A brief history of Afghanistan

1 Roundabout of the Ancient World

Due to its location, Afghanistan has been a hub of diverse cultures, prompting one historian to dub it the ‘roundabout of the ancient world’. Those who settled included the Persians, under Darius the Great (522-486 BCE); and the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Many present-day towns are built on Greek foundations. A Buddhist civilization flourished from the late first century CE, its kings reigning in Bamiyan until the end of the 10th century. An Arab raid on Kandahar in 699-700 brought Islam, strengthened as the Turks gained power in Iran, Afghanistan and India. The Mongolian Genghis Khan invaded in the 13th century. For the next few hundred years Afghanistan was fought over by various Indian and Persian empires. Finally, in the 18th century, a group of Pashtun tribes under Durrani (aka Ahmad Shah Abdali) defeated the Moghuls and the Persians and consolidated its own large but unstable empire.

2 The Great Game

During the 19th century Afghanistan was caught up in the Anglo-Russian power struggle known as ‘The Great Game’. Britain tried to bring Afghanistan under direct rule, but suffered resounding defeat in the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). The imperial power tried again in 1878-80; this time Afghanistan lost much territory and control of its external affairs to Britain. To keep Russia at bay and protect its Indian colony, Britain provided modern weapons and an annual subsidy to Afghanistan’s rulers. One of these was Abdur Rahman Khan (1881-1901), known as the ‘Iron Amir’ and ‘Unificator of Afghanistan’. He created a powerful army. In 1893 the Durand line fixed the border with British India, but tribal areas were split, leaving half in what is now Pakistan. At his death in 1901 Abdur Rahman Khan was succeeded by his son, Habibullah.

3 Liberal manœuvres

Habibullah was a liberalizer who introduced a modern style of education. After World War One, pressure was mounting for full independence. Several newspapers were launched by Afghan intellectual Mahmud Tarzi. After King Habibullah was assassinated in 1919, his son Amanullah seized the throne and declared independence. Britain was defeated in a third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919-21 and Afghanistan regained control over its foreign affairs. Amanullah (‘the reform king’) undertook land reform, regularized taxes, extended education and gave the country its first constitution. But his attempts to shift power away from village elders and the religious establishment led to revolts and he was toppled in 1938. A Tajik called Bacha-yi-Saqao seized power, but was soon deposed and executed by a Pashtun, Nadir Khan – who started a dynasty that was to last until 1978.

4 The New Democracy

Nadir Khan (aka Nadir Shah, shah meaning ‘king’) allowed rural chiefs greater autonomy. Assassinated by a student in 1933, he was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Mohamed Zahir (Zahir Shah). For two decades Zahir Shah was controlled by his two uncles, who were successive Prime Ministers. The second uncle ushered in a ‘liberal parliament’ which sat from 1949 until 1952 when Zahir Shah’s cousin, Daoud, seized control as Prime Minister and in 1955 turned to the Soviet Union for military aid. In 1963 Zahir Shah tried to develop a constitutional monarchy under the ‘New Democracy’ which lasted from 1964 to 1973. During this time intellectuals enjoyed greater freedom; women began to enter the workplace and government. Zahir Shah decided to introduce a more representative form of government, but legislation permitting the existence of political parties was never signed.

5 Hunger for change

In 1973 the King’s cousin, Daoud, staged a coup, proclaiming Afghanistan a republic and himself President. Cold War rivals, the USSR and the US, poured aid into the country ($2.52 billion and $533 million respectively between 1955 and 1978). During Daoud’s brief rule the country benefited from oil and gas revenues. There were other changes. Women’s rights were confirmed by Daoud. Kabul was now full of students and its University was a hotbed of political ideology – both Communist and Islamic. Women and men studied together and came into contact with foreign teachers. They were hungry for change.

6 Communism – Afghan-style

On 27 April 1978 Daoud was overthrown and killed in a communist coup (the Sawr Revolution) led by Afghanistan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDPA). Internal conflict soon split the party. The leaders of one faction – Parcham (‘banner’) – were expelled while the other faction, the Khalq (‘the masses’), headed by Noor Mohammed Taraki, took power. The latter attacked Islam, ruled by decree and enjoyed little popular support. Radical reforms sparked local rebellions and army insurrections; troops defected to resistance groups. The USSR increased aid to Taraki’s regime; the US, meanwhile, actively supported resistance groups. Although urged by the Soviets to modify its unpopular policies, the Taraki regime refused. Fearing the US would take advantage of mounting chaos, USSR President Breshnev sent in troops in December 1979. He believed Soviet troops would be able to withdraw after six months.

