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As a country, Afghanistan’s history is less than 300 years old but it has been playing a key role in the region for over two millennia. The map reveals the reason: Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of Asia, sitting astride the hinterland between Persia, Central Asia and India. These three centrifugal forces have interacted time and again in Afghan history, frequently dividing the country against itself. At other times, Afghanistan has united against invaders and proved a bloody testing ground for foreign empires, as well as occasionally looking beyond its borders to form empires of its own.

From the Persians to the Greeks

The prehistory of Afghanistan has been little studied, but there is evidence of pastoralism and agriculture in the region from around 10,000 years ago. Lapis lazuli from Badakhshan was being traded with Mesopotamia and India for at least 7000 years, and around 1500 BC the country became populated by the Indo-Aryans moving in from the west. Afghanistan doesn’t enter written history until around the 6th century BC, when it became part of the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great. The Persians were the world’s superpower of the time, and Afghanistan was divided into satrapies – Ariana (Herat), Arachosia (Kandahar), Bactria (Balkh) and Gandhara (the Kabul Valley). The Bactrians in particular were renowned fighters. At some stage during this period Zoroaster was born in Bactria, giving rise to the Zoroastrian religion that was quickly adopted by the Achaemenids.

Persia’s great rival was Greece, and in 334 BC Alexander the Great launched a huge campaign against Darius III. Just 24 years old, Alexander’s military genius quickly conquered the Mediterranean coast and the Achaemenid capital at Persepolis in modern Iran. His kingdom in ruins, Darius fled to Afghanistan where he was betrayed by the Bactrian satrap Bessus, who in turn proclaimed himself king. Alexander was outraged and led his army deep into Afghanistan, sweeping through the south before crossing the Hindu Kush and driving Bessus towards the Oxus (Amu Darya). He captured Bactria and Bessus, who was executed for his resistance.

Afghanistan got deep into Alexander’s blood. He took his bride Roxanne in Balkh, and founded Bagram as a base for his invasion of India. Moreover he adopted local dress, and tried to set himself up as dictator. Only an eventual troop rebellion quelled his ambition, and he eventually turned for home to die at Babylon in 323 BC, leaving no named heir but having conquered much of the known world.

Alexander left behind ten years of chaos in Bactria, with thousands of Greeks stationed far from home. From the anarchy came Seleucus who began to weld together the foundations of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom. This Hellenistic state deep in Asia sparked a centuries-long period of profound East-West cultural exchange, disseminating the aesthetics of the Classical world and absorbing the influences of both the central Asian steppe and the Indian subcontinent. Ai Khanoum, the easternmost Greek city in the world was a place of gymnasiums and theatres performing the Greek tragedies, temples to the old gods and groves of olive trees.

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Buddhist Afghanistan

As the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms flowered in the north, a new power rose in the east. In 302 BC north India became unified under the Mauryans, who quickly took control of southern and eastern Afghanistan. A peace treaty with the north was sealed with gifts of elephants and marriages between the Greeks and Indians. Under the great emperor Ashoka, the Mauryans converted to Buddhism, driven by his guilt at the blood spilled for the formation of his empire. Buddhist monasteries thrived across Afghanistan, together with rock-cut edicts from Ashoka exhorting readers to follow a pious life. One found in modern Kandahar was written in Greek and Aramaic.

Buddhism proved irresistible to the Graeco-Bactrians. After Seleucus the kingdom fell into a tumbling succession of warring factions and dynasties, and the Hellenistic traditions were slowly absorbed by local customs. By 150 BC, they were under pressure from other directions – the Parthians from Iran, and then nomad tribes from the north. These were the outermost ripples of a wave of people displaced by the unification of China under the Qin dynasty. Again Afghanistan’s direction was influenced by events in distant imperial capitals. Of the nomads that washed up, it was the Yueh-chih in 130 BC that had the greatest impact, when they united under the name of the Kushans.

