An Afghan nation: from AD 1747
The region of Afghanistan has for much of history been part of the Persian empire. From time to time it has been linked with the northern plains of India, as under the Kushan dynasty of the 2nd century AD. Very occasionally, as in the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, it has existed as a kingdom approximating more closely to the modern borders of Aghanistan.
The beginning of modern Aghanistan can be dated to 1747, when the Afghans in Nadir Shah’s army return home after his death. Their leader, Ahmad Khan Abdali, enters Kandahar and is elected king of the Afghans in a tribal assembly. He takes the title Durr-i-Durran (‘pearl among pearls’) and changes the name of his tribe to the Durrani.
Ahmad Shah Durrani, as he is now called, has learnt from Nadir Shah the profession of conquest. He applies his skills with great success over the next twenty-five years. The extent of his empire fluctuates, according to the success of his ceaseless campaigns to protect its boundaries. But for much of his reign Aghanistan extends from the Amu Darya in the north to the Arabian Sea, and from Herat to the Punjab.
Ahmad Shah wins from his people the title Baba (meaning approximately ‘father of the nation’). The throne in Afghanistan remains with Ahmad Shah’s tribe, though much disputed between his descendants, until they are ousted from Kabul in 1818.
Dost Mohammed: AD 1818-1838
Kabul is taken in 1818 by an Afghan tribe, the Barakzai, led on this occasion by Dost Mohammed – the twentieth but the most forceful of the twenty-one sons of the tribal chieftain. Civil war against supporters of the Durrani continues for several years, until in 1826 the country is safely divided between Dost Mohammed and some of his brothers.
Dost Mohammed receives the greatest share, in a stretch from Ghazni to Jalalabad which includes Kabul. He soon becomes accepted as the leader of the nation, taking the formal title of amir from 1837. He is accepted in this role by foreigners as well as by the Afghan tribes.
Afghanistan’s relationship with foreign powers is by now an important factor. Since the time of Peter the Great, in the early 18th century, Russia has been interested in developing a direct trading link with India. This means the need for a friendly or puppet regime in Afghanistan. The idea of Russian influence in this region (the only neighbouring territory with easy access to Britain’s Indian empire) inevitably rings alarm bells in London.
Dost Mohammed finds himself courted by both sides. A British mission is in Kabul in 1837. While discussions are under way, a Russian envoy also arrives and is received by the amir.
The British immediately break off negotiations and are ordered to leave Kabul. The response of the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, is forceful but in the event extremely unwise. He uses the rebuff as a pretext for an invasion of Afghanistan, in 1838, with the intention of restoring a ruler from the Durrani dynasty (Shah Shuja, on the throne from 1803 to 1809) who has shown himself to be more malleable.
This is the first of three occasions on which the British attempt to impose their political will on Afghanistan. All three attempts prove disastrous.
Two Anglo-Afghan Wars: AD 1838-1842 and 1878-81
In December 1838 a British army is assembled in India for an Afghan campaign. By April 1839, after a difficult advance under constant harassment from tribal guerrillas, the city of Kandahar is captured. Here Britain’s chosen puppet ruler, Shah Shuja, is crowned in a mosque. Four months later Kabul is taken and Shah Shuja is crowned again.
By the end of 1840 the rightful amir, Dost Mohammed, is a prisoner of the British. He and his family are sent into exile into India. But the British garrisons in Afghan towns find it increasingly difficult to control proud tribesmen, up in arms at this foreign intrusion in their affairs.
In January 1842 the British garrison of some 4500 troops withdraws from Kabul, leaving Shah Shuja to his fate (he is soon assassinated). Most of the retreating British and Indian soldiers are also killed during their attempt to regain the safety of India.
A British army recaptures Kabul during the summer of 1842, more as a gesture of defiance than as a matter of practical policy – for the decision is subsequently taken to restore Dost Mohammed to his throne. He returns from India in 1843 and rules peacefully, without further British interference, for another twenty years. He extends his territory, by the end of his reign, as far west as Herat.
