Afghanistan, landlocked multiethnic country located in the heart of south-central Asia. Lying along important trade routes connecting southern and eastern Asia to Europe and the Middle East, Afghanistan has long been a prize sought by empire builders, and for millennia great armies have attempted to subdue it, leaving traces of their efforts in great monuments now fallen to ruin. The country’s forbidding landscape of deserts and mountains has laid many imperial ambitions to rest, as has the tireless resistance of its fiercely independent peoples—so independent that the country has failed to coalesce into a nation but has instead long endured as a patchwork of contending ethnic factions and ever-shifting alliances.
The modern boundaries of Afghanistan were established in the late 19th century in the context of a rivalry between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia that Rudyard Kipling termed the “Great Game.” Modern Afghanistan became a pawn in struggles over political ideology and commercial influence. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Afghanistan suffered the ruinous effects of civil war greatly exacerbated by a military invasion and occupation by the Soviet Union (1979–89). In subsequent armed struggles, a surviving Afghan communist regime held out against Islamic insurgents (1989–92), and, following a brief rule by mujahideen groups, an austere movement of religious students—the Taliban—rose up against the country’s governing parties and warlords and established a theocratic regime (1996–2001) that soon fell under the influence of a group of well-funded Islamists led by an exiled Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban regime collapsed in December 2001 in the wake of a sustained U.S.-dominated military campaign aimed at the Taliban and fighters of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization. Soon thereafter, anti-Taliban forces agreed to a period of transitional leadership and an administration that would lead to a new constitution and the establishment of a democratically elected government.
The capital of Afghanistan is its largest city, Kabul. A serene city of mosques and gardens during the storied reign of the emperor Bābur (1526–30), founder of the Mughal dynasty, and for centuries an important entrepôt on the Silk Road, Kabul lay in ruins following the long and violent Afghan War. So, too, fared much of the country, its economy in shambles and its people scattered and despondent. By the early 21st century an entire generation of Afghans had come to adulthood knowing nothing but war.
Afghanistan is completely landlocked—the nearest coast lies along the Arabian Sea, about 300 miles (480 km) to the south—and, because of both its isolation and its volatile political history, it remains one of the most poorly surveyed areas of the world. It is bounded to the east and south by Pakistan (including those areas of Kashmir administered by Pakistan but claimed by India), to the west by Iran, and to the north by the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It also has a short border with Xinjiang, China, at the end of the long, narrow Vākhān (Wakhan Corridor), in the extreme northeast. Its overall area is roughly twice that of Norway.
The Hindu Kush
Afghanistan’s shape has been compared to a leaf, of which the Vākhān strip, nestled high in the Pamirs, forms the stem. The outstanding geographic feature of Afghanistan is its mountain range, the Hindu Kush. This formidable range creates the major pitch of Afghanistan from northeast to southwest and, along with its subsidiary ranges, divides Afghanistan into three distinct geographic regions, which roughly can be designated as the central highlands, the northern plains, and the southwestern plateau. When the Hindu Kush itself reaches a point some 100 miles (160 km) north of Kabul, it spreads out and continues westward as a series of ranges under the names of Bābā, Bāyan, Sefīd Kūh (Paropamisus), and others, and each section in turn sends spurs in different directions. One of these spurs is the Torkestān Mountains, which extend northwestward. Other important ranges include the Sīāh Kūh, south of the Harīrūd, and the Ḥeṣār Mountains, which stretch northward. A number of other ranges, including the Mālmand and Khākbād, extend to the southwest. On the eastern frontier with Pakistan, several mountain ranges effectively isolate the interior of the country from the moisture-laden winds that blow from the Indian Ocean. This accounts for the dryness of the climate.
The central highlands—actually a part of the Himalayan chain—include the main Hindu Kush range. Its area of about 160,000 square miles (414,000 square km) is a region of deep, narrow valleys and lofty mountains, some peaks of which rise above 21,000 feet (6,400 metres). High mountain passes, generally situated between 12,000 and 15,000 feet (3,600 to 4,600 metres) above sea level, are of great strategic importance and include the Shebar Pass, located northwest of Kabul where the Bābā Mountains branch out from the Hindu Kush, and the storied Khyber Pass, which leads to the Indian subcontinent, on the Pakistan border southeast of Kabul. The Badakhshān area in the northeastern part of the central highlands is the location of the epicentres for many of the 50 or so earthquakes that occur in the country each year.
The northern plains region, north of the central highlands, extends eastward from the Iranian border to the foothills of the Pamirs, near the border with Tajikistan. It comprises some 40,000 square miles (103,000 square km) of plains and fertile foothills sloping gently toward the Amu Darya (the ancient Oxus River). This area is a part of the much larger Central Asian Steppe, from which it is separated by the Amu Darya. The average elevation is about 2,000 feet (600 metres). The northern plains region is intensively cultivated and densely populated. In addition to fertile soils, the region possesses rich mineral resources, particularly deposits of natural gas.
The southwestern plateau, south of the central highlands, is a region of high plateaus, sandy deserts, and semideserts. The average elevation is about 3,000 feet (900 metres). The southwestern plateau covers about 50,000 square miles (130,000 square km), one-fourth of which forms the sandy Rīgestān region. The smaller Mārgow Desert of salt flats and desolate steppe lies west of Rīgestān. Several large rivers cross the southwestern plateau; among them are the Helmand River and its major tributary, the Arghandāb.
Most of Afghanistan lies between 2,000 and 10,000 feet (600 and 3,000 metres) in elevation. Along the Amu Darya in the north and the delta of the Helmand River in the southwest, the elevation is about 2,000 feet (600 metres). The Sīstān depression of the southwestern plateau is roughly 1,500 to 1,700 feet (450 to 500 metres) in elevation.
Practically the entire drainage system of Afghanistan is enclosed within the country. Only the rivers in the east, which drain an area of 32,000 square miles (83,000 square km), reach the sea. The Kābul River, the major eastern stream, flows into the Indus River in Pakistan, which empties into the Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean. Almost all the other important rivers of the country originate in the central highlands region and empty into inland lakes or dry up in sandy deserts. The major drainage systems are those of the Amu Darya, Helmand, Kābul, and Harīrūd.
The Amu Darya, 1,578 miles (2,540 km) long, originates in the glaciers of the Pamirs and drains an area of approximately 93,000 square miles (241,000 square km) in the northeastern and northern parts of the country. It forms the frontier between Afghanistan and the republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for about 600 miles (1,000 km) of its upper course. Two of its major Afghan tributaries, the Kowkcheh and the Qondūz, rise in the mountains of Badakhshān and Kondoz provinces. The Amu Darya becomes navigable from its confluence with the Kowkcheh, 60 miles (100 km) west of the city of Feyẕābād.
The northwestern drainage system is dominated by the Harīrūd River, originating on the western slopes of the Bābā Mountains, at an elevation of 9,000 feet (2,750 metres). The river flows westward, just south of Herāt and across the broad Herāt Valley. After irrigating the fertile lands of the valley, the Harīrūd turns north about 80 miles (130 km) west of Herāt and forms the border between Afghanistan and Iran for a distance of 65 miles (105 km). It then crosses into Turkmenistan and disappears in the Karakum Desert.
The principal river in the southwest is the Helmand, which rises in the Bābā Mountains about 50 miles (80 km) west of Kabul and has a course of some 715 miles (1,150 km). With its many tributaries, mainly the Arghandāb, it drains more than 100,000 square miles (259,000 square km). In its course through southern Afghanistan, the Helmand flows north of Rīgestān, crosses the Mārgow Desert, and empties into highly saline seasonal lakes in the Sīstān depression along the Afghan-Iranian border.
The largest drainage system in the southeastern region is that of the Kābul River, which flows eastward from the slopes of the Paghmān range to join the Indus River in Pakistan. Its major tributary in the south is the Lowgar.
Afghanistan has few lakes of any considerable size. The two most important are the Ṣāberī (a salt flat that occasionally is inundated) in the southwest and the saline Lake Īstādeh-ye Moqor, situated 60 miles (100 km) south of Ghaznī in the southeast. There are five small lakes in the Bābā Mountains known as the Amīr lakes; they are noted for their unusual shades of colour, from milky white to dark green, a condition caused by the underlying bedrock.
The country possesses extremes in the quality of its soils. The central highlands have desert-steppe or meadow-steppe types of soil. The northern plains have extremely rich, fertile, loesslike soils, while the southwestern plateau has infertile desert soils except along the rivers, where alluvial deposits can be found. Erosion is much in evidence in the central highlands, especially in the regions affected by seasonal monsoons and heavy precipitation.
In general, Afghanistan has extremely cold winters and hot summers, typical of a semiarid steppe climate. There are many regional variations, however. While the mountain regions of the northeast have a subarctic climate with dry, cold winters, the mountainous areas on the border of Pakistan are influenced by the Indian monsoons, usually coming between July and September and bringing maritime tropical air masses with humidity and rains. In addition, strong winds blow almost daily in the southwest during the summer. Local variation is also produced by differences in elevation. The weather in winter and early spring is strongly influenced by cold air masses from the north and the Atlantic low from the northwest; these two air masses bring snowfall and severe cold in the highlands and rain in the lower elevations.
Temperatures vary widely in Afghanistan. Daytime highs over 95 °F (35 °C) occur in the drought-ridden southwestern plateau region. In Jalālābād, one of the hottest localities in the country, the highest temperature, 120 °F (49 °C), has been recorded in July. In the high mountain areas, January temperatures may drop to 5 °F (−15 °C) and below, while at the city of Kabul, located at an elevation of 5,900 feet (1,800 metres), a low of −24 °F (−31 °C) has been recorded.