7  The USSR’s Vietnam

Meanwhile Taraki was overthrown, and allegedly suffocated, by party rival Hafizullah Amin, who in turn was killed by Soviet troops entering his palace. The Russians installed as leader Babrak Kamal, head of the Parcham faction, who reversed Taraki’s most unpopular policies and declared allegiance to Islam. But the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil had already sparked a national uprising. Soviet forces responded by destroying agriculture and livestock to cut off supplies to the resistance. Russian bombing of villages claimed nearly a million Afghan lives. The KGB-organized secret police spread terror in urban areas. Soviet troop numbers reached 120,000, but still the resistance grew – and became international. Support came via Mujahidin groups exiled in Pakistan which were funded mainly by the US, Saudi Arabia and China. The US, determined to make Afghanistan the Russian ‘Vietnam’, poured in money and weapons to arm the opposition through the Pakistani secret intelligence services known as the ISI. The commander receiving most US aid was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known to the CIA for his ‘fascist’ and ‘vicious’ tendencies. Intellectuals, especially, were targeted in his murder campaigns. Anti-communist support also came from Britain and Pakistan. By the late 1980s, aid from the US and Saudi Arabia reached around $1 billion per year; while between 1986 and 1990 around $5 billion worth of weapons went to the ‘holy fighters’ of the Afghan Mujahidin.

8 Soviet withdrawal

The occupation claimed at least 14,000 Russian lives and was costing the USSR more than $5 billion a year. New President Mikhail Gorbachev prepared to withdraw, working to leave behind a ‘friendly’ government in Afghanistan. Dr Najibullah, head of the Afghan Intelligence Service, was installed as President. The last Soviet troops were withdrawn in February 1989; the occupation had left 1.5 million Afghans dead, five million disabled, and five million refugees. The Mujahidin were able to capture large parts of Afghanistan, continuing to fight against the Russian puppet, Najubullah. In April 1992 they took Kabul and declared an Islamic state. Burhannaudin Rabbani was elected President, but the Mujahidin victors were far from united and a bitter power struggle ensued.

9 Battling warlords

Commanders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ahmad Shah Massoud entered Kabul to prevent a takeover of the city by rival warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his allies. Four main groups, each with their own foreign backers, fought for control of Kabul. In August 1992 the UN reported that more than 1,800 civilians had been killed and 500,000 were fleeing the city. By the end of 1992, Kabul was devastated thanks to the actions of competing warlords; 5,000 people had died and around a million had been displaced. Rape was condoned by most factional leaders. Other cities suffered similar fates. By 1994 at least 20,000 had died – and still the leaders of the warring factions refused to meet. At this point a new force appeared.

10   Enter the Taliban

A small group of religious students (or taliban) living near Kandahar objected to the behaviour of commanders controlling the area. With support from elements in Pakistan, they launched a military campaign aimed at creating an Islamic state based on strict sharia law. The first city they took was Kandahar, home of their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, in November 1994. They met little resistance from the war-weary population: the Taliban imposed order, collected weapons, tore down checkpoints to extort money and refused to take bribes. Their version of Islam was harsh, extreme and dogmatic. Educated city-dwellers, especially women, were worst affected. After a while, the Taliban made alliances of convenience and increasingly relied on foreign fighters; torture, killings and other human rights violations committed against civilians intensified.

11   Pakistani and Saudi support

An estimated 100,000 Pakistanis trained and fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1994-2001. Saudi Arabia provided funds, goods and diplomatic support. Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who during the Soviet occupation had funded and trained Arab Mujahidin recruits, renewed his support, returning to Afghanistan in 1996. By 2000 the Taliban controlled 90 per cent of Afghan territory, but were only officially recognized by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE. Relations with the US were especially hostile. The US accused the Taliban of harbouring Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the 1998 bomb attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. This, combined with international concern about extreme oppression of women, and the country’s opium poppy production, prompted two rounds of UN sanctions.

12   9/11 and ‘Enduring Freedom’

Certain that Osama bin Laden was behind the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US demanded the Taliban hand him over to face US justice. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar refused and on 27 October 2001 the US, backed by Britain, launched ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. More than 12,000 bombs were dropped in just a few weeks. Fighting on the ground was conducted by Afghan Northern Alliance forces with the support of Coalition Special Forces. On 13 November the Taliban deserted Kabul and the Northern Alliance walked into the city. On 16 December US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared: ‘We have destroyed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and we have ended the role of Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist activity.’ Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders fled over the porous border into Pakistan, where they were able to regroup.

13   Governance and insecurity

In December 2001 the Northern Alliance and elements linked to the former king, Zahir Shah, were brought together in Germany. The result was the Bonn Agreement – a deal between the victorious factions, which included warlords guilty of murder, rape, extortion and rocketing Kabul during the 1990s. An interim authority was set up. A Loya Jirga (or grand assembly) was convened in 2002, headed by Hamid Karzai. In 2004 a new Afghan constitution was ratified and Hamid Karzai was elected President. Parliamentary and provincial elections were held the following year, bringing in a greater proportion of women MPs. After July 2006 the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took over responsibility for security from the US-led coalition in parts of Afghanistan; fighting and insurgency attacks intensified during 2007.