Afghanistan was an ancient part of the Indian and Persian empires, and the area was also known from Alexander the Great ‘s time as a site for parts of the historically important Silk Road. Throughout the Middle Ages, the area was dominated by Muslim armies and Mongol kingdoms.
Recent Afghan history is dominated by Pashtun tribes, who under the leadership of Ahmed Shah Durrani created a kingdom based in Kandahar in the south of the country. Under Durrani’s rule, the border was drawn against Pakistan, a border that Pakistani authorities still dispute. The capital was moved from Kandahar to Kabul in 1776, and Afghanistan in the years that followed extensively became a buffer zone between British and Russian imperialism.
Afghanistan gained national independence from the United Kingdom on 19 August 1919 and was formally a monarchy until 1978, when Afghanistan’s democratic republic was established. The country was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989.
Following the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, a US-led force invaded the country and overthrew the Taliban, which remained in power. Since then, international forces, including Norwegian participation with military personnel, have been at war with the Taliban.
In ancient times, the various areas of what now constitutes Afghanistan were linked to neighboring countries. In the 1000s BCE Indian and Iranian tribes invaded the country, and both the ancient poems of Avesta and the Indians’ Rigveda are in their oldest parts connected to Afghanistan.
Around the year 500 BCE. incorporated the Persian king Dareios Afghanistan into his great kingdom, where it constituted the province of Aryana. In the 320s BCE Alexander conquered the great Afghanistan, and at the split after his death became part of the Selevkid empire.
In the 200s BCE. it was relinquished to the mighty Maurya dynasty in India, but came back under Greek influence for a few hundred years around the beginning of our era. Then, for hundreds of years, Afghanistan was either part of a larger neighboring kingdom, or divided between Persia and the Indian mogul kingdom, or divided into small states.
The ruins of a Bronze Age Buddhist temple in Mes Aynak, 35 kilometers south of Kabul. Buddhism was the most widespread religion in Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East before Islam was founded in the 600s.
In the 13th century, various waves of Mongol conquerors rolled over Afghanistan and for a long time destroyed much of the irrigation system on which the country’s material and spiritual culture depended.
By the mid-18th century, the Afghan chief Ahmed Shah succeeded in acquiring power as king ( emir ) of Afghanistan and the founding of the Duranni dynasty. He must be regarded as the founder of the Afghan nation state. After his death in 1773, there was an internal dispute between the clan chiefs, and the British were forced to interfere. They felt their interests in India were threatened by Russia’s expansion and made several attempts to gain power over the area.
However, after a series of political and military failures, they eventually had to give up the most unsuccessful of all their colonial campaigns and recognize Dost Muhammad as emir (1842-1863). His son and successor, Sher Ali (1863-1877), supported the Russians more, leading to new British campaigns.
The tense foreign policy conditions persisted until 1907, when Russia and the United Kingdom signed an agreement which meant that Russia recognized Afghanistan as a British area of interest, whose foreign policy was to be safeguarded by the Government of India.
Emir Amanullah (1919-1929) took advantage of the difficulties faced by the British in India, and gained Afghanistan recognition as an independent state. He wanted to reform and modernize his backward country, including by introducing schooling for women. But this caused so much resistance among the older tribal chiefs and the Orthodox Islamic clergy that Amanullah had to abdicate and leave the country.
After a brief but bloody period during the raid of Chief Batshah-i-Sakkaos, former Minister of War Nadir Khan succeeded in liberating the country. As king he led a moderate reform policy and introduced a new constitution in 1932, but was assassinated as early as 1933. Then his son, Mohammad Zahir Shah, ascended the throne.
According to the new constitution, Afghanistan became a constitutional kingdom with a national assembly in two chambers, of which the king personally designated a third of the upper house. However, the ban on political reforms was upheld, and most of the House of Representatives were strictly Orthodox and opposed several of the King’s cautious reform plans.
During World War II Afghanistan remained neutral, but was pushed to expel all Germans and Italians. After the war, power lay long in the hands of a circle of King Zahir’s uncles and other relatives. His cousin and brother-in-law, General Sardar Mohammed Daud, was most influential, who was the head of government with almost dictatorial power in the period 1953–1963. He led a pro-Soviet and anti-Pakistani policy, which, among other things, broke the diplomatic and trade relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1961.