Dost Mohammed is succeeded by his third son Sher Ali, after some years of bitter family feuding. It is Sher Ali’s perceived leaning towards Russia which again provokes British hostility. Evoking memories of his father’s offence in 1837, he welcomes a Russian mission to Kabul in 1878 and on this occasion even rejects a British one.
In November 1878 three British armies push through the mountain passes into Afghanistan. They take Jalalabad and Kandahar by the end of the year, and soon seem to have achieved everything they might wish for. A very advantageous treaty is agreed in May 1879 with Yakub Khan (the son of Sher Ali, who has died in February).
Under the treaty Yakub Khan accepts a permanent British embassy in Kabul. Moreover Afghanistan’s foreign affairs are from now on to be conducted by the British. But events soon prove that such a privilege can be dangerous in Afghanistan. In September the British envoy to Kabul and his entire staff and escort are massacred.
This disaster brings an immediate escalation of British military activity in Afghanistan, but to little political advantage. Yakub Khan is exiled to India. In his place the British have to accept Abdurrahman Khan, a rival grandson of Dost Mohammed and the popular choice of the Afghan tribes as their amir.
Abdurrahman has spent ten years in exile during the reign of his uncle Sher Ali, having been on the losing side in the bitter family war of succession. But his chosen place of exile does not chime well with British interests. He has been in the Russian empire, in Samarkand, acquainting himself with Russian methods of administration.
In 1880 Britain accepts Abdurrahman as amir of Kabul, agreeing at the same time not to demand residence for a British envoy anywhere in Afghanistan. When British troops finally withdraw in 1881 (having meanwhile helped Abdurrahman against some rebellious cousins), the political achievement of two costly wars against Russian interference seems on the debit side. But at least Abdurrahman proves an excellent amir.
Abdurrahman Khan and his successors: AD 1880-1933
Abdurrahman is followed on the throne by three generations of his family. He sets a pattern, which they follow, of an authoritarian regime dedicated to the introduction of technology and investment from more developed countries – though the violence and anarchy of Afghan life often frustrate such modernizing intentions.
Abdurrahman is succeeded in 1901 by his son Habibullah Khan, who successfully maintains a policy of strict neutrality during World War I. After the war he demands international recognition of Afghanistan’s full independence. This claim prompts Britain’s third ineffectual intervention in Afghan affairs, though it is Habibullah’s son Amanullah Khan who has to deal with the crisis (after his father is assassinated in 1919).
A month of fighting between British and Afghan forces is inconclusive and rapidly leads to a treaty (signed in Rawalpindi in August 1919) in which Britain acknowledges Afghanistan’s independence as a nation. With this much achieved, Amanullah accelerates a programme of reform on European lines. But in doing so he alienates the old guard. Amanullah is forced into exile during an outbreak of civil war in 1929.
Order is restored by Amanullah’s cousin, Nadir Khan, until he in his turn is assassinated in 1933. This act of violence brings to the throne Nadir’s only surviving son, as the 19-year-old Zahir Shah.
Zahir Shar and Daud Khan: AD 1933-1978
In a reign of forty years Zahir Shah skilfully promotes Afghan interests. Once again neutrality is successfully maintained during a World War. And in the ensuing Cold War Afghanistan brilliantly demonstrates the power of a non-aligned country to derive benefits from the major players on both sides. Both the USA and the USSR build highways and hospitals, in a mood of superpower competition orchestrated by Zahir’s cousin and brother-in-law Daud Khan (prime minister from 1953).
Daud Khan resigns in 1963 because of tense relations with Pakistan (the border is closed from 1961 until just after his resignation). His departure prompts Zahir Shah to attempt a major constitutional reform.
The constitution put in place in 1964 transforms Afghanistan in principle into a constitutional monarchy, excluding members of the royal family from political office and providing for an executive answerable to a legislative assembly of two chambers.
Elections are held in 1965 (and again in 1969). At first the system seems to work well, but soon there is friction between the king and parliament. A sense of political stalemate is aggravated in the early 1970s by drought (bringing famine and 100,000 deaths) and other economic difficulties. In 1973 Daud Khan returns to power with military support in an almost bloodless coup. Zahir Shah goes into exile in Europe.
