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Afghanistan, officially Islamic State of Afghanistan, republic in southwestern Asia, bounded on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; on the east by China and the part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir controlled by Pakistan; on the south by Pakistan; and on the west by Iran. Afghanistan lies across ancient trade and invasion routes from Central Asia into India. This position has been the greatest influence on its history because the invaders often settled there. Today the population includes many different ethnic groups. Most of the present borders of the country were drawn up in the 19th century, when Afghanistan became a buffer state, or neutral zone, between Russia and British India. Kabul is the capital and largest city.

Afghanistan was a monarchy from 1747 to 1973, when the king was overthrown by military officers and the country was proclaimed a republic. In 1979 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) invaded Afghanistan, precipitating the decade-long Afghan-Soviet War. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the country erupted in civil war. Guerrilla groups that had fought against the Soviets continued to oppose the Soviet-installed central government; it fell in 1992 and anarchy prevailed until the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, seized control of Kabul in 1996. By the late 1990s, most of the rest of the country had come under the control of the Taliban, which enforced a strict form of Islamic rule. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the Taliban was accused of harboring international terrorists. Aided by U.S. and British troops, a coalition of opposition forces known as the Northern Alliance drove the Taliban from power in late 2001.


Afghanistan is shaped roughly like a clenched fist with the thumb of the Wakhan Corridor extended out to the northeast. Afghanistan covers an area of 652,225 sq km (251,825 sq mi). Its maximum length from east to west is about 1,240 km (about 770 mi); from north to south it is about 1,015 km (about 630 mi). The northwestern, western, and southern border areas are primarily desert plains and rocky ranges, whereas the southeast and northeast borders rise progressively higher into the major, glacier-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush, an extension of the western Himalayas. The northern border is formed by the Amu Darya river and its tributary, the Panj.

A   Natural Regions

High mountains cover much of Afghanistan, with about one-half of the land over 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in elevation. Small glaciers and year-round snowfields are common. The highest peak, Nowshk (Noshaq), rises 7,485 m (24,557 ft) on the northeast border and is a lower spur of the Tirich Mîr peak in Pakistan. The Hindu Kush range extends across the country in a southwesterly direction from the Wakhan Corridor almost to the Iranian border. From the Hindu Kush, other lower ranges radiate in all directions. Some of the major mountain systems include the Pamirs in the upper northeast of the Wakhan Corridor, the Badakhshân Ranges in the northeast, the Paropamisus Range in the north, and the Safed Koh range, which forms part of the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lowland areas are concentrated in the south and west and include the Turkistan Plains, the Herât-Ferah Lowlands of the extreme northwest, the Sistan Basin and Helmand River valley of the southwest, and the Rîgestân Desert of the south.

Except for the river valleys and a few places in the lowlands where underground fresh water makes irrigation possible, agriculture is difficult. Only 12 percent of the land is cultivated. Moreover, the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989) and subsequent civil war left some of that land unusable because of neglect, the planting of explosive mines, and other problems. In general, sheep and goat grazing make up the main agricultural land use. In eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, forest lands amounted to 1.4 million hectares (3.3 million acres), or 2 percent of the country’s land area in 2000. The ravages of war, the scarcity of fuel, and the need for firewood for cooking and heating have caused rapid deforestation.

Because Afghanistan has so many high mountains, the passes through them have been of profound importance in both the history of invasion of the country and in commerce. In the 320s bc Alexander the Great invaded the country through the Kushan Pass (about 4,370 m/about 14,340 ft) in the west and left it to the east through the low Khyber Pass (1,072 m/ 3,517 ft) to invade India. These same passes were used by the Mughal emperor Babur to conquer both Afghanistan and India in the 1500s. The famous Sâlang Pass (3,880 m/12,720 ft) and its Soviet-built tunnel in the central Hindu Kush was one of the main routes the Soviets used to invade Afghanistan in 1979.

B   Rivers and Lakes

Many of Afghanistan’s major rivers are fed by mountain streams. The Amu Darya on the northern frontier receives water from two main tributaries, the Panj and the Vakhsh, which rise in the Pamirs. The Amu Darya is the only navigable river in Afghanistan, though ferry boats can cross the deeper areas of other rivers. The Harîrûd River rises in central Afghanistan and flows to the west and northwest to form part of the border with Iran. The long Helmand River rises in the central Hindu Kush, crosses the southwest of the country, and ends in Iran. It is used extensively for irrigation and agriculture, although in recent years its water has experienced a progressive build up of mineral salts, which has decreased its usefulness. Most of the rivers end in inland seas, swamps, or salt flats; the Kâbul River is an exception. It flows east into Pakistan to join the Indus River, which empties into the Indian Ocean.

Afghanistan’s lakes are small in size and number, but include Lake Zarkol in the Wakhan Corridor along the Tajikistan border, Shîveh in Badakhshân, and the saline Lake Istâdeh-ye Moqor, located south of Ghaznî. The country also has a few salt marshes at the limits of the Helmand drainage on the western border with Iran. The most important dams and reservoirs in Afghanistan are the Sarobi Dam on the Kâbul; the Kajaki Reservoir on the Helmand, the Arghandâb Dam on a tributary of the Helmand, the Sardeh Dam on the Ghaznî River, and the Kelagay Dam on the Daryâ-ye-Qondoz tributary of the Amu Darya. Prior to the civil war, less than 10 percent of the country’s hydroelectric potential had been developed. After the war began, hydroelectric production dropped off severely as turbines were destroyed, floodgates were blown open, and transmission lines were brought down. Private diesel-fired generators were about all that remained of 75 years of electric development. In 1999 Afghanistan generated only 420 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.

C   Plant and Animal Life

Plant life in Afghanistan is sparse but diverse. Common trees in the mountains are evergreens, oaks, poplars, wild hazelnuts, almonds, and pistachios. The plains of the north are largely dry, treeless steppes, and those of the southwestern corner are nearly uninhabitable deserts. Common plants in the arid regions include camel thorn, locoweed, spiny restharrow, mimosa, and wormwood, a variety of sagebrush. The wild animals of Afghanistan include 123 mammal species, some of which are nearing extinction. The most seriously endangered are the goitered gazelle, leopard, snow leopard, markor goat, and Bactrian deer. Other wild animals of Afghanistan include Marco Polo sheep, urials, ibex, bears, wolves, foxes, hyenas, jackals, and mongooses. Wild boar, hedgehogs, shrews, hares, mouse hares, bats, and various rodents also occur. Some 460 bird species are found in Afghanistan, with more than 200 breeding there. Flamingo and other aquatic fowl breed in the lake areas south and east of Ghaznî. Ducks and partridges are also common, but all birds are hunted widely and many are becoming uncommon, including the endangered Siberian crane.

D   Climate

Most of Afghanistan has a subarctic mountain climate with dry and cold winters, except for the lowlands, which have arid and semiarid climates. In the mountains and a few of the valleys bordering Pakistan, a fringe effect of the Indian monsoon, coming usually from the southeast, brings moist maritime tropical air in summer. Afghanistan has clearly defined seasons; summers are hot and winters can be bitterly cold. Summer temperatures as high as 49°C (120°F) have been recorded in the northern valleys. Midwinter temperatures as low as -9°C (15°F) are common around the 2,000-m (6,600-ft) level in the Hindu Kush. The climate in the highlands varies with elevation. The coolest temperatures usually occur on the heights of the mountains.

Temperatures often range greatly within a single day. Variations in temperature during the day may range from freezing conditions at dawn to the upper 30°s C (upper 90°s F) at noon. Most of the precipitation falls between the months of October and April. The deserts receive less than 100 mm (4 in) of rain a year, whereas the mountains receive more than 1,000 mm (40 in) of precipitation, mostly as snow. Frontal winds sweeping in from the west may bring large sandstorms or dust storms, while the strong solar heating of the ground raises large local whirlwinds.

E   Natural Resources

Despite a lengthy history of small-scale mining of gems, gold, copper, and coal, systematic exploration of Afghanistan’s mineral resources did not begin until the 1960s. In the 1970s Afghanistan was discovered to have a wide variety of mineral resources, but only coal, iron ore, copper ore, and gemstones were targeted for development. Natural gas fields are scattered throughout much of Afghanistan. Recent analysis by the United States Geological Survey has indicated significant unexploited oil reserves in the north as well. After their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviets endeavored to export some of the country’s resources to the USSR. Natural gas, for example, was exported by pipeline across the Amu Darya into the USSR in the 1980s. Ongoing hostilities, however, severely hampered this effort and finally cut off the export of natural gas. By the mid-1990s there was little mineral or oil and gas extraction.

F   Environmental Issues

Afghanistan has long been a land of marginal environment—too dry and too cold for much life. Thousands of years of environmental stress by the country’s people have dramatically altered the landscape and caused extensive environmental destruction. Because the Afghan people lack the financial means to purchase fuel, they must cut trees, uproot shrubs, and collect dung for burning. Domestic animals overgraze the range. The result is extensive soil erosion by water and wind. Long-term irrigation without flushing has added salt to much of the arable land and destroyed its fertility. Polluted water supplies are common, except in the high mountain regions where few people live permanently. Ancient writings and archaeological evidence show that once rich areas of forest and grassland have been reduced to stretches of barren rock and sand. The government of Afghanistan began to recognize environmental problems in the 1970s with the help of the United Nations and other international agencies. The pressures of war, however, diverted attention from these issues and further aggravated the country’s environmental state.


Afghanistan is comprised of a variety of ethnic groups, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim, usually either followers of Sunni or Shia Islam. The people of Afghanistan are related to many of the ethnic groups in Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with cultural and genetic influences that go farther afield to various places, including Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, China, and the Arabian Peninsula (the large peninsula south of Jordan and Iraq). The extreme linguistic and ethnic diversity in Afghanistan is the result of millennia of human migrations, political upheavals, invasions, and conquests. The resultant scattering of small diverse groups is not only a major cause of the difficulty in finding sufficient common ground to promote peace and understanding between people, but also makes accurate characterization of the borders between them commonly rather arbitrary.