The Kushans soon settled, and took the best traditions from the Graeco-Bactrians and the Indians to fuse them with the free-spirited nature of the steppe. In doing so they created a unique culture that ruled Afghanistan for five centuries. The new kingdom was ideally placed to exploit the burgeoning trade along the Silk Road. From AD 128, the visionary King Kanishka built two capitals at Kapisa (modern Bagram) and Peshawar, forging an empire whose influence travelled as far as the Ganges. Kushan art, also known as Gandharan art, was a vibrant blend of Classical, Indian and Persian styles, and was hugely influential. The kingdom was the first to represent the Buddha in human form, a style it sent to Kashmir, Tibet and China. Monasteries thrived in Balkh, Kandahar, Bamiyan, Samangan, and Hadda near Jalalabad.

Decline eventually came with the demise of the Silk Road, and the Kushans fell before the arrows of their neighbours. In the 3rd century AD the Sassanians arrived from Persia and reduced Kushan power to a rump. A century later the Hephthalites (or White Huns) swept in, and stayed long enough to build the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan. From the east, the Hindus raised kingdoms in Kabul and Ghazni. Afghanistan was pushed again to the margins of history.

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Islamic empires

In the 7th century a new power with a new religion was knocking at the door. Having swept the Sassanians aside, the Arab armies arrived in 652, marching under the banner of Islam. Herat and the south were soon subdued, but the north was a harder nut to crack. It took two centuries for Balkh to fall fully under Muslim control, where it was ruled from the Samanid Arab capital at Bukhara, and flourished as a centre of learning and culture. The rest of Afghanistan became a patchwork of squabbling Muslim city-states, far from Bukhara’s influence and chafing for independence.

Out of this morass came Alptigin, a Turkish slave-soldier who overthrew his masters and captured the fortress of Ghazni in 961. He quickly died thereafter, but his successors consolidated their power and went onto capture Kabul, Bost, Balkh and Herat, dealing a deathblow to the Arabs. In their place stood the new power of the Ghaznavid dynasty.

Sultan Mahmoud the Great was both an empire builder and patron of the arts. Ghazni was richly endowed with mosques and palaces, becoming one of the greatest cities in Islamic world. He filled his court with poets and artists, his stables with an army of elephants, and whenever the treasury was bare, raided Delhi – introducing Islam to India in the process. Winter was spent in the warmth of Bost and Lashkar Gah, made green with an intricate series of canals. On Mahmoud’s death in 1030 his rule stretched almost to Calcutta in the east, and west to the Caspian Sea.

The empire was too swollen to be stable. India and the Afghan north fell almost immediately, and while the Ghaznavid princes fought over the remains they failed to notice new tribes coming down from the mountains with envious eyes. In 1148 the Ghorids, Muslims from central Afghanistan led by Alauddin ‘the World Burner’, swept into Ghazni and laid the great city to waste. It took seven days to burn to the ground. From here the Ghorids poured into India and Iran on an orgy of pillage. When they returned they endowed their capitals at Firuzkoh and Herat with fine buildings, leaving the Minaret of Jam and Herat’s Friday Mosque as their greatest testaments.

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Invaders from The Steppes

As the Ghorids settled into what they thought would be a long and prosperous rule, they had no way of knowing that the greatest storm in Afghan history was about to break over them. Thunderheads were gathering in far Mongolia, in the shape of the armies of Genghis Khan. A brilliant tactician and proponent of total war, Genghis Khan swept through central Asia in 1219 after his embassies were killed by unwise rulers far to the north of Afghanistan. As one historian put it, Genghis was ‘the atom bomb of his day’. Having levelled Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv, the Mongols tore into Afghanistan. Balkh and Herat were dispatched without mercy, leaving little more than barking dogs as witnesses. The south, with its green gardens, orchards and canals was utterly destroyed, a disaster that it arguably has yet to recover from. In Bamiyan, the fate of Shahr-e Gholghola (the ‘City of Screams’) continues to burn in the folk memory of the locals.

The Mongols didn’t gallop into the sunset, but incorporated the ruins into their empire. Genghis’ son Chagatai ruled Afghanistan and most of central Asia. But although the Chagatai dynasty soon converted to Islam, it was never strong. Within decades of Genghis Khan’s death the Turkic peoples of the northern steppe began to reassert themselves.

Their vehicle was Timur (‘the Lame’, or Tamerlane), an Uzbek from near Samarkand. As a tyrant and military leader, Timur was the equal of Genghis (from whom he claimed ancestry), but he was also a man of the arts and loved building cities as much as destroying them and slaughtering their inhabitants. In the 1390s he went on a rampage that landed him an empire from Syria to north India. The great Timurid cities were richly endowed by captured artisans and painters.

