Afghanistan is located in the heart of Eurasia, and is populated by Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmens, some smaller ethnic nationalities, and nomads known as “Kuchis”. Geographically near to the first cradles of civilization, one finds artifacts dating back to the period of the Indus Valley civilization (2000 BC). Since time immemorial this country has been situated on the crossroad of cultures, between China and the Middle East, and between South Asia and Europe. When Alexander the Great entered the ancient country of Ariana – as the region in which modern Afghanistan lies was then called – he found well established cities such as Herat and Kandahar, before founding some of his own, such as Ai Khanoum on the Oxus (Amu Darya river).
The provinces now composing Afghanistan were important satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire – one of the successor states of the sprawling Macedonian empire – was centered on the city of Balkh, and Afghanistan became a political power in its own right. Since then the city of Balkh, near modern Mazar-e Sharif, is known as “the mother of cities” (Umm al Bilad) because it maintained its status as an important center of learning and culture through different historical epochs. For example, the first poetess of Islam, Rabi’a Balkhi, lived here, and the philosopher poet Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi was born near Balkh, as was Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna), one of the greatest scientists of his age.
Since Afghanistan’s economy is primarily agrarian, rural life is still the center of the country’s socio-economic activities. Although, Afghan agriculture has been improved with modern technology, no one can travel around the country without acquiring a feeling that the land and the people who work it are still in perfect harmony.
During the past fifty years, an ever-increasing number of archaeological expeditions have come to Afghanistan. As a result, the country’s heritage has become ever more rich and varied, and new discoveries are being made each year. Many of these artifacts are displayed at the Kabul Museum. As late as 1957 the world knew nothing of the existence of the Minaret of Jam. Standing at the very heart of the remote province of Ghor, it is the second tallest minaret in the world.
In the 2nd century BC the largely Zoroastrian country of Afghanistan was penetrated by a new religion, or life philosophy: Buddhism. When the ancient Indo-Aryan Hindu gods reestablished their prominence in India, Afghanistan, with its famous monastic sites of Hadda (near Jalalabad), Bamiyan and others became the center of Buddhism. The world’s largest statues depicting the Buddha were hewn in the cliff of Bamiyan, from where pilgrims spread Buddhism to China, Japan and the rest of East Asia, centuries later. In the National Museum of Kabul, as well as in foreign museum collections, the magnificent art of this period, which marries Hellenic, Sassanian, Indian and nomadic Turkic styles, shows how accomplished this syncretism was. The mysterious Kushan empire reigned during this period of Afghan history (1st to 6th centuries B.C.) from its seat near Kabul.
Path to Islam:
In the 7th and 8th centuries Afghans converted to Islam, which gave rise to a new series of great dynasties: the Ghaznavids (11th to12th centuries) and the Ghorids (12th to 13th centuries) conquered vast expanses of territories stretching all the way to Delhi. At the courts of these rulers writers, scientists and craftsmen from all regions of Asia worked. In Ghazni, the poet Firdawsi accomplished his epic “Shahnameh” (Book of Kings), which, since then, has become the fundamental text of Persian-language culture. In the long-lost capital of the Ghorids – Firuzkoh, the “Turquoise Mountain” – the Minaret of Jam was built. It is still the highest minaret in Central Asia.
After the Mongols destroyed most of the country, the Timurids, descendants of Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane) ruled the country (15th century) and left behind them impressive monuments such as the Great Mosque of Herat (Masjed-e Jame’ah) and the tomb of Gawhar Shad, one of the most famous Queens of Islam. Herat, then a center of Islamic culture, became known for its poets, such as Jami, and its fine miniatures (school of Behzad).
One of the late descendants of Amir Timur, Prince Babur, fled the Uzbek invasion of Central Asia and founded his kingdom in his beloved Kabul (where his tomb still lies, in the Babur Gardens) before his descendants went on to create the great Mughal Empire in India, of which Afghanistan long remained a part. However, in this period, as the European seafarers opened the sea-route to the East, the old caravan roads became less frequented, and the geo-strategic importance of Afghanistan declined.
Formation of Modern Afghanistan:
In 1747 Ahmad Shah Durrani established the country of Afghanistan in Kandahar, to guarantee the independence of Afghanistan by acclaiming sovereignty from the neighboring powers. Since then Afghanistan has managed to always remain an independent nation. This became particularly difficult in the 19th century, when the European powers of England and Russia both tried to occupy this strategic territory in what became known as “the Great Game”. Afghanistan fought for its sovereignty in three Anglo-Afghan wars (1839-43, 1878-1880 and 1919) while also fending off Russian and Iranian intrigues.