A   Population and Settlement

The last official census in Afghanistan was in 1979, when the population registered at 15,551,358. A 2002 population estimate was 27,755,775, but the effects of war—with its casualties and refugees—makes any estimate highly speculative.

In 2000 some 78 percent of the population lived in rural areas. Of the urban dwellers, probably about half lived in Kâbul, the capital city. The nomadic population was estimated to be about 2.5 million people. During the war with the Soviets the number of Afghan refugees outside the country escalated dramatically, with as many as 2.5 million to 3 million refugees in Pakistan and another 1.5 million in Iran. About 150,000 Afghans were able to migrate permanently to other countries, including the United States, Australia, and various European countries.

Before the Afghan-Soviet War, Afghanistan had an estimated annual population growth rate of 3.5 percent. Urban areas had a growth rate of 4.8 percent, reflecting migration to places of greater employment. Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, with 145 deaths for every 1,000 live births.

With no precise data available, considerable demographic uncertainty prevails in the postwar period. Different groups are jockeying for positions of power based on purported population numbers. What seems certain, pending a reliable new census for confirmation, is that the past two decades of war deaths, emigration, and drought and starvation will have affected the population numbers, perhaps significantly.

B   Principal Cities

During and immediately after the Afghan-Soviet War, the populations of the largest cities increased as internally displaced persons sought the anonymity and perceived security of more densely populated areas. The population of Kâbul, the capital and largest city, swelled to more than 2 million in the late 1980s. Many people fled from the city during the ensuing civil war, however, when rocket attacks and other combat destroyed much of the city. Only about 700,000 inhabitants remained in Kâbul in 1993. Other important cities in Afghanistan are Kandahâr, or Qandahâr (225,500; 1988 estimate) in the south, which is dominated by Pashtun tribes; Herât (177,300) in the west, with a dominant Tajik population; and Mazâr-e Sharîf (130,600) in the north, also with a dominant Tajik ethnicity. Other, smaller towns include Jalâlâbâd in the east, with a Pashtun majority; Chârîkâr just north of Kâbul, with mixed ethnicity; Andkhvoy and Meymaneh in the north in Uzbek country; and Kondoz, Feyẕâbâd (Faizabad), and Baghlân, also in the north with a dominant Tajik ethnicity. Along with a number of other places, Herât and Kandahâr were extensively damaged in both the war with the Soviets and the civil war. Other towns suffered less extensive damage and have been partly rebuilt. Difficulties with water quality and public transportation continue to exist from before the war.

C   Ethnic Origins and Languages

The population of Afghanistan includes many different ethnic groups. The Pashtuns (Pushtuns), who make up about two-fifths the population, have traditionally been the dominant ethnic group. Their homeland lies south of the Hindu Kush, but Pashtun groups live in all parts of the country. Many Pashtuns also live in northwestern Pakistan. Pashtuns are usually farmers, though a large number of them are nomads, living in tents made of black goat hair. Male Pashtuns live by ancient tribal code called Pashtunwali, which stresses courage, personal honor, resolution, self-reliance, and hospitality. The Pashtuns speak Pashto (Pushto), which is an Indo-Iranian language and one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.

The Tajiks (Tadzhiks), a people of Iranian origin, are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. They live in the valleys north of Kâbul and in Badakhshân. They are farmers, artisans, and merchants. The Tajiks speak Dari (Afghan Persian), also an Indo-Iranian language and the other official language of Afghanistan. Dari is more widely spoken than Pashto in most of the cities. The Tajiks are closely related to the people of Tajikistan.

In the central ranges live the Hazaras. Although their ancestors may have come from northwestern China or Mongolia, the Hazaras speak an archaic Persian. Most are farmers and sheepherders. The Hazaras have been discriminated against for a long time, in part because they are minority Shia Muslims (Shia Islam) within a dominant Sunni Muslim population. In the east, north of the Kâbul River, is an isolated wooded mountainous region known as Nuristan. The Nuristani people who live there speak a wide variety of Indo-Iranian dialects. In the far south live the Baluchi (Balochi), whose Indo-Iranian language is also spoken in southwestern Pakistan and southeastern Iran.

To the north of the Hindu Kush, on the steppes near the Amu Darya, live several groups who speak Turkic languages. The Uzbeks are the largest of these groups, which also include Turkmen and, in the extreme northeast Wakhan Corridor, the Kyrgyz people. The Kyrgyz were mostly driven out by the Soviet invasion and largely emigrated to Turkey. All of these groups are settled farmers, merchants, and seminomadic sheepherders. The nomads live in yurts, or round, felt-covered tents of the Mongolian or Central Asian type.

Prior to the war important political positions were distributed almost equally among ethnic groups. This kept ethnic tensions and violence to a minimum, though the Pashtuns in Kâbul were always the politically dominant group. In the mid-1990s attempts were made to reestablish shared rule; however, many of the ethnic groups sought a greater share of power than they had before the war, and violence was a common result of the disputes. In the post-Taliban period, the major ethnic groups have agreed to share power in government.

D   Religion

The strongest tie among these various groups is their Islamic religion. The overwhelming majority of Afghans (about 99 percent) are Muslims. About 84 percent of Afghan Muslims are Sunni Muslims and about 15 percent are Shia Muslims (mostly the Hazaras and Tajiks). Small groups of Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and Jews are scattered in the towns. Since the 1960s many Afghan Jews have migrated to Israel. Mazâr-e Sharîf, where the tomb of the Muslim leader Ali is said to be located in a 15th-century mosque, is a leading place of Muslim pilgrimage. Scattered throughout Afghanistan are the flag-covered graves of saintlike people who are revered and petitioned for help in childbearing, settlement of disputes, moral leadership, or in other capacities.

An important figure in Muslim life in Afghanistan is the mullah (a male religious leader or teacher). Any man who can recite the Qur’an (Koran), the sacred scripture of Islam, from memory can be a mullah; however, the mullah may not understand either the words or the meaning because the book was written and is memorized in Arabic, which is not a local language. The mullah conducts the Friday sermon and prayers, marriages, and funerals. Mullahs also teach the laws and doctrines of Islam to both adults and children. Mullahs arbitrate local disputes, based upon Islamic legal principles, and they are also called upon to provide advice and resolution of many other physical, social, and personal problems, including such things as medicines, local water disputes, or a family feud. In some of the more remote rural areas, the local mullah and the local khan (landlord) dictate what their followers may or may not do.

E   Education

Two separate systems of education exist in Afghanistan. The older system is a religious one, taught by the mullahs, who conduct schools in the village mosques. They teach the religious precepts of the Qur’an, reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The other system was introduced in Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution and provided for free and compulsory education at all levels, although this was rarely achieved. Prior to the civil war the respected Kâbul University (founded in 1932) was a major seat of learning with free tuition. Nine other colleges were established within it from 1938 through 1967, each with assistance from such countries as France, Germany, the United States, Egypt, and the USSR. Before 1961 only men could receive a higher education; that year all faculties were made coeducational. University of Nangarhâr (1962) in Jalâlâbâd was established to teach medicine and other disciplines.

Before the 1978 military coup, the public school system was based on Western models. Special emphasis was placed on primary education. Secondary schools existed in Kâbul and the larger towns. Five years of primary school and five years of secondary school were expected, although many Afghans could not attend because they lived in areas where there were no schools.

In 1996 the country reported 52 percent of primary school-aged children were enrolled in school; 22 percent of the relevantly aged children attended secondary school. Literacy was estimated to be 58 percent for all Afghans aged 15 and older in 2001, 71 percent for males and 44 percent for females. However, some experts believe these figures are too high because warfare effectively eliminated most education and a generation grew up without any formal schooling. The civil war resulted in the closing or dismantling of most lower, middle, and higher educational facilities in the country. Then the Taliban rulers, many of whom were illiterate and anti-education, suppressed all levels of schooling, and forbade it for girls and women. Only rote memorization of the Qur’an in Arabic, a language most Afghans do not speak or understand, was allowed during the Taliban regime. Opposition groups in a few places in the country tried to maintain some education, but under very difficult circumstances. With the removal of the Taliban from power in late 2001, people in Afghanistan began to establish new plans and procedures for the restoration of education, and perhaps a completely new educational system, nationwide. Schools such as Kâabul University reopened, and student enrollments soared. However, the country is sorely lacking the educational facilities and resources it needs to meet the needs of its population. Several million new textbooks for the newly reopened schools have been printed in the United States by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which also has been involved in setting up a mobile school system to bring education to rural areas in Afghanistan.

F   Way of Life

Although the Afghan population is composed of many distinct ethnic groups, certain elements of their way of life are much the same. Characteristically, the family is the mainstay of Afghan society. Extremely close bonds exist within the family, which consists of the members of several generations. The family is headed by the oldest man, or patriarch, whose word is law for the whole family. Family honor, pride, and respect toward other members are highly prized qualities. Among both villagers and nomads the family lives together and forms a self-sufficient group. In the villages each family generally occupies either one mud-brick house or a walled compound containing mud-brick or stonewalled houses. The same pattern prevails among the nomads, except that tents replace the houses.

Settlements in Afghanistan with less than 100 houses number over 10,000 and those with 100 to 250 houses number about 1,000. There are 53 urban centers that range in size from 2,500 to 25,000 people. In the smaller villages there are no schools, no stores, nor any representative of the government. Each village has three sources of authority within it: the malik (village headman), the mirab (master of the water distribution), and the mullah (teacher of Islamic laws). Commonly a khan (large landowner) will control the whole village by assuming the role of both malik and mirab.

Baggy cotton trousers are a standard part of the Afghan villager’s costume. The men wear long cotton shirts, which hang over their trousers, and wide sashes around their waists. They also wear a skullcap, and over that, a turban, which they take off when working in the fields. The women wear a long loose shirt or a high-bodice dress with a swirling skirt over their trousers; they drape a wide shawl around their heads. Many women wear jewelry, which is collected as a form of family wealth. When urban women leave their houses they usually wear a burka or shadier, a long tentlike veil that covers them from head to foot. Women in villages seldom wear the burka, and educated urban women discarded the custom, especially under Soviet domination where it was regarded as backward. The Taliban movement enforced a strict dress code that required Muslim women to wear a burka in public.

