Afghanistan in Focus
A Brief Overview and History
From Operation World, 2001
The history of Afghanistan is a long and brutal one: more brutal than the rugged and desolate terrain that characterizes this land. Except for brief periods of peace, strength, and conquest, its history has been one of internal strife and external invasion. When not fighting with their neighbors over territory, they were either being invaded by the Mongols, the British or the Soviet Union, or they were engaged in almost ceaseless civil, ethnic and political conflict within the country. This has left little time and energy for building a politically progressive and economically prosperous country. It is now one of the poorest countries on earth.
Islam came to Afghanistan in 652AD as a result of Arab-Muslim conquests. The kingdoms in Kabul battled for almost a hundred years against these conquerors. However, the country became a center of Islamic power and civilization in the 10th and 11th centuries. In 1221 Ghengis Khan and the Mongols brutally invaded Afghanistan, burning most of the Afghan cities and destroying the irrigation system resulting in the permanent desertification of much fertile land. The Mongols controlled Afghanistan for 100 years. The first united Afghan state was established by Ahmad Shah Durani in 1747. During his rule, Afghanistan became the greatest Muslim empire of its time with its domain stretching from Central Asia to Delhi and from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea.
In 1838 the British invaded the country with the help of an ex-king in the first of three Anglo-Afghan wars. The final war in 1919 resulted in full Afghan independence from Britain.
In 1933, Zahir Shah inherited the throne upon the assassination of his father. The U.S. formally recognized Afghanistan in 1934. A period of relative stability and economic and political progress ensued with a growing role for women in governement and society. The king changed Afghanistan to a constitutional monarchy in 1964 with freedom of the press and permission for political parties. With Soviet help, communist insurgents used these new freedoms to undermine the fragile new democracy.
In July 1973, the king, Zahir Shah, was overthrown by Prince Daoud Khan, his cousin, in a Russian-backed coup while the king was out of the country. Displeased with Daoud’s independence, the Soviets overthrew Daoud in 1978 and instituted the first Marxist government in Afghanistan. This was followed by an invasion of Soviet troops in 1979. After a 10-year war with the Mujahadeen, a loose alliance of Islamic rebel groups supported by the U.S., the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrew its support of the Mujahadeen. This led to resentment toward the U.S. for the “abandonment” of the Afghan people and opened the door for more radical elements supported by Pakistan to take over. The Soviet’s “puppet” government was overthrown in 1992 by the Mujahadeen and an Islamic state was established. But soon the various factions of the Mujahadeen turned their guns on each other. Bitter factional fighting killed over 50,000 people in just the capital of Kabul.
In 1994 the previously unknown Taliban militias were born and advanced rapidly against the government. With the support of Pakistan, the Taliban captured the capital, Kabul, in Sept. 1996. Persecution of women and harsh religious restrictions were imposed. In October 1996 various opposition groups from the pre-Taliban government came together to form the Northern Alliance to oppose Taliban rule.
On September 10, 2001, the day before the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Ahmad Shah Masood, leader of the Northern Alliance resisting Taliban rule, was assassinated by radicals posing as journalists.
On October 7 the U.S. launched air strikes against the Taliban regime and the terrorist camps of Osama bin Laden. With the help of U.S. air support the Northern Alliance then moved quickly to control the capital, Kabul, and the majority of the country.
The U.S., U.N. and other countries in the region are now working with various Afghan opposition groups, including the former king, Zahir Shah, to form a new broad-based, ethnically-diverse government for Afghanistan and to end years of factional fighting.