The location of Afghanistan astride the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and central Asia has enticed conquerors throughout history. Its high mountains, although hindering unity, helped the hill tribes to preserve their independence. It is probable that there were well-developed civilizations in S Afghanistan in prehistoric times, but the archaeological record is not clear. Certainly cultures had flourished in the north and east before the Persian king Darius I (c.500 B.C.) conquered these areas. Later, Alexander the Great conquered (329327 B.C.) them on his way to India.
After Alexander's death (323 B.C.) the region at first was part of the Seleucid empire. In the north, Bactria became independent, and the south was acquired by the Maurya dynasty. Bactria expanded southward but fell (mid-2d cent. B.C.) to the Parthians and rebellious tribes (notably the Saka). Buddhism was introduced from the east by the Yüechi, who founded the Kushan dynasty (early 2d cent. B.C.). Their capital was Peshawar. The Kushans declined (3d cent. A.D.) and were supplanted by the Sassanids, the Ephthalites, and the Turkish Tu-Kuie.
The Muslim conquest of Afghanistan began in the 7th cent. Several short-lived Muslim dynasties were founded, the most powerful of them having its capital at Ghazna (see Ghazni). Mahmud of Ghazna, who conquered the lands from Khorasan in Iran to the Punjab in India early in the 11th cent., was the greatest of Afghanistan's rulers. Jenghiz Khan (c.1220) and Timur (late 14th cent.) were subsequent conquerors of renown. Babur, a descendant of Timur, used Kabul as the base for his conquest of India and the establishment of the Mughal empire in the 16th cent. In the 18th cent. the Persian Nadir Shah extended his rule to N of the Hindu Kush. After his death (1747) his lieutenant, Ahmad Shah, an Afghan tribal leader, established a united state covering most of present-day Afghanistan. His dynasty, the Durrani, gave the Afghans the name (Durrani) that they themselves frequently use.
The reign of the Durrani line ended in 1818, and no predominant ruler emerged until Dost Muhammad became emir in 1826. During his rule the status of Afghanistan became an international problem, as Britain and Russia contested for influence in central Asia. Aiming to control access to the northern approaches to India, the British tried to replace Dost Muhammad with a former emir, subordinate to them. This policy caused the first Afghan War (183842) between the British and the Afghans. Dost Muhammad was at first deposed but, after an Afghan revolt in Kabul, was restored. In 1857, Dost Muhammad signed an alliance with the British. He died in 1863 and was succeeded, after familial fighting, by his third son, Sher Ali.
As the Russians acquired territory bordering on the Amu Darya, Sher Ali and the British quarreled, and the second Afghan War began (1878). Sher Ali died in 1879. His successor, Yakub Khan, ceded the Khyber Pass and other areas to the British, and after a British envoy was murdered the British occupied Kabul. Eventually Abd ar-Rahman Khan was recognized (1880) as emir. In the following years Afghanistan's borders were more precisely defined. Border agreements were reached with Russia (1885 and 1895), British India (the Durand Agreement, 1893), and Persia (1905). The Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 guaranteed the independence of Afghanistan under British influence in foreign affairs. Abd ar-Rahman Khan died in 1901 and was succeeded by his son Habibullah. Despite British pressure, Afghanistan remained neutral in World War I. Habibullah was assassinated in 1919. His successor, Amanullah, attempting to free himself of British influence, invaded India (1919). This third Afghan War was ended by the Treaty of Rawalpindi, which gave Afghanistan full control over its foreign relations.
The attempts of Amanullah (who, after 1926, styled himself king) at Westernizationincluding reducing the power of the country's religious leaders and increasing the freedom of its womenprovoked opposition that led to his deposition in 1929. A tribal leader, Bacha-i Saqao, held Kabul for a few months until defeated by Amanullah's cousin, Muhammad Nadir Khan, who became King Nadir Shah. The new king pursued cautious modernization efforts until he was assassinated in 1933. His son Muhammad Zahir Shah succeeded him. Afghanistan was neutral in World War II; it joined the United Nations in 1946.
When British India was partitioned (1947), Afghanistan wanted the Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province, who had been separated from Afghan's Pashtuns by the Durand Agreement of 1893, to be able to choose whether to join Afghanistan, join Pakistan, or be independent. The Pathans were only offered the choice of joining Pakistan or joining India; they chose the former. In 1955, Afghanistan urged the creation of an autonomous Pathan state, Pushtunistan (Pakhtunistan). The issue subsided in the late 1960s but was revived by Afghanistan in 1972 when Pakistan was weakened by the loss of its eastern wing (now Bangladesh) and the war with India.
In great-power relations, Afghanistan was neutral until the late 1970s, receiving aid from both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the early 1970s the country was beset by serious economic problems, particularly a severe long-term drought in the center and north. Maintaining that King Muhammad Zahir Khan had mishandled the economic crisis and in addition was stifling political reform, a group of young military officers deposed (July, 1973) the king and proclaimed a republic. Lt. Gen. Muhammad Daud Khan, the king's cousin, became president and prime minister. In 1978, Daud was deposed by a group led by Noor Mohammed Taraki, who instituted Marxist reforms and aligned the country more closely with the Soviet Union. In Sept., 1979, Taraki was killed and Hafizullah Amin took power. Shortly thereafter, the USSR sent troops into Afghanistan, Amin was executed, and the Soviet-supported Babrak Karmal became president.
