Ahmad Shah Durrani

The history of Afghanistan

Afghanistan's history has been especially impacted by its geographical position - it has been a transit country for invading armies and is often squeezed between powerful neighbours.

However, its rugged terrain has contributed to the Afghan tribes’ ability to hold out against these waves of invasion, as well as to resist various rulers’ attempts to extend central power from Kabul, the country’s capital, into rural independent clan society.

In 300, Alexander the Great incorporated Afghanistan into his Persian empire. Increased Arabic influence led to Afghanistan's Islamisation around 600 AD. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the country was hit by the Mongol invasion, first under Genghis Khan and then under the leadership of Timur Lenk. Using Kabul as his base, during the 1500s their successor Babur extended the mighty Mughal Empire down into the Indian subcontinent. The Persian ruler Nader, however, chased the Mongols out of Afghanistan in 1739. In 1747, the commander of Nader’s Afghan bodyguard, Ahmad Shah, founded royal Afghanistan Durrani dynasty which stayed in power until 1978. Although the newly-formed kingdom disintegrated rapidly, Ahmad Shah is considered to be the founder of the Afghan nation.

Between Russia and Great Britain

In the 1800s, Afghanistan was squeezed between its two powerful neighbours - expanding Russia in the north and British India in the Southeast. The struggle between these two great powers for decisive influence over the country was named, using a term borrowed from Kipling, the Great Game. Three times - in 1838, 1878 and 1919 - Britain attempted to achieve domination over Afghanistan. The British forces were, in all cases, beaten off by Afghan tribal warriors.

Between the first and second Anglo-Afghan wars, King Dost Mohammad managed to successfully unite the country. His work was continued by Abdor Rahman Khan, the Strong Emir over the course of the final two decades of the 1800s. For one period in his life, Abdor Rahman had lived in Turkmenistan and observed this Muslim people succumbing to Russian expansion. The observations he made then formed the basis of his skilled foreign policy, relying on a balance between British and Russian interests in Afghanistan, and during this period he managed to establish the country's borders with the Russian and the British Empires, including what was termed the Durand Line between Afghanistan and British India.

During the 1920s, King Amanollah Khan undertook reform that sought to impose Western modernity onto Afghanistan. For example, western attire was enforced in Kabul and new taxes imposed on farmers to finance this modernisation policy. The resultant dissatisfaction led to the King being overthrown in 1929, after which a period of confusion and internal strife followed.

Maintaining the balance between powerful neighbours, and the problems associated with the modernisation of the Afghan tribal society, have characterised the modern history of Afghanistan.

When Pakistan became independent in 1947, Afghanistan laid claim to the Pakistani areas where the Pashtun population live. The Durand Line had cut through the ethnically homogeneous area inhabited by Pashtuns and formed an Afghan and a British part. These Afghan claims led to a strained relationship between the two countries. Pakistan closed its border with Afghanistan, which led to the country’s almost total isolation for several years.

Under Soviet influence

King Zahir Shah came to power in 1933. In 1953 he made his cousin Daud Prime Minister. In the mid-1950s, Daud turned to the US with a request for development assistance. US gave him the cold shoulder so instead the Soviet Union agreed to Afghan requests for civil and military assistance. Thus an important principle of Afghan foreign policy - neutrality and balance between the major powers – was discarded and the foundation laid for growing Soviet influence. Thousands of young officers trained in the Soviet Union; many of them were later to play key roles in numerous coup attempts. In 1963 the King forced the authoritarian Daud to resign, and a liberal constitution was adopted the following year. Political groupings began to emerge, among them PDPA, the Communist Party. These democratic reforms, however, were largely on paper due to resistance from the King, and in consequence social unrest grew in the late 1960s. Criticism of the authorities increased due to the state's inability to cope with a drought situation at the beginning of the 1970s. In 1973, Daud deposed the King with the support of elements of the army and proclaimed a Republic with himself as President. Eventually however, he came into conflict with the young officers who brought him to power. In 1978 he imprisoned a PDPA leader and the military answered with a coup, known as the Saur Revolution, in April, during which Daud and much of his family were wiped out.

