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An area with a continuous cultural history traceable to early Antiquity, Afghanistan occupies the cultural center of Eurasia. It is said that many of the world's cultural figures have come from Afghanistan including: Zoroaster (from Balkh), Salman the Persian (one of the earliest Muslims), Jalaludin Rumi (a religious, philosophical and literary giant of the 14th century) Jamaludin al Afghani (who stirred up the Arabs and founded Arab nationalism in the late 19th century). Possibly too the "Wise Men from the East" of the Christian Gospel.

Balkh (Wazirabad) near Mazar e Sharif (burial place of the Khalif Ali) is claimed to be the world's earliest known city having existed from very early times. Although it was destroyed by the Mongols and never recovered its former greatness, its cultural strength may have been passed to the surrounding country.

The Sanskrit-speaking invaders of India, the Aryans - now known as the Hindus, came from this area or passed through, perhaps also the Saxons (Sakai Sun).

Pre-Islamic period
Before Islam the area was mainly Buddhist. The remains of Buddhist monasteries can be seen in many parts of the country. (The World Heritage Site Buddhist statues at Bamian were destroyed by the Taliban government).

The Greek world entered Afghanistan when Alexander led his army through and gave his name to an Alexandria, now Kandahar. For a time the culture was influenced by the Greeks and this period is labeled "Greco-Buddhist". Many Greek sites are known. The Buddhism of Japan, especially the Zen variety, seems to have come from here.

The Kushan empire controlled much of Afghanistan, Baluchistan and northern India. (See the wikipedia article).

There have been Christian influences (and there are said to be very ancient Christian communities still there near Herat and in Nuristan).

Muslim period
The country was converted by the Arab armies (whose descendants are still recognized). In the early Muslim period the area was known as Khorosan and was where modern Persian (Farsi) developed into an important literary language. The descendants of the Buddhist Parmak kings of Bamyan became the Muslim advisors and Viziers of the Khalifs of Baghdad (the Barmacides).

Afghanistan has been the origin of empires in India: Mahmud of Ghazna founded the first Muslim kingdom in India. The Moguls, descendants of Jenghis Khan, entered India from Afghanistan, after becoming Muslim.

The characteristic form of society in the country is that of the Pathans, a people who straddle the border with Pakistan. Their political system is undefinable - except perhaps as Homeric - but seems to depend on the sense of honor of the individual men and the fact that they all carry arms. The result is a society which cannot be conquered, but also a society with feuds and a high death rate from gun shot. Leaders are said to be chosen by respect rather than fear. No-one could impose a leader on such a people. What may have kept it from becoming a violent anarchy is the value given to hospitality and religious duty. The Pathans call themselves the Beni Israel and claim to be descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel deported to Babylon (but their language is not Semitic and they are of course Muslim).

Modern Period
The modern state dates from 1747 when a Pathan, Ahmed Shah Durrani, was crowned king at Kandahar. His state included areas that are now in Iran, Pakistan, India and parts of the former Soviet Union, thus the current state is a rump, having lost Sind, Baluchistan, Punjab, Kashmir, Mashhad and Delhi.

During the British period in India the British fought in Afghanistan to try to put their candidate on the throne but were defeated several times. The British and Russians believed they were competing for control of the country (the Great Game), though almost certainly neither could have made good any claims because they would not have been able to occupy it.

First Anglo-Afghan war - 1839 Huge British disaster in which a whole army was destroyed (except for one survivor)

Second Anglo-Afghan war -1878 Destruction of important buildings in Kandahar but not a British success

Third Anglo-Afghan war -1919. Result established Afghan independence of the British Empire, though no-one in Afghanistan believed they had been part of the Empire.

During the 20th century there was a modest modernization in which the government continued to balance the power of the Soviet Union and the West. The traditional monarchy continued but with an element of democracy.

In 1976 there was a Communist revolution following the deposition of the king, Zahir Shah by his cousin Daud who declared a Republic with himself as president. A group of former students in the Soviet Union overthrew his government. Soviet intervention followed to prevent the Afghans overthrowing the Communists, who were a tiny minority of the population. The Russians tried to run Afghanistan like one of the east European satellites (except that there was continual resistance).

In 1979 the first Communist leader, Hafizullah Amin, was killed when Soviet KGB troops attacked his palace in order to put in power Babrak Karmal. In 1986 he in turn was removed, more peacefully, by being arrested and taken to the USSR. His replacement was Dr Mohammed Najibullah. None of these leaders had the support of more than a small group within the country and were seen by the mass of the people as Soviet stooges.