The modern state of Afghanistan was created by King Abdurrahman Khan (1880-1901), who established the administrative structures which still exist today. His state-building efforts were continued by his descendants Amir Habibullah and King Amanullah, who went to considerable lengths to modernize Afghan society and its political institutions. He established the Prime Minister’s office, and created, among other ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1922 (led by Mohammed Darwazi Badakhshani), who immediately embarked on a world tour, to see their progress. King Amanullah himself also traveled widely through Europe and Asia, thus putting Afghanistan on the world map in the same period as when the League of Nations, for the first time in world history, brought together all independent countries of the world.
King Amanullah’s efforts to modernize Afghan society created a backlash in society, leading to his overthrow and the short reign of Habibullah Kalakani, known as King Habibullah (who reigned from February1929 to November 1929). He in turn was overthrown by Nader Shah, father of the last king (and current Father of the Nation) Zaher Shah, who ascended the throne in 1933. A long period of peace followed, in which Afghanistan stayed on its course of neutrality (during World War II). During the Cold War, Afghanistan was member of the group of non-aligned nations, and received support for its development from both the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
Establishment of the Republic:
In 1973 Prime Minister Daud deposed the King, proclaimed the republic of Afghanistan and became President of the new republic. Political parties of both communist and religious convictions became more active in this period, leading to a coup of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) led by Nur Mohammed Taraki – from the Khalqi faction of the PDPA – in 1978. The situation then quickly deteriorated: the Islamist parties inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood revolted against the communist regime, while from within the PDPA a new coup brought Hafizullah Amin – from the Parchami faction – to power, in the same year (1978). The destabilization and incipient civil war culminated in the Soviet invasion at the end of 1979 – which only worsened civil strife. The Soviets put Babrak Karmal in power (1980-1986) and brought approximately 100,000 troops to the country, to combat the growing resistance.
In 1986, after approximately 1.5 million martyrs and casualties and the exodus of 5 million Afghan refugees abroad, the Soviets were forced to retreat. Their gradual withdrawal was completed in 1989, shortly before the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Meanwhile, Mohammed Najibullah had replaced Babrak Karmal as president, and embarked on a politics of national reconciliation to end the civil war. These attempts failed, and in 1992 his regime was overthrown by the victorious mujihadeen.
End of the Communist Era:
Despite efforts to form a government of national unity comprising the major Islamist parties – who elected Burhanuddin Rabbani as their first president – these parties soon fell into violent disagreement, and the inter-factions war soon resumed, leading to greater destruction of the country and its capital Kabul. In 1996 the Taliban, who was created by the active and sustained support of Pakistan and some other regional and international entities, captured Kabul and established a severe regime (the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan) which imposed heavy restrictions on Afghans’ human rights, in particular those of women. The institutions of the Afghan state, already seriously weakened by the long civil war, were further sidelined by the fact that the real power was not wielded by the ministries in Kabul, but by the circle around Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, in Kandahar.
The Taliban never conquered all of Afghanistan, and the ongoing civil war, compounded by international isolation and a terrible drought, brought the Afghan people to the brink of starvation. Meanwhile the Taliban, who also enjoyed significant support from Pakistan, harbored increasing numbers of international terrorists from countries all around the globe through the networks of Al Qaeda. Among other crimes against Afghan humanity and culture, the Taliban also destroyed the famous Buddha statues of Bamiyan in March 2001, drawing international opprobrium.
Beginning of a new Era:
After Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the international community, led by the United States, intervened to put an end to the rogue regime in Afghanistan. The United Nation’s Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the use of force to overthrow the Taliban. On October 7 the USA, having exhausted diplomatic means, started bombing the Taliban and supporting the resistance of the United Front (also known as the Northern Alliance) who provided the ground forces. Despite the assassination by Al Qaeda on September 9 of Commander Ahmad Shah Massud, the Front’s famous military strategist, the northern forces captured Kabul on 14 November 2001.
During the Bonn conference (December 2001) an agreement was reached to establish an interim administration led by H. E. Hamid Karzai and to station an international peace-keeping force – ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force – in Kabul. In June 2002 an Emergency “Loya Jirga” (the traditional tribal Afghan conflict-solving mechanism) was convened in Kabul to nominate a transitional government. It elected Karzai as its President. In accordance with the road map laid out in Bonn, implemented with the support of UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan), a Constitutional Loya Jirga approved a new constitution for the country in January 2004. It established the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and restored the country’s guarantee of human rights and adherence to democracy. This was followed by the country’s first nationwide presidential elections in October 2004, wherein President Karzai won with an absolute majority. Parliamentary elections were held in September 2005, which led to the establishment of Afghanistan’s first democratically elected National Assembly with full legislative powers. The Parliament consists of an upper and a lower house (Meshrano and Wolesi Jirga). Provincial Councils were elected simultaneously.