The diet of most Afghan villagers consists mainly of unleavened flat bread called nan, soups, a kind of yogurt called mast, vegetables, fruit, and occasionally rice and meat. Tea is the favorite drink.

Village men work in the fields, joined by the women during the harvest. Older children tend the flocks and look after the smaller children. The village mosque is the center of religious life and is often used as the village guest house.

Twice a year groups of nomads may pass through villages on their routes from summer highland grazing grounds to the lowlands where they camp during the winter. The villagers traditionally permit the nomads to graze their animals over the harvested fields, which the flocks fertilize by depositing manure. The nomads buy supplies such as tea, wheat, and kerosene from the villagers; the villagers buy wool and milk products from the nomads. For food and clothing, the nomads depend on the milk products, meat, wool, and skins of their flocks; for transportation they depend on their camels. Nomadic women are freer and less secluded than village women.

A favorite sport in northern Afghanistan is a game called buzkashi, in which teams of horsemen compete to deposit the carcass of a large headless calf in a goal circle. Afghans also play polo and ghosai, a team sport similar to wrestling. The most important holiday in Afghanistan is Nowruz, or New Year’s Day, which is celebrated on the first day of spring.

G   Social Problems

A variety of social ills are common in Afghanistan, such as poverty, interethnic strife, inequality of women, and widespread thievery, kidnapping, and banditry. Blood feuds handed down through generations are legendary, and revenge is regarded as a necessary redress of wrongs. The civil war strengthened these tendencies to the point where little travel was safe in the country without an adequate supply of money to buy safe passage. The civil war killed, wounded, and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Water, telephone, and sewage systems were destroyed. Years of war have separated and impoverished extended families that traditionally cared for widows and fatherless children. Now many are left to fend for themselves. Some provinces began experiencing famine in the 1990s, and diseases of malnutrition began to be reported for the first time in decades. Traditional Afghan custom, which was revived by the Taliban and other fundamentalist rebel groups, imposes limits on women’s activities outside the home. In 1996, after the Taliban came to power, the United Nations reported a series of 21 new ordinances governing the behavior of women in Afghanistan. Women were prohibited from working outside the home, attending school, wearing perfume, participating in sports, and walking outside the home without the escort of a male relative. Women were reportedly stoned to death for infractions, a practice that had been suppressed for decades.


The culture of Afghanistan reflects its ancient roots and position as a crossroads for invading ethnic groups and traditions. Little the Afghans make is unattractive; even common grain bags to carry produce to market are often embroidered to make them more beautiful. A camel caravan of nomads often looks like a circus parade, with the animals decked out in woven finery. The Islamic traditions of fine calligraphy and graphic arts are evoked in the fine filigreed flourishes that decorate many buildings. Poetry and poets are revered. Although the people of Afghanistan may have been sorely stressed by centuries of warfare and a difficult environment, their arts have prospered nonetheless.

A   Literature

The ancient art of storytelling continues to flourish in Afghanistan, partly in response to widespread illiteracy. This age-old practice of telling folktales, through music and the spoken word, is a highly developed and much appreciated art form. The use of folklore has become the thread that links the past with the present in Afghan society. Folktales concern all parts of Afghan life and often teach traditional values, beliefs, and behaviors. They are also a major form of entertainment in Afghanistan.

Literature in both the Dari and Pashto languages originated in the early Muslim centuries, when Arabic was also used. Shah nameh (Book of Kings), the great epic poem completed in 1010 by the Persian poet Firdawsi, consists of 60,000 rhyming couplets in Dari. Many other poems and tales were written in Dari and Turkic languages as well. Khushhal Kattak, a famous 17th-century Pashtun warrior and poet, used verse to express the tribal code. Modern writings have attempted to bring Afghans closer to understanding the changes associated with the modern world, and especially to comprehend the destruction of their country by war. In 1972 Sayyed Burhanuddin Majruh wrote several volumes in classical, rhythmic Dari prose about a traveler who joins his countrymen in exile, where they exchange ideas and narratives from ancient times in the light of modern concepts of reason, logic, science, and psychoanalysis. During the war with the Soviets, writings focused on the twin concerns of Islam and freedom. Resistance to the Soviets was especially pronounced in the Pashto province of Paktîâ; in 1983 Gulzarak Zadran published “Afghanistan the Land of Jihad: Paktîâin Uprising Waves” in the Pashto language. The Afghanistan Historical Society and the Pashto Academy published literary magazines and encouraged new writers in recent years, although much of their effort was stopped by the civil war.

B   Art and Architecture

Afghanistan contains striking architectural remnants of all ages, including Greek and Buddhist stupas (shrines or reliquaries) and monasteries, arches, monuments, intricate Islamic minarets (the tall, slender towers on mosques), temples and forts. Among the most famous sites are the great mosques of Herât and Mazâr-e Sharîf; the minaret of a mosque at Jâm in the west central highlands; the 1,000-year-old Great Arch of Qal‘eh-ye Bost; the Chel Zina (Forty Steps) and rock inscriptions made by Mughal emperor Babur in Kandahâr; the Great Buddha of Bâmîân, destroyed by Taliban militants in March 2001; the “Towers of Victory” in Ghaznî; and Emperor Babur’s tomb and the great Bala Hissar fort in Kâbul.

In the smaller arts, magnificent light blue-green fired tile work is famous in Herât, along with other fine work in book illumination (colored or gilded calligraphy), illustration, bronze, stone, and wood. Afghan cultural life is characterized by traditional arts and pastimes; gold and silver jewelry, marvelous decorative embroidery, and various leather goods are still made in homes. By far the greatest art forms known widely from Afghanistan are the Persian-style woven carpets.

C   Music

Music is represented chiefly by traditional folk songs, ballads, and dances. Among the stringed instruments, the six-stringed rohab is thought to be the ancestor to the Western violin and cello. Other instruments include the santur (a kind of zither), a hand-pumped harmonium, the chang (a plucked mouth harp), and a variety of drums beaten with the palm and fingers. The attan dance derived from Pashtun areas is the national dance. It is performed in a large circle with the dancers clapping their hands and quickening the movements of their feet to the beat of the music. On vacation holidays or weekends Afghans often gather to play music and sing at a picnic on a river bank or in a woodland. The Taliban government forbade singing, clapping, playing musical instruments and recorded music, and all forms of dance. Many of these activities continued illicitly during Taliban rule, and once the regime fell in late 2001 many Afghans publicly rejoiced by singing and dancing.

D   Libraries and Museums

The few major libraries are located in Kâbul. However, most of the materials in the Kâbul University Library (founded in 1931) were dispersed during the war with the Soviets and the subsequent civil war; the National Archives was also looted and its collections removed. Taliban militants burned many thousands of library and museum books in their zealous mission to enforce their strict interpretation of Islam. The Kâbul National Museum (1922), the largest in the country, was once known for its collection of early Buddhist relics. Some of the more valuable of these were reported to have been removed to the USSR during the years of the Soviet occupation; their present location is unknown. Ancient gold coins and jewelry were reported to have been taken as well. In 1993 the National Museum was blown open by rockets and subsequently looted by soldiers. The majority of the enormously rich collection was taken out through Pakistan and sold to wealthy collectors in other countries. The trade in Afghan antiquities was reported to be one of the largest producers of illicit revenues after illegal drugs. More than 2,700 works of art in the museum’s remaining collection, including many ancient cultural treasures, were destroyed in 2000 by Taliban religious police. In the regime’s interpretation of Islam, the works were considered to be idolatrous renderings of living things.


A decade of Soviet occupation, war, and economic manipulation followed by years of civil war left the economy of Afghanistan in shambles. Even in the 1970s, prior to the wars, Afghanistan had one of the lowest standards of living in the world; things have declined since then, with the production, trafficking, and movement of drugs and guns as a major hidden part of the economy. As the Afghan-Soviet War and its effects spread throughout the country in the early 1980s, two separate economies emerged: the urban financial and industrial facilities, tied especially to the Soviet Union, and the largely independent rural subsistence economy. In 1990 annual income was estimated to be $714 per person.

Over the centuries, Afghans have developed a number of different strategies to earn a living from their difficult environment. Most Afghans are settled farmers, herders, or both, depending upon ecological, economic, and political factors. They are usually self-sufficient in foodstuffs and other necessities. Industry and mining developed considerably in the 20th century, but local handicrafts are still important. In 1956 the government launched the first of several five-year plans. Irrigation efforts and development of a better road and telecommunications network had top priority, with later efforts toward production of textiles, cement, electricity, fertilizer, and grain storage facilities. Progress was made to develop better trade with the outside world, especially toward Europe, the United States, and Japan. Major nations aided Afghanistan in building roads, dams, hydroelectricity facilities, airports, factories (including those for light machinery, cement, and textiles), and irrigation networks for such crops as cotton, wheat, barley, and rice. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, development aid from the West ceased, and until the early 1990s Afghanistan was economically dependent on the USSR. Fruits, vegetables, carpets, and gemstones now constitute the majority of the export market.

A   Labor

In 2000 the total labor force was estimated to be 11.2 million. Some 70 percent of the working population is engaged in agriculture or animal husbandry. Many other kinds of employment were eliminated because of war. Widespread unemployment and a lack of skilled workers and administrators are among the most pressing labor problems.

B   Agriculture

Only a very small share of Afghanistan’s land, mostly in scattered valleys, is suitable for farming, and a majority of this farmland requires irrigation. Water is drawn from springs and rivers and is distributed through surface ditches and through underground channels, or tunnels, which are excavated and maintained by a series of vertical shafts. Such a tunnel is known as a karez or qanat. In 1999 some 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of farmland were irrigated.

Wheat is the most important crop, followed by barley, corn, and rice. Cotton is another important and widely cultivated crop. Fruit and nuts are among Afghanistan’s most important exports. Afghanistan is noted for its unusually sweet grapes and melons, grown mostly in the southwest, north of the Hindu Kush, and in the fertile regions around Herât. Raisins are also an important export. Other important fruits are apricots, cherries, figs, mulberries, and pomegranates.