In the mountains the annual mean precipitation increases from west to east; there, as in the southeastern monsoon region, it averages about 16 inches (400 mm). National precipitation extremes have been recorded in the Sālang Pass of the Hindu Kush, with a highest annual precipitation of 53 inches (1,350 mm), and in the arid region of Farāh in the west, with only 3 inches (75 mm) per year. Most of the country’s precipitation occurs from December to April; in the highlands snow falls from December to March, while in the lowlands it rains intermittently from December to April or May. The summer months are hot, dry, and cloudless everywhere but in the monsoon region.
Plant and animal life
Vegetation is sparse in the southern part of the country, particularly toward the west, where dry regions and sandy deserts predominate. Trees are rare, and only in the rainy season of early spring is the soil covered with flowering grasses and herbs. The plant cover becomes denser toward the north, where precipitation is more abundant, and at higher elevations the vegetation is almost luxuriant, particularly in the mountainous region north of Jalālābād, where the climate is influenced by the monsoons. The high mountains abound with large forest trees, among which conifers, such as pine and fir, predominate. Some of these trees are 180 feet (55 metres) high. The average elevation for the fir line is over 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). At lower elevations, somewhere between 5,500 and 7,200 feet (1,700 and 2,200 metres), cedar is abundant; below the fir and cedar lines, oak, walnut, alder, ash, and juniper trees can be found. There are also shrubs, several varieties of roses, honeysuckle, hawthorn, and currant and gooseberry bushes.
Exterior of the Forbidden City. The Palace of Heavenly Purity. Imperial palace complex, Beijing (Peking), China during Ming and Qing dynasties. Now known as the Palace Museum, north of Tiananmen Square. UNESCO World Heritage site.
Most of the wild animals of the subtropical temperate zone inhabit Afghanistan. Large mammals, formerly abundant, are now greatly reduced in numbers, and the tiger has disappeared. There is still a great variety of wild animals roaming the mountains and foothills, including wolves, foxes, striped hyenas, and jackals. Gazelles, wild dogs, and wild cats, such as snow leopards, are widespread. Wild goats, including the markhor (Cabra falconeri; prized for its long, twisted horns) and the ibex (with long, backward-curving horns), can be found in the Pamirs, and wild sheep, including the urial and argali (or Marco Polo sheep), inhabit the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush. Brown bears are found in the mountains and forests. Smaller animals, such as mongooses, moles, shrews, hedgehogs, bats, and several species of kangaroo rats (jerboas), may be found in the many isolated, sparsely populated areas.
Birds of prey include vultures, which occur in great numbers, and eagles. Migratory birds abound during the spring and fall seasons. There are also many pheasant, quail, cranes, pelicans, snipe, partridge, and crows.
There are many varieties of freshwater fish in the rivers, streams, and lakes, but their numbers are not great except on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, where the rivers are well stocked with brown trout.
No national census has been conducted in Afghanistan since a partial count in 1979, and years of war and population dislocation have made an accurate ethnic count impossible. Current population estimates are therefore rough approximations, which show that Pashtuns comprise about two-fifths of the population. The two largest Pashtun tribal groups are the Durrānī and Ghilzay. Tajiks are likely to account for some one-fourth of Afghans, while Ḥazāra and Uzbeks each constitute nearly one-tenth. Chahar Aimaks, Turkmen, and other ethnic groups each account for small portions of the population.
The Hindu Kush divides the country into northern and southern regions, which can be further subdivided on the basis of topography, national and ethnolinguistic settlement patterns, or historical tradition. Northern Afghanistan, for example, may be subdivided into the Badakhshān-Vākhān region in the east and the Balkh-Meymaneh region in the west. The east, which is mainly a conglomeration of mountains and high plateaus, is inhabited chiefly by Tajiks. Although there are also pockets of Tajiks in other areas of the country, in the east they are sedentary in the plains—where they are mostly farmers and artisans—and semisedentary in the higher valleys. The Tajiks are not divided into clear-cut tribal groups. There are also small numbers of Kyrgyz in the Vākhān in the extreme northeast, where they practice herding.
The west, which is mostly plains of comparatively low elevation, contains a mixture of peoples in which Uzbeks and Turkmen, both of Turkic origin, predominate. The Uzbeks are usually farmers, while the Turkmen have traditionally been seminomadic herders. The Uzbeks are the largest Turkic-speaking group in Afghanistan. There are also other smaller Turco-Mongolian groups.
Southern Afghanistan can be subdivided into four regions—those of Kabul, Kandahār, Herāt, and Ḥazārajāt. The Kabul region combines the area drained by the Kābul River and the high plateau of eastern Afghanistan, bounded in the south by the Gowmal (Gumal) River. This region is the main corridor connecting the other regions and their peoples. The traditional homeland of the Pashtun lies in an area east, south, and southwest of Kabul, but this group is also well represented in the west and north. The Pashtun are divided into a number of tribes, some sedentary and others nomadic, and many live in contiguous territory in Pakistan. This region is also inhabited by Tajiks, and the Nuristani inhabit an area of some 5,000 square miles (13,000 square km) north and east of Kabul.
The Kandahār region is a sparsely populated part of southern Afghanistan. The Durrānī Pashtun, who have formed the traditional nucleus of Afghanistan’s social and political elite, live in the area around the city of Kandahār itself, which is located in a fertile oasis near the Arghandāb River, and the Ghilzay inhabit the region between Kabul and Kandahār. In addition, there are a small number of Balochi (Baluchi) and Brahui people in the region.
The region of Herāt, or western Afghanistan, is inhabited by a mixture of Tajiks, Pashtun, and Chahar Aimak. The life of the region revolves around the city of Herāt. The Chahar Aimak are probably of Turkic or Turco-Mongolian origin, judging by their physical appearance and their housing (Mongolian-style yurts). They are located mostly in the western part of the central mountain region.
The mountainous region of Ḥazārajāt occupies the central part of the country and is inhabited principally by the Ḥazāra. Because of the scarcity of land, however, many have migrated to other parts of the country. Although Ḥazārajāt is located in the heart of the country, its high mountains and poor communication facilities make it the most isolated part of Afghanistan.
The people of Afghanistan form a complex mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. Pashto and Persian (Dari), both Indo-European languages, are the official languages of the country. More than two-fifths of the population speak Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns, while about half speak some dialect of Persian. While the Afghan dialect of Persian is generally termed “Dari,” a number of dialects are spoken among the Tajik, Ḥazāra, Chahar Aimak, and Kizilbash peoples, including dialects that are more closely akin to the Persian spoken in Iran (Farsi) or the Persian spoken in Tajikistan (Tajik). The Dari and Tajik dialects contain a number of Turkish and Mongolian words, and the transition from one dialect into another across the country is often imperceptible. Bilingualism is fairly common, and the correlation of language to ethnic group is not always exact. Some non-Pashtuns, for instance, speak Pashto, while a larger number of Pashtuns, particularly in urban areas, have adopted the use of one of the dialects of Persian.
Other Indo-European languages, spoken by smaller groups, include Western Dardic (Nuristani or Kafiri), Balochi, and a number of Indic and Pamiri languages spoken principally in isolated valleys in the northeast. Turkic languages, a subfamily of the Altaic languages, are spoken by the Uzbek and Turkmen peoples, the most recent settlers, who are related to peoples from the steppes of Central Asia. The Turkic languages are closely related; within Afghanistan they include Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz, the last spoken by a small group in the extreme northeast. Afghanistan has very small ethnic groups of Dravidian speakers. Dravidian languages are spoken by the Brahuis, residing in the extreme south.
The present population of Afghanistan contains a number of elements, which, in the course of history and as a result of large-scale migration and conquests, have been superimposed on one another. Dravidians, Indo-Aryans, Greeks, Scythians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols have at different times inhabited the country and influenced its culture and ethnography. Intermixture of the two principal linguistic groups is evident in such peoples as the Ḥazāra and Chahar Aimak, who speak Indo-European languages but have physical and cultural traits usually associated with the Turkic and Mongol peoples of Central Asia.
Virtually all the people of Afghanistan are Muslims, of whom some fourth-fifths are Sunnis of the Ḥanafī branch. The others, particularly the Ḥazāra and Kizilbash, follow either Twelver or Ismāʿīlī Shiʿi Islam. Sufism has been historically influential in Afghanistan, though in the 21st century fewer than one-tenth of Afghans belong to a Sufi order. The Nuristani are descendants of a large ethnic group, the Kafir, who were forcibly converted to Islam in 1895; the name of their region was then changed from Kāfiristān (“Land of the Infidels”) to Nūrestān (“Land of Light”). There are also a few thousand Hindus and Sikhs.
Only about one-fourth of the population is urban. Most urban settlements have grown along the road that runs from Kabul southwestward to Kandahār, then northwest to Herāt, northeast to Mazār-e Sharīf, and southeast back to Kabul. The rural population of farmers and nomads is distributed unevenly over the rest of the country, mainly concentrated along the rivers. The most heavily populated part of the country is between the cities of Kabul and Chārīkār. Other concentrations of people can be found east of the city of Kabul near Jalālābād, in the Herāt oasis and the valley of the Harīrūd in the northwest, and in the valley of the Qondūz River in the northeast. The high mountains of the central part of the country and the deserts in the south and southwest are sparsely populated or uninhabited.
