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Historical Setting

Afghanistan's history, its internal political development, its foreign relations, and its very existence as an independent state have been largely determined by its location at the crossroads of Central, West, and South Asia. Waves of migrating peoples poured through the region in ancient times, leaving a human residue to form a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. In modern times, as well as in antiquity, great armies passed through the region, establishing at least temporary local control and often dominating Iran and northern India as well.

Historical patterns of the past several centuries remained relevant to the nation's situation in the mid 1980s. First, because of Afghanistan's strategic location geopolitically, great rival powers have tended to view the control of Afghanistan by a major opponent as unacceptable. Sometimes the Afghans have been able to use this circumstance to their benefit, but more often they have suffered grievously in the great power struggles. Great powers have considered Afghanistan's internal politics more as a reflection of international rivalry than as events in themselves.

A second pattern has been the inability of central governments to establish effective and permanent control over the numerous peoples of the society. Only in response to foreign invasions or as part of a conquering army outside the country have the many diverse groups found common cause. In the mare remote areas tribal warriors particularly the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group have successfully resisted foreign domination for centuries. Neither the heirs of Alexander the Great nor those of Genghis Khan, Timur, or Ahmad Shah were able to subdue the tribes permanently.

A third enduring pattern in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been the gradual extension of Russian control into Central Asia. The strategies used by the tsar's generals to subdue the khans north of the Amu Darya may have been instructive to Soviet commanders who moved across the river in 1979. The Afghans, like the Turks and Iranians, historically have had both a fear of the Soviet Union and a desire to benefit from relations with their northern neighbor.

Finally, one cannot examine Afghan history without noting the key role of Islam. Even Genghis Khan was unable to uproot Islam, and within two generations his heirs had become Muslims. Religious leaders have always played a political role and, as in many other nations, religion has served as a means of political expression. An important, if often unacknowledged, event in Afghan history that played a role in the politics of Afghanistan's neighbors and the entire region up to the present was the rise in the tenth century of a strong Sunni dynasty the Ghaznavids whose power prevented the eastward spread of Shiism from Iran and thereby assured that the majority of Muslims in Afghanistan and South Asia would become Sunnis.

Afghanistan's history, internal political development, foreign relations, and very existence as an independent state have largely been determined by its geographic location at the crossroads of Central, West, and South Asia. Over the centuries, waves of migrating peoples passed through the region -- described as a "roundabout of the ancient world," by historian Arnold Toynbee -- leaving behind a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. In modern times, as well as in antiquity, vast armies of the world passed through Afghanistan, temporarily establishing local control and often dominating Iran and northern India.

Afghanistan, the crossroads of Central Asia, has had a turbulent history. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great entered the territory of present-day Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire, and established a Hellenistic state in Bactria (present-day Balkh). Invasions by the Scythians, White Huns, and Turks followed in succeeding centuries. In AD 642, Arabs invaded the entire region and introduced Islam.

Arab rule gave way to the Persians, who controlled the area until conquered by the Turkic Ghaznavids in 998. Following Mahmud's short-lived dynasty, various princes attempted to rule sections of the country until the destructive Mongol invasion of 1219 led by Genghis Khan.

Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, a succession of petty chiefs and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of his descendants, Tamerlane, incorporated Afghanistan into his own vast Asian empire. In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of what is known today as Afghanistan, established his rule. A Pashtun, Durrani was elected king by a tribal council after the assassination of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah at Khabushan in the same year. Throughout his reign, Durrani consolidated chieftainships, petty principalities, and fragmented provinces into one country. His rule extended from Mashad in the west to Kashmir and Delhi in the east, and from the Amu Darya (Oxus) River in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.

For centuries a zone of conflict among strong neighboring powers, the area's heterogeneous groups were not bound into a single political entity until the reign of the brilliant Ahmad Shah Durrani, who in 1747 founded the monarchy that ruled the country until 1973. After his death, the absence of a strong successor possessed of military and political skills resulted in the temporary disintegration of the kingdom he had created, a frequent pattern in the society's history.

Just as it was the arena of conflict between the Mughal Empire of India and the Safavi Empire of Iran in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Afghanistan in the nineteenth century lay between the expanding might of the Russian and British empires. It was in the context of this confrontation that Afghanistan in its contemporary form came into existence during the reigns of Dost Mohammad Khan and Amir Abdur Rahman Khan.

During the 19th century, collision between the expanding British Empire in the subcontinent and czarist Russia significantly influenced Afghanistan in what was termed "The Great Game." British concern over Russian advances in Central Asia and growing influence in Persia precipitated two Anglo-Afghan wars in 1839 and again in 1878. The first resulted in the destruction of a British army. The latter conflict brought Amir Abdur Rahman to the Afghan throne. During his reign (1880-1901), the British and Russians officially established the boundaries of what would become modern Afghanistan through the demarcation of the Durand Line. The British retained effective control over Kabul's foreign affairs.

