Afghanistan, officially Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, republic in
southwestern Asia, bounded on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and
Tajikistan; on the east by China and the part of the disputed territory of Jammu and
Kashmīr controlled by Pakistan; on the south by Pakistan; and on the west by Iran.
Afghanistan lies across ancient trade and invasion routes from Central Asia into India.
This position has been the greatest influence on its history because the invaders often
settled there. Today the population includes many different ethnic groups. Most of the
present borders of the country were drawn up in the 19th century, when Afghanistan
became a buffer state, or neutral zone, between Russia and British India. Kābul is the
capital and largest city.
Afghanistan was a monarchy from 1747 to 1973, when the king was overthrown by
military officers and the country was proclaimed a republic. In 1979 the Union of
Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) invaded Afghanistan, precipitating the decade-long
Afghan-Soviet War. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the country erupted in civil
war. Guerrilla groups that had fought against the Soviets continued to oppose the
Soviet-installed central government; it fell in 1992 and anarchy prevailed until the
Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, seized control of Kābul in 1996. By the
late 1990s, most of the rest of the country had come under the control of the Taliban,
which enforced a strict form of Islamic rule. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks on the United States, the Taliban was accused of harboring international
terrorists. Aided by U.S. and British troops, a coalition of opposition forces known as
the Northern Alliance drove the Taliban from power in late 2001.
II LAND AND RESOURCES
Afghanistan is shaped roughly like a clenched fist with the thumb of the Wakhan
Corridor extended out to the northeast. Afghanistan covers an area of 652,225 sq km
(251,825 sq mi). Its maximum length from east to west is about 1,240 km (about 770
mi); from north to south it is about 1,015 km (about 630 mi). The northwestern,
western, and southern border areas are primarily desert plains and rocky ranges,
whereas the southeast and northeast borders rise progressively higher into the major,
glacier-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush, an extension of the western Himalayas. The
northern border is formed by the Amu Darya river and its tributary, the Panj.
A Natural Regions
High mountains cover much of Afghanistan, with about one-half of the land over 2,000
m (6,600 ft) in elevation. Small glaciers and year-round snowfields are common. The
highest peak, Nowshāk (Noshaq), rises 7,485 m (24,557 ft) on the northeast border
and is a lower spur of the Tirich Mīr peak in Pakistan. The Hindu Kush range extends
across the country in a southwesterly direction from the Wakhan Corridor almost to
the Iranian border. From the Hindu Kush, other lower ranges radiate in all directions.
Some of the major mountain systems include the Pamirs in the upper northeast of the
Wakhan Corridor, the Badakhshān Ranges in the northeast, the Paropamisus Range in
the north, and the Safed Koh range, which forms part of the frontier between
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lowland areas are concentrated in the south and west and
include the Turkistan Plains, the Herāt-Ferah Lowlands of the extreme northwest, the
Sistan Basin and Helmand River valley of the southwest, and the Rīgestān Desert of
Except for the river valleys and a few places in the lowlands where underground fresh
water makes irrigation possible, agriculture is difficult. Only 12 percent of the land is
cultivated. Moreover, the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989) and subsequent civil war
left some of that land unusable because of neglect, the planting of explosive mines,
and other problems. In general, sheep and goat grazing make up the main agricultural
land use. In eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, forest lands amounted to 1.4
million hectares (3.3 million acres), or 2 percent of the country’s land area in 2000.
The ravages of war, the scarcity of fuel, and the need for firewood for cooking and
heating have caused rapid deforestation.
Because Afghanistan has so many high mountains, the passes through them have
been of profound importance in both the history of invasion of the country and in
commerce. In the 320s BC Alexander the Great invaded the country through the
Kushan Pass (about 4,370 m/about 14,340 ft) in the west and left it to the east
through the low Khyber Pass (1,072 m/ 3,517 ft) to invade India. These same passes
were used by the Mughal emperor Babur to conquer both Afghanistan and India in the
1500s. The famous Sālang Pass (3,880 m/12,720 ft) and its Soviet-built tunnel in the
central Hindu Kush was one of the main routes the Soviets used to invade Afghanistan
B Rivers and Lakes
Many of Afghanistan’s major rivers are fed by mountain streams. The Amu Darya on
the northern frontier receives water from two main tributaries, the Panj and the
Vakhsh, which rise in the Pamirs. The Amu Darya is the only navigable river in
Afghanistan, though ferry boats can cross the deeper areas of other rivers. The
Harīrūd River rises in central Afghanistan and flows to the west and northwest to form
part of the border with Iran. The long Helmand River rises in the central Hindu Kush,
crosses the southwest of the country, and ends in Iran. It is used extensively for
irrigation and agriculture, although in recent years its water has experienced a
progressive build up of mineral salts, which has decreased its usefulness. Most of the
rivers end in inland seas, swamps, or salt flats; the Kābul River is an exception. It
flows east into Pakistan to join the Indus River, which empties into the Indian Ocean.
Afghanistan’s lakes are small in size and number, but include Lake Zarkol in the
Wakhan Corridor along the Tajikistan border, Shīveh in Badakhshān, and the saline
Lake Istādeh-ye Moqor, located south of Ghaznī. The country also has a few salt
marshes at the limits of the Helmand drainage on the western border with Iran. The
most important dams and reservoirs in Afghanistan are the Sarobi Dam on the Kābul;
the Kajaki Reservoir on the Helmand, the Arghandāb Dam on a tributary of the
Helmand, the Sardeh Dam on the Ghaznī River, and the Kelagay Dam on the Daryā-
ye-Qondoz tributary of the Amu Darya. Prior to the civil war, less than 10 percent of
the country’s hydroelectric potential had been developed. After the war began,
hydroelectric production dropped off severely as turbines were destroyed, floodgates
were blown open, and transmission lines were brought down. Private diesel-fired
generators were about all that remained of 75 years of electric development. In 2001
Afghanistan generated only 334.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.
C Plant and Animal Life
Plant life in Afghanistan is sparse but diverse. Common trees in the mountains are
evergreens, oaks, poplars, wild hazelnuts, almonds, and pistachios. The plains of the
north are largely dry, treeless steppes, and those of the southwestern corner are
nearly uninhabitable deserts. Common plants in the arid regions include camel thorn,
locoweed, spiny restharrow, mimosa, and wormwood, a variety of sagebrush. The wild
animals of Afghanistan include 123 mammal species, some of which are nearing
extinction. The most seriously endangered are the goitered gazelle, leopard, snow
leopard, markor goat, and Bactrian deer. Other wild animals of Afghanistan include
Marco Polo sheep, urials, ibex, bears, wolves, foxes, hyenas, jackals, and mongooses.
Wild boar, hedgehogs, shrews, hares, mouse hares, bats, and various rodents also
occur. Some 235 bird species are found in Afghanistan, with more than 200 breeding
there. Flamingo and other aquatic fowl breed in the lake areas south and east of
Ghaznī. Ducks and partridges are also common, but all birds are hunted widely and
many are becoming uncommon, including the endangered Siberian crane.
Most of Afghanistan has a subarctic mountain climate with dry and cold winters,
except for the lowlands, which have arid and semiarid climates. In the mountains and
a few of the valleys bordering Pakistan, a fringe effect of the Indian monsoon, coming
usually from the southeast, brings moist maritime tropical air in summer. Afghanistan
has clearly defined seasons; summers are hot and winters can be bitterly cold.
Summer temperatures as high as 49°C (120°F) have been recorded in the northern
valleys. Midwinter temperatures as low as -9°C (15°F) are common around the 2,000-
m (6,600-ft) level in the Hindu Kush. The climate in the highlands varies with
elevation. The coolest temperatures usually occur on the heights of the mountains.
Temperatures often range greatly within a single day. Variations in temperature during
the day may range from freezing conditions at dawn to the upper 30°s C (upper 90°s
F) at noon. Most of the precipitation falls between the months of October and April.
The deserts receive less than 100 mm (4 in) of rain a year, whereas the mountains
receive more than 1,000 mm (40 in) of precipitation, mostly as snow. Frontal winds
sweeping in from the west may bring large sandstorms or dust storms, while the
strong solar heating of the ground raises large local whirlwinds.
E Natural Resources
Despite a lengthy history of small-scale mining of gems, gold, copper, and coal,
systematic exploration of Afghanistan’s mineral resources did not begin until the
1960s. In the 1970s Afghanistan was discovered to have a wide variety of mineral
resources, but only coal, iron ore, copper ore, and gemstones were targeted for
development. Natural gas fields are scattered throughout much of Afghanistan. Recent
analysis by the United States Geological Survey has indicated significant unexploited
oil reserves in the north as well. After their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the
Soviets endeavored to export some of the country’s resources to the USSR. Natural
gas, for example, was exported by pipeline across the Amu Darya into the USSR in the
1980s. Ongoing hostilities, however, severely hampered this effort and finally cut off
the export of natural gas. By the mid-1990s there was little mineral or oil and gas
F Environmental Issues
Afghanistan has long been a land of marginal environment—too dry and too cold for
much life. Thousands of years of environmental stress by the country’s people have
dramatically altered the landscape and caused extensive environmental destruction.