Timur died in 1405 and was succeeded by his son Shah Rukh, who moved the empire’s capital from Samarkand to Herat, sparking one of Afghanistan’s greatest cultural flowerings. Shah Rukh and his formidable wife Gowhar Shad were tremendous patrons of the arts. His court produced poetry that is still widely read in the Persian world, while the painted books from Herat would go on to form the bedrock for both the Persian and Indian style of miniatures. Scientists and philosophers were as highly regarded.

The Timurid Renaissance lasted just a century, until a surfeit of wine and poetry turned it flabby and decadent. Warring Uzbek tribes nibbled at its edges until they were strong enough to bite off Samarkand and (in 1507) Herat itself. To the west, the Safavid shahs of Persia were also beginning to covet Afghan territories. At the start of the 16th century, the balance of power was on a knife-edge.

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The Afghan kingdoms

The man to resurrect Afghanistan was Zahiruddin Babur, a teenage claimant to the Samarkand throne from the Ferghana Valley. Despite repeated attempts to capture and hold his birthright, the Uzbek khan Shaybani kept beating him back until he gave up and looked for a new kingdom to the south. Kabul fit the bill perfectly, and in 1504 its inhabitants welcomed him with open arms for evicting its Kandahari warlord ruler. He visited his Timurid relations in Herat months before it fell to the hated Uzbeks, and captured Kandahar in a thrice. In that city he left a monument to his achievements – the Forty Steps (Chihil Zina) – directly above the edicts carved by Ashoka 18 centuries before.

On Shaybani’s death Babur made one last failed attempt to take Samarkand, before returning to consolidate his Afghan kingdom, laying out palaces and gardens in Kabul, and always writing his memoirs, The Baburnama. In 1525 he followed the well-trodden path of the Ghazanavids, Ghorids and Timur and invaded India. He settled in Delhi and Agra, only returning to Kabul in death, but gave birth to the Mughal empire that held sway in India until the arrival of the British.

Kabul was a favourite of Babur’s son Humayun, but he held little of his father’s gift for politics. Over the next 200 years, the Mughal sphere of Afghanistan was squeezed back until it comprised little more than Kabul and Kandahar. The Safavids pushed far past Herat and into the south, while the Uzbeks continued to hold sway north of the Hindu Kush.

In the early 1700s, the Safavid empire had begun its slow decline, but still managed to capture and hold Kandahar. In 1709 the Ghilzai Pashtun mayor of Kandahar, Mir Wais Khotak sparked a revolt and defeated a Persian army sent to punish him. Not only that, his son Mahmoud marched on the Safavid capital Esfahan and sacked it before the Persians could regain their senses. In retaliation, the Persian leader Nadir Shah tried to play off the Pashtun tribes against each other, supporting the Abdalis against the Ghilzais – a tactic that would be repeated in later centuries, with similar unforseen consequences. Nadir Shah appointed the Abdali Ahmad Khan as commander of his Afghan forces and the royal treasury.

The Abdalis were proven fighters, smashing Ghilzai power in Kandahar, capturing Kabul and pushing far enough into India to thump the Mughals and loot the fabled Peacock Throne and Koh-i Noor Diamond. But just as Ahmad Khan thought the status quo was restored, Nadir Shah was assassinated. Khan quickly realised the opportunity before him. Rich with the Persian treasury, he drew together the Abdali and made his bid for power. A jirga (council) named him Ahmad Shah, Dur-i Durran (‘Pearl of Pearls’) and crowned him with a garland of wheat sheafs. The Abdali were renamed the Durrani in his honour.

From his new capital at Kandahar, Ahmad Shah Durrani set about laying the borders now recognisable as modern Afghanistan. Herat, Balkh and Badakhshan all fell under his sway in just a few years, and the kingdom extended as far as Srinagar, Delhi and Mashhad. He died of cancer in 1772, and is still remembered as Ahmad Shah ‘Baba’, the Father of Afghanistan.