However, King Zahir gradually strengthened his position and convened in 1964 a constitutional assembly that gave the country a new and more democratic constitution. The tense relationship with Pakistan persisted in the 1960s.
In 1973, Sardar Mohammed Daud led a coup d’état ; the king was deposed and Daud was appointed president. In the years that followed, he was subjected to several assassination attempts, but managed to stay in power and was elected president in 1977 for a new six-year term. The National Assembly passed a new Republican constitution, and was subsequently dissolved.
In April 1978, however, Daud was overthrown and killed in a military coup, and the pro-communist PDP took power. The leaders of the party’s two factions, Nur Mohammed Taraki and Babrak Karmal, took over as Prime Minister / Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively, while Hafizullah Amin became Foreign Minister. In July, Karmal was detained and arrested.
In the fall of 1978, dissatisfaction among the people of the country’s eastern parts broke out in an open civil war, and gradually a flood of refugees began to cross the border into Pakistan. In the spring of 1979, Amin took over as prime minister, and in September he led a coup against Taraki, who later died under unclear circumstances.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union intervened militarily and brought Babrak Karmal back from exile. He was installed as president, and Amin was deposed and killed. The Soviet intervention aimed to secure the faltering communist regime after the outbreak of the civil war. After earlier religious repression, especially during Amin’s reign, Karmal proclaimed a new “policy of reconciliation”, which however became a failure.
Nationally, resistance movements arose under the common name mujahedin (‘holy war’). Internationally, the invasion was strongly condemned, especially by the United States, and the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted by a large number of Western countries, including Norway.
The war situation was long locked. The Soviet forces, which soon surged in numbers of over 100,000 soldiers, carried out extensive terrorist bombing of villages and mining of agricultural lands, but exercised effective control only of cities and highways.
Despite the lack of equipment, the mujahedin had control over most of the countryside. After Mikhail Gorbachev became president of the Soviet Union in 1985, the first steps were taken towards military retreat. In 1986, Babrak Karmal, the regime’s top figure since the invasion, was suspended during a power struggle between the two main factions of the Communist Party, Parcham and Khalq. New party chief, later also president, became General Muhammad Najibullah, a former chief of security police Khad. The regime’s policy was now gradually moderated.
After six years of negotiations, in April 1988 Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement in Geneva, including non-interference. It was followed by a Soviet-American guarantee and a Soviet withdrawal schedule.
It began in May 1988 and was completed on February 15, 1989, when the last Soviet forces left Afghanistan. The war had caused great suffering to the civilian population. Over one million are believed to have been killed, and these were to be followed by about 400,000 Afghan victims in the 13-year civil war that followed.
Of a population of 16 million, more than five million ended up as refugees; 3.15 million in Pakistan and 2.35 million in Iran, according to UN figures. About 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed, according to Soviet sources.
The Fight for Kabul: 1989–1996
The guerrilla groups did not accept the Afghan-Pakistani agreement and continued the fight against the Najibullah regime. During the war against the Soviet forces, old ethnic conflicts and political problems within the resistance movement had been subordinated to the fight against a common enemy. Following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, such contradictions led to growing disputes within the exile government set up by various mujahedin factions in Peshawar, Pakistan.
In September 1991, the Soviet Union and the United States announced that they would stop supplying weapons. In the spring of 1992, the Kabul regime gradually disintegrated from within. “Warlord” Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had fought Najibullah’s side with his 30,000-strong Uzbek militia, was now in alliance with a leading Mujahedin commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud.
The military force ratio was thus upset. Under pressure from Masoud and Dostum’s combined forces, Najibullah was forced to leave his position in April. He then sought refuge at the UN headquarters in Kabul, and remained there under UN protection for several years to come. On April 25, 1992, the Kabul regime surrendered, and the same day rival Mujahedin infractions entered the capital and immediately dried up in bloody internal strife.
The contradictions between the country’s ethnic groups were sharpened. For about 250 years, the Pathans had a dominant position on the central board. They were now in danger of losing their traditional hegemony. The alliance between Massoud and Dostum had brought Kabul mainly under the control of Tajiks and Uzbeks. They made the strongest of the mujahedin’s Pashtun factions, under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in the advance.
Partly behind the alliance was the desire of the smaller groups to counteract a new Pashtunian dominance. They also met with some sympathy among Pashtunians who were concerned about Hekmatyar ‘s radical fundamentalism and strict demands on “Islamization”. The ethnic divide was complicated by religious contradictions and enmity between different tribes. In addition, foreign interference. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan provided support to Sunni Muslim groups, Iran to Shia Muslims.
Tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani took office as the country’s interim president in June 1992. In December of that year, he was elected president for a two-year term at a grand assembly of 1,300 tribal leaders, but only four out of nine political major factions met. After bloody fighting, a peace treaty was signed in March 1993, which made Hekmatyar prime minister, and the ministerial posts were divided between warring factions.
But the government never became effective, and the fighting for Kabul continued; mainly along ethnic fronts and characterized by ever-changing alliance relationships. Two armed conflicts persisted: primarily between the Islamic, pathan-based Hezb-i Islami party under Prime Minister Hekmatyar and the Tajik-dominated, Islamic Jamiat-i Islami under President Rabbani and his military backer Masoud. There were also regular battles between Hezb-i Wahdat (pro-Iranian, Shia ) and Ittehad-i Islami (pro-Saudi, Sunni ).
In the period between Najibullah’s fall in 1992 and the end of 1994, the war on Kabul is believed to have killed 15,000 people. Half a million of the capital’s 1.5 million inhabitants lost their homes. At the same time as the fighting for the central power in Kabul from 1992, the situation in the provinces was different. Here the development was largely peaceful, but under the control of powerful warlords.
At the turn of the year 1994/1995, an estimated 2.7 million refugees had returned to Afghanistan, but about as many were still in the camps in Pakistan and Iran. Millions of mines were a serious problem for those returning home.
The lack of a functioning national government led to general chaos and collapse of law and order in the country. This created the basis for the militant and religiously fundamentalist Taliban movement. In the fall of 1994, it conquered almost the entire southern part of the country and moved north towards Kabul. Other Pashtun-dominated guerrilla movements joined during the siege of Kabul in the winter of 1995-1996. The Rabbani government strengthened the defense and made peace with Hekmatyar and the Shi factions.
Nevertheless, on September 26, 1996, the Taliban was able to march into Kabul, liquidate former Communist leader Najibullah and take over the government. The old regime fled north.
The Taliban regime
The Taliban began the process of making Afghanistan the world’s most orthodox Islamic community. “U-Islamic” phenomena such as television, music and other pleasures were not tolerated. Under the Taliban regime, the situation of women became very difficult. Girls were not allowed to go to school, and women could not work outside the home.
After fighting against various factions, the Taliban gained more and more control of Afghanistan. Particularly in the northern part of the country, there were frequent fighting between the Taliban militia and the old Rabbani regime in the period 1996-2001, where the various factions operated under the common name of the Northern Alliance. By the year 2000, the Taliban had control of more than 90 percent of the land in Afghanistan.
The forces of legendary guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Masood were the only ones to offer effective resistance. Masood still maintained his old bastion Panshir Valley and partly in two provinces in the northeast. “The lion from Panshir” was murdered on September 9, 2001, during an “interview” with Taliban agents, who claimed to be foreign journalists.
In 1998, the UN temporarily withdrew all its employees following reports of mistreatment and harassment by international aid workers. In the summer of 1998, the Taliban closed the offices of most international aid organizations, demanding the improvement of women’s rights. The Taliban were isolated by the world community (recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ) and depended on Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden ‘s financial support.
A close friendship with Taliban chief Mullah Omar helped bin Laden also come up with political ideals. Bin Laden was suspected in 1998 of bombing attacks against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the United States fired cruise missiles at bin Laden’s alleged bases in Afghanistan. In 1999, the US and then the UN first imposed financial sanctions on the Taliban. The Taliban accused neighboring Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia of supporting the opposition alliance, which in turn criticized Pakistan for supporting the Taliban.
Following the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, US authorities demanded the al-Qaeda leader be extradited, but the Taliban rejected this on the grounds that there was no evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the terrorist attacks.
With broad international support, the United States took the lead in retaliation against Afghanistan in the military campaign Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The action started with intelligence and military mobilization; from the October 7 bombing, primarily to areas where the Taliban and al-Qaeda were believed to have their bases.
The United States gradually provided military support to the Northern Alliance’s fighting against the Taliban and within a month, large parts of the Taliban’s forces were defeated and taken off days, other parts surrendered. Although the bombing had military and political goals, the civilian costs were considerable. However, the political and military conflict continued after that, and 2001 was the start of the war in Afghanistan.