Livestock is nearly as important as crops to Afghanistan’s economy. Karakul sheep are raised in large numbers in the north. The tight curly fleece of Karakul lambs is used to make Persian lamb coats. Other breeds of sheep, such as the fat-tailed sheep, and goats are also raised.

Afghanistan has long been a major supplier in the international drug trade. In the late 1990s Afghanistan replaced Myanmar (Burma) as the world’s biggest producer of opium, producing about 4,600 metric tons in 1999. In July 2000 the Taliban regime banned the cultivation of opium poppies, declaring that drug use was contrary to Islam. However, the ban ultimately raised opium prices on the international drug market, and the Taliban were widely suspected of profiting from the drug trade. Significant quantities of hashish are also produced in Afghanistan.

C   Handicrafts

Distinctive carpets are made by Turkmen and some Uzbeks; characteristically these have parallel rows of geometric figures on a dark red ground, although many other patterns also exist. The Baluchi, well-known producers of prayer rugs, also make carpets mainly of wool, using a blend of dark colors. Camel hair and cotton are also used in some of these carpets. A variety of beautiful embroideries are also made for bridal trousseaus (the cloth in which the bride wraps her clothes and other personal possessions) and for sale.

D   Mining

Large natural gas deposits in northern Afghanistan were exploited jointly with the USSR starting in 1967. In the 1980s large quantities of natural gas were exported to the USSR, but that was terminated after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Oil has been found to the north of the Hindu Kush in large reserves, but it remains unexploited. Afghanistan is the world’s only source of high-grade lapis lazuli and has major copper and iron deposits. Most of these resources also have not been exploited, primarily because decades of warfare severely impeded economic development.

E   Manufacturing

Industrial development increased substantially after World War II (1939-1945). With the opening in 1965 of a large West German-built wool mill, woolen-textile production more than doubled. Among the other factories located primarily in Kâbul are plants manufacturing textiles (the most important manufactured export product) and footwear; cement plants; a fruit-processing plant; a plant making coal briquettes; and several cotton gins. As with other aspects of the economy, the decades of war were a major obstacle to industrial expansion.

F   Energy

Some 76 percent of the energy used in Afghanistan comes from firewood and other traditional fuels burned in the home. Most of the rest comes from gas, oil, and hydroelectricity. There are dams and hydroelectric stations on the Kondoz, Kâbul, Arghandâb, and Helmand rivers. The dams also store water for irrigation.

G   Foreign Trade

Afghanistan’s chief exports are dried fruits and nuts, hand-woven carpets, wool, cotton, animal hides and pelts, and precious and semiprecious gems. Afghanistan imports food, motor vehicles, petroleum products, and textiles. The USSR was Afghanistan’s chief trading partner even before the 1979 Soviet invasion, and this relationship intensified in the 1980s. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the leading purchasers of Afghan products were the former Soviet republics, Pakistan, Britain, Germany, and India. In 2000 exports amounted to $125 million, while imports cost $524 million.

H   Currency and Banking

The unit of currency in Afghanistan is the afghani, which is divided into 100 puls. From 1981 to 1996 the official rate of exchange was fixed at 50 afghanis equal U.S.$1; after 1996 it was fixed at 3,000 afghanis equal U.S.$1. The actual market rate of the afghani has fluctuated, however. High inflation rates (up to 57 percent) contributed to a drastic decrease in the purchasing power of the afghani from 1981 to 1994, a trend that continued during the Taliban regime. The afghani, so devalued by two decades of wartime inflation, now has little value outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s central bank was founded in 1938 and is the largest bank in Afghanistan. The central bank issues all notes, executes government loans, and lends money to cities and to other banks. All private banks in Afghanistan were nationalized in 1975, mostly because a lack of clear terms for borrowers and lenders had made it difficult for people to use the country’s credit resources. No stock market or other modern form of economic development exists in Afghanistan. Instead, traditional “money bazaars” exist to provide money-lending and foreign exchange dealings. This informal and largely undocumented money transfer system, called hawala, is common throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and is considered to be one of the means by which terrorism from this part of the world has been funded.

I   Transportation

Travel within Afghanistan is severely limited by the rugged terrain. The country has only 25 km (16 mi) of railroad track, which is for shipping goods between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan when it is operational. Petroleum products are piped in from Uzbekistan to Bagrâm and from Turkmenistan to Shîndand. Natural gas used to be piped into the part of the USSR that is now Uzbekistan through a 180-km (110-mi) pipeline, but the pipeline was closed sometime in the 1990s. Except for the Amu Darya, which has 1,400 km (900 mi) of navigable waters and handles vessels up to about 500 metric tons, the country’s narrow, fast-flowing rivers are nearly all unnavigable and are used chiefly for the transportation of free-floating timber. Ports on the Amu Darya include Keleft, Kheyrâbâd, and Shîr Khân. There are 21,000 km (13,049 mi) of highways, about 13 percent are paved, 8 percent are gravel, and 79 percent are dirt.

Public transportation in Afghanistan is generally by bus and truck in which loads of people, animals, and produce are packed into small spaces or on the roof. In general women ride in the front, separated from men. City dwellers tend to travel by bus and bicycle. Horse-drawn carts are also commonly used in urban areas, probably due to the shortage of petroleum in the country. In the countryside most Afghans travel by foot, donkey, horseback, and occasionally by camel.

Kâbul and Kandahâr have international airports. There are about 50 airports in the country, about half of which have paved runways. The national airline is Ariana Airlines; Bakhtar Airlines is the domestic airline. International and domestic airline services were often suspended during the civil war, when the Taliban forced the closure of airports.

Camels and other pack animals are used for conveying goods. Because Afghanistan is a landlocked country without any seaports, it depends on neighboring countries for the shipment of goods to and from its borders.

J   Communications

Telephone and telegraph networks link the major towns. In 2000 there were 1.2 telephone mainlines in use for every 1,000 inhabitants. One international telephone link is maintained through Iran. The first Afghan television station, built with Japanese aid, went on the air in Kâbul in 1978. After the Taliban took control of the capital, they closed the country’s television stations and outlawed television and movies. Television stations began broadcasting again soon after the Taliban were driven from the capital by Northern Alliance forces in November 2001.

The history of newspapers, magazines, and other publications in Afghanistan has varied, depending upon the level of censorship in the ruling government. The first printed newspaper was distributed in 1875, and two other small newspapers were printed just after 1900. With the beginning of the reign of King Amanullah in 1919, the press flourished with the publication of more than 15 newspapers and magazines. By the 1950s, 95 percent of the nation’s printed materials came from the government. The small remainder was produced by provincial hand-operated presses. In 1962 the Kâbul Times appeared as the first English-language paper. Bakhtar News Agency subscribed to a variety of international press services and its news bulletin was available as well. Following the 1978 coup the Kâbul Times was renamed the Kâbul New Times and began publishing Communist rhetoric that was reminiscent of the worst days of the Cold War. The newspaper was highly confrontational and hostile to the West. In reaction to the suppression of the free press, antiregime shabnamah (night letters) were secretly printed (primarily in Kâbul) with uncensored news and opinions. In 1996 Afghanistan had 12 daily newspapers, but most ceased publication after the Taliban came to power. The Taliban officially revived two newspapers in 1998 to serve as organs of their regime. Many newspapers and periodicals that are published in Peshâwar, Pakistan, are distributed in Afghanistan.


Until the 1960s Afghanistan’s king and the king’s relatives dominated the central government, though the royal family had to keep the support of conservative ethnic and religious leaders. In 1963, for the first time, a prime minister was appointed from outside the royal family because it was thought that it was not in the best interests of the country or the dynasty for close members of the royal family to be too closely identified with policymaking. In 1964 a new constitution provided for a division of powers between the chief executive and an elected parliament. Political parties were never legalized under the monarchy.

In 1973 military officers led by Muhammad Daud overthrew the king and proclaimed Afghanistan a republic. In 1978 Afghanistan came under Communist rule when the military overthrew Daud and installed Noor Muhammad Taraki, who was overthrown and killed in September 1979 by Hafizullah Amin and his supporters. In December 1979 the Soviet Union mounted a full-scale invasion of the country, killed President Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal as the president. In 1987 the Soviet-backed Communist government issued a new constitution providing for a president to be indirectly elected to a seven-year term; Sayid Mohammad Najibullah was elected president. The constitution also created a bicameral (two-house) National Assembly (Meli Shura), which consisted of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The People’s Democratic Party controlled the government, but 50 of the 234 seats in the House of Representatives were reserved for opposition parties. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 and the overthrow of the Communist regime and Najibullah in April 1992, an interim council took power. In December 1992 Burhanuddin Rabbani was elected president by a special Grand Council. The term of Rabbani’s government officially expired in December 1994, but he continued to hold office until September 1996, when the Taliban took the capital and ousted his government.

With the help of U.S. and British forces, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance captured the capital in November 2001, effectively ending Taliban rule in the country. The United Nations (UN) then began pursuing efforts to establish a broad-based multiethnic government in Afghanistan. In late November Afghan delegates from the country’s major ethnic, religious, and political factions—except the Taliban—began meeting in Bonn, Germany, for UN-sponsored negotiations on the country’s political future. The UN-brokered agreement established a temporary government on December 22, 2001, to run the government for six months. Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, emerged as interim head of government. One month later Karzai named a commission to appoint a loya jirga, or grand council, that will choose a transitional government to rule when the initial six-month term of government expires. Ismail Kasim Yar, an Afghan jurist and expert on constitutional law, was designated head of the commission to organize the loya jirga. The council was to convene before the interim government’s six-month term expires to choose an additional transitional government to govern for 18 months, at which time elections would be held for the first time in the history of Afghanistan.