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Shah Shuja, Dost Mohammed & The British

Inevitably Ahmad Shah Durrani’s empire started to contract as soon as he was laid to rest. His son Timur Shah moved the capital to Kabul in 1776, but pretty soon the kingdom descended into fights for succession and tribal revolts. Herat again resurrected itself as an independent city-state and Bukhara resumed its influence over the northern cities. Kabul became a cauldron of rivalries between the Barakzai and Sadozai Durranis, competing for the throne. Of these, history primarily remembers the cruel and feckless Shah Shuja, whose main achievement was to lose Peshawar to the expanding Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh. He was soon kicked into exile in British India by the rising star of Dost Mohammed Khan, a ruler popular for his learning, piety and sense of justice towards his people.

Dost Mohammed took to the throne at a dangerous time. Both the British and Russian empires were creeping towards his borders in a rivalry that became known as ‘the Great Game’. In 1836 the British sent Alexander ‘Bukhara’ Burnes to woo the amir. Dost Mohammed’s main preoccupation was regaining his beloved Peshawar, and he sought Burnes’ help in this. But Burnes had been sent empty handed, and although sympathetic to the amir’s designs, British policy favoured bolstering the Sikhs over all other considerations. While Dost Mohammed clearly saw the danger of being squeezed between imperial rivals (and at the time, Russia was aiding a Persian siege of Herat), he accepted Captain Ivan Vitkevich as an envoy from Moscow, hoping to encourage the British to engage more closely.

The plan backfired in grand scale. The governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the amir must go, and a friendlier ruler put in his place. Shah Shuja was dusted down from retirement and placed at the head of a British and Indian army to restore him to power.

From the outset the British saw their Army of the Indus as one great victory parade. Invading from the south, resistance at Kandahar was brushed aside, and once the great fortress of Ghazni was taken Dost Mohammed took to the hills. Shah Shuja was crowned amir again in front of a population that was at best indifferent.

The British settled in, the officers sending for their wives while the enlisted men scandalised Kabul by dallying with the Afghan women. With horse racing and amateur dramatics, garrison life seemed good. The whole country was ‘quiet from Dan to Beersheba,’ wrote the British envoy at the close of 1840, wilfully blind to signs that a tribal revolt under Dost Mohammed’s son Akbar Khan was brewing in the mountains. Afghan resentments spilled into bloodshed in November 1841 when a mob attacked Burnes’ house and hacked him to death. As events span out of control, the British eventually found themselves hounded from the country, in the disastrous retreat from Kabul).

A year later, the British sent an army of vengeance to level Kabul, but despite the costs in blood and treasure, they realised the folly of interfering in Afghanistan too closely and restored Dost Mohammed to the throne, with a fat subsidy to boot. The amir was never so popular or powerful. He began to build the first national army, and brought Afghan Turkestan back into the nation. In the 1860s Herat was restored too, where Dost Mohammed died, to be buried at the shrine of Gazar Gah.

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Sher Ali & The Iron Amir

After the usual confusion following an amir’s death, Sher Ali ascended the Kabul throne in 1869. As with Dost Mohammed, he came to power to a background of heightened imperial tensions. Russia had recently annexed Bukhara and Samarkand, steeping Britain in Great Game paranoia. When Sher Ali received an envoy from Moscow in 1878, London insisted that they be allowed to establish a permanent mission in Kabul – and having set themselves an impossibly short time for the amir to reply, sleepwalked into the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Apparently, no lessons had been learned from the 1840s disaster. No sooner was the British envoy Cavagnari installed by arms in Kabul, he was shot by Afghan soldiers rioting over pay. An army was sent from India to quell the trouble, which they did by imposing a reign of terror on Kabul with mass arrests and summary executions. Soon the whole countryside was ablaze with rebellion. Another British army was trounced, this time at Maiwand near Kandahar. Although the Afghan regular forces were eventually beaten, the British decided that they’d had enough. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan was allowed to take the throne from exile in Bukhara. Foreswearing any contacts with the Russians, he also insisted that no power interfere with internal Afghan affairs, and refused any envoys at his court. The British were only too happy to be shot of Afghanistan, signed a treaty with the amir and marched back to India.