Because the Afghan people lack the financial means to purchase fuel, they must cut
trees, uproot shrubs, and collect dung for burning. Domestic animals overgraze the
range. The result is extensive soil erosion by water and wind. Long-term irrigation
without flushing has added salt to much of the arable land and destroyed its fertility.
Polluted water supplies are common, except in the high mountain regions where few
people live permanently. Ancient writings and archaeological evidence show that once
rich areas of forest and grassland have been reduced to stretches of barren rock and
sand. The government of Afghanistan began to recognize environmental problems in
the 1970s with the help of the United Nations and other international agencies. The
pressures of war, however, diverted attention from these issues and further
aggravated the country’s environmental state.
III THE PEOPLE OF AFGHANISTAN
Afghanistan is comprised of a variety of ethnic groups, the overwhelming majority of
whom are Muslim, usually either followers of Sunni or Shia Islam. The people of
Afghanistan are related to many of the ethnic groups in Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with cultural and genetic influences that go farther
afield to various places, including Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, China, and the Arabian
Peninsula (the large peninsula south of Jordan and Iraq). The extreme linguistic and
ethnic diversity in Afghanistan is the result of millennia of human migrations, political
upheavals, invasions, and conquests. The resultant scattering of small diverse groups
is not only a major cause of the difficulty in finding sufficient common ground to
promote peace and understanding between people, but also makes accurate
characterization of the borders between them commonly rather arbitrary.
A Population and Settlement
The last official census in Afghanistan was in 1979, when the population registered at
15,551,358. A 2004 population estimate was 29,547,078, but the effects of war—with
its casualties and refugees—makes any estimate highly speculative.
In 2002 some 77 percent of the population lived in rural areas. Of the urban dwellers,
probably about half lived in Kābul, the capital city. The nomadic population was
estimated to be about 2.5 million people. During the war with the Soviets the number
of Afghan refugees outside the country escalated dramatically, with as many as 2.5
million to 3 million refugees in Pakistan and another 1.5 million in Iran. About 150,000
Afghans were able to migrate permanently to other countries, including the United
States, Australia, and various European countries.
Before the Afghan-Soviet War, Afghanistan had an estimated annual population
growth rate of 3.5 percent. Urban areas had a growth rate of 4.8 percent, reflecting
migration to places of greater employment. Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate is one
of the highest in the world, with 140 deaths for every 1,000 live births.
With no precise data available, considerable demographic uncertainty prevails in the
postwar period. Different groups are jockeying for positions of power based on
purported population numbers. What seems certain, pending a reliable new census for
confirmation, is that the past two decades of war deaths, emigration, and drought and
starvation will have affected the population numbers, perhaps significantly.
B Principal Cities
During and immediately after the Afghan-Soviet War, the populations of the largest
cities increased as internally displaced persons sought the anonymity and perceived
security of more densely populated areas. The population of Kābul, the capital and
largest city, swelled to more than 2 million in the late 1980s. Many people fled from
the city during the ensuing civil war, however, when rocket attacks and other combat
destroyed much of the city. Only about 700,000 inhabitants remained in Kābul in
1993. Other important cities in Afghanistan are Kandahār, or Qandahār (225,500;
1988 estimate) in the south, which is dominated by Pashtun tribes; Herāt (177,300) in
the west, with a dominant Tajik population; and Mazār-e Sharīf (130,600) in the
north, also with a dominant Tajik ethnicity. Other, smaller towns include Jalālābād in
the east, with a Pashtun majority; Chārīkār just north of Kābul, with mixed ethnicity;
Andkhvoy and Meymaneh in the north in Uzbek country; and Kondoz, Feyẕābād
(Faizabad), and Baghlān, also in the north with a dominant Tajik ethnicity. Along with
a number of other places, Herāt and Kandahār were extensively damaged in both the
war with the Soviets and the civil war. Other towns suffered less extensive damage
and have been partly rebuilt. Difficulties with water quality and public transportation
continue to exist from before the war.
C Ethnic Origins and Languages
The population of Afghanistan includes many different ethnic groups. The Pashtuns
(Pushtuns), who make up about two-fifths the population, have traditionally been the
dominant ethnic group. Their homeland lies south of the Hindu Kush, but Pashtun
groups live in all parts of the country. Many Pashtuns also live in northwestern
Pakistan. Pashtuns are usually farmers, though a large number of them are nomads,
living in tents made of black goat hair. Male Pashtuns live by ancient tribal code called
Pashtunwali, which stresses courage, personal honor, resolution, self-reliance, and
hospitality. The Pashtuns speak Pashto (Pushto), which is an Indo-Iranian language
and one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.
The Tajiks (Tadzhiks), a people of Iranian origin, are the second largest ethnic group
in Afghanistan. They live in the valleys north of Kābul and in Badakhshān. They are
farmers, artisans, and merchants. The Tajiks speak Dari (Afghan Persian), also an
Indo-Iranian language and the other official language of Afghanistan. Dari is more
widely spoken than Pashto in most of the cities. The Tajiks are closely related to the
people of Tajikistan.
In the central ranges live the Hazaras. Although their ancestors may have come from
northwestern China or Mongolia, the Hazaras speak an archaic Persian. Most are
farmers and sheepherders. The Hazaras have been discriminated against for a long
time, in part because they are minority Shia Muslims (Shia Islam) within a dominant
Sunni Muslim population. In the east, north of the Kābul River, is an isolated wooded
mountainous region known as Nuristan. The Nuristani people who live there speak a
wide variety of Indo-Iranian dialects. In the far south live the Baluchi (Balochi), whose
Indo-Iranian language is also spoken in southwestern Pakistan and southeastern Iran.
To the north of the Hindu Kush, on the steppes near the Amu Darya, live several
groups who speak Turkic languages. The Uzbeks are the largest of these groups,
which also include Turkmen and, in the extreme northeast Wakhan Corridor, the
Kyrgyz people. The Kyrgyz were mostly driven out by the Soviet invasion and largely
emigrated to Turkey. All of these groups are settled farmers, merchants, and
seminomadic sheepherders. The nomads live in yurts, or round, felt-covered tents of
the Mongolian or Central Asian type.
Prior to the war important political positions were distributed almost equally among
ethnic groups. This kept ethnic tensions and violence to a minimum, though the
Pashtuns in Kābul were always the politically dominant group. In the mid-1990s
attempts were made to reestablish shared rule; however, many of the ethnic groups
sought a greater share of power than they had before the war, and violence was a
common result of the disputes. In the post-Taliban period, the major ethnic groups
have agreed to share power in government.
The strongest tie among these various groups is their Islamic religion. The
overwhelming majority of Afghans (about 99 percent) are Muslims. About 84 percent
of Afghan Muslims are Sunni Muslims and about 15 percent are Shia Muslims (mostly
the Hazaras and Tajiks). Small groups of Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and Jews are scattered
in the towns. Since the 1960s many Afghan Jews have migrated to Israel. Mazār-e
Sharīf, where the tomb of the Muslim leader Ali is said to be located in a 15th-century
mosque, is a leading place of Muslim pilgrimage. Scattered throughout Afghanistan are
the flag-covered graves of saintlike people who are revered and petitioned for help in
childbearing, settlement of disputes, moral leadership, or in other capacities.
An important figure in Muslim life in Afghanistan is the mullah (a male religious leader
or teacher). Any man who can recite the Qur’an (Koran), the sacred scripture of Islam,
from memory can be a mullah; however, the mullah may not understand either the
words or the meaning because the book was written and is memorized in Arabic,
which is not a local language. The mullah conducts the Friday sermon and prayers,
marriages, and funerals. Mullahs also teach the laws and doctrines of Islam to both
adults and children. Mullahs arbitrate local disputes, based upon Islamic legal
principles, and they are also called upon to provide advice and resolution of many
other physical, social, and personal problems, including such things as medicines, local
water disputes, or a family feud. In some of the more remote rural areas, the local
mullah and the local khan (landlord) dictate what their followers may or may not do.
Two separate systems of education exist in Afghanistan. The older system is a
religious one, taught by the mullahs, who conduct schools in the village mosques.
They teach the religious precepts of the Qur’an, reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The other system was introduced in Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution and provided for
free and compulsory education at all levels, although this was rarely achieved. Prior to
the civil war the respected Kābul University (founded in 1932) was a major seat of
learning with free tuition. Nine other colleges were established within it from 1938
through 1967, each with assistance from such countries as France, Germany, the
United States, Egypt, and the USSR. Before 1961 only men could receive a higher
education; that year all faculties were made coeducational. University of Nangarhār
(1962) in Jalālābād was established to teach medicine and other disciplines.
Before the 1978 military coup, the public school system was based on Western
models. Special emphasis was placed on primary education. Secondary schools existed
in Kābul and the larger towns. Five years of primary school and five years of
secondary school were expected, although many Afghans could not attend because
they lived in areas where there were no schools.