A   Judiciary

The constitution of 1931 stated that Islam was the sacred faith of Afghanistan and that the Hanafi rite of Islam was law. The Hanafi rite, one of four orthodox systems of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, is an interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law). The 1964 constitution stated that no laws could contradict the basic principles of Islam, but that the actual laws were to be resolutions passed by the houses of parliament, which the Sharia used when no such law existed or when the law was ambiguous. This constitution incorporated the previous religious judges into the system, but it also established the supremacy of secular law. The highest court was the Supreme Court. It administered the lower courts on the provincial, municipal, and district levels. Cases could be tried in Pashtu, Dari, or the languages of the minority nationalities. Special courts were established to try political cases. After the coup in 1978 and the change in government, a series of legal decrees designed to modernize the countryside were issued. These decrees included the elimination of usury (lending money at excessively high-interest rates), old debts, land mortgages, and bride price (payment made on behalf of a prospective husband to the bride’s family); the establishment of equality between the sexes in married life; and minimum ages of marriage. Many of the reforms were considered forward-looking, but they created conflict that helped lead to the civil war. The Taliban enforced its version of the Sharia by imposing extreme punishments such as stonings, amputations, hangings, and beheadings for certain offenses.

B   Local Government

For administrative purposes, Afghanistan is divided into 31 provinces: Badakhshân, Bâdghîs, Baghlân, Balkh, Bamian, Farâh, Faryab, Ghaznî, Ghowr, Helmand, Herât, Jowzjân, Kâbul, Kandahâr, Kâpîsâ, Konar, Kondoz, Laghmân, Lowgar, Nangarhâr, Nîmrozî, Norestân, Paktîkâ, Parvân, Paktîâ, Samangân, Sar-e Pol, Takhâr, Orûzgân, Vardak, and Zâbol. The provinces are divided into districts and subdistricts. Each province is officially administered by a governor appointed by the central government. During the civil war, a lack of central control in the country divided power over the provinces, with the result that local warlords and provincial chiefs took control over all or parts of the provinces in some areas.

C   Political Parties and Movements

In the 1980s the dominant political party was the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a Communist party founded in 1965. In 1967 it had split into two rival factions, known as Khalq (Masses), a more radical group, and Parcham (Flag), a moderate, pro-Soviet group. The Khalq was strongest among Pashto speakers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Parcham was strongest among Dari-speaking urban intellectuals.

After the PDPA came to power in 1978, Noor Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, who were Khalqis, began a purge of Parchamis. The fall of Amin in December 1979 and the Soviet intervention brought Parchami leaders to power. Babrak Karmal and Sayid Mohammed Najibullah belonged to the Parcham faction.

Many guerrilla groups, known collectively as mujahideen, formed in the 1980s to fight a war against the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. They were divided along ethnic lines and degrees of traditionalism and Muslim fundamentalism. In 1985 seven Pakistan-based groups formed a nominal united front, and in 1987 eight Iran-based groups formed their own united front. The mujahideen were mostly headquartered in Peshâwar, Pakistan, during the war with the Soviets, and they continued to maintain a substantial presence there through the ensuing civil war. They were initially financed and equipped mainly by the United States, which was interested in funding groups fighting the Soviet-installed government, and by Saudi Arabia. Most of this military aid was channeled through the Pakistani government and went to the mujahideen groups. In the early 1990s the United States largely withdrew support from the mujahideen. Saudi Arabia and Iran financed different groups within the mujahideen throughout the 1980s and continued to fund opposing mujahideen groups during the civil war. Pakistan, which has long had a vested interest in power brokering in Afghanistan, also was involved in financing various groups.

D   Social Services

Near the end of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, more than 100 national government organizations and private volunteer relief agencies from more than 20 countries were bringing relief and assistance to Afghans, both inside the country and outside to the refugee population. The government maintained hospitals to raise the level of public health. Mass vaccinations eliminated smallpox and greatly reduced typhoid fever. Government campaigns also greatly reduced the incidence of malaria. In the 1990s, however, civil war and extreme poverty prohibited improvements in the country’s welfare system.

After the Soviets departed in 1989, life in Afghanistan became desperate. In 1993 there was on average only 1 physician for every 7,002 Afghanis. In the mid-1990s there was only 1 functioning hospital for every 500,000 people in some areas. Medical supplies were in short supply because of frequent hijacking of relief convoys. Trachoma (a contagious eye disease that can result in blindness) and dysentery remained widespread, and skin diseases were rampant. Tuberculosis reached epidemic levels with surveys showing 80 percent of families with at least one member sick. Large numbers of people sustained injuries, especially lost limbs, during the war. By the mid-1990s the Red Crescent Society (the equivalent of Red Cross in Muslim countries) had opened a clinic in Kandahâr. Other humanitarian relief agencies, including the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP), subsequently began efforts to help feed Afghanistan’s starving population. Such humanitarian assistance continues to be extremely important in Afghanistan because so many of its people have been without enough food, adequate shelter, or medical care for so long. Immediately after the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, the UNWFP stepped up its efforts to deliver food to the population, particularly in remote areas that the relief agencies had been denied access to by the Taliban.

E   Defense

In 1978 the Afghan army numbered 110,000 men, but desertions reduced it to 50,000 by 1986. The USSR, which had already supplied the Afghan government with military equipment and advisers, sent in combat troops in late 1979 but withdrew them over a nine-month period in 1988 and 1989. By then the Afghan armed forces had been rebuilt to about 200,000 men in the army, security police, and militia. During the civil war, however, elements of the former army, national guard, border guard, national police (sarandoi), and ethnic militias were broken up among the various political factions. In 1995 available manpower (men aged 15 to 49) was estimated at about 5.6 million; those fit for military service was about 3 million; and men reaching military age (22) annually numbered about 200,000. At the present time, however, the military no longer exists on a national scale. In early 2002 Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, and Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, discussed the urgent need to form a well-trained and disciplined Afghan police force and army. The United States subsequently set up a task force for training Afghan troops that eventually would form a new national army in Afghanistan.


Excavation of prehistoric sites suggests that early humans lived in northern Afghanistan at least 50,000 years ago and that farming communities in Afghanistan were among the earliest in the world. After 2000 bc successive waves of people from Central Asia moved into the area. Since many of these settlers were Aryans (speakers of the parent language of the Indo-European languages), a people who also migrated to Persia (now Iran) and India in prehistoric times, the area was called Aryana, or Land of the Aryans.

By the middle of the 6th century bc the Persian Empire of the Achaemenid dynasty controlled the region of Aryana. About 330 bc, Alexander the Great defeated the last Achaemenid ruler and made his way to the eastern limits of Aryana and beyond. After his death in 323 bc several kingdoms fought for control of his Asian empire. These kingdoms included Seleucids, Bactria, and the Indian Mauryan Empire.

A   Buddhist Period

About the 1st century ad the Kushans, a central Asian people, won control of Aryana. Buddhism was the dominant religion from the 3rd century to the 8th century ad. Ruins of many monasteries and stupas, or reliquary mounds (structures where sacred relics are kept or displayed), from that period still remain. They line what was once a great Buddhist pilgrimage road from India to Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, and on into Central Asia.

Kushan power was destroyed at the end of the 4th century ad by a Turkic people of central Asian origin called the White Huns or Ephthalites. After the Ephthalites, the area was divided among several kingdoms, some Buddhist, some Hindu.

B   Islamic Period

In the 7th century ad Arab armies carried the new religion of Islam to Afghanistan. The western provinces of Herât and Sistan came under Arab rule, but the people of these provinces revolted and returned to their old beliefs as soon as the Arab armies passed. In the 10th century Muslim rulers called Samanids, from Bukhoro in what is now Uzbekistan, extended their influence into the Afghan area. A Samanid established a dynasty in Ghaznî called the Ghaznavids. The greatest Ghaznavid king, Mahmud, who ruled from 998 to 1030, established Islam throughout the area of Afghanistan. He led many military expeditions into India. Ghaznî became a center of literature and the arts.

The Ghaznavid state grew weaker under Mahmud’s descendants and gave way in the middle of the 12th century to the Ghurid kingdom, which arose in Ghur, in the west central region of present-day Afghanistan. The Ghurids in turn were routed early in the 13th century by the Khwarizm Shahs, another central Asian dynasty. They were swept away in about 1220 by the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, who devastated the land.

Near the end of the 14th century the central Asian military leader Tamerlane (Timur Lang) conquered the region of Afghanistan and moved on into India. His sons and grandsons, the Timurids, could not hold Tamerlane’s empire together. However, they ruled most of present-day Afghanistan from Herât.

The period from the Ghurid through the Timurid dynasty produced fine Islamic architectural monuments. Many of these mosques, shrines, and minarets still stand in Herât, Qal‘eh-ye Bost, Ghaznî, and Mazâr-e Sharîf. An important school of miniature painting flourished at Herât in the 15th century.

A descendant of Tamerlane on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s side, Babur (Zahiruddin Muhammad) took Kâbul in October 1504 and then moved on to India, where he established the Mughal Empire.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Afghanistan was fought over by the rulers of the Mughal Empire, centered in India, and those of the Safavid dynasty, in Persia. Usually the Mughals held Kâbul and the Persians held Herât, with Kandahâr frequently changing hands. The Pashtun tribes increased their power, but they failed to win independence.

C   An Afghan Empire

In the 18th century, Nadir Shah, the king of Persia, employed the Abdali tribe of Pashtuns in his wars in India. Ahmad Shah, an Abdali chief who had gained a high post in Nadir Shah’s army, established himself in Kandahâr after Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1747. An assembly of tribal chiefs proclaimed him shah, and the Afghans extended their rule as far east as Kashmîr and Delhi, north to the Amu Darya, and west into northern Persia.

Ahmad retired from the throne in 1772 and died in Kandahâr, whereupon his son Timur Shah assumed control. The Afghan empire survived largely intact through the next 20 years. He established his capital in Kâbul to draw power away from his rivals in Kandahâr, as well as to be closer to his richest province, the Punjab of India. Following Timur’s death in 1793, palace rivalries and internal conflicts led to the disintegration of the empire. Two sons of Timur, Shah Shuja and Shah Mahmud, fought over the remnants of the Afghan empire, with Shuja finally going into exile in India and Mahmud withdrawing to Herât, as a number of other small principalities emerged throughout Afghanistan.