The withdrawal of the Soviet army in 1989 was the first real defeat of Communism. It has been suggested that the defeat in Afghanistan is the trigger which caused the whole Communist system to collapse in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

After the Russians withdrew their troops they continued to supply the government they left behind with large amounts of weapons. The war continued.

In November 1991 the post-Communist Russian government had direct talks with the rebels and announced they would end supplies to the Najib regime, which finally fell in April 1992. A provisional Islamic government was installed at the end of April 1992.

The extremist Islamic parties were apparently defeated by the more moderate factions. The civil war actually became more intense as the fundamentalists tried to occupy the capital. These had previously been paid by external powers, including the United States and probably Saudi Arabia and Iran as well. Pakistan also had client guerrillas, who became the Taliban. Can the Afghans themselves exercise their real wishes against the foreign backed armies? According to some travelers Islamic fanaticism of this kind is foreign to the people. What will Afghanistan's relation be to the Central Asian former Soviet Republics? The Tajiks straddle the border. There are Uzbeks on both sides. Turkmenistan would like a road or rail link to Pakistan to improve its economic independence.

Following the defeat of the Taliban in the war with the United States a new regime took power. However, the Taliban continue to operate as a guerrilla force despite the presence of foreign troops (mainly from the United States but also from Britain, Germany and other NATO powers).

Useful article by Prahag Khanna on the history of Chinese policy in Central Asia.



Farsi (Dari)


and many other

 Rory Stewart - The Places in Between

An account of walking across Afghanistan in winter 2002, just after the Taliban had been defeated.

Jason Elliot - An Unexpected Light
An account of travelling in Afghanistan just before the Taliban seized power.







The Russians left behind a puppet government which did not control much of the country being fought over by numerous guerrilla groups, some of whom were aided by arms shipments from outside powers such as the United States and Islamic countries.

This government lasted until April 1992 and was replaced by a provisional government formed in exile in Pakistan which returned to Kabul on 28 April 1992. But civil war rendered it meaningless, as fundamentalists supported by Pakistan and led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar shelled the capital. The different guerrilla groups controlled their own territories. Can there ever be a federal form of government for the different linguistic groups: Uzbek, Pushtu, Tadzhik and others? The provisional Constitution calls for this.( See Afghan on line)

Militant Shi'ites, believed to be controlled or at least paid and supplied by Iran are a complicating factor. Other militants paid by Saudi Arabia were fighting the provisional government.

There was a report in January 1994 that Ismail Khan, the ruler of Herat and surrounding provinces, had achieved peace within his area and might be able to spread this to other areas, thus making the central government irrelevant. But it was the Taliban who did it first.

In Kandahar the Mujahideen were successfully replaced by Islamic enthusiasts. In early 1995 the rise of an army of Islamic students - Taliban - in Kandahar surprised observers, as they conquered many of the former Mujahideen factions. They arose in the refugee camps of Pakistan where they were taught by not very educated teachers from the Pakistani Deobundi sect. Later reports suggested they were supported and supplied by Pakistani intelligence and Saudi money. They profess an extreme type of so-called fundamentalism (women back to Purdah; television, music and western books forbidden). By September 1996 they had conquered the capital and almost all the country.

These Taliban were Sunnis, thus were hostile to Iran (and the Shi'ite minority of Hazaras). For this reason they received some support from the US when they first came to power (currently denied by American government sources). They tried to control the whole country, but failed to conquer the north east. They met resistance from the Tajik general Ahmed Shah Masood (assassinated 10th Sept 2001, just before the attack on New York) and General Dostam the Uzbek. It seemed likely that in the long run the ordinary Afghans would reject their extremism and demand modern education for women and the right of women to work.

Following an attack on New York, believed to have been organised by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi fanatic living as the guest of the Taliban government, Afghanistan came under attack from a coalition of forces led by the United States.

On 7 December 2001 the Taliban gave up their last stronghold and a new interim government was appointed at the conference in Bonn, Germany to rule until a Loya Jirga could be called to agree a new democratic constitution. Its head was Hamid Karzai, a member of the king's clan who had been working in the United States. Time will show whether this government achieves control of the country. In particular although General Dostum has been appointed Deputy Defence Minister he and his private army still control Mazar e Sharif so that an important part of the north may not be under the government's control. Other leaders control such towns as Herat and Kandahars, sometimes in opposition to the governor preferred by the Kabul government.