In 1900, Abdur Rahman Khan (the "Iron Amir"), looking back on his twenty years of rule and the events of the past century, wondered how his country, which stood "like a goat between these lions [Britain and Tsarist Russia] or a grain of wheat between two strong millstones of the grinding mill, [could] stand in the midway of the stones without being ground to dust?" Constrained by the competing dictates of powerful British and Russian empires, Abdur Rahman focused instead on consolidating his power within Afghanistan and creating the institutions of a modern nation-state.

Although it was the scene of great empires and flourishing trade for over two millennia, Afghanistan did not become a truly independent nation until the twentieth century. Habibullah, Abdur Rahman's son and successor, was assassinated in 1919. His third son, Amanullah, regained control of Afghanistan's foreign policy after launching the third Anglo-Afghan war with an attack on India in the same year. During the ensuing conflict, the war-weary British relinquished their control over Afghan foreign affairs by signing the Treaty of Rawalpindi in August 1919. In commemoration of this event, Afghans celebrate August 19 as their Independence Day.

King Amanullah (1919-29) moved to end his country's traditional isolation. He established diplomatic relations with most major countries and introduced several reforms intended to modernize Afghanistan. Some of these, such as the abolition of the traditional Muslim veil for women and the opening of a number of co-educational schools, quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders. Faced with overwhelming armed opposition, Amanullah was forced to abdicate in January 1929 after Kabul fell to forces led by Bacha-i-Saqao, a Tajik brigand. Prince Nadir Khan, a cousin of Amanullah's, in turn defeated Bacha-i-Saqao in October of the same year and, with considerable Pashtun tribal support, was declared King Nadir Shah. Four years later, however, he was assassinated in a revenge killing by a Kabul student.

Mohammad Zahir Shah, Nadir Khan's 19-year-old son, succeeded to the throne and reigned from 1933 to 1973. In 1964, King Zahir Shah promulgated a liberal constitution providing for a two-chamber legislature to which the king appointed one-third of the deputies. Although Zahir's "experiment in democracy" produced few lasting reforms, it permitted the growth of unofficial extremist parties on both the left and the right. These included the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had close ideological ties to the Soviet Union. In 1967, the PDPA split into two major rival factions: the Khalq (Masses) faction headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin and supported by elements within the military, and the Parcham (Banner) faction led by Babrak Karmal. The split reflected ethnic, class, and ideological divisions within Afghan society.

Zahir's cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud, served as his Prime Minister from 1953 to 1963. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Daoud solicited military and economic assistance from both Washington and Moscow and introduced controversial social policies of a reformist nature. Daoud's alleged support for the creation of a Pashtun state in the Pakistan-Afghan border area heightened tensions with Pakistan and eventually resulted in Daoud's dismissal in March 1963.

Amid charges of corruption and malfeasance against the royal family and poor economic conditions, former Prime Minister Daoud seized power in a military coup on July 17, 1973. Zahir Shah fled the country, eventually finding refuge in Italy. Daoud abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1964 constitution, and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first President and Prime Minister. His attempts to carry out badly needed economic and social reforms met with little success, and the new constitution promulgated in February 1977 failed to quell chronic political instability.

Seeking to exploit more effectively mounting popular disaffection, the PDPA reunified with Moscow's support. On April 27, 1978, the PDPA initiated a bloody coup, which resulted in the overthrow and murder of Daoud and most of his family. Nur Muhammad Taraki, Secretary General of the PDPA, became President of the Revolutionary Council and Prime Minister of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Opposition to the Marxist government emerged almost immediately. During its first 18 months of rule, the PDPA brutally imposed a Marxist-style "reform" program, which ran counter to deeply rooted Afghan traditions. In addition, thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment, and the intelligentsia were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Conflicts within the PDPA also surfaced early and resulted in exiles, purges, imprisonments, and executions.

By the summer of 1978, a revolt began in the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan and quickly spread into a countrywide insurgency. In September 1979, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier been Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, seized power from Taraki. Over the next 2 months, instability plagued Amin's regime as he moved against perceived enemies in the PDPA. By December, party morale was crumbling, and the insurgency was growing.

In December 1978, Moscow signed a new bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan, and the Soviet military assistance program increased significantly. The regime's survival increasingly was dependent upon Soviet assistance as the insurgency spread and the Afghan army began to collapse.

Islam played a key role in the formation of Afghan history. Despite the Mongol invasion of Afghanistan in the early thirteenth century which has been described as resembling "more some brute cataclysm of the blind forces of nature than a phenomenon of human history," even a warrior as formidable as Genghis Khan did not uproot Islamic civilization, and within two generations his heirs had become Muslims. An often unacknowledged event that nevertheless played an important role in Afghan history (and in the politics of Afghanistan's neighbors and the entire region up to the present) was the rise in the tenth century of a strong Sunni dynasty -- the Ghaznavids. Their power prevented the eastward spread of Shiism from Iran, thereby insuring that the majority of the Muslims in Afghanistan and South Asia would be Sunnis.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2021 13:51:51 ZULU