The major cities of Afghanistan are Kabul, Kandahār, Herāt, Baghlān, Jalālābād, Kondoz, Chārīkār, and Mazār-e Sharīf. Kabul is the administrative capital of the country, located south of the Hindu Kush at the crossroads of the trade routes between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia and between the Middle East and East Asia. It is built on both sides of the Kābul River and is the main centre of economic and cultural activity. Kandahār, second to Kabul in population, is located on the Asian Highway in the south-central part of the country, between Kabul and Herāt. Kandahār became the first capital of modern Afghanistan in 1747 under Aḥmad Shah Durrānī.
Sedentary farmers usually live in small villages, most of them scattered near irrigated land in the valleys of major rivers. These villages, as a rule, are built in the form of small forts. Each fort-village contains several mud houses inhabited by closely connected families who form a defensive community.
The semisedentary farmers, who breed livestock and raise a few crops, live in the high alpine valleys. Since cultivable land there is scarce, they live in scattered isolated hamlets. Each household owns a few head of livestock, which are moved in summer to the highland pastures. The people usually divide themselves into two groups in summer: one group remains in the hamlet to tend the crops, while the other accompanies the livestock to the highlands.
The nomads are mainly Pashtun herders; there are also several thousand Balochi and Kyrgyz nomads. They move in groups (tribes or clans) from summer to winter pasturages, living in tents and, while on the move, packing their belongings on the backs of camels, donkeys, and cattle. Between one-sixth and one-fifth of the total population have in the past been classified as nomadic. Since 1977, however, some nomads have been settled in the plains north of the Hindu Kush or in the area of the Helmand Valley (irrigation) Project. More significant, the long period of civil conflict has disrupted the migratory pattern of nomads, and, as a result, their numbers have declined sharply.
The establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1978, the Soviet invasion of the country the following year, and the continuing conflict following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 severely disrupted the country’s population patterns. Civil war and the destruction of towns and villages caused mass movements of people in two major directions—emigration, mainly to Pakistan and Iran, or internal resettlement to the relative safety of Kabul. The population of Kabul is estimated to have doubled in size. Kabul has grown to encompass almost half the urban population of the country. Afghanistan’s population is mainly rural; nearly half the population is under 15 years of age. Life expectancy is about 51 years for men and 54 years for women.
Decades of war and its fallout have devastated the stability of the population. During the late 1980s some 6 million people—probably one-third of the Afghan population at the time—were refugees, especially due to the Afghan War. Some 3.5 million were living in Pakistan, and perhaps another 2 million were in Iran. Although many were repatriated during the 1990s, the numbers of those internally and externally displaced rose again after 2000 as a result of continued civil strife, economic hardship, an extended and severe drought, the Afghanistan War, and the security transition following the 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops. By 2016 there were more than 2.5 million refugees registered abroad, and more than 1 million people were internally displaced.
When Afghanistan began to plan the development of its economy with Soviet assistance in the mid-1950s, it lacked not only the necessary social organization and institutions for modern economic activities but also the managerial and technical skills. The country was at a much lower stage of economic development than most of its neighbours. Between 1956 and 1979, however, the country’s economic growth was guided by several five-year and seven-year plans and was aided by extensive foreign assistance. This aid, primarily from the Soviet Union and the United States, accounted for more than four-fifths of government investment and development expenditures during that period. Roads, dams, power plants, and factories were constructed, irrigation projects carried out, and education broadened. When foreign assistance declined in the 1970s, the sale of natural gas to the Soviet Union, albeit at a bargain price, more than compensated in financing budget expenditures.
The Soviet legacy
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent civil war severely disrupted the country’s economic development. Agricultural production declined, food shortages were reported, and industrial output stagnated—with the exception of natural gas production and some other industries considered essential by the Soviet Union. The private sector during the Soviet period encompassed primarily agriculture and livestock breeding. There formerly had been a mixed pattern of small, medium, and large landholdings, but this system underwent drastic change, particularly after 1978. The bulk of the trade and transport as well as most manufacturing was in the hands of private entrepreneurs until the late 1970s, when these sectors of the economy were nationalized. Public enterprise was confined to foreign trade, mining, and some industries.
A balanced budget was achieved with revenue derived principally from the sale of natural gas and from foreign loans and grants. Expenditures were mainly for government ministries, the developmental budget, and interest on foreign debt. The socialist government was committed to developing a mixed, guided economy. In practice, however, the effectiveness of this policy was limited by a paucity of government resources, a cumbersome bureaucracy, and a shortage in technical personnel.
However low the Afghan economy had sunk during the period of communist rule, it was to decline even more under subsequent mujahideen and Taliban governments. After more than two decades of war, and in the face of the Taliban’s harsh social policies, few educated Afghans with even rudimentary technical skills remained in the country. In effect, any remains of a modern economy—at least a formal, legal one—largely collapsed during the 1990s. Public and private investment in productive enterprises was rare. Foreign aid agencies and groups, governmental and nongovernmental, provided what few services were available, but these met only basic humanitarian needs.
During the 1990s economic activity flourished mostly in illicit enterprises, such as growing opium poppies for heroin production and smuggling goods. The taxing of Afghan-Pakistani trade contributed much revenue to the Taliban’s war chest. As the Taliban’s prime source of income, it overshadowed the taxing of opium trafficking. But that part of trade—encompassing a massive smuggling of duty-free goods—had crippled local industry and revenue collections and created temporary food shortages, inflation, and increased corruption in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. Poppy cultivation was the major source of income for farmers, but they shared little in its full profits. However, the drug economy did provide essential revenues that enabled the Taliban to pursue its war effort. By the late 1990s Afghanistan had become the world’s largest producer of opium and was thought to be the main source of heroin exported to Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Although the Taliban successfully banned the growing of opium poppies in 2000, drug trafficking continued due to large reserves of opium warehoused in the country. Production returned after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and reached record levels in 2017. The revival of the opium trade enriched both corrupt government officials and the Taliban insurgency, which was believed to collect tens of millions of dollars a year from the industry.
Most of the population continues to be engaged in agriculture, though the destruction caused by war has been a force for urbanization by driving many from the countryside. Many Afghans brought up in refugee camps lack the farming skills they need to survive, and the country’s agricultural sector is in great need of restoration, particularly its destroyed and degraded irrigation system. The road system is similarly damaged, and domestic energy sources need to be developed for both export income and domestic use.
Agriculture and forestry
Agriculture and animal husbandry, mainly consisting of subsistence farming and pastoral nomadism, are, in more normal times, the most important elements of the gross domestic product (GDP), accounting for nearly half of its total value. Afghanistan is essentially a pastoral country. Only about one-eighth of the total land area is arable, and only about half of the arable acreage is cultivated annually. Much of the arable area consists of fallow cultivated land or steppes and mountains that serve as pastureland. Since much of the land is arid or semiarid, about half of the cultivated land is irrigated. Traditionally, as much as 85 percent of the population drew its livelihood from a rural economy, mostly as farmers.
The greater profits found in the illegal market for drugs and the smuggling trade have cut heavily into traditional agriculture and food production. Afghanistan now has to import much of its foodstuffs from Pakistan. Prior to the period when poppy growing became widespread, most cultivated land was planted with cereals, with wheat as the chief crop. Other food grains customarily planted were corn (maize), rice, and barley. Cotton was also important, both for a domestic textile industry—when such an industry existed—and for export. Fruits and nuts have also been important export items.
Animal husbandry produces meat and dairy products for local consumption; skins, especially those of the famous karakul, and wool (both for export and for domestic carpet weaving) are also important products. Livestock includes sheep, cattle, goats, donkeys, horses, camels, buffalo, and mules. About two-thirds of the annual milk production is from cows, the rest from sheep and goats. In addition to the country’s many other difficulties, a drought in 2000 killed off some four-fifths of the livestock in southern Afghanistan and crippled the remaining food production.
Forests cover about 3 percent of the total land area and are found mainly in the eastern part of the country and on the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush. Woodlands in the east consist mainly of conifers, providing timber for the building industry as well as some wild nuts for export. Other trees, especially oaks, are used as fuel. North of the Hindu Kush are pistachio trees, the nuts of which are a traditional export. Deforestation has become a major problem, as much of the country’s timber has been harvested for fuel—because of shortages brought on by 20 years of warfare—and for illegal export.
Resources and power
Extensive surveys have revealed the existence of a number of minerals of economic importance. One significant discovery was the country’s natural gas deposits, with large reserves near Sheberghān near the Turkmenistan border, about 75 miles (120 km) west of Mazār-e Sharīf. The Khvājeh Gūgerdak and Yatīm Tāq fields were major producers, with storage and refining facilities. Until the 1990s, pipelines delivered natural gas to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and to a thermal power plant and chemical fertilizer plant in Mazār-e Sharīf. Petroleum resources, on the other hand, have proved to be insignificant. Many coal deposits have been found in the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush. Major coal fields are at Maʿdan-e Karkar and Eshposhteh, between Kabul and Mazār-e Sharīf, and Qalʿeh-ye Sarkārī, southwest of Mazār-e Sharīf. In general, however, Afghanistan’s energy resources, including its large reserves of natural gas, remain untapped, and fuel shortages are chronic.