Dost Muhammad Khan emerged as the new ruler, or emir, in Kâbul by 1826. Among the most pressing problems he faced was repelling the westward encroachment of the Sikhs, who gained control of the Punjab and the region up to the Khyber Pass, including the important trading post of Peshâwar. In 1837 Dost Muhammad’s forces defeated the Sikhs at Jamrûd, but failed to recover Peshâwar. This conflict and the arrival of a new Russian envoy in Kâbul made the British, who were allies of the Sikhs, extremely nervous about the security of the western frontier of their growing empire in India. These events played out during the so-called Great Game between the Russian “bear” and the British “lion,” with both empires vying for regional dominance and Afghanistan becoming caught between them. In 1838 Lord Auckland, the British governor-general of India, ordered military intervention in Afghanistan to protect British interests, thereby setting off the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842). With British and Sikh manipulation and support, Shah Shuja returned to Afghanistan to overthrow Dost Muhammad, as a British garrison was established in Kâbul and elsewhere south of the Hindu Kush mountains.

A revolt by Dost Muhammad’s son Muhammad Akbar Khan led to the forced withdrawal of the British garrison from Kâbul in the winter of 1842. Ambushed during the retreat, nearly all of the some 4,500 British troops and their 12,000 camp followers were killed. Dost Muhammad was able to return to Kâbul, from where he spent the next 20 years reunifying parts of Afghanistan until his death in 1863.

Dost Muhammad designated his third son, Sher Ali, as his successor, but civil war erupted as rivals to Sher Ali vied for control. Sher Ali defeated his rivals, notably his brother Afzul Khan, by 1868. At the same time he tried to maintain good relations with the British Raj (British-ruled India). However, the Russian conquests in Central Asia had brought that empire to the Amu Darya river on the northern border of Afghanistan by 1847. The negotiations of a Russian envoy in Kâbul renewed the unease of the British, who consequently invaded Afghanistan, instigating the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). Sher Ali was deposed in 1879, but the British, realizing the difficulties of ruling from within Afghanistan, in 1880 invited a nephew of Sher Ali, Abdur Rahman Khan (Afzul Khan’s son), to rule at their behest. However, the British limited his power beyond the borders of Afghanistan by securing control of Afghan foreign relations.

Known as the Iron Emir, Abdur Rahman recognized the threat from the expansionistic Russians and the defensive British. As a result he allowed the foreign delineation of his borders to encompass a smaller territory than he actually considered to be Afghanistan. The emergence of the present-day configuration of the country, with its narrow panhandle of the Wakhan Corridor projecting to China on the northeast, is an example of the establishment of a classic buffer state, in which to avoid inadvertent conflict, the borders of the Russian and British empires were to have no contact points in common. Similarly, the establishment of the Durand Line, the southeastern border of Afghanistan, divided the territory of the militant Pashtun tribe into two halves, with one half under the control of the British Raj, and the other inside Afghanistan. This divide-and-rule policy allowed some nominal control of a difficult region, but problems related to the tribally unpopular (and for them, unrecognized) border have continued to the present day.

D   Modern Afghanistan

Abdur Rahman Khan extended his control throughout the territory within the new boundaries of Afghanistan. His son, Habibullah, who reigned from 1901 until 1919, took the first steps toward the introduction of modern education and industry. Habibullah’s son and successor, Amanullah, initiated a brief war, the Third Anglo-Afghan War, in 1919 to end British control over Afghan foreign affairs. The resulting peace treaty recognized the independence of Afghanistan.

Amanullah was determined to modernize his country. In 1926 he took the title of king. His reforms, including efforts to induce women to give up the burka, or full-length veil, and to make men wear Western clothing in certain public areas, offended religious and ethnic group leaders. Revolts broke out, and in 1929 Amanullah fled the country.

Order was restored in 1930 by four brothers who were relatives of Amanullah. One of them, Muhammad Nadir Shah, became king, but he was assassinated in 1933. His son, Muhammad Zahir Shah, succeeded him. Power remained concentrated in the hands of Zahir and the royal family for the next four decades. In 1946 Afghanistan joined the United Nations (UN).

In 1953 Muhammad Daud, a nephew of Nadir Shah, became prime minister. Daud began to modernize Afghanistan rapidly with the help of economic and especially military aid from the USSR; the modern Afghan army was largely created with Soviet equipment and technical training. The United States declined to assist in this process. Social reform proceeded slowly because the government was afraid to antagonize conservative ethnic group leaders and devout Muslims. Relations with Pakistan deteriorated after Daud called for self-determination for the Pashtun tribes of northwestern Pakistan.

In 1963, hoping to halt the growth of Soviet influence and to improve relations with Pakistan, Zahir Shah removed Daud as prime minister. In 1964 Afghanistan adopted a new constitution, changing the country from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The armed forces still depended on the Soviet Union for equipment and training. A severe drought in the early 1970s caused economic hardship, and the popularity of the regime declined.

E   End of Monarchy

In 1973 Muhammad Daud overthrew the king in a coup. He declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as president. Daud announced ambitious plans for economic development and tried to play the USSR against Western donors, but his dictatorial government was opposed both by radical left-wing intellectuals and soldiers and by traditionalist ethnic leaders. The leading leftist organization was the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had been founded in 1965 and in 1967 split into a pro-Soviet Parcham faction and a much more radical Khalq faction. The two groups joined forces in 1976 to oppose Daud.

F   Leftist Coup and Soviet Invasion

In April 1978, after Daud launched a crackdown against the PDPA, leftist military officers overthrew him. PDPA leader Noor Muhammad Taraki became prime minister, subsequently assuming the title of president as well. Taraki and his deputy prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, both members of the Khalq faction, purged many Parcham leaders. Taraki announced a sweeping revolutionary program, including land reform, the emancipation of women, and a campaign against illiteracy. In late 1978 Islamic traditionalists and ethnic leaders who objected to rapid social change began an armed revolt against the government. By the summer of 1979 the rebels controlled much of the Afghan countryside. In September Taraki was deposed and later killed. Amin, his successor, tried vigorously to suppress the rebellion and resisted Soviet efforts to make him moderate his policies. The government’s position deteriorated, however, and on December 25, 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. They quickly won control of Kâbul and other important centers. The Soviets executed Amin on December 27 and installed Babrak Karmal, leader of PDPA’s Parcham faction, as president. Karmal, whom the Soviets considered to be more susceptible to their control, denounced Amin’s repressive policies, which reportedly included mass arrests and torture of prisoners, and promised to combine social and economic reform with respect for Islam and for Afghan traditions. But the government, dependent on Soviet military forces to bolster it, was widely unpopular.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan played out in the waning days of the Cold War, as the leaden economy and political repressions of the Soviet Union were just beginning to show signs of strain. Despite the Soviet Union’s own domestic difficulties and high-level internal advice against such a move, the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan’s government and eventual full military invasion was a long-considered and reasonably well-thought-out plan. From its earliest foreign aid in construction of military-quality bridges and highways, to its progressive planting of special agents within the Afghanistan bureaucracy and military, the Soviet Union displayed an unremitting interest in expanding its influence in the country and moving farther south toward the warm-water ports and hydrocarbon riches of the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan’s location along part of the Soviet Union’s southern border made the installation of a Soviet-friendly government there all the more desirable. The leftist coup of 1978 in Kâbul seemingly assured that the Soviets would not lose the strategic position that they had patiently established through expensive and pervasive efforts over the prior quarter-century. Elsewhere in the country, however, there was only minimal support for the emerging Communist government in Kâbul; opposition to it mounted nationwide, eventually even including significant portions of the Afghan military. The Soviet Union’s large-scale military intervention aimed to protect its interests in the region by helping the Soviet-installed government to put down this widespread opposition.

Nevertheless, resistance to the Communist government and the Soviet invaders grew spontaneously throughout Afghanistan so that by the mid-1980s there were about 90 areas in the country commanded by guerrilla leaders. The guerrillas called themselves mujahideen (Muslim holy warriors). They had gained prominence by their fighting prowess rather than through the customary routes within traditional social structures. The resistance was roughly organized into seven major mujahideen parties, largely of Sunni background, based in Peshâwar, Pakistan, in the 1980s. Other mujahideen parties were based in Iran. The mujahideen were sustained by weapons and money from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. By the mid-1980s the United States was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to aid Afghan rebels based in Pakistan.

During the 1980s Soviet forces increasingly bore the brunt of the fighting. By 1986 about 118,000 Soviet troops and 50,000 Afghan government troops were facing perhaps 130,000 mujahideen guerrillas. Although the Soviet troops used modern equipment, including tanks and bombers, the mujahideen were also well armed, and they had local support and operated more effectively in familiar mountainous terrain. In 1986 the United States began supplying the mujahideen with Stinger missiles able to shoot down Soviet armored helicopters.

The effects of the war on Afghanistan were devastating. Half of the population was displaced inside the country, forced to migrate outside the country, wounded, or killed. About 3 million war refugees fled to Pakistan and about 1.5 million fled to Iran. Estimates of combat fatalities range between 700,000 and 1.3 million people. With the school system largely destroyed, industrialization severely restricted, and large irrigation projects badly damaged, the economy of the country was crippled. Despite some negative reaction, the presence of so many refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran actually improved Afghan relations with those countries. In addition, many of the refugees improved their lives considerably by leaving Afghanistan and the dangers of war therein. Because the majority of the refugees were religious, their fellow Muslims in Iran and Pakistan accepted them, even while the Iranian and Pakistani governments were striving to bring about the fall of the Communist regime in Kâbul.

In May 1986 Karmal was replaced as PDPA leader by Mohammad Najibullah, a member of the Parcham faction who had headed the Afghan secret police. In November 1987 Najibullah was elected president.

G   Soviet Withdrawal

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, he gave high priority to getting Soviet troops out of the costly, unpopular, and apparently unwinnable war in Afghanistan. In May 1988 Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR, and the United States signed agreements providing for an end to foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and the USSR began withdrawing its forces. The Soviet withdrawal was completed in February 1989.