Abdur Rahman unified Afghanistan with ruthless determination, gaining him the moniker of the ‘Iron Amir’. He used his British subsidy to build up a strong army, which he then used to pacify the regions and break the old tribal monopolies on power. Over 10,000 Ghilzai families were relocated to the north following an uprising in the east. For the first time, Abdur Rahman claimed divine right to rule. The influence of the mullahs was restrained by bringing them under government control and establishing a unified sharia court system. When the mullahs protested he won them back through campaigns against the Shiite Hazaras and, most spectacularly, capturing and converting the pagan tribes of Kafiristan in 1893 – thence renamed Nuristan, the ‘Land of Light’. An effective state administration was created for the first time and taxes were collected. The Iron Amir forged modern Afghanistan through blood and determination.

There was a price to pay for this state-building. Feeling Afghanistan had tasted enough foreign interference, Abdur Rahman promoted an isolationism bordering on xenophobia. Modern developments like the telegraph and railways were firmly rejected, and foreign traders rebuffed. The country went from being at the heart of Asia to an inward-looking backwater.

Nonetheless, the amir held to his commitments to the British. When the Russian army advanced to the Afghan border near Herat in 1885, provoking the ‘Panjdeh Crisis’, he stuck firm to London’s line, even to the point of allowing Herat’s renowned Musalla Complex to be levelled to give defenders a clear line of fire at any advancing Russians. When war was averted, he allowed the British to settle his northern border with Russia two years later. In 1893 he further allowed the drawing of the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and British India that sliced through the Pashtun region – a border so contentious no subsequent Afghan government has yet to formally accept and demarcate it.

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Experiments in modernisation

Abdur Rahman was succeeded by his son Habibullah in 1901 – a rare peaceful passing of the crown. Habibullah saw the need to modernise Afghanistan. He set up schools teaching modern curricula and built roads and factories. A major influence was Mahmud Beg Tarzi, the founder of the country’s first newspaper and a key reformist and nationalist thinker. Anti-imperial and pan-Islamist ideologies were beginning to gain momentum in the British empire and seep into Afghanistan. Habibullah rejected the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention that designated his country as a formal buffer zone between the empires, without even consulting him. After the outbreak of WWI, Habibullah flirted with a German-Turkish delegation aiming to take the war into India, and sought relations with newly Soviet Russia. An assassin’s bullet found him in early 1919.

Habibullah’s brother Amanullah took the throne, and drove even harder along the modernisation road. Almost his first act after becoming king (the title of amir wasn’t suitably 20th century for Amanullah) was to provoke the British into the Third Anglo-Afghan War. It lasted barely the month of May 1919, and brought Afghanistan’s first experience of air war, with the bombing of Kabul and Jalalabad by the RAF. But the British were weary from the exertions of WWI and sued for peace. A treaty granted Afghanistan full control over its diplomatic relations. After a century of the Great Game, Amanullah had won Afghanistan back its independence.

He set about the country with a modernist’s zeal, and wowed Europe with an eight-month grand tour. But at home resentments bubbled away with each story of his top hats and motor cars. More scandalous still, Amanullah had allowed Queen Soraya to appear in public unveiled and wearing a sleeveless dress. Rumours abounded that he was allowing the Europeans to import machines that made soap from human corpses. The country rose in revolt, and Amanullah’s army had been fatally weakened by the loss of his British subsidy. In early 1929 he fled into exile and the throne was snatched by Bacha Saqao, the first Tajik to rule Afghanistan. Not that he lasted long. General Nadir Khan toppled him in less than a year and made himself king. He wasn’t related to Amanullah, but at least he was a Durrani Pashtun, and he immediately put the brakes on the more overt forms of modernisation.

Nadir Khan barely lasted four years before his murder in 1933, to be succeeded by his teenage son Zahir Shah. Under his rule Afghanistan cautiously made progress with stepwise introduction of education reform, the wearing of the veil made voluntary, and the 1964 constitution that made the country a constitutional democracy. The most imaginative reforms were overseen by prime minister Mohammed Daoud, the king’s cousin. Like his forbears, Daoud played the Afghan game of courting several imperial powers, inviting both the USA and USSR to bring trade and aid to the county, as well as rattling sabres at Pakistan over the Durand Line. Briefly dismissed by the king, in 1973 he sidestepped his cousin and declared himself president, backed by a loya jirga and a rewritten constitution.