Afghanistan has been known for some time to bear other minerals as well: high-grade iron ore has been discovered at Ḥājjī Gak, northwest of Kabul; copper has been mined at ʿAynak, near Kabul; and uranium has been identified in the mountains near Khvājah Rawāsh, east of Kabul. Other known deposits include those of copper, lead, and zinc near Kondoz; beryllium in Khāṣ Konaṛ; chrome ore in the Lowgar River valley near Herāt; and the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli in Badakhshān, in addition to deposits of rock salt, beryl, barite, fluorspar, bauxite, lithium, tantalum, gold, silver, asbestos, mica, and sulfur. Taxation of mined and traded lapis lazuli and emeralds helped finance anti-Taliban forces during the civil war.
The development of Central Asian natural gas and oil resources has sparked international interest in Afghanistan as a route for pipelines to markets in South Asia and beyond. A planned pipeline, whose construction in Afghanistan began in 2018, would carry gas and, later, oil from Turkmenistan over some 1,100 miles (1,750 km), mostly through Afghanistan, to Multan in Pakistan for transshipment. The pipeline could become a major source of income for Afghanistan and also offer a source of training and employment to Afghans.
Afghanistan is potentially rich in hydroelectric resources. However, the seasonal flow of the country’s many streams and waterfalls—torrential in spring, when the snow melts in the mountains, but negligible in summer—necessitates the costly construction of dams and reservoirs in remote areas. The country’s negligible demand for electricity renders such projects unprofitable except near large cities or industrial centres. The potential of hydroelectricity has been tapped substantially only in the Kabul-Jalālābād region.
In peaceful times, manufacturing is based mainly on agricultural and pastoral raw materials. Most important is the cotton textile industry. The country also produces rayon and acetate fibres. Other manufactured products are cement, sugar, vegetable oil, furniture, soap, shoes, and woolen textiles. A nitrogenous fertilizer plant, based on natural gas, has been constructed in Mazār-e Sharīf, and phosphate fertilizers are also produced. A cement factory continues to operate in Pol-e Khomrī. In addition, a number of traditional handicrafts are practiced in Afghanistan, including carpet weaving, which in times past accounted for a fair proportion of the country’s export earnings.
The largest bank in the country, the Bank of Afghanistan, became the centre of the formal banking system. It formerly played an important role in determining and implementing the country’s financial policies. Traditionally, private money traders provide nearly all the services of a commercial bank. The currency, the afghani, underwent rampant inflation beginning in the 1990s, and as a result precious metals and gems became a common form of currency for large transactions. A sanction imposed in 1999 by the United Nations (UN) against the Taliban government froze government accounts abroad and closed the few branches of Afghan banks outside the country. Despite these measures, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda supporters (al-Qaeda is an Islamic extremist group that found refuge under the Taliban) removed large quantities of bullion and currency from Afghanistan during the U.S. military campaign of 2001, virtually bankrupting the country.
Afghanistan’s financial sector expanded rapidly in the decade that followed the fall of the Taliban. However, the banking system has been plagued by corruption and fraud.
Total annual imports have customarily exceeded exports. Prior to the fall of Afghanistan’s communist regime, roughly two-thirds of exports went to the former Soviet republics to the north. The Soviet state was also the leading source of imports. The principal export, natural gas, flowed mostly to the Soviet Union until pipelines were closed. Traditional exports are dried fruits, nuts, carpets, wool, and karakul pelts, and imports include vehicles, petroleum products, sugar, textiles, processed animal and vegetable oils, and tea. Since the mid-1990s Pakistan and Iran have served as the major suppliers of consumer goods. Other major trade partners include India, China, and the United Arab Emirates.
Until the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, the service sector—including public administration, military spending, and retail sales—accounted for less than one-fourth of GDP. Although there have been no official statistics since then, government spending fell sharply over the decade, and, like other segments of the economy, retail sales suffered from the country’s general economic malaise. Purchasing power in the post-Taliban period began to recover with the revival of government programs that were funded mainly by international donors.
Labour and taxation
The bulk of the population in the rural areas consists of small farmers exploiting their tiny plots of land. The majority of the city and town dwellers are artisans, small traders, or government employees. The industrial labour force, always small, is now hardly visible, and labour unions have failed to develop. Traditional loyalties to families and tribes are stronger than those to workers’ organizations.
The Afghan government has traditionally received much of its revenue from foreign aid—particularly during the Soviet era—and as a consequence the Afghan people have generally been lightly taxed. Taxation during the mujahideen and Taliban period often took the form of levies placed on the illicit cross-border trade between Pakistan and other countries, on cultivating opium poppies and manufacturing heroin, and on extracting and exporting semiprecious stones. Following the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, the interim government and subsequent administrations relied largely on foreign aid and subsidies from donor nations.
Transportation and telecommunications
Being a landlocked country, Afghanistan depends primarily on transit facilities from its neighbours for its international trade. It lacks railways, has few navigable rivers, and relies on roads as the mainstay of its transport system. These factors drive up transportation costs and also add to the difficulty of integrating the transport system of the country with those of its neighbours. Nevertheless, in the 1960s major efforts were directed toward upgrading the highway system and connecting the main trading centres of the country with one another, as well as with the railheads or road networks of neighbouring countries.
The road network of Afghanistan connects railheads in Gushgy, Turkmenistan, and Termiz, Uzbekistan, with those at Chaman and Peshawar, Pakistan, respectively, and provides for direct overland transit between the countries to the north and the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent. The most important Afghan highways are those connecting Kabul with Shīr Khān, on the northern border, and with Peshawar. Other paved roads link Kandahār, Herāt, and Mazār-e Sharīf with Kabul and with frontier towns of Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. During the civil war, however, the road system was severely damaged from the fighting and from disrepair. Its rehabilitation has become a high priority in any program of national reconstruction.
Despite the rapid development of motor transport, camels and donkeys are still commonly used as draft animals. In the countryside many people have not abandoned their cherished horses, which are an important source of prestige.
Almost all provincial centres have at least a seasonally operable airport. There are international airports at Kabul and Kandahār. Afghanistan, however, has limited air service and only one airline, the national carrier, Ariana Afghan Airlines. UN restrictions imposed in 1999 and again in 2001, aimed at punishing the Taliban government for its alleged support of international terrorism, limited international routes for Ariana and prohibited other airlines from scheduling flights into the country. Some international flights to Kabul have resumed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Afghanistan’s communications infrastructure is one of the least developed in the world. Telephone service is sparse, with only one main telephone line per thousand persons. Cellular telephone and Internet use increased rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century. Radio receivers are fairly pervasive, with roughly one radio receiver per 10 people. Afghans who have access to shortwave radio listen to local channels and to international broadcasts, including the Voice of America’s Dari and Pashto programs and the BBC Pashto Service. Access to television has increased since the fall of the Taliban in 2001; broadcasts by dozens of Afghan television stations can now be viewed throughout the country. Many Afghans have satellite dishes and are able to receive foreign broadcasts.
Government And Society
Until the mid 20th century, Afghanistan was ruled by the absolute power of the king. Two constitutions were promulgated, in 1923 and 1931, both affirming the power of the monarchy. The constitution of 1964, however, provided for a constitutional monarchy based on the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. A military coup in 1973 overthrew the monarchy, abolished the constitution of 1964, and established the Republic of Afghanistan. The Grand Assembly (Loya Jirga) adopted a new constitution in February 1977, but it was abrogated in 1978 when another coup established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, governed by the Afghan Revolutionary Council. Political turmoil continued, marked by a third coup in September 1979, a massive invasion of troops from the Soviet Union, and the installation of a socialist government in December 1979. Another new constitution—promulgated in 1987 and revised in 1990—changed the name of the country back to the Republic of Afghanistan, reaffirmed its nonaligned status, strengthened the post of president, and permitted other parties to participate in government. The communist regime, which had managed to hold power after the Soviet forces departed early in 1989, fell in 1992, and a coalition of victorious mujahideen parties formed a government (recognized by the UN) and named the country the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The new government was driven from the capital in 1996 by a movement based in Kandahār and calling itself the Taliban. The Taliban leaders promptly changed the name of the country to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Espousing the supremacy of Islamic law, the Taliban did not promulgate a new constitution. In December 2001 the Taliban was toppled by a coalition of Afghan parties supported by the United States. In January 2004 a new constitution was ratified, providing for a directly elected president with two vice presidents. It also provides for a bicameral National Assembly with a directly elected lower house and an upper house comprising appointees from local and provincial councils as well as presidential appointees. The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and prohibits laws that contradict the tenets of Islam. It also includes provisions guaranteeing gender equality and the rights of religious minorities.
Many Afghans continue to believe that “the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan” is vested in the institution of the Loya Jirga. As a specially convened national assembly, it has traditionally held the power to amend and interpret the constitution, declare war, and adopt decisions on the most critical national issues. Loya Jirgas have played an important role in Afghan politics since the fall of the Taliban, convening in 2002 to establish a transitional government and in 2003 to ratify a new constitution. Because the Loya Jirga is closely associated with the rule of monarchy, it is revered most by those Afghans, especially in the dominant Pashtun community, who seek a more ethnically representative government than was initially installed following the Taliban’s overthrow.
Those government institutions established during the reign of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (1880–1901) laid the groundwork for the modern Afghan state. They gave primacy to a strong military, centralized government control from Kabul, and signaled the primacy of the Pashtun as the country’s ruling group.
In practice, however, Afghan governments have never succeeded in extending their rule very deeply at the local level. This reality has meant that local influentials and power brokers would not challenge the state, and the state, in turn, would refrain from trying to interfere with them. Whatever the regime in power, a high degree of autonomy has allowed local areas to pursue economic activities and to follow tribal and localized law and customs. To administer the government’s few extractive and allocative powers, the country was divided administratively into provinces, each headed by a centrally appointed governor. The provinces were further subdivided into districts and subdistricts headed by appointed officials.