From the outset, the new Communist regime was characterised by a strong division between two factions, Khalq and Parcham. The newly-formed Revolution Council, led by Nur Mohammad Taraki, presented a five-year plan under which Afghanistan would apply a state socialist system of the Soviet type. All parties except the PDPA were banned, and land reform proclaimed. The plan was put into effect using forces of young cadres who arrived in villages supported by military units. The new policy was perceived by the population in rural areas, where about 80% live, as a threat to tribal society, and as a further attempt by central government to subdue the independent spirit in the country. Within only a few months, uprisings had erupted in most provinces.

The regime in Kabul became increasingly dependent on Soviet civil and military advisors. In September 1979, Taraki was overthrown by his rival Hafizollah Amin, who in turn was deposed by Soviet troops when they invaded the country on
27 December 1979. The USSR appointed Babrak Karmal as President. He was replaced in 1986 by Mohammad Najibollah. Pressure from the guerrillas, however, forced an attitude more positive to negotiation from the Soviet-backed regime and from the new leaders in the Soviet Union. Having concluded an agreement under the auspices of the UN with Pakistan and USA on troop withdrawals, the Soviet Union began pulling back in 1988, and completed its exit in 1989.

Civil war and the Taliban

The regime weakened by the Soviet retreat tried to appease the opposition by orienting themselves towards Islamic and non-aligned countries. The guerrillas continued the war, and while its success heralded the fall of the regime, the ethnic divide in the country was becoming increasingly apparent. When the government's Uzbek militia in northern Afghanistan revolted, the regime collapsed and surrendered on 25 April 1992.

The new Islamic leadership was marked by strong ethnic and ideological contradictions. Civil war broke out immediately, now concentrated on the previously-spared Kabul. In the absence of a functioning central authority, the country fell apart and local forces took over the provinces. In many places, pure banditry became endemic. In the autumn of 1994, a new military force - the orthodox Islamic Taliban Militia - entered the arena.

The population's war-weariness favoured the Taliban, who quickly took control of southern Afghanistan. They were supported by Pakistan and were favourably received by the United States. Both countries wanted stability in oil and gas-rich Central Asia, and the US saw the Taliban as a regional counterweight to Iran. After the Taliban's conquest of Kabul in September 1996, the ethnic polarisation of Afghanistan was laid bare.  The Taliban's advance through Afghanistan's northern and central parts in the summer of 1998 was accompanied by reports of massacres.

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan became internationally isolated. In 1997, the Taliban unilaterally abolished the Republic and proclaimed an emirate, however their government was not recognised by the UN, primarily due to their discrimination against women and their support for terrorists. A third factor that contributed to their isolation was the swift increase in opium production in Afghanistan until 1999, when a record harvest of 4 600 tons was produced.

In 1998 the Taliban regime was on a collision course with the West after bomb attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The ranking Saudi terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, who for several years resided in Afghanistan with the support of the Taliban, was designated as responsible for the attacks by the US and his military installations in eastern Afghanistan came under fire by robot. In 1999, the US broke off trade with Afghanistan since the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. In November the same year, the United Nations introduces economic sanctions against the Taliban.

The Taliban's inability to alleviate the plight of the millions of Afghans who, by 1999, had suffered three years of continuous drought contributed to the undermining of the regime's position. Since the Taliban leadership again refused to hand over Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, in October the USA initiated the bombing of large parts of Afghanistan in order to destroy bin Laden and his terrorist network, al-Qaida. The United States also launched military cooperation with the Afghan armed opposition, the group known as the Northern Alliance, which had ruled parts of north-eastern Afghanistan since 1998. For a few weeks the Taliban army held out, but over the course of a few days in November, Taliban rule collapsed in most of the country. In early December, the Taliban surrendered its stronghold, the city of Qandahar in the south, since its senior leaders had fled. The regime's rapid collapse was partly a result of the loose network that Taliban empire was built on. In adversity, many provincial warlords ended their cooperation with Taliban leadership, others simply laid down their weapons.


