviet Union, Turkey, and Iran, and he traveled extensively. He came to the conclusion that major reforms were necessary if Afghanistan were to play any significant role in world politics. In 1923 he promulgated a Constitution, which was followed by educational reforms and efforts to modernize the economy. However, many of the reforms were more than the conservative religious and tribal elements of his country were ready to accept. This situation, along with King Amanullah's opulent and Western lifestyle, led to a major rebellion in 1928, and King Amanullah was forced to abdicate in 1929. After a short period of chaos, he was replaced by a cousin, Nadir Shah.
King Nadir Shah also was interested in the modernization of Afghanistan, but as a consequence of King Amamullah's experience he tried a more gradual approach to reform. Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933 and was succeeded by his son, Zahir Shah. King Zahir Shah continued the reform movement and in 1964 developed a democratic constitution. In spite of his work on reforms, he was charged with corruption while on a trip to Italy and was forced to give up the throne. Zahir Shah remained in exile in Italy until recently, when he returned to Afghanistan.
Zahir Shah's overthrow was engineered by Mohammed Daoud Khan, a former Prime Minister and both cousin and brother-in-law to the King. Daoud Khan abolished the monarchy, set up a republic and made himself President and Prime Minister. His coup was carried out partly with the support of the Communists in Afghanistan, but he very quickly came to distrust them and began to move the Communists out of government positions. Daoud managed to make many enemies including the Communists and in 1978 the Communists, known as the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), took power in a bloody coup. Daoud and all of his family were killed.
The new government very quickly instituted Communist style reforms across the country. The government had some success in the urban areas, but met with immediate resistance in the rural areas, especially among Islamic conservatives. The situation began to deteriorate to the point that the Soviet Union felt compelled to intervene to prevent the collapse of the Afghan Communist regime. A Soviet invasion in late 1979 provoked armed opposition from the Afghan populace. The resistance took on Islamic religious overtones and received covert aid from both the U.S. and China. These Afghan resistance fighters became known as the mujahideen or "soldiers of God." The conflict between the Mujahideen and the Afghan and Soviet armies developed into a long and bloody war. Eventually, as the government in Moscow changed and the cost of the operation in lives and money increased, the Soviets withdrew in 1989; without their support, the Communist government finally fell in 1992.
Once the common enemy was gone, the various tribal groups began to fight against each other, as they often had during Afghanistan's history. This sometimes bloody internecine fighting continued for roughly six years. After nearly 18 years of fighting against the Soviets and against each other, the people became weary of war and the general chaos in the society. Ultimately the Taliban, an extremely rigid Islamic religious party, took control. They were welcomed by many at first because they were able to bring order to the society, which was then near collapse. In time, however, it became clear that the Taliban had a medieval, extremely repressive view of Islam. The Taliban never took control of the entire country, as about 10% of the country in the northeast was under the control of a group known as the Northern Alliance. Part of this division was ethnic in origin, as the Taliban was mainly Pashtun and the Northern Alliance was mostly Tajik and Uzbek, but it also reflected differing views on the nature of Islam and its role in society.
The Taliban was friendly to other extremist Islamic groups including the terrorist group, Al Qaeda. When this group managed to fly three planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, everything changed. The United States, with U.N. support, demanded that the Taliban turn over the leaders of Al Qaeda, and when they refused, military operations were initiated. The easiest way to oust the Taliban was to throw support behind the Northern Alliance. At first, this support was implemented by sending supplies and military advisers and providing air support. Eventually, troops, both from United States and Britain were committed to the campaign and the Taliban fell fairly quickly. However, after the fall of the Taliban, troops were needed on a continued basis because of pockets of resistance and the continued guerilla warfare tactics of Taliban and Al Qaeda sympathizers.
After the fall of the Taliban, initial Afghan leadership was chosen at a United Nations-sponsored meeting of various tribal leaders in Bonn, Germany. A Pashtun by the name of Hamid Karzai was selected to lead the interim government. This selection was reaffirmed six months later by a Loya Jirga called by former King Zahir Shah. Finally in October of 2004 Karzai was elected president of Afghanistan by the Afghan people. Great challenges face this new democracy in a very old and traditional culture that has found itself in the center of the world political stage. Economically poor and ethnically divided, its future is filled with great uncertainty and great promise. Only time will show which path will be traveled.
- Tanner, Stephen, Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban, Da Capo Press, 2002.
Other Material Consulted:
My thanks to Dr. Bruce Griffith of the Catawba College History Department for advice and editing of this document.