Informal institutions and justice
Governments have also worked through largely informal consultative bodies at the local level, such as community councils (shūrās) and tribal assemblies (jirgas), many of which have continued to function regardless of changes in national politics. In the absence of an effective central government, Afghan communities have their own social norms, but none so elaborate as Pashtun tribal law, known as Pashtunwali. With the advent of the Taliban, Islamic courts and an Islamic administration of justice through interpretation of the law by clergy (ʿulamāʾ) assumed greater prominence. These changes have widely replaced the authority once exercised by traditional local leaders, or khans.
Weak central government
Afghanistan has relied far more on foreign subsidies and export taxes than on internal taxes to finance its limited scope of activities. As in other rentier states, the authorities were better able to distribute resources than to collect them. It was unnecessary for national government institutions to be very effective, since there was little policy to implement. If called upon to enforce a more active government, the existing institutions were bound to invite challenge and be prone to collapse. The most far-reaching and ultimately disastrous attempt to expand the penetration of the Kabul government occurred during the early years of communist rule that began in 1978 and eventually led to civil war and chaos.
Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, government security apparatuses quickly dissolved. Individual mujahideen factions—formerly funded by foreign interests wishing to overthrow the regime—maintained their own militias and skirmished over control of the capital city and the countryside. Central government control extended little farther than Kabul itself, and law and order broke down almost entirely. The Taliban’s emergence can be traced largely to the absence of security and to the exhaustion of the population from years of civil war. Under Taliban rule—which after 1998 covered all but a small area of the northeast—the roads were secure and personal safety improved for most Afghans. However, armed Taliban devotees also kept close watch for any signs of irreligion and executed harsh punishments on perceived offenders. In fighting that continued in the northeast—between the Taliban and a coalition of mujahideen factions known as the Northern Alliance—ethnic cleansing and war atrocities were perpetrated by both sides.
The security environment in the post-Taliban period has been threatened by many factors. Thousands of land mines and large quantities of unexploded ordnance continue to litter the countryside. The return of many warlords expelled by the Taliban and the emergence of new power brokers spawned by the civil war has fragmented authority across the country. Regional commanders have sizable militias that they can use to compete over territory and resources, and small groups of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have remained capable of mounting guerrilla raids. The presence of international peacekeeping forces and other military units, although limited in their number and scope of operation, has precluded the most serious armed conflict and enhanced the authority of the central government.
Health and welfare
Based on the levels of infant mortality and life expectancy, Afghanistan has one of the least-developed health care systems in the world. The absence of potable water in most parts of the country is responsible for the widespread incidence of waterborne diseases. No more than one-eighth of the population, mostly in urban areas, had access to safe water during the 1990s. Only a small number have access to health care. Medical training is nonexistent, and the medical aid that is available is provided principally by international and nongovernmental organizations. Services offered by the government are minimal. The major proportion of medical services is concentrated in Kabul, and many rural areas do not have hospitals or doctors. Moreover, upon their arrival to power, the Taliban prohibited women—who at that time constituted a significant portion of trained medical workers—from working in that field, further debilitating an already weakened health care sector. There is no welfare system provided by the state, and the care and tending of the wounded from a generation of warfare—particularly the many thousands maimed by the vast number of land mines still found in the country—is a major social problem.
Afghanistan’s climatic and ethnic diversity has contributed to a wide variety of traditional habitations, particularly among the country’s large rural population. Nomadic and transhumant groups have traditionally relied on yurts in the north—these are generally found among the Turkic and Mongol peoples—and tents in the south. The latter are favoured among the Pashtun groups. In the northern and western parts of the country, traditional sedentary settlements often have consisted of fortified villages of stone and mud-brick known as qalʿahs (“fortresses”), whereas in the northern and eastern mountain regions wooden, multistoried dwellings were customary among the Nuristani.
Until the modern period, urban dwellings were located within modest-sized walled cities, unchanged for centuries in their basic layout. It was only in the 20th century that urban centres began to spill outside the city walls and to take on characteristics associated with Western models, including high-rises, paved roads, and city services. Urban life deteriorated rapidly after the collapse of the communist regime, and a number of cities suffered severe damage to their infrastructures during the 1990s and early 21st century. By that time, few city services—electricity, water, sewage disposal—remained intact. Regardless, a large number of people fled the countryside, seeking shelter from the civil war. These people remained poorly housed and, lacking a central government, were forced to rely on private means for shelter. Rebuilding the country’s housing stock has been one of the major tasks in national reconstruction.
Education is free at all levels, and elementary education is officially compulsory wherever it is provided by the state. Nonetheless, even in the best of years, less than one-fourth of all Afghan children have attended school. Although there are primary schools throughout the country, there are secondary schools in only the provincial and some district centres. Under the Taliban, opportunities for schooling declined, and instruction was devoted mostly to Qurʾānic studies. Public education for girls virtually disappeared. In the late 1990s less than half of the male population was estimated to be literate, and probably no more than one in seven women.
Higher education has been limited to two institutions: Kabul University, founded in 1946 by the incorporation of a number of faculties, the oldest of which is the faculty of medicine, established in 1932, and the University of Nangarhār, established in Jalālābād in 1963. The civil war interfered with their operation, especially during the 1990s and again during the U.S. military campaign in 2001.
Afghanistan has a rich cultural heritage covering more than 5,000 years and absorbing elements from many cultures, especially those of Iran (Persia) and India. Even elements of Greek culture can be traced to the Hellenistic Age. This blend of cultures flourished at many points in Afghan history, notably under the reign of the Mughal emperors, when Kabul and Herāt emerged as important centres of art and learning. Largely because of almost complete isolation from the outside world, however, little in art, literature, or architecture was produced between the 16th and early 20th centuries. Because most Afghans live outside the cities, their mode of living can be described as peasant tribal. Kinship is the basis of social life and determines the patriarchal character of the community.
Afghans are also identified by their qawm, a term that can refer to affinity with almost any kind of social group. It essentially divides “us” from “them” and helps to distinguish members of one large ethnic or tribal group, or one clan or village, from another. Particular responsibilities and advantages go with membership, and the stability of social and political institutions may vary with their qawm composition.
Daily life and social customs
Religion has long played a paramount role in the daily life and social customs of Afghanistan. Even under the mujahideen leaders, Afghanistan appeared to be on a course of Islamization: the sale of alcohol was banned, and women were pressured to cover their heads in public and adopt traditional Muslim dress. But far more stringent practices were imposed as the Taliban enforced its Islamic code in areas under its control. These measures included banning television sets and most other forms of entertainment. Men who failed to grow beards and leave them untrimmed were fined and jailed—full beardedness being perceived by extremists as the mark of a Muslim—and little mercy was shown to convicted criminals. These and other policies were not widely popular, and the Taliban was subject to reproach at home and abroad for its inability to build a national administrative structure. But, in the absence of viable alternatives, most Afghans appeared to accept Taliban dictates for the more orderly society it brought.
Daily life for Afghan women has changed radically. In the 1960s the wearing of a veil became voluntary, and women found employment in offices and shops; some women also received a university education. The situation changed after 1992, however, and particularly following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 1996. Authorities closed down girls’ schools and forced women to give up employment in nearly all occupations. Strong penalties were applied against women who were not fully covered in the streets or who were found in the company of males unrelated to them.
Today, in the post-Taliban era, daily life for most Afghans revolves around the exigencies of rebuilding a war-ravaged state. With increasing stability has come a greater and steadier food supply, but, in general, poor nutrition among Afghans has remained a serious cause of concern, especially in light of the neglect and destruction wrought upon the agricultural system during the war and the extended drought since the late 1990s. The staple of the Afghan diet is bread (nān), most commonly flat and oblong in shape and typically eaten when freshly removed from an earthen oven. Traditional cuisine consists of a variety of roast meats or meat pies (sanbūseh), stewed vegetables, rice pilaf, and a thick noodle soup (āsh) accompanied by fresh fruit and an assortment of yogurt-based sauces. The wide absence of clean drinking water and of adequate sanitation has ensured continuation of a high mortality rate, especially among young children. Outside the large cities, electricity is reserved for the privileged few.
On the brighter side of daily life, the ban enforced by the Taliban on most forms of entertainment has been lifted, and the social atmosphere has become more relaxed. Afghans are again enjoying activities from kite flying to football, and photography is no longer prohibited. Though facilities are minimal, schools have been reopened—including those for girls—and women are once again entering the workforce. However, urban women have continued to wear the chador (or chadri, in Afghanistan), the full body covering mandated by the Taliban. This has been true even of those women of the middle class (most in Kabul) who had shed that garment during the communist era. Some men have shaved or trimmed their beards, but, aside from disregarding the style of turban associated with the Taliban, most have continued to dress traditionally—generally in the loose, baggy trousers typical of many parts of South and Central Asia, over which are worn a long overshirt and a heavy vest.
Afghanistan’s literary heritage is among the richest in Central Asia and is heir to a number of ethnic and linguistic traditions. Herāt, in particular, was a noted centre of Persian literary and scholarly pursuit; the Arabic-language author al-Hamadhānī settled there in the 10th century, as did the famous Persian-language poet Jāmī 500 years later. The theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī settled in Herāt in the 12th century, and in the following century the city of Balkh, once a great centre of learning, was the birthplace of the renowned poet Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī (although the latter left the region at a young age). The great Afghan chieftain and poet Khushḥāl Khan Khaṭak founded Pashto literature in the 17th century.
