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Image: Political history
 Photo: US Department of defense (Wikimedia)
Photo: US Department of defense (Wikimedia)

Political history

Afghanistan has a long and proud history. The country was for centuries the centre of immense empires, leaving important historical monuments in many places. In recent years, however, international news from Afghanistan have been dominated by stories of war and poverty.

A country named Afghanistan

The Buddha statues were erected in the 6th century, when Bamiyan was a commen rest area on the silk road. They were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, but archeologists are striving to reassemple them. Photo: james_gordon_losangeles på Flickr (CC license)Afghanistan has been an important thoroughfare for trade and travel between East and West since ancient times, when the Silk Road passed through the country. From the 10th to the 12th century Balkh and Ghazni were capitals in great empires stretching from the Indian sea, north into what is now Kasakhstan, encompassing large parts of Iran and Pakistan. In the 18th century Ahmad Shah Durrani reigned over an empire stretching from Iran to India and established the name Afghanistan as the country’s official name and Kabul as its capital.

The geo-political positioning of Afghanistan in Central Asia has had a major influence on its history and on its borders. During the 19th century Afghanistan was caught between two rival empires, the British to the south and east and the Russians to the north. Coming to a mutual understanding to keep Afghanistan as a buffer state, the country’s borders were pushed and shoved by the empires with little or no consultation with Afghan rulers. Despite several attempts, British forces and colonial authorities were never able to conquer Afghanistan. To this day, the opposition against the British empire remains a source of great pride among Afghans.

A forbidding landscape and a strong tribal and societal power structure has always been a challenge for Afghan rulers, so much so that many say that Afghanistan has never been ruled from Kabul. Reigning from 1880 to 1901, Abdur Rahman Khan challenged the powerful tribal structures in order to enforce taxation and draft. Quelling numerous tribal rebellions, he earned the nickname “the iron amir” in his merciless quest to bring strongmen to heel and build a strong central state.

The calm before the storm

After successive coups and assassinations of rulers during the first three decades of the 20th century, king Mohammed Zahir Shah refrained from challenging strongmen and traditional powers. Through a careful and incremental reform policy he managed to hold on to power in Afghanistan for four decades. He was overthrown by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan with the help of communists in 1973. Despite being officially non-aligned during the cold war, Afghanistan had had a strong relationship with the USSR. Daoud tried to reduce the dependence on the superpower and turned on his previous communist allies, and was subsequently assassinated in a communist coup in 1978. After a relative calm, this was the prelude to the turbulent times to come.

Afghanistan in violent conflict

After another internal communist coup in Kabul, the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The country has not been entirely peaceful since then. At the height of the cold war, it became the battleground for a 10 year long proxy war between U.S.-funded muhajideen militias and the communist government, aided by Soviet troops. Rusting tanks from the Soviet occupation in the 1980s are strewn across Afghanistan. Today, they provide a popular backdrop for tourist pictures. Photo: Peretzp on Flickr (CC lisence).After the Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Afghanistan descended into a full-blown civil war. The main factions were communists against mujahideen, but alliances were often betrayed. The mujahideen finally seized power in Kabul in 1992 and established a power-sharing arrangement. The islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar declined a seat in the government, turned on his former allies and instead commenced extensive bombing of the big cities.

The continued violence gave rise to the movement of religious fundamentalists named the Taliban. Originating from the southern city of Kandahar in 1994, they took the country by a storm and had taken power in Kabul in 1996. Originally, they were celebrated as bringers of peace and stability. However, their repressive fundamentalist rule soon became infamous and feared. In the course of the fighting over 6 million Afghans are estimated to have fled their country.

International military operations and aid projects

The tables had yet again turned and the mujahideen waged an armed struggle against the Taliban. Isolated internationally, the Taliban regime had few allies, but one of them would soon become modern history’s most infamous terrorist. Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan in 1996 and his al-Qaeda movement purportedly supported the Taliban with international fighters and money. After the terrorist attacks on U.S. targets on 11 September 2001, U.S. president George W. Bush threatened the Taliban authorities with military action if they did not extradite bin Laden and his henchmen. Airstrikes on Kabul and subsequent ground operations started less than a month later.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has been in the international media's spotlight. Photo: Kemal Y. på Flickr (CC licence).After a short fight with Taliban forces the long march to restore order and improve living standards ensued. Hamid Karzai was chosen to head an interim government and later elected president. However, it wasn’t long before the security situation turned sour again. The international effort has therefore been significantly more focussed on a military solution to insecurity, rather than a development approach to help Afghans improve their living standards. Although living conditions have improved in many areas, continuing insecurity threatens to destabilise Afghanistan yet again, potentially reversing many of the gains.

Norwegian Afghanistan Committee
Addresse:  Nawai Watt, Street # 03 •  Postal addresse:
work # 148 Shahr-i-Naw, KabulAfghanistan

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