In 2000–2001 the country reported 15 percent of primary school-aged children were
enrolled in school; 22 percent of the relevantly aged children attended secondary
school. Literacy was estimated to be 36 percent for all Afghans aged 15 and older in
2000, 51 percent for males and 21 percent for females. However, some experts
believe these figures are too high because warfare effectively eliminated most
education and a generation grew up without any formal schooling. The civil war
resulted in the closing or dismantling of most lower, middle, and higher educational
facilities in the country. Then the Taliban rulers, many of whom were illiterate and
anti-education, suppressed all levels of schooling, and forbade it for girls and women.
Only rote memorization of the Qur’an in Arabic, a language most Afghans do not speak
or understand, was allowed during the Taliban regime. Opposition groups in a few
places in the country tried to maintain some education, but under very difficult
circumstances. With the removal of the Taliban from power in late 2001, people in
Afghanistan began to establish new plans and procedures for the restoration of
education, and perhaps a completely new educational system, nationwide. Schools
such as Kāabul University reopened, and student enrollments soared. However, the
country is sorely lacking the educational facilities and resources it needs to meet the
needs of its population. Several million new textbooks for the newly reopened schools
have been printed in the United States by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which
also has been involved in setting up a mobile school system to bring education to rural
areas in Afghanistan.
F Way of Life
Although the Afghan population is composed of many distinct ethnic groups, certain
elements of their way of life are much the same. Characteristically, the family is the
mainstay of Afghan society. Extremely close bonds exist within the family, which
consists of the members of several generations. The family is headed by the oldest
man, or patriarch, whose word is law for the whole family. Family honor, pride, and
respect toward other members are highly prized qualities. Among both villagers and
nomads the family lives together and forms a self-sufficient group. In the villages each
family generally occupies either one mud-brick house or a walled compound containing
mud-brick or stonewalled houses. The same pattern prevails among the nomads,
except that tents replace the houses.
Settlements in Afghanistan with less than 100 houses number over 10,000 and those
with 100 to 250 houses number about 1,000. There are 53 urban centers that range in
size from 2,500 to 25,000 people. In the smaller villages there are no schools, no
stores, nor any representative of the government. Each village has three sources of
authority within it: the malik (village headman), the mirab (master of the water
distribution), and the mullah (teacher of Islamic laws). Commonly a khan (large
landowner) will control the whole village by assuming the role of both malik and
Baggy cotton trousers are a standard part of the Afghan villager’s costume. The men
wear long cotton shirts, which hang over their trousers, and wide sashes around their
waists. They also wear a skullcap, and over that, a turban, which they take off when
working in the fields. The women wear a long loose shirt or a high-bodice dress with a
swirling skirt over their trousers; they drape a wide shawl around their heads. Many
women wear jewelry, which is collected as a form of family wealth. When urban
women leave their houses they usually wear a burka or shadier, a long tentlike veil
that covers them from head to foot. Women in villages seldom wear the burka, and
educated urban women discarded the custom, especially under Soviet domination
where it was regarded as backward. The Taliban movement enforced a strict dress
code that required Muslim women to wear a burka in public.
The diet of most Afghan villagers consists mainly of unleavened flat bread called nan,
soups, a kind of yogurt called mast, vegetables, fruit, and occasionally rice and meat.
Tea is the favorite drink.
Village men work in the fields, joined by the women during the harvest. Older children
tend the flocks and look after the smaller children. The village mosque is the center of
religious life and is often used as the village guest house.
Twice a year groups of nomads may pass through villages on their routes from
summer highland grazing grounds to the lowlands where they camp during the winter.
The villagers traditionally permit the nomads to graze their animals over the harvested
fields, which the flocks fertilize by depositing manure. The nomads buy supplies such
as tea, wheat, and kerosene from the villagers; the villagers buy wool and milk
products from the nomads. For food and clothing, the nomads depend on the milk
products, meat, wool, and skins of their flocks; for transportation they depend on their
camels. Nomadic women are freer and less secluded than village women.
A favorite sport in northern Afghanistan is a game called buzkashi, in which teams of
horsemen compete to deposit the carcass of a large headless calf in a goal circle.
Afghans also play polo and ghosai, a team sport similar to wrestling. The most
important holiday in Afghanistan is Nowruz, or New Year’s Day, which is celebrated on
the first day of spring.
G Social Problems
A variety of social ills are common in Afghanistan, such as poverty, interethnic strife,
inequality of women, and widespread thievery, kidnapping, and banditry. Blood feuds
handed down through generations are legendary, and revenge is regarded as a
necessary redress of wrongs. The civil war strengthened these tendencies to the point
where little travel was safe in the country without an adequate supply of money to buy
safe passage. The civil war killed, wounded, and displaced hundreds of thousands of
civilians. Water, telephone, and sewage systems were destroyed. Years of war have
separated and impoverished extended families that traditionally cared for widows and
fatherless children. Now many are left to fend for themselves. Some provinces began
experiencing famine in the 1990s, and diseases of malnutrition began to be reported
for the first time in decades. Traditional Afghan custom, which was revived by the
Taliban and other fundamentalist rebel groups, imposes limits on women’s activities
outside the home. In 1996, after the Taliban came to power, the United Nations
reported a series of 21 new ordinances governing the behavior of women in
Afghanistan. Women were prohibited from working outside the home, attending
school, wearing perfume, participating in sports, and walking outside the home
without the escort of a male relative. Women were reportedly stoned to death for
infractions, a practice that had been suppressed for decades.
The culture of Afghanistan reflects its ancient roots and position as a crossroads for
invading ethnic groups and traditions. Little the Afghans make is unattractive; even
common grain bags to carry produce to market are often embroidered to make them
more beautiful. A camel caravan of nomads often looks like a circus parade, with the
animals decked out in woven finery. The Islamic traditions of fine calligraphy and
graphic arts are evoked in the fine filigreed flourishes that decorate many buildings.
Poetry and poets are revered. Although the people of Afghanistan may have been
sorely stressed by centuries of warfare and a difficult environment, their arts have
The ancient art of storytelling continues to flourish in Afghanistan, partly in response
to widespread illiteracy. This age-old practice of telling folktales, through music and
the spoken word, is a highly developed and much appreciated art form. The use of
folklore has become the thread that links the past with the present in Afghan society.
Folktales concern all parts of Afghan life and often teach traditional values, beliefs, and
behaviors. They are also a major form of entertainment in Afghanistan.
Literature in both the Dari and Pashto languages originated in the early Muslim
centuries, when Arabic was also used. Shah nameh (Book of Kings), the great epic
poem completed in 1010 by the Persian poet Firdawsi, consists of 60,000 rhyming
couplets in Dari. Many other poems and tales were written in Dari and Turkic
languages as well. Khushhal Kattak, a famous 17th-century Pashtun warrior and poet,
used verse to express the tribal code. Modern writings have attempted to bring
Afghans closer to understanding the changes associated with the modern world, and
especially to comprehend the destruction of their country by war. In 1972 Sayyed
Burhanuddin Majruh wrote several volumes in classical, rhythmic Dari prose about a
traveler who joins his countrymen in exile, where they exchange ideas and narratives
from ancient times in the light of modern concepts of reason, logic, science, and
psychoanalysis. During the war with the Soviets, writings focused on the twin concerns
of Islam and freedom. Resistance to the Soviets was especially pronounced in the
Pashto province of Paktīā; in 1983 Gulzarak Zadran published “Afghanistan the Land of
Jihad: Paktīāin Uprising Waves” in the Pashto language. The Afghanistan Historical
Society and the Pashto Academy published literary magazines and encouraged new
writers in recent years, although much of their effort was stopped by the civil war.
B Art and Architecture
Afghanistan contains striking architectural remnants of all ages, including Greek and
Buddhist stupas (shrines or reliquaries) and monasteries, arches, monuments,
intricate Islamic minarets (the tall, slender towers on mosques), temples and forts.
Among the most famous sites are the great mosques of Herāt and Mazār-e Sharīf; the
minaret of a mosque at Jām in the west central highlands; the 1,000-year-old Great
Arch of Qal‘eh-ye Bost; the Chel Zina (Forty Steps) and rock inscriptions made by
Mughal emperor Babur in Kandahār; the Great Buddha of Bāmīān, destroyed by
Taliban militants in March 2001; the “Towers of Victory” in Ghaznī; and Emperor
Babur’s tomb and the great Bala Hissar fort in Kābul.
In the smaller arts, magnificent light blue-green fired tile work is famous in Herāt,
along with other fine work in book illumination (colored or gilded calligraphy),
illustration, bronze, stone, and wood. Afghan cultural life is characterized by traditional
arts and pastimes; gold and silver jewelry, marvelous decorative embroidery, and
various leather goods are still made in homes. By far the greatest art forms known
widely from Afghanistan are the Persian-style woven carpets.