Daud Khan has come back into power (now as prime minister of the new republic of Afghanistan) with the help of left-wing elements in the Afghan army, but he nevertheless tries to maintain a centrist policy – combining measures of reform at home with a broadly based foreign policy less dependent on the USSR and the USA. In particular he takes steps to mend fences with Pakistan.
But in the perception of Afghanistan’s radicals he is drifting back towards old royalist ways. A new constitution in 1977 promotes Daud to the role of president. It also brings in what is seen as a cabinet of cronies, including some of his own royal relatives. The result, in 1978, is a violent revolution setting Afghanistan upon an entirely new course.
Reform and reaction: AD 1978-1979
Daud’s government is overthrown (and he and most of his family killed) by a lef-wing faction within the army. When the coup is complete, the officers hand over control to the nation’s two leftist political parties – Khalq (the People’s party) and Parcham (the Banner party). The two are for once working in harmony, though only briefly.
Once in government, the two Khalq leaders seize power. Nur Mohammad Taraki becomes president and prime minister, with Hafizullah Amin as one of two deputy prime ministers. The Parcham leader, Babrak Karmal, is the other deputy prime minister – but he is soon despatched abroad as ambassador to Prague.
Taraki and Amin press ahead with a rapid programme of reform along communist lines. Equal rights for women are introduced, land is redistributed – all against the advice of Moscow, which favours a more cautious approach for fear of a Muslim backlash. Meanwhile the leaders of the Parcham party are persecuted and in several cases killed. Many, including Babrak Karmal, take refuge in Russia.
The Kremlin is soon proved right. Within months insurrection is breaking out all over the country. In March 1979 a resistance group declares a jihad, or holy war, against the godless regime in Kabul. In the same month more than 100 Soviet citizens living in Herat are seized and killed.
Meanwhile the two Khalq leaders are themselves at loggerheads. In September 1979 the president, Taraqi, attempts to assassinate his prime minister, Amin. Instead, within two days, Taraqi is in the hands of Amin supporters. Three weeks later he dies – ‘of a serious illness’, according to the official announcement.
Since 1978 the Soviet presence has been gradually increasing in Afghanistan – their most recent puppet state, and potentially a prestigious scalp in the Cold War. Now, in the anarchy of late 1979, Moscow decides to take a more active role. In December Soviet troops move into Kabul. As Britain always feared, Russia finally bids to control Afghanistan. And as Britain long ago discovered, this is a most unwise ambition.
Soviet occupation: AD 1979-1989
The communist prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, is either shot or commits suicide within a day of the Soviet invasion. In his place the Russians bring Babrak Karmal from Moscow, as their puppet ruler.
But ruling Afghanistan in these circumstances proves impossible. Russian tanks can take any town and Russian planes can bomb even remote valleys into temporary submission, but as soon as the focus of military might shifts elsewhere the guerrillas return to take control on the ground. Only Kabul remains a relatively safe area in ten years of devastation. And once the USA begins supplying the guerrillas with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, even Soviet air attacks become dangerous missions.
The most striking Soviet achievement is inadvertently persuading seven Afghan guerrilla groups to come together in a common cause. In 1985 these seven, meeting in Peshawar, form a united front as the Islami Itehad Afghanistan Mujaheddin (Islamic Unity of Afghan Warriors, or IUAW). The mujaheddin (from the same Arabic root as jihad, holy war) become famous throughout the world as the latest manifestation of the Afghan fighting spirit.
The warfare between Russia and the mujaheddin not only devastates an already poor country. It also depopulates it. Eventually some 2 million refugees flee into Pakistan and another 1.8 million into Iran.
When Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, the festering sore of Afghanistan is one of the urgent problems confronting him. He attempts first a political solution, replacing the useless Babrak Karmal with a former chief of police, Mohammad Najibullah.
Najibullah proves equally ineffective in reconciling the Afghan people to a Soviet presence, and in 1988 Gorbachev decides to cut his losses. He announces that Soviet troops will begin a phased withdrawal. The last battalion crosses the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya river in February 1989 – leaving President Najibullah to try and run a communist Afghan state on his own.
Civil war: from AD 1989
Contrary to expectations Najibullah contrives to remain in power for three years, holding at bay the mujaheddin. But in 1992 Kabul falls to his opponents. He secures promise of a safe passage from the UN forces, who prove unable to escort him out of the city. He is given asylum in the UN compound in Kabul.
An Islamic state is immediately declared. On occasion the seven factions in the IUAW, together with three Shia groups from western Afghanistan, do manage to work in harmony. But it is a fragile truce, shattered by outbreaks of internecine warfare around Kabul. The capital is frequently bombarded by rival guerrilla forces trying to assert themselves. 1.5 million inhabitants (75% of the total) flee the city.
The Taliban: from AD 1994
In 1994 the most significant group in present-day Afghanistan emerges unheralded and without fanfare. A mullah in Kandahar, Mohammad Omar Akhund (commonly known as Mullah Omar), forms a group which he calls Taliban, meaning ‘students’ – in this case Sunni students of the Qur’an. In the violence and chaos of Afghanistan, the Taliban inevitably become a guerrilla group; and, compared to the blatant self-interest of certain other mujaheddin, the Taliban’s simple message of Muslim fundamentalism proves immensely attractive.
Recruiting mainly among Pathan tribesmen in the east of the country and from refugee camps in Pakistan, the Taliban gain rapidly in numbers and in strength.
After Kandahar itself, Herat falls to Taliban militiamen in September 1995 – to be followed by Jalalabad at the other extreme of the country a year later. Within weeks of taking Jalalabad, the Taliban achieve the ultimate success. They have been besieging Kabul for twelve months and more, while at the same time fighting other guerrilla groups engaged in the same activity. Now, in September 1996, with surprising suddeness they burst into the city.
Their first act is go to the UN compound and seize the ex-president Najibullah. Within hours he and his brother are swinging from a concrete structure, among grinning tribesmen, at Kabul’s main traffic intersection.
Ordinary citizens welcome the arrival of the Taliban for one of their outstanding qualities, incorruptibility. But the price is high in the ruthless imposition of Muslim fundamentalism.
Women now are not only forced to wear the veil in public. They are prevented from working other than in the home, they are denied access to education, they are allowed to go shopping only if accompanied by a male relative. Meanwhile the strictest version of sharia (Islamic law) is introduced. There are amputation of hands for theft, and public executions and floggings.
With the fall of Kabul the Taliban control about two thirds of the country, but beyond the mountains north of the city there remains a strong opposing force calling itself the Northern Alliance. It is led by members of the previous government in Kabul, but there is also a tribal distinction. The Taliban areas are largely the home of Pathan tribes (known more locally as Pashtun and speaking Pashto), whereas the Northern Alliance is made up of Uzbeks, Turkmen and others.
Warfare continues from 1996, with appalling atrocities on both sides. In 1997 Taliban prisoners are killed in their thousands by the Northern Alliance. When the Taliban briefly capture Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, they similarly masssacre thousands of Shia Muslims in the city.
In 1998 the Taliban renew their attack on Mazar-e-Sharif. This time they win more lasting control of the city, giving them now about 90% of Afghanistan.
With this much achieved, and to the surprise of international observers, the Taliban for the first time appear to see the value of compromise. In March 1999 their representatives and those of the Northern Alliance agree to take the first steps towards forming a joint government. There are no practical results, and early in the new century the Taliban seem to be becoming ever more extreme in their imposition of what they consider a pure Islamic society. The change may be due to increasing contact with Al-Qa’ida fundamentalists, who subsequently have a profound effect on the history of Afghanistan. Because of Al-Qa’ida, the events of September 2001 spell the end for the Taliban.