Archaeological research carried out since 1922 has uncovered many fine works of art of the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods. A revival of the traditional arts and an interest in new forms of expression have given a new dynamism to artistic creation. Of the new painters, some draw direct inspiration from the Herāt school of the 15th-century Timurid period; others are influenced by Western styles. Between the early 1950s and mid-1970s the government encouraged the restoration and redecoration of some of the old monuments of architectural value. However, the world-renowned ancient statues of Buddha in the caves of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan were destroyed in 2001 after the Taliban condemned them as idolatrous. The destruction was denounced worldwide.
The School of Fine Arts was established in Kabul in the 1930s. In architecture the traditional Timurid techniques are preserved, particularly in the design of the exterior walls of mosques or tombs. Handicrafts include the world-renowned Afghan carpets and copper utensils. Afghanistan’s cultural institutions suffered greatly during the period of civil war, particularly under the successive mujahideen and Taliban regimes; most are now either defunct or in abeyance. In February 2002, however, the National Gallery of Art reopened its doors after having managed to hide many of the treasures under its care during the Taliban rule.
Sports and recreation
Afghanistan’s traditional sports are individualistic and generally martial—even the childhood pastime of kite flying takes on a competitive edge, as youths often engage in contests to sever the kite strings of competitors. Wrestling, for individual and group honour, is universal, and shooting, both for game and for sport, is widespread. The sturdy and agile Afghan hound, popular in the West for its beauty, originally was bred for speed, agility, and hunting ability. The foremost sport in terms of popularity is indisputably the game of buzkashī. Often termed the Afghan national pastime, this rugged contest pits horsemen—sometimes in teams but often as individuals—against one another in a challenge to secure the headless carcass of a goat or calf (weighing about 50–100 pounds [20–40 kg]) and carry it to a goal while simultaneously fending off competitors.
Western-style team sports never gained widespread popularity in Afghanistan, but the country made its first Olympic appearance in the 1936 Summer Games. It has since fielded teams only intermittently. Afghanistan has never sent athletes to the Winter Games.
Media and publishing
Traditionally, the regimes that have ruled Afghanistan have had little tolerance for a free press. This was especially true under the Taliban. Since the Taliban’s demise, the local press has exploded with new publications. Dozens of new papers and magazines have appeared, about one-third government-controlled and most weeklies. High production costs and a shortage of printing facilities has left the country with only one regularly appearing daily newspaper, a state-owned publication, Arman. The country’s low rate of literacy has limited the number of readers, but the long-standing practice of reading newspapers aloud in public places has greatly expanded the number of Afghans who have access to the printed word. Censorship has not been widely practiced by the interim government.
Variations of the word Afghan may be as old as a 3rd-century-CE Sāsānian reference to “Abgan.” The earliest Muslim reference to the Afghans probably dates to 982, but tribes related to the modern Afghans have lived in the region for many generations. For millennia the land now called Afghanistan has been the meeting place of four cultural and ecological areas: the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia.
Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) peoples probably roamed Afghanistan as early as 100,000 years ago. The earliest definite evidence of human occupation was found in the cave of Darra-i-Kur in Badakhshān, where a transitional Neanderthal skull fragment in association with Mousterian-type tools was discovered; the remains are of the Middle Paleolithic Period, dating to about 30,000 years ago. Caves near Āq Kupruk yielded evidence of an early Neolithic (New Stone Age) culture (c. 9000–6000 BCE) based on domesticated animals. Archaeological research since World War II has revealed Bronze Age sites, dating both before and after the Indus civilization of the 3rd to the 2nd millennium BCE. There was trade with Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the main export from the Afghan area was lapis lazuli from the mines of Badakhshān. In addition, a site with definite links to the Indus civilization has been excavated at Shortughai near the Amu Darya, northeast of Kondoz.
Historical beginnings (to the 7th century CE)
The Achaemenids and the Greeks
In the 6th century BCE the Achaemenian ruler Cyrus II (the Great) established his authority over the area. Darius I (the Great) consolidated Achaemenian rule of the region through the provinces, or satrapies, of Aria (in the region of modern Herāt), Bactria (Balkh), Sattagydia (modern Ghaznī to the Indus River), Arachosia (Kandahār), and Drangiana (Sīstān).
Alexander the Great overthrew the Achaemenids and conquered most of the Afghan satrapies before he left for India in 327 BCE. Ruins of an outpost Greek city founded about 325 BCE were discovered at Ay Khānom, at the confluence of the Amu Darya and Kowkcheh River. Excavations there produced inscriptions and transcriptions of Delphic precepts written in a script influenced by cursive Greek. Greek decorative elements dominate the architecture, including an immense administrative centre, a theatre, and a gymnasium. A nomadic raid about 130 BCE ended the Greek era at Ay Khānom.
After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, the eastern satrapies passed to the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled from Babylon. About 304 BCE the territory south of the Hindu Kush was ceded to the Mauryan dynasty of northern India. Bilingual rock inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic (the official language of the Achaemenids) found at Kandahār and Laghmān (in eastern Afghanistan) date from the reign of Ashoka (c. 265–238 BCE or c. 273–232 BCE), the Mauryan dynasty’s most renowned emperor. Diodotus, a local Greco-Bactrian governor, declared the Afghan plain of the Amu Darya independent about 250 BCE. Greco-Bactrian conquerors moved south about 180 BCE and established their rule at Kabul and in the Punjab. The Parthians of eastern Iran also broke away from the Seleucids, establishing control over Sīstān and Kandahār in the south.
About 135 BCE a loose confederation of five Central Asian nomadic tribes known as the Yuezhi wrested Bactria from the Bactrian Greeks. These tribes united under the banner of the Kushān (Kuṣāṇa), one of the five tribes, and conquered the Afghan area. The zenith of Kushān power was reached in the 2nd century CE under King Kaniska (c. 78–144 CE), whose empire stretched from Mathura in north-central India beyond Bactria as far as the frontiers of China in Central Asia.
The Kushāns were patrons of the arts and of religion. A major branch of the Silk Road—which carried luxury goods and facilitated the exchange of ideas between Rome, India, and China—passed through Afghanistan, where a transshipment centre existed at Balkh. Indian pilgrims traveling the Silk Road introduced Buddhism to China during the early centuries CE, and Buddhist Gandhāra art flourished during this period. The world’s largest Buddha figures (175 feet [53 metres] and 120 feet [about 40 metres] tall) were carved into a cliff at Bamiyan in the central mountains of Afghanistan during the 4th and 5th centuries CE; the statues were destroyed in 2001 by the country’s ruling Taliban. Further evidence of the trade and cultural achievement of the period has been recovered at the Kushān summer capital of Bagrām, north of Kabul, including painted glass from Alexandria; plaster matrices, bronzes, porphyries, and alabasters from Rome; carved ivories from India; and lacquers from China. A massive Kushān city at Delbarjin, north of Balkh, and a major gold hoard of superb artistry near Sheberghān, west of Balkh, also have been excavated.
The Sāsānids and Hephthalites
The Kushān empire did not long survive Kaniṣka, though for centuries Kushān princes continued to rule in various provinces. Persian Sāsānids established control over parts of Afghanistan, including Bagrām, in 241 CE. In 400 a new wave of Central Asian nomads under the Hephthalites took control, only to be defeated in 565 by a coalition of Sāsānids and Western Turks. From the 5th through the 7th century many Chinese Buddhist pilgrims continued to travel through Afghanistan. The pilgrim Xüanzang wrote an important account of his travels, and several of the religious centres he visited, including Hadda, Ghazna (Ghaznī), Kondoz, Bamiyan, Shotorak, and Bagrām, have been excavated.
The 7th–18th centuries
Under the Hephthalites and Sāsānids, many of the Afghan princedoms were influenced by Hinduism. The Hindu kings of the Shāhī family were concentrated in the Kabul and Ghaznī areas. Excavated sites of the period include a major Hindu Shāhī temple north of Kabul and a chapel in Ghaznī that contains both Buddhist and Hindu statuary, indicating that there was a mingling of these two religions.
The first Muslim dynasties
Islamic armies defeated the Sāsānids in 642 at the Battle of Nahāvand (near modern Hamadān, Iran) and advanced into the Afghan area, but they were unable to hold the territory; cities submitted, only to rise in revolt, and the hastily converted returned to their old beliefs once the armies had passed. The 9th and 10th centuries witnessed the rise of numerous local Islamic dynasties. One of the earliest was the Ṭāhirids of Khorāsān, whose kingdom included Balkh and Herāt; they established virtual independence from the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate in 820. The Ṭāhirids were succeeded in 867–869 by a native dynasty from Sīstān, the Ṣaffārids. Local princes in the north soon became feudatories of the powerful Sāmānids, who ruled from Bukhara. From 872 to 999 Bukhara, Samarkand, and Balkh enjoyed a golden age under Sāmānid rule.
In the middle of the 10th century a former Turkish slave named Alptigin seized Ghazna. He was succeeded by another former slave, Subüktigin, who extended the conquests to Kabul and the Indus. His son was the great Maḥmūd of Ghazna, who came to the throne in 998. Maḥmūd conquered the Punjab and Multan and carried his raids into the heart of India. The hitherto obscure town of Ghazna became a splendid city, as did the second capital at Bust (Lashkar Gāh).