Music is represented chiefly by traditional folk songs, ballads, and dances. Among the
stringed instruments, the six-stringed rohab is thought to be the ancestor to the
Western violin and cello. Other instruments include the santur (a kind of zither), a
hand-pumped harmonium, the chang (a plucked mouth harp), and a variety of drums
beaten with the palm and fingers. The attan dance derived from Pashtun areas is the
national dance. It is performed in a large circle with the dancers clapping their hands
and quickening the movements of their feet to the beat of the music. On vacation
holidays or weekends Afghans often gather to play music and sing at a picnic on a
river bank or in a woodland. The Taliban government forbade singing, clapping,
playing musical instruments and recorded music, and all forms of dance. Many of
these activities continued illicitly during Taliban rule, and once the regime fell in late
2001 many Afghans publicly rejoiced by singing and dancing.
D Libraries and Museums
The few major libraries are located in Kābul. However, most of the materials in the
Kābul University Library (founded in 1931) were dispersed during the war with the
Soviets and the subsequent civil war; the National Archives was also looted and its
collections removed. Taliban militants burned many thousands of library and museum
books in their zealous mission to enforce their strict interpretation of Islam. The Kābul
National Museum (1922), the largest in the country, was once known for its collection
of early Buddhist relics. Some of the more valuable of these were reported to have
been removed to the USSR during the years of the Soviet occupation; their present
location is unknown. Ancient gold coins and jewelry were reported to have been taken
as well. In 1993 the National Museum was blown open by rockets and subsequently
looted by soldiers. The majority of the enormously rich collection was taken out
through Pakistan and sold to wealthy collectors in other countries. The trade in Afghan
antiquities was reported to be one of the largest producers of illicit revenues after
illegal drugs. More than 2,700 works of art in the museum’s remaining collection,
including many ancient cultural treasures, were destroyed in 2000 by Taliban religious
police. In the regime’s interpretation of Islam, the works were considered to be
idolatrous renderings of living things.
A decade of Soviet occupation, war, and economic manipulation followed by years of
civil war left the economy of Afghanistan in shambles. Even in the 1970s, prior to the
wars, Afghanistan had one of the lowest standards of living in the world; things have
declined since then, with the production, trafficking, and movement of drugs and guns
as a major hidden part of the economy. As the Afghan-Soviet War and its effects
spread throughout the country in the early 1980s, two separate economies emerged:
the urban financial and industrial facilities, tied especially to the Soviet Union, and the
largely independent rural subsistence economy. In 1990 annual income was estimated
to be $714 per person.
Over the centuries, Afghans have developed a number of different strategies to earn a
living from their difficult environment. Most Afghans are settled farmers, herders, or
both, depending upon ecological, economic, and political factors. They are usually self-
sufficient in foodstuffs and other necessities. Industry and mining developed
considerably in the 20th century, but local handicrafts are still important. In 1956 the
government launched the first of several five-year plans. Irrigation efforts and
development of a better road and telecommunications network had top priority, with
later efforts toward production of textiles, cement, electricity, fertilizer, and grain
storage facilities. Progress was made to develop better trade with the outside world,
especially toward Europe, the United States, and Japan. Major nations aided
Afghanistan in building roads, dams, hydroelectricity facilities, airports, factories
(including those for light machinery, cement, and textiles), and irrigation networks for
such crops as cotton, wheat, barley, and rice. After the Soviet invasion in 1979,
development aid from the West ceased, and until the early 1990s Afghanistan was
economically dependent on the USSR. Fruits, vegetables, carpets, and gemstones
constitute the majority of the export market.
In 2002 the total labor force was estimated to be 11.7 million. Some 70 percent of the
working population is engaged in agriculture or animal husbandry. Many other kinds of
employment were eliminated because of war. Widespread unemployment and a lack of
skilled workers and administrators are among the most pressing labor problems.
Only a very small share of Afghanistan’s land, mostly in scattered valleys, is suitable
for farming, and a majority of this farmland requires irrigation. Water is drawn from
springs and rivers and is distributed through surface ditches and through underground
channels, or tunnels, which are excavated and maintained by a series of vertical
shafts. Such a tunnel is known as a karez or qanat. In 2001 some 2.4 million hectares
(5.9 million acres) of farmland were irrigated.
Wheat is the most important crop, followed by barley, corn, and rice. Cotton is another
important and widely cultivated crop. Fruit and nuts are among Afghanistan’s most
important exports. Afghanistan is noted for its unusually sweet grapes and melons,
grown mostly in the southwest, north of the Hindu Kush, and in the fertile regions
around Herāt. Raisins are also an important export. Other important fruits are
apricots, cherries, figs, mulberries, and pomegranates.
Livestock is nearly as important as crops to Afghanistan’s economy. Karakul sheep are
raised in large numbers in the north. The tight curly fleece of Karakul lambs is used to
make Persian lamb coats. Other breeds of sheep, such as the fat-tailed sheep, and
goats are also raised.
Afghanistan has long been a major supplier in the international drug trade. In the late
1990s Afghanistan replaced Myanmar (Burma) as the world’s biggest producer of
opium, producing about 4,600 metric tons in 1999. Significant quantities of hashish
were also produced in Afghanistan. In July 2000 the Taliban regime banned the
cultivation of opium poppies, declaring that drug use was contrary to Islam. However,
the ban ultimately raised opium prices on the international drug market, and the
Taliban were widely suspected of profiting from the drug trade. In early 2002 the
interim government of Afghanistan decreed the cultivation and processing of opium
poppies illegal; however, many impoverished local farmers remained financially
dependent on the crop.
Distinctive carpets are made by Turkmen and some Uzbeks; characteristically these
have parallel rows of geometric figures on a dark red ground, although many other
patterns also exist. The Baluchi, well-known producers of prayer rugs, also make
carpets mainly of wool, using a blend of dark colors. Camel hair and cotton are also
used in some of these carpets. A variety of beautiful embroideries are also made for
bridal trousseaus (the cloth in which the bride wraps her clothes and other personal
possessions) and for sale.
Large natural gas deposits in northern Afghanistan were exploited jointly with the
USSR starting in 1967. In the 1980s large quantities of natural gas were exported to
the USSR, but that was terminated after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Oil has been
found to the north of the Hindu Kush in large reserves, but it remains unexploited.
Afghanistan is the world’s only source of high-grade lapis lazuli and has major copper
and iron deposits. Most of these resources also have not been exploited, primarily
because decades of warfare severely impeded economic development.
Industrial development increased substantially after World War II (1939-1945). With
the opening in 1965 of a large West German-built wool mill, woolen-textile production
more than doubled. Among the other factories located primarily in Kābul are plants
manufacturing textiles (the most important manufactured export product) and
footwear; cement plants; a fruit-processing plant; a plant making coal briquettes; and
several cotton gins. As with other aspects of the economy, the decades of war were a
major obstacle to industrial expansion.
Some 76 percent of the energy used in Afghanistan comes from firewood and other
traditional fuels burned in the home. Most of the rest comes from gas, oil, and
hydroelectricity. There are dams and hydroelectric stations on the Kondoz, Kābul,
Arghandāb, and Helmand rivers. The dams also store water for irrigation.
G Foreign Trade
Afghanistan’s chief exports are dried fruits and nuts, hand-woven carpets, wool,
cotton, animal hides and pelts, and precious and semiprecious gems. Afghanistan
imports food, motor vehicles, petroleum products, and textiles. The USSR was
Afghanistan’s chief trading partner even before the 1979 Soviet invasion, and this
relationship intensified in the 1980s. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the
leading purchasers of Afghan products were the former Soviet republics, Pakistan,
Britain, Germany, and India. The United States suspended normal trade relations with
Afghanistan from 1986 to 2002. In 2000 exports amounted to $125 million, while
imports cost $524 million.
H Currency and Banking
The unit of currency in Afghanistan is the afghani, which is divided into 100 puls. From
1981 to 1996 the official rate of exchange was fixed at 50 afghanis equal U.S.$1; after
1996 it was fixed at 3,000 afghanis equal U.S.$1. The actual market rate of the
afghani has fluctuated, however. High inflation rates (up to 57 percent) contributed to
a drastic decrease in the purchasing power of the afghani from 1981 to 1994, a trend
that continued during the Taliban regime. The afghani, so devalued by two decades of
wartime inflation, now has little value outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s central bank was founded in 1938 and is the largest bank in
Afghanistan. The central bank issues all notes, executes government loans, and lends
money to cities and to other banks. All private banks in Afghanistan were nationalized
in 1975, mostly because a lack of clear terms for borrowers and lenders had made it
difficult for people to use the country’s credit resources. No stock market or other
modern form of economic development exists in Afghanistan. Instead, traditional
“money bazaars” exist to provide money-lending and foreign exchange dealings. This
informal and largely undocumented money transfer system, called hawala, is common
throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and is considered to be one of the means
by which terrorism from this part of the world has been funded.
