Special Report—United We Stand

Afghanistan: A Brief History

The "Great Game"
Afghan Independence
A Marxist Government
The Taliban Take Power
Conflict over Terrorism

While physical geography has helped shape the history of every nation, this has been especially important in the case of Afghanistan. About the size of Texas, Afghanistan is located in the northwestern corner of South Asia. Over the centuries, many people crossed through Afghanistan on their way to or from China, the Middle East, and India. Traders brought new goods and ideas, and invaders brought frequent wars. Afghanistan's many mountains made the country difficult for foreigners to conquer. The mountains also have made it difficult for the nation to unify, since the Afghan people live in many separate ethnic groups. National Geographic has a map of Afghanistan.

The "Great Game"

During the 1800s, events in Afghanistan were dominated by its two strong neighbors. To the north lay Russia, which had taken over huge areas of Asia and appeared eager to continue expanding. To the south lay British-ruled India, known as the "jewel in the crown" of the British empire. For several decades Russia and Britain competed over Afghanistan, which both sides saw as a key to the control of India. This struggle was called the "Great Game," but it was a deadly serious business for the Russians and British, as well as for the Afghans, who did not want to be ruled by either side.

Between the 1830s and the 1910s, Britain and Afghanistan fought three wars as the British tried to control Afghanistan. The British soon learned how fiercely the Afghans could fight against foreign invaders. In 1842, for example, Afghans slaughtered about 16,000 British soldiers and civilians as they tried to escape from the capital city of Kabul.

In 1893, the British established an unofficial border called the Durand Line that separated Afghanistan from India. The border ran through an area dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group, placing some Pashtuns in Afghanistan and others in India. This part of India became part of the new nation of Pakistan after British colonial rule over India ended in 1947. (Pakistan was created out of areas of India where Muslims formed a majority of the population.) The large number of Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has linked these two nations' histories to the present day.

Afghan Independence

Finally, in 1919, the British gave up their efforts to dominate Afghanistan, and Afghanistan declared its independence. Amanullah, the first king of the independent Afghanistan, introduced several reforms designed to modernize the country, such as reducing the power of religious leaders and giving women more freedom. These measures so angered many Afghans that the king was forced to give up the throne. His successor, Muhammad Nadir Shah, was assassinated four years later. Crown prince Muhammad Zahir Shah, the son of Nadir Shah, took over the throne at 19 years of age.

Muhammad Zahir Shah ruled for four decades (1933–1973), restoring stability and taking some steps toward democracy. In 1973, however, a group of military officers overthrew Muhammad Zahir Shah and set up a republic. One of the officers, Muhammad Daoud Khan, became president and prime minister. In 1978, his government too was toppled.

A Marxist Government

Afghanistan's new government was Marxist. When it tried to force communism on the country and jailed or murdered thousands of Afghans, a new rebellion was born. Its leaders were mujahideen (moo-jah-heh-DEEN), or "holy warriors," who hated communism and wanted to create an Islamic government. (Almost all Afghans are Muslim.)

The Marxist government had very little public support, and by 1979 it was in danger of collapse, despite substantial help from the Soviet Union. The Soviets then launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan to keep the Marxists in power. Through the 1980s, more than 100,000 Soviet troops waged a brutal war against the mujahideen. Yet like the British a century earlier, the Soviets were unable to conquer Afghanistan. The United States made the Soviets' job harder by supplying the mujahideen with training and weapons, including small, portable missiles that could shoot down Soviet helicopters.

In 1989 the last Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan. Close to 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed in the war, as had roughly one million Afghans. Several million other Afghans had fled the country to escape the fighting, most of them going to refugee camps in Pakistan.

The Taliban Take Power

Afghanistan's Marxist government hung on to power until 1992, when the mujahideen finally overwhelmed it. The mujahideen then began fighting among themselves. Out of this new conflict arose a new group, the Taliban, or "Students of Islamic Knowledge Movement." By 1996 the Taliban controlled most of the country, including the capital city of Kabul.

The Taliban imposed an extremely harsh and rigid version of Islam on Afghanistan. The Internet, movies, and television were outlawed. Popular music was banned as well as kite-flying. Men were required to wear beards. Girls were forbidden to go to school. Women were barred from working outside the home, or even from leaving home without a male relative. The government blew up several huge, historic Buddhist statues because it believed them to be offensive to Islam.

Many Muslims, both inside and outside Afghanistan, criticized these actions. The Northern Alliance, a collection of mujahideen groups in northeastern Afghanistan, fought the Taliban, though it controlled only a small part of the country.

Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. One reason other countries refused to recognize the Taliban was because the Taliban gave support to al-Qaeda, a terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden. In 1998, when two American embassies in Africa were bombed, the United States believed al-Qaeda was responsible and launched cruise missiles at an al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan.

Conflict over Terrorism

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States declared Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the prime suspects. The U.S. government demanded that the Taliban turn over bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders for trial. The Taliban refused. The United States then began a military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom, aimed at destroying al-Qaeda and Taliban forces and at supporting the Northern Alliance, which vowed to overturn Taliban rule. About 100 nations around the world, including a number of Muslim nations, joined the anti-terrorism coalition led by the United States.

This latest conflict in Afghanistan could shape events throughout the region. Pakistan long supported the Taliban. In fact, many Taliban leaders were educated in refugee camps in Pakistan. Also, both countries contain large numbers of Pashtuns. Yet Pakistan's government supported the American military campaign against Afghanistan. The United States has been concerned that the Pakistani government will come under attack from Pakistanis sympathetic to the Taliban.

The United States also is concerned that Pakistan and India, which have been bitter enemies for decades and both of which now possess nuclear weapons, will once again go to war. India has accused Pakistan of supporting terrorist attacks in the Indian-controlled territory of Kashmir, which the two nations have fought over in the past.

Russia has backed the United States in this conflict, though some Russians have been unhappy with American military involvement so close to its borders. American forces are using bases in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. China also declared its support for the war on terrorism, despite its recent tense relations with the United States.

In early December, as allied forces were driving the Taliban from power, members of several Afghan groups signed an agreement in the city of Bonn, Germany. The agreement created a temporary government to rule Afghanistan while a permanent government that represents all the people is set up. The Afghan delegates at the Bonn talks agreed that the temporary government would be led by Hamid Karzai. Karzai is Pashtun, which is the country's largest ethnic group. The new administration is made up of a chairman, five deputies, and 23 other ministers, including two women. As of December 22, 2001, it became the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan.