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Afghanistan - Background

Afghanistan is one of the few countries of the modern world to have experienced a drastic decline in its population. Between April 1978, when a violent coup d'etat brought to power a radical, pro Soviet political party, and early 1986 perhaps one third of the populace fled the country. Although accurate data were not available in the mid 1980s, most observers estimated that 2.5 to 3 million Afghans lived in refugee camps in Pakistan, as many as 1.9 million were resident in Iran, and perhaps 150,000 had sought refuge elsewhere, including the United States. According to the United Nations (UN), this constituted the largest refugee population in the world. In addition, since the April 1978 coup and particularly since the December 1979 Soviet invasion hundreds of thousands have been killed or have died as a result of wounds, diseases, or other hardships and deprivations caused by warfare.

Although the refugees are known as Afghans and the name of the country literally means "land of the Afghans," within the national society the term Afghan usually refers specifically to a Pashtu (or Pakhtu) speaker who is recognized as a member of one of the several Pashtun tribes. An estimated 50 percent of the population and reportedly over 50 percent of the refugees are Pashtuns. The royal families from 1747 to 1973 were Pashtuns, and Babrak Karmal, who was installed as president by the Soviets in 1979 and who remained in nominal power in 1986, was a Pashtun. Although the figures were actually guesses, some observers suggested that Tajiks account for about 25 percent of the population and Uzbeks and Hazaras for about 9 percent each. Baluch, Turkmen, and other small ethnic groups compose the remainder. The mother tongue of about half the population is Pashtu; Dari (Afghan Farsi or Persian) is the first language of about 35 percent: and Turkic (especially Uzbek and Turkmen), about 11 percent. There is extensive bilingualism.

All but a minuscule number of Afghans are Muslims. Islam is a central facet in the day to day life of the overwhelming majority of the members of society. Pashtuns, for example, accept it as a given that to be Pashtun is to be Muslim. Their ethnohistory stipulates that their apical ancestor, Qays, was converted by the Prophet Muhammad. In a society in which tribal, ethnic, linguistic, and class cleavages determine most social relations, Islam and the sense of belonging to and participating in the Islamic community (umma) continued in the mid 1984s to provide the overriding cohesive force for the freedom fighters. The name used by the resistance forces, mujahidiin (sing., mujahid), means those engaged in jihad i.e. warriors of Islam.

Nevertheless, the Islamic community in Afghanistan is a heterogeneous one. A majority something in excess of two-thirds are Sunnis. The remainder consists of adherents either of Twelver or Imami Shiism (the dominant faith in neighboring Iran) or of one of the sects of Ismaili Shiism. Numerous Afghan Muslims, particularly many Sunnis, are practicing Sufis.

These disparate and frequently warring peoples were first incorporated into a nation state, albeit a fragile one, in 1747 by Ahmad Shah. His descendants, or those of his collateral lineages, ruled the nation with only brief interruptions until 1978. In 1973 the monarchy was abolished and a republic established by Mohammad Daoud Khan, who as a cousin and brother in law of the deposed king was a senior member of the royal family. The peoples of the region had always resisted government control of any kind, and they had contested with particular vigor invasions by non Muslim aliens. In the nineteenth century the British Indian government sought on two occasions to establish a government in Kabul that would be amenable to British guidance, but in neither instance was it successful. Because of their political victories in the aftermaths of these wars and of a brief border war that they provoked with the British in 1919, the Afghans have evinced pride that theirs is one of the few Muslim states never to be subjugated by a non Islamic power.

Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth the kingdom's domestic affairs and its relations with its neighbors reflected its location between the expanding British and Russian empires. By the late 1890s the two imperial governments had determined Afghanistan's northern and eastern boundaries and had been instrumental in fixing the western boundary with Iran. In 1893 the British Indian government coerced the Afghan ruler, Abdur Rahman Khan, to agree to a permanent boundary the Durand Line. The central part of the boundary placed more than half of the Pashtuns within British India and the remainder in Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman disliked the division, and he and his successors continued to claim that they retained the right to protect the interests of the Pashtuns in British India. When in 1947 British India was partitioned and the new state of Pakistan was formed, the Kabul government launched a campaign to declare null and void the treaty that had established the Durand Line. This eventually created what became known as the Pashtunistan issue, which in essence was a demand that the Pashtuns in Pakistan should be granted autonomy within Pakistan, outright independence, or the right to join Afghanistan.

Pakistan obviously insisted on the validity of the Durand Line, and Britain and most Western countries supported Pakistan's position. During the 1950s Pakistan became increasingly aligned with the United States, Britain, and numerous Asian nations in bilateral agreements and multilateral treaties that were designed to prevent or contain Soviet and Chinese expansion. Because of its close relationship with Pakistan and other related reasons, the United States declined repeated Afghan invitations to supply military equipment, training, and assistance. Kabul then turned to Moscow for assistance, and within a few years Soviet economic aid had become critically important to the Afghan economy, and its military aid and training had become pervasive. By the late 1970s almost all army and air force equipment was of Soviet or East European manufacture, thousands of Afghan officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) had received training in the Soviet Union, Soviet military advisers were posted throughout the Ministry of National Defense and almost all levels of the two services, and the Russian language was used extensively in the officer corps. In addition, the officer corps had become increasingly politicized.

A central feature of the Pashtun code - Pashtunwali is an insistence on revenge (badal). To one degree or another every mujahid has a grudge; loss of kin, loss of property, personal injury, eviction from the land of the lineage and its ancestors, torture, and related grievances not only justify acts of revenge but also make them a matter of family and personal honor. For any realistic resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan, the claims of Pashtunwali will have to be resolved.

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Page last modified: 17-08-2012 18:47:42 ZULU