H   Civil War

The mujahideen, who did not sign the agreement concerning the Soviet withdrawal, maintained their fight against the Afghanistan central government with weapons that they continued to get from the United States via Pakistan. They rejected offers from Najibullah to make peace and share power, and refused to consider participating in any national government that included Communists. Thus the civil war continued. The United States and Pakistani sponsors prompted the Peshâwar-based rebels to besiege Jalâlâbâd, a strong point for Najibullah in southern Afghanistan. After months of fighting, however, the Afghan government scored a clear victory. A March 1990 coup attempt also failed to bring down Najibullah. He continued to receive Soviet food, fuel, and weapons to help maintain his control. However, rebels persisted in terrorizing the civilian population by rocket bombardment of Kâbul and other cities. Finally in late 1991 the USSR and the United States signed an agreement to end military aid to the Kâbul government and to the mujahideen rebels.

In 1992 as the resistance closed in on Kâbul, the Najibullah government fell, in part because of the defection of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek from northern Afghanistan whose militia had served the PDPA government. Two mujahideen parties from Peshâwar, both considered fundamentalist, joined forces with Dostum and Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik military commander, in the north and central mountains of Afghanistan. They won control of Kâbul, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, became interim president from July through December 1992, taking office as full president in January 1993. A strong attempt was made to keep the Pashtun leaders, who traditionally held the power in Afghanistan, out of the most important government positions. Kâbul was besieged beginning in 1992, first by various mujahideen groups and then by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, which sought to reestablish Pashtun dominance in the capital.

The Taliban emerged in the fall of 1994 as a faction of mujahideen soldiers who identified themselves as religious students. The movement started in the south and worked its way toward Herât in the northwest and Kâbul in the east. It made outstanding military gains using armor, heavy rocket artillery, and helicopters against government forces. The Taliban’s stated mission was to disarm the country’s warring factions and to impose their strictly orthodox version of Islamic law. Some experts suspected the Pakistani government of supporting the Taliban, in order to keep the combat within Afghanistan and out of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, which is a major part of the Pashtun homeland. During the many vagaries of shifting alliances, as Afghans sought a new political equilibrium, one fundamentalist and one moderate party from the Peshâwar-based mujahideen groups contributed considerable personnel to the Taliban.

The term of Rabbani’s government expired in December 1994, but he continued to hold office amid the chaos of the civil war. Factional fighting since the beginning of January 1994 kept government officers from actually occupying ministries and discharging government responsibilities. Most cities outside of Kâbul were administered by former resistance commanders and their shuras (councils). In June 1996 Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had resigned as prime minister in 1994 to launch a military offensive against forces loyal to Rabbani, again assumed the post, this time to help Rabbani’s government fight the Taliban threat. Despite their efforts, the Taliban took Kâbul in September 1996.

Rabbani and Hekmatyar fled north to join the northern-based anti-Taliban alliance led by the military commanders Massoud and Dostum. The alliance was a coalition of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who were opposed to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. The alliance took the name United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, commonly known as the United Front or the Northern Alliance. Massoud was the military commander of its chief political wing, Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Society). The Taliban advanced north toward the mountain strongholds of the Northern Alliance and by the late 1990s had taken control of almost all of Afghanistan. Northern Alliance forces held a small portion of the country’s territory in the north.

I   Taliban Regime

After taking over Kâbul, the Taliban created the Ministry for Ordering What Is Right and Forbidding What Is Wrong to impose and enforce its fundamentalist rules of behavior. The Taliban’s laws particularly affected women, who were ordered to cover themselves from head to toe in burkas (long, tentlike veils), forbidden from attending school or working outside their homes, and publicly beaten if they were improperly dressed or escorted by men not related to them. The Taliban also made murder, adultery, and drug dealing punishable by death and made theft punishable by amputation of the hand. Many of the laws alarmed human-rights groups and provoked worldwide condemnation. Most countries did not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

In 1998, after terrorist bombings struck U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States launched cruise missiles at alleged terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan. The camps were reportedly connected to an international terrorist ring allegedly run by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian expatriate named by U.S. officials as the mastermind behind the embassy bombings. Bin Laden was active in the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s, and toward the end of that war he established al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the Base”), an organization based in Afghanistan that, according to U.S. officials, connects and coordinates fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups around the world. Al-Qaeda also supported the Taliban regime, with its special forces, called the Arab Brigade, fighting alongside Taliban troops in the civil war against the Northern Alliance.

On September 9, 2001, pro-Taliban suicide bombers assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance. Two days later in the United States, terrorists hijacked passenger airplanes and deliberately crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, killing thousands of people. The U.S. government identified bin Laden as the prime suspect behind the attacks. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, refused U.S. demands that the Taliban surrender bin Laden. The U.S. government built an international antiterrorism coalition, securing the approval of many nations for a war on terrorism. American and British forces began aerial bombings of al-Qaeda camps and Taliban military positions on October 7. The Northern Alliance, meanwhile, continued its front-line offensive north of Kâbul and other strategic areas. Many Afghans fled to refugee camps in border areas of Pakistan and Iran to escape the bombings, adding to the millions of Afghans already displaced from more than two decades of war.

While the United States and Britain continued the aerial bombardment in November, Northern Alliance forces captured several strategic cities, including Kâbul. In late November hundreds of U.S. marines landed near Kandahâr in the first major infusion of American ground troops into Afghanistan. The Taliban surrendered Kandahâr, their last remaining stronghold, by December 10. The U.S.-led offensive then focused on routing out al-Qaeda forces holed up in the rugged Tora Bora cave region of eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. In March 2002 U.S. troops undertook a mission, known as Operation Anaconda, to clear Taliban and al-Qaeda forces from the Shah-i-Kot Valley, in the vicinity of Gardçz in eastern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of bin Laden remained unknown.

J   Transitional Government

United Nations-sponsored negotiations in Bonn, Germany, resulted in agreement on December 5, 2001, among four major Afghan factions to create an interim post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun leader and relative of former Afghan king Zahir Shah, was chosen to head the interim administration, which took power in Kâbul on December 22. A 4,500-member international peacekeeping force maintained a measure of law and order in the capital. Karzai’s administration was given up to six months to prepare the country for a broad-based, multiethnic transitional government, which according to the terms of the agreement would hold power for 18 months. Afghans would then elect a new government in the first-ever general elections in the country’s history. In January 2002 international donors—including more than 60 countries, major development institutions, and nongovernmental organizations— pledged more than $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan over a period of five years.



L+ocated just northwest of the modern day India, Afghanistan has long served as the northwestern border and gateway for the Indian civilization. Various Indian emperors have ruled the region over the last 3,000 years and its close relations with the rest of India have been well documented by historians.

The Hindukush Mountains in the west and Himalayas in the north and northeast served as the borders for India; Afghanistan was an integral part of the Indian kingdoms at various times during its history.

In the fourth century C.E., Taxila and Kandahar formed important centers of commerce and education for the empire of Ashoka the Great. In fact, Taxila was one of the first universities to be founded in India. In those days, the entire region of today’s Afghanistan and northern Pakistan was called Gandhar, after which an important stream of Indian art painting and sculpture has been named. The area was also an important center for Buddhism in its early days and several ancient statues of Buddha and other artifacts of Buddhism are still found in the region.

The Indian influence continued, though on and off, until modern times when Sikh kings ruled large chunks of Afghanistan. In fact, the famous Panjsher Valley in the northern Afghanistan is derived from Punjabi and means the Valley of Five Lions.

Afghanistan also served as the gateway for invasions into India, especially the invaders from central and west Asia. In 328 C.E., Alexander the Great entered the territory of present-day Afghanistan to capture Bactria (present-day Balkh). Invasions by the Scythians, White Huns and Turks followed in succeeding centuries. In 642 C.E., Arabs invaded the entire region and introduced Islam.

Arab rule quickly gave way to the Persians, who controlled the area until the Turkic Ghaznavids’ conquest in 998 C.E. Specifically, Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030) consolidated the conquests of his predecessors and turned Ghazni into a great cultural center, as well as a base for frequent forays into India. Following Mahmud’s short-lived dynasty, various princes attempted to rule sections of the country until the Mongol invasion of 1219. The Mongol invasion, led by Genghis Khan, resulted in the destruction of many cities, including Herat, Ghazni and Balkh, and the despoliation of fertile agricultural areas.

Following Genghis Khan’s death in 1227 C.E., a succession of petty chieftains and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of his descendants, Tamer lane, incorporated Afghanistan into his vast empire. Babur, a descendant of Tamer lane and the founder of India’s Moghul Dynasty at the beginning of the 16th century, made Kabul the capital of an Afghan principality, bringing Afghanistan back into the Indian orbit, a state that continued more or less uninterrupted until late 19th century.

In 1747, after the demise of the Moghul Dynasty, Ahmad Shah Durrani took charge in Delhi. He is often called the founder of the modern day Afghanistan. Throughout his reign, Durrani consolidated chieftainships, petty principalities and fragmented provinces into one country. His rule extended from Mashhad in the west to Kashmir and Delhi in the east, and from the Amu Darya (Oxus) River in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south. All of Afghanistan’s rulers, until the 1978 Marxist coup d’etat, were from Durrani’s Pashtun tribal confederation, and all were members of that tribe’s Mohammadzai clan after 1818.

Conflict between the expanding British and Russian empires significantly influenced Afghanistan during the 19th century. British concern over Russian advances in Central Asia and growing influence in Persia culminated in the two Anglo-Afghan Wars. 

The first (1839-42) resulted not only in the destruction of a British army, but is remembered today as an example of the ferocity of Afghan resistance to foreign rule. The second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) was sparked by Amir Shir Ali’s refusal to accept a British mission in Kabul. This conflict brought Amir Abdur Rahman to the Afghan throne. During his reign (1880-1901), the British and Russians officially established the boundaries of what would become modern Afghanistan. The British retained effective control over Kabul’s foreign affairs.

Afghanistan remained neutral during World War I, despite German encouragement of anti-British feelings and Afghan rebellion along the borders of British India. The Afghan king’s policy of neutrality was not universally popular within the country, however. 

