Afghanistan, republic (2005 est. pop. 29,929,000), 647,497 sq km, S central Asia. Afghanistan is bordered by Iran on the west, by Pakistan on the east and south, and by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan on the north; a narrow strip, the Vakhan (Wakhan), extends in the northeast along Pakistan to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. The capital and largest city is Kabul.
Land and People
The great mass of the country is steep-sloped with mountains, the ranges fanning out from the towering Hindu Kush (reaching a height of more than 7,315 m across the center of the country. There are, however, within the mountain ranges and on their edges, many fertile valleys and plains. In the south, and particularly in the southwest, are great stretches of desert, including the regions of Seistan and Registan. To the north, between the central mountain chains (notably the Selseleh-ye Kuh-e Baba, or Koh-i-Baba, and the Paropamisus) and the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, which marks part of the northern boundary, are the highlands of Badakhshan (with the finest lapis lazuli in the world), Afghan Turkistan, the Amu Darya plain, and the rich valley of Herat on the Hari Rud (Arius) River in the northwest corner of the country (the heart of ancient Ariana ). The regions thus vary widely, although most of the land is dry.
The rivers are mostly unnavigable; the longest is the Helmand, which flows generally southwest from the Hindu Kush to the Iranian border. Its water has been used since remote times for irrigation, as have the waters of the Hari Rud and of the Amu Darya. The Kabul River, beside which the capital stands, is particularly famous because it leads to the Khyber Pass and thus S to Pakistan.
Although warfare in Afghanistan during the late 20th cent. caused substantial population displacement, with millions of refugees fleeing into Pakistan and Iran, regional ethnicity remains generally the same as it had been before the unrest. Tajiks live around Herat and in the northeast; Uzbeks live in the north, and nomadic Turkmen live along the Turkmenistan border. In the central mountains are the Hazaras, of Mongolian origin. In the eastern and south central portions Afghans (or Pashtuns), who make up the country’s largest ethnic group, are dominant, and Baluchis live in the extreme south. Pashto (Afghan), Dari (Afghan Persian), and various Turkic tongues (mainly Uzbek and Turkmen) are the country’s principal languages. A unifying factor is religion, almost all the inhabitants being Muslim; the large majority are Sunni, the minority (numbering over two million and mainly Hazaras), Shiite.
Agriculture is the main occupation, although less than 10% of the land is cultivated; a large percentage of the arable land was damaged by warfare during the 1980s and 90s. Largely subsistence crops include wheat and other grains, cotton, sugar beets, fruits, and nuts. The opium poppy, grown mainly for the international illegal drug trade, is the most important cash crop, and the country is the world’s largest producer of opium. Grazing is also of great importance in the economy. The fat-tailed sheep are a staple of Afghan life, supplying skins and wool for clothing and meat and fat for food; goats and cattle are also of economic significance.
Mineral wealth is virtually undeveloped, except for natural gas. There are deposits of iron ore, coal, copper, talc, sulfur, emeralds, and lapis lazuli; oil fields are found in the north. Industry was still only in the beginning stages at the end of the 1970s and has suffered substantial damage since then. Some small-scale manufactures produce cotton and other fabrics, fertilizer, cement, and processed agricultural goods. Extremely high levels of unemployment-up to 70% in Kabul in 2000-have resulted from the general collapse of Afghanistan’s industry.
Opium, fruits and nuts, lambskins (Karakul) and textiles, handwoven carpets, and gemstones are the main exports; petroleum products, manufactured goods, and foodstuffs are the main imports. As a result of civil war, exports have dwindled to a minimum, except for the illegal trade in opium and hashish. The country is also becoming a important producer of heroin, which is derived from opium.
Once a major trade hub, the city of Kabul was ravaged by fighting in the late 20th cent., and its industry largely disappeared. Road communications throughout the country are poor, although existing roads have undergone reconstruction since the end of Taliban rule; pack animals are the primary means of transport in the interior. A road and tunnel under the Salang pass, built (1964) by the Russians, provides a short, all-weather route between N and S Afghanistan. The few railway lines in the country are those that were constructed by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan.
Under the constitution of 2004, the country is headed by a president, who is both head of state and of government. The president is directly elected, and may serve two five-year terms. The former king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, is acknowledged as the “father of the country,” but he lacks any authority and the honor accorded him is not hereditary. The president is assisted by a cabinet, the members of which must be approved by the National Assembly. Wolesi Jirga [people’s council] of the Assembly consists of not more than 249 members, directly elected to five-year terms. The upper house, the Meshrano Jirga [council of elders], consists of 102 members, a third elected by provincial councils to four-year terms, a third elected by district councils to three-year terms, and the rest (half of whom must be women) appointed by the president to five-year terms. No law passed by the Assembly may be contrary to Islam. Administratively, the country is divided into 34 provinces.
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 BC) conquered these areas. Later, Alexander the Great conquered (329-327 BC) them on his way to India.
After Alexander’s death (323 BC) 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. BC) to the Parthians and rebellious tribes (notably the Saka). Buddhism was introduced from the east by the Yuechi, who founded the Kushan dynasty (early 2d cent. BC). Their capital was Peshawar. The Kushans declined (3d cent. AD) 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 Afghan Wars and Independence
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 (1838-42) 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.
Attempts at Modernization and Reform
The attempts of Amanullah (who, after 1926, styled himself king) at Westernization-including reducing the power of the country’s religious leaders and increasing the freedom of its women-provoked 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 Shah 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. Sardar 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.
The Afghanistan War and Islamic Fundamentalism
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 (1979-89), 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. 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 Shah, 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 faced 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 has continued, particularly in the southeast, with the Taliban regaining 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. A return to economic health also was hindered by a persistent drought that continued through 2004.
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. Further increases in NATO forces, to nearly 9,000, were announced in early 2005.
By mid-2004 little of the aid that the United Nations had estimated the country would need had reached Afghanistan, while a new, Afghani-proposed development plan called for $28.5 billion over seven years. Although foreign nations pledged to provide substantial monies for three years, sufficient forces and funding for Afghan security were not included.
Karzai was elected to the presidency in Oct., 2004, in the country’s first democratic elections. The vote, which generally split along ethnic lines, was peaceful, but it was marred by some minor difficulties. Several losing candidates accused Karzai of fraud, but an international review panel said the irregularities that had occurred were not significant enough to have affected the outcome. Karzai’s new cabinet consisted largely of technocrats and was ethnically balanced, although Pashtuns generally held the more important posts.
The spring of 2005 was marked by an increase in attacks by the Taliban and their allies. Reports of the possible desecration of the Qur’an by U. S. interregators at Guantanamo, when Afghan prisoners were held by the United States, provoked protests and riots in a number of Afghan cities and towns in May, 2005. The protests were largely in the country’s south and east, where U. S. forces were operating, and were believed to reflect frustration with the U. S. presence there as much as anger over the alleged desecration.
National and provincial legislative elections were held in Sept., 2005; in some locales the balloting was marred by fraud. Supporters of Karzai won a substantial number of seats in the lower house (Wolesi Jirga); religious conservatives, former mujahidin and Taliban, women, and Pashtuns (which are overlapping groups) were all elected in significant numbers to the body. More than 2.4 million Afghan refugees have repatriated since the overthrow of the Taliban, with most of them returning from Pakistan; it is estimated that as many as 3 million Afghanis are still refugees.