Afghanistan (1978-2005)

Figure 1.--Here is an Afghan boy selling carpets in a bazzar. Note the military theme in the weaving.

Few even late in the 20th century would have guessed that isolated Afghanistan would play major role in both ending the Cold War and in the developing Terrorist asault on the West. After years of medling in Afghani affairs, the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. Afghani resistance was at first inefectual, but provided with modern weapons, especially hand-held Stinger missles, through American and Pakistani covert operations, casualties steadily increased. After 10 years of bitter combat the Soviets withdrew. The losses sustained were a factor in the colapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet-backed collapsed leaving the country in chaos. After extended fighting, the Pakistani-backed Taliban took control of most of the country and imposed a chaotic theocratic regime. The oppression of women in particular startled world opinion. The Taliban also provided a haven foe Osama bin Laden and his terroirist asault on America. A series of attacks culminated in 911. The American response removed the Taliban from power. Hamid Karzai has established a moderate regime in Kabul, but little progress has been made in bringing a more tolerant regime to the countryside where most Afghanis live. [Selerstad]

Afghan State

Ahmed Shah established a state in the 18th century comprising most of modern Afgahistan.

The Great Game

The British and Russians in the 19th century contested for control of Afghhanistan. The Russians from Central Asia moved south and the British from India movd north. There two spheres of influence overlapped in Afghanistan. The competition between the British and Rusians for control of a Afghan buffer state became known as the Great Game. Rudyard Kipling's exciting adventure book Kim was a noted fictional description of the Great Game. The British reacting to lawlessness on the northern border of the Raj, invaded Afghanistan twice. They sought to install an amenable government that would resist the Russians. Objecting to a Russan diplomat in Kabul, the British launched the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). The British wanted the Afghans to reject any contact with the Persians or Russians. They also wanted Pashtun areas transferred to the Raj. This area is now part of modern Pakistan. Dost Mohammad ccepted the British demands, but the British invaded anyway. The British encountered little resistance and seized the major cities. A popular rising, however, subsequently massacred the 15,000 man British force with the exception of one man. The British again objected to a Russian diplomatic in Kabul (1878) resulting in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-81). The British again occupied the major cities. Another rising failed. The eventually withdrew in good order. They esprablished a puppet ruler who aggreed to allow Britain to control foreign affairs.

British Protectorate

The Second Anglo-Afghan war (1878-81) left Afghanistan essentially a British protectorate. Russian defeat in the Russon-Japanese War (1904-05) and rising tensions with Germany left the Russians more amenable to resolving conflicts with Britain. An agreement between Russia and Britain recognized Afghan independence undr British influence (1907). Afghanistan continued as a British protecorate until after World War I (1914-18).

King Amanullah (192?-29)

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917) led to the establish of the Soviet state. Gradually during the Civil War the Bolsheviks reexerted Russian control over Central Asia. King Amanullah saw this as an opportunity to play the Soviets and British off each other. Amanullah declared Afghanistan to be fully independent of Britain. He signed a treaty of aid and friendship with Lenin and declared war on Britain. There were border skirmishes. The British bombed Kabul. Future British commanders like Auchinleck and Alexander were active on the Inian frontier at the time. Unwilling to launch a major invasion, the British accepted Afghan independence. THe British were not, however, happy with new situation. Amanullah’s attempted to introduce some limited secular reforms. The British intrigued with conservative land ones who objected ti the new reforms. A rebellion forced King Amanullah to abdicate (1929).

Muhammad Zahir Shah (19??-73)

The fall of King Amanullah resulted in a civil war in which rival war lords fought for power. Finally Muhammad Nadir Shah emerged as the victor. He was assassinated 4 years later by the son of a man that had been executed by his regime. His son Muhammad Zahir Shah succeeded him and would rule Afghanistan for 40 years. Zahir Shah governned Affghanistan as a autocrat. There was no legislature. Laws were made by edict. There councils and assemblies, but were only advisory in nature. They were made up of tribal elders which meant in large measure important landowners. Little real effort was made to modernize the country. There were no political parties and dissent was brutally supressed.