In 1919, members of an anti-British movement assassinated Habibullah, Abdur Rahman’s son and successor. His third son, Amanullah, regained control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy after launching the third Anglo-Afghan War with an attack on India in the same year. During the ensuing conflict, the war-weary British relinquished their control over Afghan foreign affairs by signing the Treaty of Rawalpindi in August 1919. In commemoration of this event, Afghans celebrate Aug. 19 as Independence Day.

King Amanullah (1919-29) moved to end his country’s traditional isolation in the years following the third Anglo-Afghan War. He established diplomatic relations with most major countries and, following a 1927 tour of Europe and Turkey (the latter of which had seen modernization and secularization under Ataturk), introduced several reforms intended to modernize the country. 

Some of these reforms, such as the abolition of the traditional Muslim veil for women and the opening of a number of co-educational schools, quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders. The weakness of the army under Amanullah further jeopardized his position. He was forced to abdicate in January 1929 after Kabul fell to forces led by Bacha-i-Saqao, a Tajik. Prince Nadir Khan, a cousin of Amanullah’s, in turn defeated Bacha-i-Saqao in October of the same year. With considerable Pashtun tribal support, Khan was declared King Nadir Shah. Four years later, however, a Kabul student, seeking revenge, assassinated him. 

Mohammad Zahir Shah, Nadir Khan’s 19-year-old son, succeeded to the throne and reigned from 1933 to 1973. In 1964, King Zahir Shah promulgated a liberal constitution providing for a two-chamber legislature to which the king appointed one-third of the deputies. The people elected another third, and provincial assemblies selected the remainder indirectly. Although Zahir’s experiment in democracy” produced few lasting reforms, it permitted the growth of unofficial extremist parties of both left and right. This group included the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had close ideological ties to the Soviet Union. 

In 1967, the PDPA split into two major rival factions: the Khalq (Masses) faction headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki and supported by the military, and the Parcham (Banner) faction led by Babrak Karmal. The split reflected deep ethnic, class and ideological divisions within Afghan society.

Zahir’s cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud, served as his prime minister from 1953 to 1963. During his tenure as prime minister, Daoud solicited military and economic assistance from both Washington and Moscow and introduced controversial social policies. Daoud’s alleged support for the creation of a Pashtun state in the Pakistan- Afghan border area heightened tensions with Pakistan and eventually resulted in Daoud’s dismissal in March 1963.

Amid charges of corruption and malfeasance against the royal family and poor economic conditions caused by the severe 1971-72 drought, former Prime Minister Daoud seized power in a military coup on July 17, 1973. Daoud abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1964 constitution, and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first president and prime minister. His attempts to carry out badly needed economic and social reforms met with little success, and the new constitution promulgated in February 1977 failed to quell chronic political instability.

Seeking to exploit the mounting disaffection of the populace, the PDPA reunified with Moscow’s support. On April 27-28, 1978, the PDPA initiated a bloody coup that resulted in the overthrow and death of Daoud and most of his family. Nur Muhammad Taraki, secretary general of the PDPA, became president of the Revolutionary Council and prime minister of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Opposition to the Marxist government emerged almost immediately. This reaction was largely due to the fact that the PDPA brutally imposed a Marxist-style reform program during its first 18 months of rule, which ran counter to deeply rooted Islamic traditions. 

Decrees advocating the abolition of usury (lending money and charging exorbitant interest rates), changes in marriage customs, and land reform were particularly misunderstood and upsetting to highly conservative villagers. In addition, thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment, and the intelligentsia were imprisoned, tortured or murdered. Conflicts within the PDPA also surfaced early and resulted in exiles, purges, mass imprisonment and executions. 

By the summer of 1978, a major revolt in the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan spread into a countrywide insurgency. In September 1979, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier been the prime minister and minister of defense, seized power from Taraki after a palace shootout. Over the next two months, instability plagued Amin’s regime as he moved against perceived enemies in the PDPA. By December, party morale was crumbling, and the insurgency was growing.

The Soviet Union moved quickly to take advantage of the April 1978 coup. In December 1978, Moscow signed a new bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan, and the Soviet military assistance program increased significantly. The regime’s survival increasingly was dependent upon Soviet military equipment and advisers, and over time, the Afghan army began to collapse. 

By October 1979, however, relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were tense as Hafizullah Amin refused to take Soviet advice on how to stabilize and consolidate his government. Faced with a deteriorating security situation on Dec. 24, 1979, large numbers of Soviet airborne forces, joining thousands of Soviet troops already on the ground, began to land in Kabul under the pretext of a field exercise. Two days later, these invasion forces killed Hafizullah Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction, as prime minister. Massive Soviet ground forces invaded from the north on Dec. 27.

Following the invasion, the Karmal regime, although backed by an expeditionary force of about 120,000 Soviet troops, was unable to establish authority outside Kabul. As much as 80 percent of the countryside, including parts of Herat and Kandahar eluded effective government control. 

An overwhelming majority of Afghans opposed the communist regime, either actively or passively. Afghan mujahidin (freedom fighters) made it almost impossible for the regime to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers. Poorly armed at first, in 1984 the mujahidin began receiving substantial assistance in the form of weapons and training from the United States and other outside powers. 

In May 1985, the seven principal Peshawar-based guerrilla organizations formed an alliance to coordinate their political and military operations against the Soviet occupation. Late in 1985, the mujahidin were active in and around Kabul, launching rocket attacks and assassinating high government officials. The failure of the Soviet Union to win over a significant number of Afghan collaborators, or to rebuild a viable Afghan army, forced it to bear an increasing responsibility for fighting the resistance and for civilian administration.

Soviet and popular displeasure with the Karmal regime led to its demise in May 1986. Muhammad Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police (KHAD), replaced Karmal. Najibullah had established a reputation for brutal efficiency during his tenure as KHAD chief. As prime minister, though, Najibullah was ineffective and highly dependent on Soviet support. Undercut by deep-seated divisions within the PDPA, the regime’s efforts to broaden its base of support proved futile.

By the mid-1980s, the tenacious Afghan resistance movement, aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others, was exacting a high price from the Soviets, both militarily within Afghanistan, and also by souring the U.S.S.R.’s relations with much of the Western and Islamic world. Although informal negotiations for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had been underway since 1982, it was not until 1988 that the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the United States and Soviet Union serving as guarantors, signed an agreement settling the major differences between them.

The agreement, known as the Geneva Accords, included five major documents. The accords called for U.S. and Soviet non-interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan and Afghanistan; the right of refugees to return to Afghanistan without fear of persecution or harassment; and, most importantly, a timetable that ensured full Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan by Feb. 15, 1989. About 14,500 Soviet and an estimated one million Afghan lives were lost between 1979 and the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Significantly, the mujahidin were neither party to the negotiations, nor to the 1988 agreement, and consequently, they refused to accept the terms of the accords. As a result, civil war did not end with the Soviet withdrawal, which was completed as scheduled in February 1989. Instead, it escalated. Najibullah’s regime, though failing to win popular support, territory or international recognition, was able to remain in power until 1992. 

The Soviet-supported Najibullah regime did not collapse until the defection of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam and his Uzbek militia in March 1992. As the victorious mujahidin entered Kabul to assume control over the city and the central government, a new round of internecine fighting began between the various militias, which had coexisted only uneasily during the Soviet occupation. With the demise of their common enemy, the militias’ ethnic, clan, religious and personality differences surfaced, and the civil war continued.

Seeking to resolve these differences, the leaders of the Peshawar-based mujahidin groups agreed in mid-April of 1992 to establish a 51-member interim Islamic Jihad Council to assume power in Kabul. Moderate leader, Professor Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, was to chair the council for three months, after which a 10-member leadership council composed of mujahidin leaders and presided over by the head of the Jamiat-i-Islami, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, was to be set up for a period of four months. During this period, a Loya Jirga, or grand council of Afghan elders, would convene and designate an interim administration to hold power for up to a year, pending elections. 

In May 1992, however, Rabbani formed the leadership council, undermining Mojaddedi’s fragile authority. In June, Mojaddedi surrendered power to the Leadership Council, which then elected Rabbani president. Heavy fighting broke out in August 1992 in Kabul between forces loyal to President Rabbani and rival factions, particularly those who supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami.

After Rabbani convened a highly controversial council to extend his tenure in December 1992, fighting in the capital flared up in January and February 1993. The Islamabad Accord, signed in March 1993, which appointed Hekmatyar prime minister, failed to have a lasting effect. A follow-up agreement, the Jalalabad Accord, called for the militias to be disarmed but was never fully implemented.

Through 1993, Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami forces, allied with the Shi’a Hezb-i-Wahdat militia, clashed intermittently with Rabbani and Masood’s Jamiat forces. Cooperating with Jamiat were forces of Sayyaf’s Ittehad-i-Islami and, periodically, troops loyal to ethnic Uzbek strongman, Abdul Rashid Dostam. On Jan. 1, 1994, Dostam switched sides, precipitating large-scale fighting in Kabul and in the northern provinces, causing thousands of civilian casualties in Kabul and elsewhere and creating a new wave of displaced people and refugees.

In late 1994, a force called the Taliban, consisting of primarily Pashtun refugees, came to the fore in Afghanistan, intending to install an Islamic government. The group systematically eliminated all other factions and gradually took control of many of Afghanistan’s provinces. The Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 and executed former communist leader Najibullah and his brother whom had taken refuge in UN office since 1992. 

Initially, many Afghans welcomed the Taliban as a force to reunite the country. But opinions were changed over the course of the year. The Taliban regime finally came to an end after it was attacked by The Coalition forces of different countries headed by USA. 

The latest is that an interim government comprising of almost all afghan ethnic groups has been formed in Kabul, Afghanistan on september 22, 2001. The head of the interim government is Hamid Karzai. He is trying to assure the people that Afghanistan has entered a new era after 23 years of war, which turned the country into ruins. The People of Afghanistan will only remember september 22, 2001 as a remarkable day only if the interim government succeeds in bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan.


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