Maḥmūd’s descendants continued to rule over a gradually diminishing empire until 1150, when ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Ḥusayn of Ghūr, a mountain-locked region in central Afghanistan, sacked Ghazna and drove the last Ghaznavid into India. ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn’s nephew, Muʿizz al-Dīn Muḥammad, known as Muḥammad of Ghūr, first invaded India in 1175. After his death in 1206, his general, Quṭb al-Dīn Aybak, became the sultan of Delhi.
Shortly after Muḥammad of Ghūr’s death, the Ghurīd empire fell apart, and Afghanistan was occupied by Sultan ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad, the Khwārezm-Shah. The territories of the Khwārezm-Shah dynasty extended from Chinese Turkistan in the east to the borders of Iraq in the west.
The Mongol invasion
Genghis Khan invaded the eastern part of ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn’s empire in 1219. Avoiding a battle, ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn retreated to a small island in the Caspian Sea, where he died in 1220. Soon after ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn’s death, his energetic son Jalāl al-Dīn Mingburnu rallied the Afghan highlanders at Parwan (modern Jabal os Sarāj), near Kabul, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mongols under Kutikonian. Genghis Khan, who was then at Herāt, hastened to avenge the defeat and laid siege to Bamiyan. There Ṃutugen, the khan’s grandson, was killed, an event so infuriating to Genghis Khan that when he captured the citadel he ordered that no living being be spared. Bamiyan was utterly destroyed. Advancing on Ghazna, Genghis won a great victory over Jalāl al-Dīn, who then fell back toward the Indus (1221), where he made a final but unsuccessful stand.
After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his vast empire fell to pieces. In Afghanistan some local chiefs succeeded in establishing independent principalities, and others acknowledged Mongol princes as suzerains. This state of affairs continued until the end of the 14th century, when Timur (Tamerlane) conquered a large part of the country.
Timur’s successors, the Timurids (1405–1507), were great patrons of learning and the arts who enriched their capital city of Herāt with fine buildings. Under their rule Afghanistan enjoyed peace and prosperity.
Early in the 16th century the Turkic Uzbeks rose to power in Central Asia under Muḥammad Shaybānī, who took Herāt in 1507. In late 1510 the Ṣafavid shah Ismāʿīl I besieged Shaybānī in Merv and killed him. Bābur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, had made Kabul the capital of an independent principality in 1504. He captured Kandahār in 1522, and in 1526 he marched on Delhi. He defeated Ibrāhīm, the last of the Lodī Afghan kings of India, and established the Mughal Empire, which lasted until the middle of the 19th century and included all of eastern Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush. The capital was at Agra. Nine years after his death in 1530, the body of Bābur was taken to Kabul for burial.
During the next 200 years Afghanistan was parceled between the Mughals of India and the Ṣafavids of Persia—the former holding Kabul north to the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush and the latter, Herāt and Farāh. Kandahār was in dispute for many years.
Last Afghan empire
Overthrow of foreign rule
Periodic attempts were made to gain independence. In 1709 Mīr Vays Khan, a leader of the Hotaki Ghilzay tribe, led a successful rising against Gorgīn Khan, the Persian governor of Kandahār.
Mīr Vays Khan governed Kandahār until his death in 1715. In 1716 the Abdālīs (Durrānī) of Herāt, encouraged by his example, took up arms against the Persians and under their leader, Asad Allāh Khan, succeeded in liberating their province. Maḥmūd, Mīr Vays’s young son and successor, was not content with holding Kandahār, and in 1722 he led some 20,000 men against Eṣfahān; the Ṣafavid government surrendered after a six-month siege.
Maḥmūd died in 1725 and was succeeded by Ashraf, who had to contend with Russian pressure from the north and Ottoman Turk advances from the west. Shah Ashraf halted both the Russian and Turkish onslaughts, but a brigand chief, Nādr Qolī Beg, defeated the Afghans at Dāmghān in October 1729 and drove them from Persia. During the retreat Ashraf was murdered, probably on orders from his cousin, who was then holding Kandahār.
Nādr Qolī Beg took Herāt in 1732 after a desperate siege. Nādr was impressed by the courage of the Herātis and recruited many of them to serve in his army. He had himself elected shah of Persia, with the name Nādir Shah, in 1736.
In 1738, after a year’s siege, the city of Kandahār fell to Nādir Shah’s army of 80,000 men. Nādir Shah seized Ghazna and Kabul and occupied the Mughal capital at Delhi in 1739. His booty included the Koh-i-noor diamond and the Peacock Throne. He was assassinated at Fatḥābād, Iran, in 1747, which led to the disintegration of his empire and the rise of the last great Afghan empire.
The Durrānī dynasty
The commander of Nādir Shah’s 4,000-man Afghan bodyguard was Aḥmad Khan Abdālī, who returned to Kandahār and was elected shah by a tribal council. He adopted the title Durr-i Durrān (“Pearl of Pearls”). Supported by most tribal leaders, Aḥmad Shah Durrānī extended Afghan control from Meshed to Kashmir and Delhi, from the Amu Darya to the Arabian Sea. The Durrānī was the second greatest Muslim empire in the second half of the 18th century, surpassed in size only by the Ottoman.
Aḥmad Shah died in 1772 and was succeeded by his son, Tīmūr Shah, who received but nominal homage from the tribal chieftains. Much of his reign was spent in quelling their rebellions. Because of this opposition, Tīmūr shifted his capital from Kandahār to Kabul in 1776.
Zamān Shah (1793–1800)
After the death of Tīmūr in 1793, his fifth son, Zamān, seized the throne with the help of Sardār Pāyenda Khan, a chief of the Bārakzay. Zamān then turned to India with the object of repeating the exploits of Aḥmad Shah. This alarmed the British, who induced Fatḥ ʿAlī Shah of Persia to bring pressure on the Afghan king and divert his attention from India. The shah went a step further by helping Maḥmūd, governor of Herāt and a brother of Zamān, with men and money and encouraging him to advance on Kandahār. Maḥmūd, assisted by his vizier, Fatḥ Khan Bārakzay, eldest son of Sardār Pāyenda Khan, and by Fatḥ ʿAlī Shah, took Kandahār and advanced on Kabul. Zamān, in India, hurried back to Afghanistan. There he was handed over to Maḥmūd, blinded, and imprisoned (1800). The Durrānī empire had begun to disintegrate after 1798, when Zamān Shah appointed a Sikh, Ranjit Singh, as governor of Lahore.
Shah Maḥmūd (1800–03; 1809–18)
Shah Maḥmūd left affairs of state to Fatḥ Khan. Some of the chiefs who had grievances against the king or his ministers joined forces and invited Zamān’s brother Shah Shojāʿ (1803–09; 1839–42) to Kabul. The intrigue was successful. Shah Shojāʿ occupied the capital, and Maḥmūd sued for peace.
The new king, Shah Shojāʿ, ascended the throne in 1803. The chiefs had become powerful and unruly, and the outlying provinces were asserting their independence. The Sikhs of the Punjab were encroaching on Afghan territories from the east, while the Persians were threatening from the west.
Napoleon I, then at the zenith of his power in Europe, proposed to Alexander I of Russia a combined invasion of India. A British mission, headed by Mountstuart Elphinstone, met Shah Shojāʿ at Peshawar to discuss mutual defense against this threat, which never developed. In a treaty of friendship concluded June 7, 1809, the shah promised to oppose the passage of foreign troops through his dominions. Shortly after the mission left Peshawar, news was received that Kabul had been occupied by the forces of Maḥmūd and Fatḥ Khan. The troops of Shah Shojāʿ were routed, and the shah withdrew from Afghanistan and found asylum with the British at Ludhiāna, India, in 1815.
The rise of the Bārakzay
The Bārakzay were now dominant. This situation incited the jealousy of Kāmrān, Maḥmūd’s eldest son, who seized and blinded Fatḥ Khan. Later Shah Maḥmūd had him cut to pieces.
Dōst Moḥammad (1826–39; 1843–63)
Advancing from Kashmir in 1818, Dōst Moḥammad, younger brother of Fatḥ Khan, took Peshawar and Kabul and drove Shah Maḥmūd and Kāmrān from all their possessions except Herāt, where they maintained a precarious footing for a few years. Balkh was seized by the ruler of Bukhara; the trans-Indus Afghan districts were occupied by the Sikhs; and the outlying provinces of Sind and Baluchistan assumed independence. Ghazna, Kabul, and Jalālābād fell to Dōst Moḥammad.
Dōst Moḥammad established the Bārakzay (or Moḥammadzay) dynasty. His position secure after he assumed the title of emir in 1826 at Kabul, he decided to recover Peshawar from the Sikhs. Declaring a jihad, or Islamic holy war, in 1836, he advanced on Peshawar. The Sikh leader Ranjit Singh, however, sowed dissension in Dōst Moḥammad’s camp, the invading army melted away, and Peshawar was lost to the Afghans.
In November 1837 Moḥammad Shah of Persia laid siege to Herāt, which the British saw as the key to India. The Russians supported the Persians. The British, fearful that Persia was falling completely under Russian influence, entered into alliances with the rulers of Herāt, Kabul, and Kandahār. A British mission to Kabul under Captain (later Sir) Alexander Burnes in 1837 was welcomed by Dōst Moḥammad, who hoped the British would help him recover Peshawar. Burnes could not give him the required assurances; and when a Russian agent appeared in Kabul, the British left for India.