The fear remains that the government will not control the country and regional leaders (war lords) will continue to rule their local areas.

The Loya Jirga met in June 2002. Hamid Karzai was elected head of state, after the king renounced any wish to be president. Elections were supposed to be held after about two years.

At present (December 2002 and still in December 2006) reports say the Kabul government has very little influence outside the city itself. American troops continue to roam the country at will. This is bound to provoke opposition. Gulbuddin Hekmatayar, returned from exile in Iran is reported to be trying to organise resistance in alliance with the Taliban movement.

May 2003
Karzai complained that the local rulers of the provinces do not send the central government any money. For example, the ruler in Herat, Ismael Khan, is said to be efficient, though tyrannical, and uses the customs fees paid at the border with Iran. He does not send any share to Kabul.

The country cannot be said to have a government in the conventional sense. Almost all public officials take bribes as a matter of course, having purchased their official positions.

October 2004
Elections were held for President. The American favorite Karzai was declared the winner. Although flawed, the elections, the first ever held for head of state, probably roughly reflected the will of the voters, who included women. Parliamentary elections followed. In some cases the warlords were either elected to parliament or were represented. No political parties are formally represented.
Probably the government only has power in Kabul.

Bandits are said to be found on the roads, and the Taliban are still operating at a local level.

In 2007 Mostafa Zahir, the grandson of the ex-king appears to be attempting a political future, perhaps in the next presidential elections. Would he like to be King?

Relations with Pakistan, whose military probably set up the Taliban, remain doubtful, especially after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Elections were held in 20 August 2009. Did they mean anything, in the current condition of the country? By September 2009 it looked as though the presidential election was almost wholly fraudulent. Karzai seemed to have a majority of the declared votes, but these results seem to have been achieved by ballot stuffing.

The International community tried to insist on a second round, but the designated opposition candidate withdrew, leaving Karzai unopposed. There seemed no point in having an election which would have required large numbers of foreign troops to risk their lives, with probably many deaths. Karzai was declared elected in October.

In reality the country would seem to be always tending towards a feudal condition.

Sandy Gall - War against the Taliban

War Against the Taliban: Why it All Went Wrong in Afghanistan

Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana

Der Weg nach Oxiana (Die Andere Bibliothek)

Idries Shah-Kara Kush A novelised account of the war against the Soviet forces.

George MacDonald Fraser - the Flashman novels
The late author wrote well-researched history about the wars fought to increase the empire (and in other areas). This novel is about the First Afghan war

See Speculations

Afghan Railways:
history - will there ever be any?







The period of continual wars since the Soviet invasion has destroyed the traditional economy and also much of the modern economy. Natural resources such as minerals and gas were taken by the Soviet Union without payment. It is said that there was no meter on the natural gas sent to the Soviet Union. Afghans claim there are many mineral resources. Oil companies would like to build pipelines from Uzbekistan to the Arabian sea, through Afghanistan.

The various wars have been proportionately as damaging as a nuclear war in a larger country. Probably the main source of income these days is the export of heroin, encouraged by the Taliban government and returning under the present regime.

There are numerous speculative plans for economic development in the country, including a rail system and mineral extraction. None of them will happen unless the state of war ceases.

The main economic crop is opium, supplying the European market. (Why don't the European health services buy up the crop for medicinal purposes?)







The war in Afghanistan has led to serious environmental destruction. The use of mines, chemical weapons and flamethrowers has damaged the farming potential of the country. As in Cambodia and other countries the presence of mines makes farming a dangerous occupation. Many of the trees have been cut down.






Human Rights

Do western human rights exist in the country? Is there a functioning court system? Until the Taliban were overthrown there was no real government, but instead a government by what amounted to a cult. The succeeding regime is not clear and so it is not possible to say whether there are rights yet.

Under the Taliban women were not allowed to get education or to work, and were compelled to wear a totally covering garment in public. Some women felt able to remove this after the Taliban regime ended, at least in Kabul, but most women continue to wear it. Reports are that education is resuming for both sexes in some areas, including Kabul and Herat, though not necessarily everywhere. The Taliban guerrillas target teachers and schools for destruction - especially girls' schools.

Previous constitutions have declared human rights, but not always implemented the provisions.

Climate effects

Last revised 18/01/12

South Asia


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