Daoud (1973-78)

Daoud a member of the royal family overthrew Muhammad Zahir Shah (1973). He established a republic and set himself up as president. There were some changes under Daoud, bit no real modernization of the country was undertaken. Daoud was able to seize power with the assistance of the underground Peoples Democratic Party (PDPA) of Afghanistan, essentially a pro-Moscow communist party. The PDPA had worked with Daoud expecting to receive government appointments. Once in power he began apponting trusted allies and eventually move to supress the PDPA.

PDPA Coup (1978)

The PDPA staged a military coup and seized power (1978). The Soviets offered some assistance to the new PDPA Government which they saw a fraternal socialist regime. The PDPA insituted of limited reforms of Afghan society. The PDPA declared a secular state. Women were given equal status with men, at least theoretically. The PDPA attempted to restrict established practices such as purchasing brides. They also instituted a land reform program. The PDPA encountered resistance from the deeply conservative and religious Afghan society. The PDPA began employing the kind of brutal tactics the Soviets used. This only intensified opposition in the counteyside which develop into an armed rebellion. Infighting within the PDPA further weakened the Government. The radical wng of the PDPA began to purge the moderates.

Soviet Invasion (1979-89)

Few even late in the 20th century would have guessed that isolated Afghanistan would play major role in both ending the Cold War and in the developing Terrorist asault on the West. After years of medling in Afghani affairs, the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. The rebellion in the countryside had begun to threaten the PDPA Government. The Soviets were not prepared to let a fratenal socialist reime fall. Soviet officials were disturbed by the ineffectiveness of the PDPA radical wing. They turned over the Goverment to Karmal who led the moderate PDPA wing. The Soviets under estimated the strength of the ressistance. Assiciation with Russian invaders only made the PDPA more unpopular. As a result, the Soviets were forced to deploy more and more forces to prop up the PDPA regime. Islamic fundamentalist groups began organizing and became the core of an evolving guerilla warfare. The United States gave little attention to Afghanistan, even after the PDPA coup. American focus in the region was focused on the Islamic Revolution which overthrew long-time ally Mohammed Resa Shah Pahlevi. The Soviet invasion changed American thinking about Afghanistan. Afghani resistance lacking military training and modern weapons was at first inefectual in the face of Soviet power. Covert American assistance helped to invigorate the Islamic resistance or Mujahadeen. The Mujahadeen were able to operate from safe-haven camps set up by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistani Intelligence (PI) across the border in Pakistan. Soviet air power had prived very effective in the early years of the occupation. Once provided with modern weapons, especially hand-held Stinger missles, through American and Pakistani covert operations, the Mujahadeen were even able to contest control of the air. This left isolated Soviet outposts increasungly vulnerable. Soviet casualties steadily increased. The Mujahadeen were not only supported by the Americans and Pakistanis. The Saudis and Persian Gulf Emirates also contributed billions of dollars to finance the resistace. Thousands of Arabs responded to the Mujahadeen’s call for jihad against the infidel Soviet invaders. The Soviet military gradually became discouraged. They were able to hold the major cities, but were unable to maintain control of the country side. Mickhail Gorbachev's Glasnost initative meant that the situation in Afghanistan began to be shown in a truthful way on Soviet television. After 10 years of bitter combat the Soviets decided to withdraw (1989). The losses sustained were a factor in the colapse of the Soviet Union.

Fall of the PDPA (1992)

The PDPA was on its own after the Soviet withdrawl (1989). American interest in Afghanistan was largely associated with resistance to the Soviet Union. The CIA operation was thus wound down. The PDPA probably would have been defeated earlier, but different Mujahadeen factions began fighting each other as much as the PDPA. The Mujahadeen finally defeated the PDPA and entered Kabul (1992). The country, however, was in chaos because of the different Mujahadeen factions an war lords.

Civil War (1982- )

The Afghan Civil War really began before 1982, but with the fall of the PDPA, the Civil War intensified. Different Mujahadeen groups and warlords occupied cities and the various regions of the war-torn country. Burhanuddin Rabbani seized control of Kabul and became an important leader in what would be called the Northern Alliance. Many of the Mujahadeen groups and warlords were ethnically based. There were terrible attrocities committed by all sides in the fighting. Rashid Dostum seized Mazar–E-Sharif. Ismail Khan took over Heart. Yunis Khalis controlled Jalabad. These war lords fought each other as well as the risung Taliban in the Pashtun south supported by Pakistani Intelligence.