Travel within Afghanistan is severely limited by the rugged terrain. The country has
only 25 km (16 mi) of railroad track, which is for shipping goods between Afghanistan
and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan when it is operational. Petroleum products are piped
in from Uzbekistan to Bagrām and from Turkmenistan to Shīndand. Natural gas used
to be piped into the part of the USSR that is now Uzbekistan through a 180-km (110-
mi) pipeline, but the pipeline was closed sometime in the 1990s. Except for the Amu
Darya, which has 1,400 km (900 mi) of navigable waters and handles vessels up to
about 500 metric tons, the country’s narrow, fast-flowing rivers are nearly all
unnavigable and are used chiefly for the transportation of free-floating timber. Ports
on the Amu Darya include Keleft, Kheyrābād, and Shīr Khān. There are 21,000 km
(13,049 mi) of highways, about 13 percent are paved, 8 percent are gravel, and 79
percent are dirt.
Public transportation in Afghanistan is generally by bus and truck in which loads of
people, animals, and produce are packed into small spaces or on the roof. In general
women ride in the front, separated from men. City dwellers tend to travel by bus and
bicycle. Horse-drawn carts are also commonly used in urban areas, probably due to
the shortage of petroleum in the country. In the countryside most Afghans travel by
foot, donkey, horseback, and occasionally by camel.
Kābul and Kandahār have international airports. There are about 50 airports in the
country, about half of which have paved runways. The national airline is Ariana
Airlines; Bakhtar Airlines is the domestic airline. International and domestic airline
services were often suspended during the civil war, when the Taliban forced the
closure of airports.
Camels and other pack animals are used for conveying goods. Because Afghanistan is
a landlocked country without any seaports, it depends on neighboring countries for the
shipment of goods to and from its borders.
Telephone and telegraph networks link the major towns. In 2002 there were 1.4
telephone mainlines in use for every 1,000 inhabitants. One international telephone
link is maintained through Iran. The first Afghan television station, built with Japanese
aid, went on the air in Kābul in 1978. After the Taliban took control of the capital, they
closed the country’s television stations and outlawed television and movies. Television
stations began broadcasting again soon after the Taliban were driven from the capital
by Northern Alliance forces in November 2001.
The history of newspapers, magazines, and other publications in Afghanistan has
varied, depending upon the level of censorship in the ruling government. The first
printed newspaper was distributed in 1875, and two other small newspapers were
printed just after 1900. With the beginning of the reign of King Amanullah in 1919, the
press flourished with the publication of more than 15 newspapers and magazines. By
the 1950s, 95 percent of the nation’s printed materials came from the government.
The small remainder was produced by provincial hand-operated presses. In 1962 the
Kābul Times appeared as the first English-language paper. Bakhtar News Agency
subscribed to a variety of international press services and its news bulletin was
available as well. Following the 1978 coup the Kābul Times was renamed the Kābul
New Times and began publishing Communist rhetoric that was reminiscent of the
worst days of the Cold War. The newspaper was highly confrontational and hostile to
the West. In reaction to the suppression of the free press, antiregime shabnamah
(night letters) were secretly printed (primarily in Kābul) with uncensored news and
opinions. In 1996 Afghanistan had 12 daily newspapers, but most ceased publication
after the Taliban came to power. The Taliban officially revived two newspapers in 1998
to serve as organs of their regime. In early 2002 the country’s new interim
government passed a law declaring freedom of the press. Subsequently, more than
100 newspapers began to be published and distributed in Afghanistan. Kābul Weekly is
the largest newspaper in circulation.
Until the 1960s Afghanistan’s king and the king’s relatives dominated the central
government, though the royal family had to keep the support of conservative ethnic
and religious leaders. In 1963, for the first time, a prime minister was appointed from
outside the royal family because it was thought that it was not in the best interests of
the country or the dynasty for close members of the royal family to be too closely
identified with policymaking. In 1964 a new constitution provided for a division of
powers between the chief executive and an elected parliament. Political parties were
never legalized under the monarchy.
In 1973 military officers led by Muhammad Daud overthrew the king and proclaimed
Afghanistan a republic. In 1978 Afghanistan came under Communist rule when the
military overthrew Daud and installed Noor Muhammad Taraki, who was overthrown
and killed in September 1979 by Hafizullah Amin and his supporters. In December
1979 the Soviet Union mounted a full-scale invasion of the country, killed President
Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal as the president. In 1987 the Soviet-backed
Communist government issued a new constitution providing for a president to be
indirectly elected to a seven-year term; Sayid Mohammad Najibullah was elected
president. The constitution also created a bicameral (two-house) National Assembly
(Meli Shura), which consisted of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The
People’s Democratic Party controlled the government, but 50 of the 234 seats in the
House of Representatives were reserved for opposition parties. Following the
withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 and the overthrow of the Communist regime and
Najibullah in April 1992, an interim council took power. In December 1992
Burhanuddin Rabbani was elected president by a special Grand Council. The term of
Rabbani’s government officially expired in December 1994, but he continued to hold
office until September 1996, when the Taliban took the capital and ousted his
With the help of U.S. and British forces, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance captured
the capital in November 2001, effectively ending Taliban rule in the country. The
United Nations (UN) then began pursuing efforts to establish a broad-based
multiethnic government in Afghanistan. In late November Afghan delegates from the
country’s major ethnic, religious, and political factions—except the Taliban—began
meeting in Bonn, Germany, for UN-sponsored negotiations on the country’s political
future. The UN-brokered agreement established a temporary government on
December 22, 2001, to run the country for six months. Hamid Karzai, an ethnic
Pashtun, emerged as leader of the interim government. Karzai named a commission to
oversee the formation of a loya jirga, or grand council, that would convene within six
months to choose a transitional government to govern the country for 18 months, at
which time the country was scheduled to hold its first-ever general elections. The loya
jirga, a traditional decision-making council, convened in June 2002. It included 1,050
seats for locally elected representatives from the country’s geographic regions and 501
seats for selected delegates, including religious leaders, provincial governors, women,
nomads, and Afghan refugees from abroad. Shortly after the loya jirga convened, it
elected Karzai leader of the transitional government and interim president of
In January 2004 the loya jirga ratified a new constitution and Karzai signed the 162-
article document into law, recognizing it as the country’s supreme law. The new
constitution establishes a strong presidency, a two-chamber legislature, and an
independent judiciary. It recognizes Islam as the country’s sacred religion but
guarantees freedom of religion. The new constitution also recognizes that men and
women are equal before the law, and it guarantees language rights of minorities.
The constitution of 1931 stated that Islam was the sacred faith of Afghanistan and that
the Hanafi rite of Islam was law. The Hanafi rite, one of four orthodox systems of
jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, is an interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law). The 1964
constitution stated that no laws could contradict the basic principles of Islam, but that
the actual laws were to be resolutions passed by the houses of parliament, which the
Sharia used when no such law existed or when the law was ambiguous. This
constitution incorporated the previous religious judges into the system, but it also
established the supremacy of secular law. The highest court was the Supreme Court.
It administered the lower courts on the provincial, municipal, and district levels. Cases
could be tried in Pashtu, Dari, or the languages of the minority nationalities. Special
courts were established to try political cases. After the coup in 1978 and the change in
government, a series of legal decrees designed to modernize the countryside were
issued. These decrees included the elimination of usury (lending money at excessively
high-interest rates), old debts, land mortgages, and bride price (payment made on
behalf of a prospective husband to the bride’s family); the establishment of equality
between the sexes in married life; and minimum ages of marriage. Many of the
reforms were considered forward-looking, but they created conflict that helped lead to
the civil war. The Taliban enforced its version of the Sharia by imposing extreme
punishments such as stonings, amputations, hangings, and beheadings for certain
B Local Government
For administrative purposes, Afghanistan is divided into 31 provinces: Badakhshān,
Bādghīs, Baghlān, Balkh, Bamian, Farāh, Faryab, Ghaznī, Ghowr, Helmand, Herāt,
Jowzjān, Kābul, Kandahār, Kāpīsā, Konar, Kondoz, Laghmān, Lowgar, Nangarhār,
Nīmrozī, Norestān, Paktīkā, Parvān, Paktīā, Samangān, Sar-e Pol, Takhār, Orūzgān,
Vardak, and Zābol. The provinces are divided into districts and subdistricts. Each
province is officially administered by a governor appointed by the central government.
During the civil war, a lack of central control in the country divided power over the
provinces, with the result that local warlords and provincial chiefs took control over all
or parts of the provinces in some areas.
C Political Parties and Movements
In the 1980s the dominant political party was the People’s Democratic Party of
Afghanistan (PDPA), a Communist party founded in 1965. In 1967 it had split into two
rival factions, known as Khalq (Masses), a more radical group, and Parcham (Flag), a
moderate, pro-Soviet group. The Khalq was strongest among Pashto speakers in the
mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Parcham was strongest among Dari-speaking
After the PDPA came to power in 1978, Noor Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin,
who were Khalqis, began a purge of Parchamis. The fall of Amin in December 1979
and the Soviet intervention brought Parchami leaders to power. Babrak Karmal and
Sayid Mohammed Najibullah belonged to the Parcham faction.