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The Afghan communists

Although Daoud had close relations with the Soviets, he sought to deepen Afghanistan’s neutrality and made approaches to the USA and Iran. The Soviets bit back. They had invested heavily in training the Afghan army, as well as encouraging the embryonic Afghan communists, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Even at this stage the PDPA had split into two bickering factions, Khalq (‘The People’) and the mainly Pashtun Parcham (‘The Banner’). In April 1978 soldiers stormed the Presidential Palace and killed Daoud and his family. The Khalq leader Mohammed Taraki proclaimed himself president of a revolutionary Marxist regime.

The countryside rose almost immediately against plans for land reform, women’s rights and secular education. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor pushed for American military support for the rebellion. By the end of 1978 the country was ablaze. An army mutiny in Herat was only quelled by inviting Soviet pilots to carpet bomb the city. The communists had no answers but more force and more radical reform, and fell into infighting and party purges. In September 1979 Moscow replaced Taraki with Hafizullah Amin and drew up plans for military support. But by Christmas Eve their patience finally ran out. KGB troops landed in Kabul and killed Amin. The Parchami Babrak Karmal was installed as president, and the next day the Red Army started to pour across the border, ‘invited’ in to safeguard the revolution. The Great Game was back on – the Russians were finally in Afghanistan.

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The anti-Soviet Jihad

The Soviets initially expected to be in Afghanistan for just a few months but events soon spiralled out of their control. The invasion not only attracted worldwide condemnation, but as the resistance called a jihad against the godless Russians Afghanistan became a beacon for the worldwide Islamist movement. The Americans feared the Cold War expanding towards the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and pledged covert military aid to fight the Soviets ‘to the last Afghan’.

The resistance was known as the mujaheddin. Several key leaders were already in exile in Pakistan, having fled Afghanistan in the mid-1970s after Daoud’s crackdown on Islamists at Kabul University. These included the Tajiks Burhanuddin Rabbani, founder of Jamiat-e Islami (Society of Islam), and his supporter Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the fundamentalist Ghilzai Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder of Hezb-e Islami (Party of Islam). Reflecting the disparate nature of Afghan society, the resistance itself was divided. Seven main parties emerged, split between the Islamists, hoping to establish an Islamic state, and the traditionalists, who saw the Jihad as a national liberation struggle.

Funding soon poured in from the USA and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan was the epicentre of resistance, home not only to the mujaheddin parties but also to over three million Afghan refugees. The Pakistani dictator General Zia insisted that all funding and support be funnelled to his secret service, the ISI, and went about moulding the resistance to his own interests. Moderate mujaheddin groups were sidelined in favour of the most radical Islamists like Hekmatyar. Pakistani policy was aimed at installing a pliable Pashtun government in Kabul to quell disputes over the historically unstable Durand Line, and through Hekmatyar the ISI quashed attempts to unify the resistance. Touted by Islamabad and Washington as the most effective mujaheddin leader, Hezb-e Islami spent more time terrorising the refugee camps and killing Afghan rivals than Russians.

Pakistan also encouraged foreign fighters to join the struggle. Around 30,000 radicals from across the Muslim world were trained at arms, with financial support and Islamic guidance from Saudi Arabia. Known as the ‘Arab-Afghans’ they were deeply xenophobic and saw Afghanistan as a key staging post in a worldwide Islamic revolution. Osama Bin Laden came to Afghanistan at this time, and his co-militants would go on to take their experience to Algeria, Chechnya, Kashmir and beyond.

In the field, the regular mujaheddin fought on heroically. The countryside was ideal for hit-and-run ambushes, and the Red Army gradually found that it had little influence beyond the range of its guns. Scorched earth policies merely drove the resistance on. The Afghan army deserted in droves, and in 1986 the arrival of Stinger missiles from the USA put them further on the back foot, as helicopters and planes were shot from the skies. The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, started looking for a way out. He encouraged reconciliation through Kabul’s new headman, Mohammed Najibullah, and when that failed announced a unilateral withdrawal. Gambling on the survival of the PDPA government, troops were pulled out until the last tank crossed the Amu Darya in February 1989. The decade-long war had cost the Soviets over 15,000 men and proved a significant catalyst to the collapse of the USSR. Over 1.5 million Afghans had died, and four times that many had fled the country.