In the late 1970s the government faced increasing popular opposition to its social policies. By 1979 guerrilla opposition forces, popularly called mujahidin (Islamic warriors), were active in much of the country, fighting both Soviet forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government. In 1986, Karmal resigned and was replaced by Mohammad Najibullah. The country was devastated by the Afghanistan War (197989), which took an enormous human and economic toll. After the Soviet withdrawal, the government steadily lost ground to the guerrilla forces. In early 1992, Kabul was captured, and the guerrilla alliance set up a new government consisting of a 50-member ruling council. Burhanuddin Rabbani was named interim president.
The victorious guerrillas proved unable to unite, however, and the forces of guerrilla leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar launched attacks on the new government. As fighting among various factions continued, Afghanistan was in effect divided into several independent zones, each with its own ruler. Beginning in late 1994 a militia of Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist students, the Taliban, emerged as an increasingly powerful force. In early 1996, as the Taliban continued its attempt to gain control of Afghanistan, Rabbani and Hekmatyar signed a power-sharing accord that made Hekmatyar premier. In September, however, the Taliban captured Kabul and declared themselves the legitimate government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; they imposed a particularly puritanical form of Islamic law in the two thirds of the country they controlled.
In Aug., 1998, as the Taliban appeared on the verge of taking over the whole country, U.S. missiles destroyed what was described by the Pentagon as an extensive terrorist training complex near Kabul run by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born militant accused of masterminding the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In Mar., 1999, a UN-brokered peace agreement was reached between the Taliban and their major remaining foe, the forces of the Northern Alliance, under Ahmed Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik and former mujahidin leader, but fighting broke out again in July. In November, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Afghanistan; this action and the 1998 U.S. missile attacks were related to the Afghani refusal to turn over bin Laden. Additional UN sanctions, including a ban on arms sales to Taliban forces, were imposed in Dec., 2000.
The Taliban controlled some 90% of the country by 2000, but their government was not generally recognized by the international community (the United Nations recognized President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the Northern Alliance). Continued warfare had caused over a million deaths, while 3 million Afghans remained in Pakistan and Iran as refugees. Adding to the nation's woe, a drought in W and central Asia that began in the late 1990s has been most severe in Afghanistan.
In early 2001 the Taliban militia destroyed all statues in the nation, including two ancient giant Buddhas in Bamian, outside Kabul. The destruction was ordered by religious leaders, who regarded the figures as idolatrous and un-Islamic; the action was met with widespread international dismay and condemnation, even from other Islamic nations. In September, in a severe blow to the Northern Alliance, Massoud died as a result of a suicide bomb attack by assassins posing as Arab journalists. Two days after that attack, devastating terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which bin Laden was apparently involved in planning, prompted new demands by U.S. President Bush for his arrest.
When the Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over, the United States launched (Oct., 2001) attacks against Taliban and Al Qaeda (bin Laden's organization) positions and forces. The United States also began providing financial aid and other assistance to the Northern Alliance and other opposition groups. Assisted by U.S. air strikes, opposition forces ousted Taliban and Al Qaeda forces from Afghanistan's major urban areas in November and December, often aided by the defection of forces allied with the Taliban. Several thousand U.S. troops began entering the country in November, mainly to concentrate on the search for bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and to deal with the remaining pockets of their forces.
In early December a pan-Afghan conference in Bonn, Germany, appointed Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun with ties to the former king, as the nation's interim leader, replacing President Rabbani. By Jan., 2002, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were largely defeated, although most of their leaders and unknown numbers of their forces remained at large. Fighting continued on a sporadic basis, with occasional real battles, as occurred near Gardez in Mar., 2002. The country itself largely reverted to the control of the regional warlords who held power before the Taliban, and their forces again engaged in fighting each other at times. Britain, Canada, and other NATO nations provided forces for various military, peacekeeping, and humanitarian operations. Many other nations also agreed to contribute humanitarian aid; the United Nations estimated that $15 billion would be needed over the next 10 years to rebuild Afghanistan.
The former king, Muhammad Zahir Khan, returned to the country from exile to convene (June, 2002) a loya jirga (a traditional Afghan grand council) to establish a transitional government. Karzai was elected president (for a two-year term), and the king was declared the father of the nation. That Karzai and his cabinet face many challenges was confirmed violently in the following months when one of his vice presidents was assassinated and an attempt was made on Karzai's life. Nonetheless, by the end of 2002 the country had achieved a measure of stability. Sporadic, generally small-scale fighting with various guerrillas continued into 2004, particularly in the southeast, with the Taliban appearing to regain some strength and even control in certain districts. There also has been fighting between rival factions in various parts of the country.
Reconstruction has proceeded slowly, and central governmental control outside Kabul remained almost nonexistent. In Aug., 2003, NATO assumed command of the international security force in the Kabul area. A new constitution was approved in Jan., 2004, by a loya jirga. It provides for a strong executive presidency and contains some concessions to minorities, but tensions between the dominant Pashtuns and other ethnic groups were evident during the loya jirga. In early 2004 the United States and NATO both announced increases in the number of troops deployed in the country. The U.S. move coincided with new operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while the NATO forces were slated to be used to provide security and in reconstruction efforts. Some 2.4 million Afghan refugees have repatriated since the overthrow of the Taliban, with most of them returning from Pakistan; some 2 million Afghanis are still refugees.