War against al-Qaida
The terrorist attacks against the USA on 11 September 2001 transform the situation in Afghanistan. The immediate assumption in Washington is that the outrage is the work of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa’ida organization. At first there is widespread scepticism elsewhere, but the Bush administration is able to form a coalition after convincing sufficient leaders of foreign nations (crucial is neighbouring Pakistan, which has previously supported the Taliban).
For several years bin Laden has made his base in Afghanistan and has formed close links with the Taliban leadership. The first step in the US campaign is therefore a demand to the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and close down his al-Qa’ida training camps.
The response of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, is that he is unable to do this – pleading ignorance of where bin Laden is, but also no doubt reluctant to surrender a guest who shares his fundamentalist views, who has provided financial support to the Taliban, and whose forces are probably as powerful as the Taliban army. President Bush, who has described the American campaign as a ‘war on terrorism’, declares that any who do not cooperate in this war are themselves equivalent to terrorists.
America holds back longer than many have feared, but on October 7 missile attacks are launched against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan (in an operation code-named Enduring Freedom). It is the start of a bombing campaign which lasts into the early weeks of 2002.
There are inevitable civilian casualties (known in the jargon of modern war as ‘collateral damage’) when missiles and bombs go astray, but in general the bombardment is extraordinarily accurate. The al-Qaeda training camps are rapidly destroyed, as are many Taliban military installations. And the Taliban infantry dug in on the ground endure an unrelenting bombardment with massive explosives.
The natural allies of the US (reluctant to send in their own soldiers for a ground campaign) are the Northern Alliance, who have survived a lengthy defensive war against the Taliban in the mountains north of Kabul. Now, with the enemy terminally weakened by the US bombs, the Northern Alliance at last begin to make sudden gains.
Mazar-e-Sharif falls on November 9, to be followed by Kabul just four days later. But it is almost another month before the Taliban original base and centre of power, Kandahar, is taken. The city finally falls on December 7 but the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, escapes the net. The whereabouts of this second-most-wanted man become unknown, as do those of the prime target, Osama bin Laden.
However it is widely believed that bin Laden has withdrawn, with many of his al-Qaeda fighters, to the Tora Bora mountains on the eastern border with Pakistan where he earlier tunnelled out a range of well-equipped caves as a safe haven against the Russians.
The next wave of US bombing is therefore directed against these mountains. One by one the caves are taken by Afghan forces, now working with a few US forces on the ground. Large numbers of al-Qa’ida troops are killed or captured. But their leader proves as elusive as Mullah Omar. When the war fizzles out, early in 2002, there are two evident benefits. The brutal Taliban regime has been toppled. And the network of al-Qa’ida training camps in Afghanistan has been destroyed. But the primary purpose of bringing bin Laden to justice remains unfulfilled.
Instead a retribution of some unspecified kind awaits many junior combatants captured in the war.
Among the prisoners the Afghans are assumed to be Taliban soldiers and are treated as such, often being released or allowed to change sides by their Afghan captors. But foreigners, most of them Arabs, are assumed to be members of al-Qa’ida and are treated as suspect terrorists. In a development which causes widespread international concern, planeloads of them are flown, blindfold and shackled, to a US army base at Guantánamo in Cuba. Here it is the US intention for them to be tried by secret military courts which have the power to order execution.
Meanwhile Afghanistan is back in the hands of the factions and warlords whose rivalries brought the country years of misery before the Taliban prevailed. How to ensure a more peaceful future?
A new start?
The United Nations takes the lead in trying to help Afghaninstan towards a more stable political future. The country’s various factions are invited to send delegates to a summit conference at Königswinter, a resort near Bonn. After a week of difficult negotiation, arrangements are in place for an interim government. It is to be headed by the Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai. It is to rule for six months from 22 December 2001. At the end of that period a Loya Girga, or meeting of tribal elders, will be held to decide on the nature of a permanent adminstration.
Karzai is elected president at the Loya Girga. With stability of a kind restored, more rapidly than anyone had dared to hope, the task can resume of rebuilding a shattered economy and providing for the millions of Afghan refugees displaced by years of warfare and repression. But a nearly successful assassination attempt on Karzai in 2002 reveals how dangerous the situation remains.