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Civil war

The Geneva Accords negotiated between the USSR and USA were meant to end the fighting, but they were barely worth the paper they were written on. The mujaheddin rejected forming an interim coalition government with Najibullah, and all sides continued to arm their proxies.

Kabul was expected to fall the moment the Russians left, but Najibullah held on for three more years. The ISI bribed the mujaheddin into forming an interim government, but it was incapable of capturing and holding territory. A huge assault on Jalalabad in 1989 turned into a bloodbath, and an internal coup against Najibullah was easily quashed. But gradually the mujaheddin gained ground. By early 1992 the mujaheddin were camped outside Kabul, with Hekmatyar to the south and Massoud to the north. At a crucial moment, an army mutiny in the north led by the Uzbek general Rashid Dostum provided the push that was needed to topple the regime. Massoud raced into Kabul to claim the prize, leaving Hekmatyar and his Pakistani handlers spitting with fury.

The birth of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan merely delivered a slide into fratricidal war. Having liberated the country the mujaheddin set about destroying it. Rabbani ascended to the presidency and Hekmatyar was offered the job of prime minister, a job he accepted while remaining outside Kabul and shelling the city. Dostum joined Massoud’s forces, then switched to Hekmatyar, then went back north to set up his own quasi-state. The newly powerful Hazara militias backed by Iran were in turn fought and favoured. Herat effectively became an independent city-state once more, under Ismail Khan. A council of mujaheddin ruled Jalalabad and the south became an anarchic patchwork of warlord’s fiefdoms.

From being the epicentre of the Cold War, Afghanistan simply dropped off the map, awash with arms, manipulated by its neighbours and with no peace in sight. Attempts by the UN to engage in talks repeatedly stalled and the Americans lost all interest the moment Kabul fell, preferring to forget the sacrifices the country had made, and the billions of dollars they’d spent arming the different factions.

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The Taliban

In July 1994 a group of mullahs led by Mohammed Omar were so outraged by the rape and murder of several women by a warlord near Kandahar that they grouped together students from the local madrassas to enact justice. The warlord was strung up from a tank, and flush with the purity of their cause the students went on to clear the road to the Pakistan border, drawing people to their cause and in no time liberating Kandahar itself. So goes the Taliban creation myth.

The truth is a little more complex. Having invested so heavily in Hekmatyar, Pakistan eventually decided he was a dead letter and looked for another Pashtun horse to back. The Taliban looked like a good prospect to help clear the roadblocks between Kandahar and Quetta, where bribes were cutting into the profits of the Pakistani transport mafia. The Taliban were allowed to capture a major arms dump on the border, and the Pakistani army provided training and logistical support for the nascent militia. Many of the opposing warlords were simply bought off with huge bribes facilitated by the ISI and the Saudis. When Kandahar fell the Taliban were welcomed for returning security to the region.

The mujaheddin government couldn’t decide how to handle the situation. Talks sparked on and off, but collapsed when the Taliban raced to capture Herat in 1995, and started looking enviously towards the capital. In a final bid for power Hekmatyar threw his lot in with the hated Massoud, but his troops left the back door open. Rushing in from Jalalabad, the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996. Massoud fled to his Panjshir stronghold.

The fall of Kabul briefly jolted the international community out of their indifference. The Taliban wasted no time setting up the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Najibullah was hauled from his UN-protected compound and publicly lynched. Women were banned from work and education and wearing the burqa was made compulsory. Men had to grow beards, music was banned and shops closed at prayer time.

Over the next two years the Taliban consolidated their control of Afghanistan. Mazar-e Sharif fell, driving Dostum into exile. Uprisings in the Hazarajat were brutally suppressed. Half the population relied on food aid but there was little sign of active Taliban governance, just ever more esoteric Islamic rulings on the minutiae of life. Rabbani clung on the presidency (and Afghanistan’s seat at the UN), despite eventually being pinned back to a fiefdom in Badakhshan. In addition, the Taliban became ever more reliant on the Arab-Afghans who had stayed in Afghanistan – most notably Osama Bin Laden, who had reorganised his movement into Al-Qaeda (‘The Base’) and set up training camps for further jihad. As Bin Laden’s influence grew, the Taliban became ever more radical and unbending. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. In the words of the head UN representative, the country was ‘a failed state which looks like an infected wound. You don’t even know where to start cleaning it.’