In 2001 delegates from most Afghan ethnic and political groups gathered at a conference in Bonn, Germany to map out the country’s future. Among the participants were also representatives of ex-King Zahir Shah who had been living in exile in Italy since he was deposed in 1973. A provisional administration, led by the Pashtun clan leader Hamid Karzai, was appointed to control Afghanistan for six months. In the mountainous areas in the east, US-led troops continued fighting small pockets of Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters, while an international force known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of initially about 4 500 troops was stationed in Kabul to protect the new administration.

In 2002, indirect elections of delegates to the traditional council, Loya Jirga, were carried out in all districts of Afghanistan. This council appointed an interim government and a commission to write a new constitution. In the meantime, the 1964 constitution was provisionally removed.

Despite its strong international support, the provisional government found it difficult to consolidate its authority in the country. Many provinces were dominated by militia leaders who had built up strong positions during the war years and took orders from Kabul to very limited extent, even in cases where they had been formally appointed as governor. Work in government was marked by tension between Karzai and representatives of ethnic minorities, mainly Tajik, who had dominated the resistance against both the Soviet army and the Taliban. In 2002, the regime was shaken by several assassinations of high-ranking political leaders and an assassination attempt on Karzai. A new Loya Jirga gathered in 2003 to adopt a new constitution, which gave the country a strong presidency. After fierce debate it did state, among other issues, that women and men would have equal rights. After months of UN-supported work with voter registration across the country, the presidential election took place in 2004. Karzai received about 55% of the votes in the first round, despite having 17 rivals. In 2005 the democratic transformation of Afghanistan was completed through elections to a new parliament and to provincial assemblies.

In many respects, Afghanistan has undergone a very positive transformation in the years after the fall of the Taliban. The country has experienced rapid economic growth, and education has been greatly expanded. But in spite of the fact that the US-led forces have carried out an intensive struggle against armed opposition groups and the ISAF has been expanded and has diversified its operations across the country, peace has not been achieved. Extensive drug production is also regarded as a serious threat to the country's stability.

Afghan modern history, external links

Islamists, Leftists – and a void in the Center. Afghanistan’s Political Parties and where they come from (1902-2006), by Thomas Ruttig
History of the political parties, from the start in the early 20th century to the present.

North Afghanistan

The Ethnitication of an Afghan Faction: Junbesh-i-Milli from its origins to the Presidential Elections, by Antonio Giustozzi
About warlord and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum and his party Jumbesh.

The Networks of Kunduz, by Nils Wörmer
About militant/military networks and alliances, and tensions in Kunduz province.    

South Afghanistan

Tribes and Warlords in Southern Afghanistan, 1980-2005, by Antonio Giustozzi & Noor Ullah 
About tribes and warlords that formed modern history in south Afghanistan.

Western Afghanistan

The miss ingredient: Non-ideological insurgency and State collapse in Western Afghanistan, by Antonio Giustozzi
Background to the present situation in western Afghanistan. The collapse of the state and non-idelogical insurgency before the fall of the communist regime in 1992.

Hazarajat’s History

Divide and rule; State penetration in Hazarajat (Afghanistan) from the Monarchy to the Taliban, by Niamatullah Ibrahimi
About Hazarajat’s relation to central power from monarchy to Taliban rule in the 1990's.

The Failure of a Clerical Proto-State: Hazarajat, 1979 – 1984, by Niamatullah Ibrahimi
About the the attempts to form a religious mini state in Hazarajat 1979-84.

At the Sources of Factionalism and Civil War in Hazarajat, by Niamatullah Ibrahimi
Background to present situation in Hazarajat. Antagonism and fighting between groups after state collapse in the area 1979.

The Dissipation of Political Capital Among Afghanistan’s Hazaras: 2001-2009, by Niamatullah Ibrahimi
About the Hazara party Hezb-e Wahdat.