Many guerrilla groups, known collectively as mujahideen, formed in the 1980s to fight
a war against the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. They were divided along
ethnic lines and degrees of traditionalism and Muslim fundamentalism. In 1985 seven
Pakistan-based groups formed a nominal united front, and in 1987 eight Iran-based
groups formed their own united front. The mujahideen were mostly headquartered in
Peshāwar, Pakistan, during the war with the Soviets, and they continued to maintain a
substantial presence there through the ensuing civil war. They were initially financed
and equipped mainly by the United States, which was interested in funding groups
fighting the Soviet-installed government, and by Saudi Arabia. Most of this military aid
was channeled through the Pakistani government and went to the mujahideen groups.
In the early 1990s the United States largely withdrew support from the mujahideen.
Saudi Arabia and Iran financed different groups within the mujahideen throughout the
1980s and continued to fund opposing mujahideen groups during the civil war.
Pakistan, which has long had a vested interest in power brokering in Afghanistan, also
was involved in financing various groups.
D Social Services
Near the end of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, more than 100 national
government organizations and private volunteer relief agencies from more than 20
countries were bringing relief and assistance to Afghans, both inside the country and
outside to the refugee population. The government maintained hospitals to raise the
level of public health. Mass vaccinations eliminated smallpox and greatly reduced
typhoid fever. Government campaigns also greatly reduced the incidence of malaria.
In the 1990s, however, civil war and extreme poverty prohibited improvements in the
country’s welfare system.
After the Soviets departed in 1989, life in Afghanistan became desperate. In 1993
there was on average only 1 physician for every 7,002 Afghanis. In the mid-1990s
there was only 1 functioning hospital for every 500,000 people in some areas. Medical
supplies were in short supply because of frequent hijacking of relief convoys.
Trachoma (a contagious eye disease that can result in blindness) and dysentery
remained widespread, and skin diseases were rampant. Tuberculosis reached epidemic
levels with surveys showing 80 percent of families with at least one member sick.
Large numbers of people sustained injuries, especially lost limbs, during the war. By
the mid-1990s the Red Crescent Society (the equivalent of Red Cross in Muslim
countries) had opened a clinic in Kandahār. Other humanitarian relief agencies,
including the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP), subsequently began
efforts to help feed Afghanistan’s starving population. Such humanitarian assistance
continues to be extremely important in Afghanistan because so many of its people
have been without enough food, adequate shelter, or medical care for so long.
Immediately after the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, the UNWFP stepped up
its efforts to deliver food to the population, particularly in remote areas that the relief
agencies had been denied access to by the Taliban.
In 1978 the Afghan army numbered 110,000 men, but desertions reduced it to 50,000
by 1986. The USSR, which had already supplied the Afghan government with military
equipment and advisers, sent in combat troops in late 1979 but withdrew them over a
nine-month period in 1988 and 1989. By then the Afghan armed forces had been
rebuilt to about 200,000 men in the army, security police, and militia. During the civil
war, however, elements of the former army, national guard, border guard, national
police (sarandoi), and ethnic militias were broken up among the various political
factions. In 1995 available manpower (men aged 15 to 49) was estimated at about 5.6
million; those fit for military service was about 3 million; and men reaching military
age (22) annually numbered about 200,000. At the present time, however, the
military no longer exists on a national scale. In early 2002 Kofi Annan, secretary
general of the United Nations, and Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan,
discussed the urgent need to form a well-trained and disciplined Afghan police force
and army. The United States subsequently set up a task force for training Afghan
troops that eventually would form a new national army in Afghanistan.
Excavation of prehistoric sites suggests that early humans lived in northern
Afghanistan at least 50,000 years ago and that farming communities in Afghanistan
were among the earliest in the world. After 2000 BC successive waves of people from
Central Asia moved into the area. Since many of these settlers were Aryans (speakers
of the parent language of the Indo-European languages), a people who also migrated
to Persia (now Iran) and India in prehistoric times, the area was called Aryana, or
Land of the Aryans.
By the middle of the 6th century BC the Persian Empire of the Achaemenid dynasty
controlled the region of Aryana. About 330 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the last
Achaemenid ruler and made his way to the eastern limits of Aryana and beyond. After
his death in 323 BC several kingdoms fought for control of his Asian empire. These
kingdoms included Seleucids, Bactria, and the Indian Mauryan Empire.
A Buddhist Period
About the 1st century AD the Kushans, a central Asian people, won control of Aryana.
Buddhism was the dominant religion from the 3rd century to the 8th century AD. Ruins
of many monasteries and stupas, or reliquary mounds (structures where sacred relics
are kept or displayed), from that period still remain. They line what was once a great
Buddhist pilgrimage road from India to Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, and on into
Kushan power was destroyed at the end of the 4th century AD by a Turkic people of
central Asian origin called the White Huns or Ephthalites. After the Ephthalites, the
area was divided among several kingdoms, some Buddhist, some Hindu.
B Islamic Period
In the 7th century AD Arab armies carried the new religion of Islam to Afghanistan.
The western provinces of Herāt and Sistan came under Arab rule, but the people of
these provinces revolted and returned to their old beliefs as soon as the Arab armies
passed. In the 10th century Muslim rulers called Samanids, from Bukhara in what is
now Uzbekistan, extended their influence into the Afghan area. A Samanid established
a dynasty in Ghaznī called the Ghaznavids. The greatest Ghaznavid king, Mahmud,
who ruled from 998 to 1030, established Islam throughout the area of Afghanistan. He
led many military expeditions into India. Ghaznī became a center of literature and the
The Ghaznavid state grew weaker under Mahmud’s descendants and gave way in the
middle of the 12th century to the Ghurid kingdom, which arose in Ghur, in the west
central region of present-day Afghanistan. The Ghurids in turn were routed early in the
13th century by the Khwarizm Shahs, another central Asian dynasty. They were swept
away in about 1220 by the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, who devastated the land.
Near the end of the 14th century the central Asian military leader Tamerlane (Timur
Lang) conquered the region of Afghanistan and moved on into India. His sons and
grandsons, the Timurids, could not hold Tamerlane’s empire together. However, they
ruled most of present-day Afghanistan from Herāt.
The period from the Ghurid through the Timurid dynasty produced fine Islamic
architectural monuments. Many of these mosques, shrines, and minarets still stand in
Herāt, Qal‘eh-ye Bost, Ghaznī, and Mazār-e Sharīf. An important school of miniature
painting flourished at Herāt in the 15th century.
A descendant of Tamerlane on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s
side, Babur (Zahiruddin Muhammad) took Kābul in October 1504 and then moved on
to India, where he established the Mughal Empire.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Afghanistan was fought over by the rulers of
the Mughal Empire, centered in India, and those of the Safavid dynasty, in Persia.
Usually the Mughals held Kābul and the Persians held Herāt, with Kandahār frequently
changing hands. The Pashtun tribes increased their power, but they failed to win
C An Afghan Empire
In the 18th century, Nadir Shah, the king of Persia, employed the Abdali tribe of
Pashtuns in his wars in India. Ahmad Shah, an Abdali chief who had gained a high post
in Nadir Shah’s army, established himself in Kandahār after Nadir Shah’s assassination
in 1747. An assembly of tribal chiefs proclaimed him shah, and the Afghans extended
their rule as far east as Kashmīr and Delhi, north to the Amu Darya, and west into
Ahmad retired from the throne in 1772 and died in Kandahār, whereupon his son
Timur Shah assumed control. The Afghan empire survived largely intact through the
next 20 years. He established his capital in Kābul to draw power away from his rivals
in Kandahār, as well as to be closer to his richest province, the Punjab of India.
Following Timur’s death in 1793, palace rivalries and internal conflicts led to the
disintegration of the empire. Two sons of Timur, Shah Shuja and Shah Mahmud,
fought over the remnants of the Afghan empire, with Shuja finally going into exile in
India and Mahmud withdrawing to Herāt, as a number of other small principalities
emerged throughout Afghanistan.
Dost Muhammad Khan emerged as the new ruler, or emir, in Kābul by 1826. Among
the most pressing problems he faced was repelling the westward encroachment of the
Sikhs, who gained control of the Punjab and the region up to the Khyber Pass,
including the important trading post of Peshāwar. In 1837 Dost Muhammad’s forces
defeated the Sikhs at Jamrūd, but failed to recover Peshāwar. This conflict and the
arrival of a new Russian envoy in Kābul made the British, who were allies of the Sikhs,
extremely nervous about the security of the western frontier of their growing empire
in India. These events played out during the so-called Great Game between the
Russian “bear” and the British “lion,” with both empires vying for regional dominance
and Afghanistan becoming caught between them. In 1838 Lord Auckland, the British
governor-general of India, ordered military intervention in Afghanistan to protect
British interests, thereby setting off the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842). With
British and Sikh manipulation and support, Shah Shuja returned to Afghanistan to
overthrow Dost Muhammad, as a British garrison was established in Kābul and
elsewhere south of the Hindu Kush mountains.