The Taliban

Pakistani Intelligence (PI) included Islamic fundamentalists. The Civil War raging in Afghanistan was a destablising situation on the Pakistan border. The PI helped to create a new Islamic fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan--, the Taliban. The Taliban arose in the Islamic Medrassas that appeared in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The Taliban leadership was formed primarily from very young religious students. It was also largely ethnically Pashtuns. The Takliban was very highly motivated an largely idealistic young men. This contrasted with the more venal war lords that had seized control of Afghanistan after the fall of the PDPA. They were rapidly able to seize control in the souther Pashtun area and with this power based gradually pushed north and east. While idealistic in many ways, the Taliban was no less brutal than the warlords they fought, especially in the non-Pashtun areas of the country. The Taliban finaslly seized Kabul (1996). The remaining resistance were pushed back into a relatively small pocket on the northeast, only about 10 percent of the country. The remaining groups united to form the Northern Alliance. The Taliban, in control of most of the country imposed a chaotic theocratic regime based on their extrondinarily severe interpretation of the Koran. The fundamentalist Taliban destroyed great works of art and made it virtually impossible for women to leave their homes unless accompaied by a male family member. Women had to wear burkas covering their entire bodies. Girls could no longer attend schools or women work outside the home. The oppression of women in particular startled world opinion. Television was banned. Boys could not even fly kites. The Taliban set out to purge Afghanistan of all secular or Western influence.


Beginning with the Soviet Invasion of Afgahinstan (1979) successive Pakistani regimes, both civilian and military governments, permitted if not prmoted the development of armed Islamic groups as a kind of irregular army. At first it was a part of the CIA-backed operations in Afganistan against the Soviets. Later these groups were used against the Indians in disputed Kashmir. After 911 when the Pakistan Government of General Pervez Musharraf turned against bin Laden, these groups have turned against the Government. The specter of nuclear war with India has orced the Pakistani Government to further reassess their support of the armed Islamic groups.

Osama bin Laden

The Taliban also provided a haven for Osama bin Laden and his terroirist asault on America. A series of attacks culminated in the 911 attack on the World Trade Center.

U.S. Intervention

The United States was not internt on invaing Afghanistan. Such a military operaion was a daunting undertaking. The United States was, however, intent on getting Bin Laden. The United States demanded that the Taliban Government turn over Bin Laden. The Taliban was not prepared to do this. There replu wa a legalistic one. They demand proof that Bin Laden was responsible. The United States then began military operation with bombing raids targeting Taliban military forces. The United States also began to provide substantial support to the hard-pressed Northern Alliance. Several weeks of American bombing wore down Taliban defences. The Northern Alliance forces first seized took Mazar–E–Sharif in the north and then took Kabul and then Afgahn cities fell one by one. Taliban forces either syrrounded or withdrew into the mountains. Taliban spokesmen as well as Arab new sources like Aljazeera complained bitterly of civilian casualties. There were indeed many unfortunate civilian casualties, despite the fact that the American bombing campaign was one of the most efficently executed precession bombing campigns in the history of warfare. Given the amount of ordinance dropped, casualties were in fact extremely limited. It is interesting to note that despite the Taiban and Arab criticsm of the civilian casualties, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Arab Sunni resisance forces in Iraq have adopted terror tactics that actually seek to kill and mame civilians. The casualties involved have far exceeded the unintended victims of Armerucan air attacks.

Current Afghan Government

Hamid Karzai has established a moderate regime in Kabul. Now girls are allowed to attend schools. Free elections have been held. The remanants of the Taliban have failed to disrupt the elections, but continue to carry out terrorist attacks, in some cases operaing from safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Many refugees that had fled to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation have returned to Afghanistan, but many still remain in the refugee camps. Afghanistan still faces enormous problms. There are still war lords. Little progress, however, has been made in bringing a more tolerant regime to the countryside where most Afghanis live. [Selerstad]


Srierstad, Asne. The Bookseller of Kabul (Little Brown), 288p. Translated from the Norwegian by Ingrid Christhophersen.


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Created: January 18, 2004
Last updated: 6:27 AM 11/21/2013