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War, again

On 9 September 2001, two suicide bombers posing as journalists assassinated Massoud, an act heavily suspected to be the work of Al-Qaeda. Two days later, hijackers flew planes into the Word Trade Centre and the Pentagon, killing over 3000 people. From that moment the Taliban were doomed. Citing the rules of Afghan hospitality, they refused to give up Osama Bin Laden to the USA. Two months later the Americans launched Operation Enduring Freedom to oust the regime. Still mourning their leader, Massoud’s Northern Alliance was reconstituted. The CIA returned with suitcases full of money to buy off any waverers, and the American B-52 bombers did the rest from high altitude. Pakistan objected but nevertheless distanced itself from the Taliban, who after a brief fight simply melted away, with Mullah Omar fleeing to the hills. A major offensive against Al-Qaeda at Tora Bora similarly failed to capture Bin Laden. On 13 November 2001 a resurgent Northern Alliance entered Kabul.

A post-war conference in Bonn elected Hamid Karzai as interim leader. An International Assistance Force (ISAF) was mandated to provide security in Kabul, while the Americans continued the hunt on the ground for Al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants. A loya jirga the following summer confirmed Karzai as president and King Zahir Shah returned from a 28-year exile with the new title of ‘Father of the Nation’. As floods of refugees and exiles followed, optimism was in the air.

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The road to reconstruction

Although huge gains have been made since the Taliban’s ouster, peace was only barely been less rocky than the fighting that preceded it. Afghanistan in 2002 was effectively at ‘Year Zero’, its people traumatised and the infrastructure of the state destroyed. Huge attention was paid to getting the country back on its feet and assistance pledged by international donors. Yet for every gain made, a step back was taken elsewhere.

Remembering the dark days of the civil war, Afghans craved security more than anything, but requests to expand international peacekeepers outside the capital were repeatedly blocked by the Americans. Instead, many of the warlords and mujaheddin were allowed to creep back into power through either direct support or the turning of blind eyes. While there were intermittent factional fights across the north, the failure to properly control the south left the back door open for the return of the Taliban and the opium mafias. As the security situation there deteriorated reconstruction efforts ground to a halt, further alienating a Pashtun population wondering where their peace dividend had gone.

Despite the promises it soon became clear that Afghanistan was going to be an experiment in state-building on the cheap. America quickly became bored with Afghanistan and diverted its efforts and money towards a new adventure in Iraq. The country received less than a third of the aid per head ploughed in to reconstruction efforts in Bosnia, East Timor or Rwanda, and of that less than half went on long-term development programmes. A huge and expensive aid bureaucracy sprang up in parallel to the new Afghan government. Hamid Karzai’s limited writ led him to be dubbed ‘the Mayor of Kabul’. Unable to tackle the resurgent warlords, many of them were simply co-opted into government.

It wasn’t all bad news. UN-led disarmament programmes had some impact on reducing the number of small and heavy weapons in the country. School enrolment numbers surged. Attempts to increase the international military footprint resulted in the formation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), with small military units combining security and reconstruction projects, albeit with extremely mixed success. In 2004 a new constitution was agreed upon, and presidential elections returned Karzai as leader. A year later, parliamentary elections took place, with reserved seats for women, although many were not only dismayed that known human rights abusers were not disbarred from standing, but that several even found their way into Karzai’s cabinet – where they lobbied for immunity from prosecution for war crimes.

A fitful peace returned to most of the country, but international neglect of the south has been the worm in the bud. Pakistan has continued to play its own double-game, publicly signing up to the War on Terror while allowing safe haven to the Taliban leadership and fighters launching cross-border raids. In 2006 the growing insurgency resulted in widespread battles in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces and the bloodiest year since 2001. Suicide bombs, previously unknown in Afghanistan, have been imported from Iraq. Stuck in the death-grip of drugs and insurgency, south Afghanistan looks increasingly like a separate country. With the rest of the nation continuing along its unsteady path, Afghanistan’s immediate future is hard to predict.

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