A revolt by Dost Muhammad’s son Muhammad Akbar Khan led to the forced
withdrawal of the British garrison from Kābul in the winter of 1842. Ambushed during
the retreat, nearly all of the some 4,500 British troops and their 12,000 camp
followers were killed. Dost Muhammad was able to return to Kābul, from where he
spent the next 20 years reunifying parts of Afghanistan until his death in 1863.
Dost Muhammad designated his third son, Sher Ali, as his successor, but civil war
erupted as rivals to Sher Ali vied for control. Sher Ali defeated his rivals, notably his
brother Afzul Khan, by 1868. At the same time he tried to maintain good relations with
the British Raj (British-ruled India). However, the Russian conquests in Central Asia
had brought that empire to the Amu Darya river on the northern border of Afghanistan
by 1847. The negotiations of a Russian envoy in Kābul renewed the unease of the
British, who consequently invaded Afghanistan, instigating the Second Anglo-Afghan
War (1878-1880). Sher Ali was deposed in 1879, but the British, realizing the
difficulties of ruling from within Afghanistan, in 1880 invited a nephew of Sher Ali,
Abdur Rahman Khan (Afzul Khan’s son), to rule at their behest. However, the British
limited his power beyond the borders of Afghanistan by securing control of Afghan
Known as the Iron Emir, Abdur Rahman recognized the threat from the expansionistic
Russians and the defensive British. As a result he allowed the foreign delineation of his
borders to encompass a smaller territory than he actually considered to be
Afghanistan. The emergence of the present-day configuration of the country, with its
narrow panhandle of the Wakhan Corridor projecting to China on the northeast, is an
example of the establishment of a classic buffer state, in which to avoid inadvertent
conflict, the borders of the Russian and British empires were to have no contact points
in common. Similarly, the establishment of the Durand Line, the southeastern border
of Afghanistan, divided the territory of the militant Pashtun tribe into two halves, with
one half under the control of the British Raj, and the other inside Afghanistan. This
divide-and-rule policy allowed some nominal control of a difficult region, but problems
related to the tribally unpopular (and for them, unrecognized) border have continued
to the present day.
D Modern Afghanistan
Abdur Rahman Khan extended his control throughout the territory within the new
boundaries of Afghanistan. His son, Habibullah, who reigned from 1901 until 1919,
took the first steps toward the introduction of modern education and industry.
Habibullah’s son and successor, Amanullah, initiated a brief war, the Third Anglo-
Afghan War, in 1919 to end British control over Afghan foreign affairs. The resulting
peace treaty recognized the independence of Afghanistan.
Amanullah was determined to modernize his country. In 1926 he took the title of king.
His reforms, including efforts to induce women to give up the burka, or full-length veil,
and to make men wear Western clothing in certain public areas, offended religious and
ethnic group leaders. Revolts broke out, and in 1929 Amanullah fled the country.
Order was restored in 1930 by four brothers who were relatives of Amanullah. One of
them, Muhammad Nadir Shah, became king, but he was assassinated in 1933. His
son, Muhammad Zahir Shah, succeeded him. Power remained concentrated in the
hands of Zahir and the royal family for the next four decades. In 1946 Afghanistan
joined the United Nations (UN).
In 1953 Muhammad Daud, a nephew of Nadir Shah, became prime minister. Daud
began to modernize Afghanistan rapidly with the help of economic and especially
military aid from the USSR; the modern Afghan army was largely created with Soviet
equipment and technical training. The United States declined to assist in this process.
Social reform proceeded slowly because the government was afraid to antagonize
conservative ethnic group leaders and devout Muslims. Relations with Pakistan
deteriorated after Daud called for self-determination for the Pashtun tribes of
In 1963, hoping to halt the growth of Soviet influence and to improve relations with
Pakistan, Zahir Shah removed Daud as prime minister. In 1964 Afghanistan adopted a
new constitution, changing the country from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.
The armed forces still depended on the Soviet Union for equipment and training. A
severe drought in the early 1970s caused economic hardship, and the popularity of the
E End of Monarchy
In 1973 Muhammad Daud overthrew the king in a coup. He declared Afghanistan a
republic with himself as president. Daud announced ambitious plans for economic
development and tried to play the USSR against Western donors, but his dictatorial
government was opposed both by radical left-wing intellectuals and soldiers and by
traditionalist ethnic leaders. The leading leftist organization was the People’s
Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had been founded in 1965 and in 1967
split into a pro-Soviet Parcham faction and a much more radical Khalq faction. The two
groups joined forces in 1976 to oppose Daud.
F Leftist Coup and Soviet Invasion
In April 1978, after Daud launched a crackdown against the PDPA, leftist military
officers overthrew him. PDPA leader Noor Muhammad Taraki became prime minister,
subsequently assuming the title of president as well. Taraki and his deputy prime
minister, Hafizullah Amin, both members of the Khalq faction, purged many Parcham
leaders. Taraki announced a sweeping revolutionary program, including land reform,
the emancipation of women, and a campaign against illiteracy. In late 1978 Islamic
traditionalists and ethnic leaders who objected to rapid social change began an armed
revolt against the government. By the summer of 1979 the rebels controlled much of
the Afghan countryside. In September Taraki was deposed and later killed. Amin, his
successor, tried vigorously to suppress the rebellion and resisted Soviet efforts to
make him moderate his policies. The government’s position deteriorated, however,
and on December 25, 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. They quickly won
control of Kābul and other important centers. The Soviets executed Amin on December
27 and installed Babrak Karmal, leader of PDPA’s Parcham faction, as president.
Karmal, whom the Soviets considered to be more susceptible to their control,
denounced Amin’s repressive policies, which reportedly included mass arrests and
torture of prisoners, and promised to combine social and economic reform with respect
for Islam and for Afghan traditions. But the government, dependent on Soviet military
forces to bolster it, was widely unpopular.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan played out in the waning days of the Cold War, as
the leaden economy and political repressions of the Soviet Union were just beginning
to show signs of strain. Despite the Soviet Union’s own domestic difficulties and high-
level internal advice against such a move, the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan’s
government and eventual full military invasion was a long-considered and reasonably
well-thought-out plan. From its earliest foreign aid in construction of military-quality
bridges and highways, to its progressive planting of special agents within the
Afghanistan bureaucracy and military, the Soviet Union displayed an unremitting
interest in expanding its influence in the country and moving farther south toward the
warm-water ports and hydrocarbon riches of the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan’s location
along part of the Soviet Union’s southern border made the installation of a Soviet-
friendly government there all the more desirable. The leftist coup of 1978 in Kābul
seemingly assured that the Soviets would not lose the strategic position that they had
patiently established through expensive and pervasive efforts over the prior quarter-
century. Elsewhere in the country, however, there was only minimal support for the
emerging Communist government in Kābul; opposition to it mounted nationwide,
eventually even including significant portions of the Afghan military. The Soviet
Union’s large-scale military intervention aimed to protect its interests in the region by
helping the Soviet-installed government to put down this widespread opposition.
Nevertheless, resistance to the Communist government and the Soviet invaders grew
spontaneously throughout Afghanistan so that by the mid-1980s there were about 90
areas in the country commanded by guerrilla leaders. The guerrillas called themselves
mujahideen (Muslim holy warriors). They had gained prominence by their fighting
prowess rather than through the customary routes within traditional social structures.
The resistance was roughly organized into seven major mujahideen parties, largely of
Sunni background, based in Peshāwar, Pakistan, in the 1980s. Other mujahideen
parties were based in Iran. The mujahideen were sustained by weapons and money
from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. By the mid-1980s the United
States was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to aid Afghan rebels
based in Pakistan.
During the 1980s Soviet forces increasingly bore the brunt of the fighting. By 1986
about 118,000 Soviet troops and 50,000 Afghan government troops were facing
perhaps 130,000 mujahideen guerrillas. Although the Soviet troops used modern
equipment, including tanks and bombers, the mujahideen were also well armed, and
they had local support and operated more effectively in familiar mountainous terrain.
In 1986 the United States began supplying the mujahideen with Stinger missiles able
to shoot down Soviet armored helicopters.
The effects of the war on Afghanistan were devastating. Half of the population was
displaced inside the country, forced to migrate outside the country, wounded, or killed.
About 3 million war refugees fled to Pakistan and about 1.5 million fled to Iran.
Estimates of combat fatalities range between 700,000 and 1.3 million people. With the
school system largely destroyed, industrialization severely restricted, and large
irrigation projects badly damaged, the economy of the country was crippled. Despite
some negative reaction, the presence of so many refugees in neighboring Pakistan and
Iran actually improved Afghan relations with those countries. In addition, many of the
refugees improved their lives considerably by leaving Afghanistan and the dangers of
war therein. Because the majority of the refugees were religious, their fellow Muslims
in Iran and Pakistan accepted them, even while the Iranian and Pakistani governments
were striving to bring about the fall of the Communist regime in Kābul.
In May 1986 Karmal was replaced as PDPA leader by Mohammad Najibullah, a
member of the Parcham faction who had headed the Afghan secret police. In
November 1987 Najibullah was elected president.
G Soviet Withdrawal
When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, he gave high priority to
getting Soviet troops out of the costly, unpopular, and apparently unwinnable war in
Afghanistan. In May 1988 Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR, and the United States
signed agreements providing for an end to foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and the
USSR began withdrawing its forces. The Soviet withdrawal was completed in February
H Civil War
The mujahideen, who did not sign the agreement concerning the Soviet withdrawal,
maintained their fight against the Afghanistan central government with weapons that
they continued to get from the United States via Pakistan. They rejected offers from
Najibullah to make peace and share power, and refused to consider participating in
any national government that included Communists. Thus the civil war continued. The
United States and Pakistani sponsors prompted the Peshāwar-based rebels to besiege
Jalālābād, a strong point for Najibullah in southern Afghanistan. After months of
fighting, however, the Afghan government scored a clear victory. A March 1990 coup
attempt also failed to bring down Najibullah. He continued to receive Soviet food, fuel,
and weapons to help maintain his control. However, rebels persisted in terrorizing the
civilian population by rocket bombardment of Kābul and other cities. Finally in late
1991 the USSR and the United States signed an agreement to end military aid to the
Kābul government and to the mujahideen rebels.
In 1992 as the resistance closed in on Kābul, the Najibullah government fell, in part
because of the defection of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek from northern
Afghanistan whose militia had served the PDPA government. Two mujahideen parties
from Peshāwar, both considered fundamentalist, joined forces with Dostum and
Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik military commander, in the north and central mountains
of Afghanistan. They won control of Kābul, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik,
became interim president from July through December 1992, taking office as full
president in January 1993. A strong attempt was made to keep the Pashtun leaders,
who traditionally held the power in Afghanistan, out of the most important government
positions. Kābul was besieged beginning in 1992, first by various mujahideen groups
and then by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, which sought to reestablish Pashtun
dominance in the capital.
The Taliban emerged in the fall of 1994 as a faction of mujahideen soldiers who
identified themselves as religious students. The movement started in the south and
worked its way toward Herāt in the northwest and Kābul in the east. It made
outstanding military gains using armor, heavy rocket artillery, and helicopters against
government forces. The Taliban’s stated mission was to disarm the country’s warring
factions and to impose their strictly orthodox version of Islamic law. Some experts
suspected the Pakistani government of supporting the Taliban, in order to keep the
combat within Afghanistan and out of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan,
which is a major part of the Pashtun homeland. During the many vagaries of shifting
alliances, as Afghans sought a new political equilibrium, one fundamentalist and one
moderate party from the Peshāwar-based mujahideen groups contributed considerable
personnel to the Taliban.
The term of Rabbani’s government expired in December 1994, but he continued to
hold office amid the chaos of the civil war. Factional fighting since the beginning of
January 1994 kept government officers from actually occupying ministries and
discharging government responsibilities. Most cities outside of Kābul were
administered by former resistance commanders and their shuras (councils). In June
1996 Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had resigned as prime minister in 1994 to launch a
military offensive against forces loyal to Rabbani, again assumed the post, this time to
help Rabbani’s government fight the Taliban threat. Despite their efforts, the Taliban
took Kābul in September 1996.
Rabbani and Hekmatyar fled north to join the northern-based anti-Taliban alliance led
by the military commanders Massoud and Dostum. The alliance was a coalition of
ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who were opposed to the Pashtun-dominated
Taliban. The alliance took the name United Islamic Front for the Salvation of
Afghanistan, commonly known as the United Front or the Northern Alliance. Massoud
was the military commander of its chief political wing, Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic
Society). The Taliban advanced north toward the mountain strongholds of the
Northern Alliance and by the late 1990s had taken control of almost all of Afghanistan.
Northern Alliance forces held a small portion of the country’s territory in the north.
I Taliban Regime
After taking over Kābul, the Taliban created the Ministry for Ordering What Is Right
and Forbidding What Is Wrong to impose and enforce its fundamentalist rules of
behavior. The Taliban’s laws particularly affected women, who were ordered to cover
themselves from head to toe in burkas (long, tentlike veils), forbidden from attending
school or working outside their homes, and publicly beaten if they were improperly
dressed or escorted by men not related to them. The Taliban also made murder,
adultery, and drug dealing punishable by death and made theft punishable by
amputation of the hand. Many of the laws alarmed human-rights groups and provoked
worldwide condemnation. Most countries did not recognize the Taliban as the
legitimate government of Afghanistan.
In 1998, after terrorist bombings struck U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the
United States launched cruise missiles at alleged terrorist training camps in eastern
Afghanistan. The camps were reportedly connected to an international terrorist ring
allegedly run by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian expatriate named by U.S.
officials as the mastermind behind the embassy bombings. Bin Laden was active in the
Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s, and toward the end of
that war he established al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the Base”), an organization based in
Afghanistan that, according to U.S. officials, connects and coordinates fundamentalist
Islamic terrorist groups around the world. Al-Qaeda also supported the Taliban regime,
with its special forces, called the Arab Brigade, fighting alongside Taliban troops in the
civil war against the Northern Alliance.
On September 9, 2001, pro-Taliban suicide bombers assassinated Ahmad Shah
Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance. Two days later in the United States,
terrorists hijacked passenger airplanes and deliberately crashed them into the twin
towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington,
Virginia, killing thousands of people. The U.S. government identified bin Laden as the
prime suspect behind the attacks. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme leader of the
Taliban, refused U.S. demands that the Taliban surrender bin Laden. The U.S.
government built an international antiterrorism coalition, securing the approval of
many nations for a war on terrorism. American and British forces began aerial
bombings of al-Qaeda camps and Taliban military positions on October 7. The
Northern Alliance, meanwhile, continued its front-line offensive north of Kābul and
other strategic areas. Many Afghans fled to refugee camps in border areas of Pakistan
and Iran to escape the bombings, adding to the millions of Afghans already displaced
from more than two decades of war.
While the United States and Britain continued the aerial bombardment in November,
Northern Alliance forces captured several strategic cities, including Kābul. In late
November hundreds of U.S. marines landed near Kandahār in the first major infusion
of American ground troops into Afghanistan. The Taliban surrendered Kandahār, their
last remaining stronghold, by December 10. The U.S.-led offensive then focused on
routing out al-Qaeda forces holed up in the rugged Tora Bora cave region of eastern
Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. In March 2002 U.S. troops undertook a
mission, known as Operation Anaconda, to clear Taliban and al-Qaeda forces from the
Shah-i-Kot Valley, in the vicinity of Gardēz in eastern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the
whereabouts of bin Laden remained unknown.
J Transitional Government
United Nations-sponsored negotiations in Bonn, Germany, resulted in agreement on
December 5, 2001, among four major Afghan factions to create an interim post-
Taliban administration in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, a widely respected Pashtun
leader, was chosen to head the interim administration, which took power in Kābul on
December 22. A 4,500-member international peacekeeping force maintained a
measure of law and order in the capital.
Karzai’s administration was given up to six months to prepare the country for the
introduction of a broad-based, multiethnic transitional government. In January 2002
international donors—including more than 60 countries, major development
institutions, and nongovernmental organizations—pledged more than $4.5 billion in aid
to Afghanistan over a period of five years. In April deposed Afghan king Zahir Shah
returned to Afghanistan, ending nearly three decades of exile, in order to serve a
symbolic role in the country. In June he formally convened the loya jirga, or grand
council, which was responsible for electing a transitional government to rule the
country for 18 months, until general elections are held in 2004. The loya jirga elected
Karzai interim president of Afghanistan.
In January 2004 the loya jirga ratified a new constitution and Karzai signed it into law.
The new constitution created a strong presidency, a two-chamber legislature, and an
independent judiciary. It recognized Islam as the country’s sacred religion but
guaranteed protections for other religions. It also recognized equal rights for women
and language rights for minorities.
The adoption of the new constitution paved the way for elections scheduled for June
2004, but there was some doubt that this timetable could be maintained due to the
continued lack of security in many parts of the country. The Taliban and its al-Qaeda
allies regrouped as a military force and waged a sporadic guerrilla campaign against
U.S. forces. In March 2004 Pakistan conducted a military operation along its border
with Afghanistan in an attempt to flush out the insurgents.
About 18,000 non-Afghan troops were stationed in Afghanistan in 2004 to fight
Taliban forces and offer protection for the Karzai government. Of these, about 8,500
were U.S. troops, and about 3,000 soldiers came from other coalition partners. The
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stationed about 6,000 troops in
Afghanistan. NATO took charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in
August 2003 and for the first time played a military role outside of Europe. The ISAF
was authorized by the United Nations Security Council to act as peacekeepers in the
Afghan capital, Kābul, and surrounding areas.