With the failure of Burnes’s mission, the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, ordered an invasion of Afghanistan, with the object of restoring Shah Shojāʿ to the throne. In April 1839, after suffering great privations, the British army entered Kandahār; Shojāʿ was then crowned shah. Ghazna was captured in the following July, and in August Shah Shojāʿ was installed at Kabul. The Afghans, however, would tolerate neither a foreign occupation nor a king imposed on them by a foreign power, and insurrections broke out. Dōst Moḥammad—who had escaped first to Balkh, then to Bukhara, where he was arrested—escaped from prison and returned to Afghanistan to lead his partisans against the British. In a battle at Parwan on November 2, 1840, Dōst Moḥammad had the upper hand, but the next day he surrendered to the British in Kabul. He was deported to India with the greater part of his family.
Outbreaks continued throughout the country, and the British eventually found their position untenable. Terms for their withdrawal were discussed with Akbar Khan, Dōst Moḥammad’s son, but Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the British political agent, was killed during a parley with the Afghans. On January 6, 1842, some 4,500 British and Indian troops, with 12,000 camp followers, marched out of Kabul. Bands of Afghans swarmed around them, and the retreat ended in a bloodbath. Shah Shojāʿ was killed after the British left Kabul.
Though in the summer of that same year British forces reoccupied Kabul, the new governor-general, Lord Ellenborough, decided on the evacuation of Afghanistan. In 1843 Dōst Moḥammad returned to Kabul. During the next 20 years he consolidated his rule by occupying Kandahār (1855), Balkh and the northern Khanates (1859), and Herāt (1863), the last less than a month before his death in June.
Shīr ʿAlī (1863–66; 1868–79)
Shīr ʿAlī Khan, Dōst Moḥammad’s third son, then became emir, but his two elder brothers took the throne from him in May 1866. Shīr ʿAlī regained his throne in September 1868. Shīr ʿAlī’s reception of a Russian mission at Kabul and his refusal to receive a British one, on British terms, led directly to the war of 1878–80. Shīr ʿAlī, leaving his son, Yaʿqūb Khan, as his regent in Kabul, sought help from the Russians, but they advised him to make peace. Shīr ʿAlī died in Mazār-e Sharīf in 1879.
Yaʿqūb Khan (1879)
The Treaty of Gandamak (Gandomak; May 26, 1879) recognized Yaʿqūb Khan as emir, and he subsequently agreed to receive a permanent British embassy at Kabul. In addition, he agreed to conduct his foreign relations with other states in accordance “with the wishes and advice” of the British government. This British triumph, however, was short-lived. On September 3, 1879, the British envoy and his escort were murdered in Kabul. British forces were again dispatched, and before the end of October they occupied Kabul. Yaʿqūb abdicated and was given exile in India, where he died in 1923.
ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Khan (1880–1901)
The British finally withdrew from Kandahār in April 1881. In 1880 ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Khan, a cousin of Shīr ʿAlī, had returned from exile in Central Asia and proclaimed himself emir of Kabul. During the reign of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, the boundaries of modern Afghanistan were drawn by the British and the Russians. The Durand Line of 1893 divided zones of responsibility for the maintenance of law and order between British India and the kingdom of Afghanistan; it was never intended as a de jure international boundary. Afghanistan, therefore, although never dominated by a European imperial government, became a buffer between tsarist Russia and British India.
ʿAbd al-Raḥmān exerted his influence, if not actual control, over the various ethnolinguistic groups inside Afghanistan, fighting some 20 small wars to convince them that a strong central government existed in Kabul. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān was so successful that, at his death, his designated successor and eldest son, Ḥabībullāh Khan, succeeded to the throne as Ḥabībullāh I without the usual fratricidal fighting. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān can be considered the founder of modern Afghanistan.
Ḥabībullāh Khan (1901–19)
The introduction of modern European technology begun by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān was furthered by Ḥabībullāh. Western ideals and styles penetrated the Afghan royal court and upper classes. An Afghan nationalist, Maḥmūd Beg Ṭarzī, published (1911–18) the periodical Serāj al-Akbār (“Torch of the News”), which had political influence far beyond the boundaries of Afghanistan.
Ḥabībullāh Khan visited British India in 1907 as a guest of the viceroy of India, Gilbert Elliot, 4th earl of Minto. Impressed with British power, Ḥabībullāh resisted pressures from Ṭarzī, Amānullāh (Ḥabībullāh’s third son, who had married Soraya, a daughter of Ṭarzī), and others to enter World War I on the side of the Central Powers. The peace ending World War I brought death to Ḥabībullāh—he was murdered on February 20, 1919, by persons associated with the anti-British movement—and Amānullāh seized power.
Amānullāh launched the inconclusive Third Anglo-Afghan War in May 1919. The monthlong war gained the Afghans the conduct of their own foreign affairs. The Treaty of Rawalpindi was signed on August 8, 1919, and amended in 1921. Before signing the final document with the British, the Afghans concluded a treaty of friendship with the new Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union. Afghanistan thereby became one of the first states to recognize the Soviet government, and a “special relationship” evolved between the two governments that lasted until December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Amānullāh changed his title from emir to pādshāh (“king”) in 1923 and inaugurated a decade of reforms—including implementing constitutional and administrative changes, allowing women to remove their veils, and establishing coeducational schools—that offended conservative religious and tribal leaders.
Civil war broke out in November 1928, and a Tajik folk hero called Bacheh Saqqāw (Bacheh-ye Saqqā; “Child of a Water Carrier”) occupied Kabul. Amānullāh abdicated in January 1929 in favour of his elder brother, Inayatullāh, but Bacheh Saqqāw proclaimed himself Ḥabībullāh Ghāzī (or Ḥabībullāh II), emir of Afghanistan. Amānullāh failed to retrieve his throne and went into exile in Italy. He died in 1960 in Zürich, Switzerland.
Moḥammad Nāder Shah (1929–33)
Ḥabībullāh II was driven from the throne by Moḥammad Nāder Khan and his brothers, distant cousins of Amānullāh. On October 10, 1929, Ḥabībullāh II was executed along with 17 of his followers. A tribal assembly elected Nāder Khan as shah, and the opposition was bloodily persecuted.
Nāder Shah produced a new constitution in 1931 that was modeled on Amānullāh’s constitution of 1923 but was more conservatively oriented to appease Islamic religious leaders. The national economy developed in the 1930s under the leadership of several entrepreneurs who began small-scale industrial projects. Nāder Shah was assassinated on November 8, 1933, and the 19-year-old crown prince, Zahir, succeeded his father.
Mohammad Zahir Shah (1933–73)
The first 20 years of Mohammad Zahir Shah’s reign were characterized by cautious policies of national consolidation, an expansion of foreign relations, and internal development using Afghan funds alone. World War II brought about a slowdown in development processes, but Afghanistan maintained its traditional neutrality. The “Pashtunistan” problem regarding the political status of those Pashtun living on the British (Pakistani) side of the Durand Line developed after the independence of Pakistan in 1947.
Shah Mahmud, prime minister from 1946 to 1953, sanctioned free elections and a relatively free press, and the so-called “liberal parliament” functioned from 1949 to 1952. Conservatives in government, however, encouraged by religious leaders, supported the seizure of power in 1953 by Lieutenant General Mohammad Daud Khan, brother-in-law and first cousin of the king.
Prime Minister Daud Khan (1953–63) took a stronger line on Pashtunistan, and, to the surprise of many, turned to the Soviet Union for economic and military assistance. The Soviets ultimately became Afghanistan’s major aid-and-trade partner. The Afghans refused to take sides in the Cold War, and Afghanistan became an “economic Korea,” testing the Western (particularly U.S.) will and capability to compete with the Soviet bloc in a nonaligned country. Daud Khan successfully introduced several far-reaching educational and social reforms, such as allowing women to wear the veil voluntarily and abolishing purdah (the practice of secluding women from public view), which theoretically increased the labour force by about half. The regime remained politically repressive, however, and tolerated no direct opposition.
The Pashtunistan issue precipitated Daud Khan’s downfall. In retaliation for Afghan agitation, Pakistan closed the border with Afghanistan in August 1961. Its prolonged closure led Afghanistan to depend increasingly on the Soviet Union for trade and in-transit facilities. To reverse the trend, Daud Khan resigned in March 1963, and the border was reopened in May. The Pashtunistan problem still existed, however.
Zahir Shah and his advisers instituted an experiment in constitutional monarchy. In 1964 a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) approved a new constitution, under which the House of the People was to have 216 elected members and the House of the Elders was to have 84 members, one-third elected by the people, one-third appointed by the king, and one-third elected indirectly by new provincial assemblies.
Elections for both houses of the legislature were held in 1965 and 1969. Several unofficial parties ran candidates with platforms ranging from fundamentalist Islam to the extreme left. One such group was the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the major leftist organization in the country. Founded in 1965, the party soon split into two factions, known as the People’s (Khalq) and Banner (Parcham) parties. Another was a conservative religious organization known as the Islamic Society (Jamʿiyyat-e Eslāmī), which was founded by a number of religiously minded individuals, including members of the University of Kabul faculty of religion, in 1971. The Islamists were highly influenced by the militant ideology of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and were ardently opposed to the power of leftist and secular elements in Afghanistan.
National politics became increasingly polarized, a situation reflected in the appointment by the king of five successive prime ministers between September 1965 and December 1972. The king refused to promulgate several key acts, thereby effectively blocking the institutionalization of the political processes guaranteed in the constitution. Struggles for power developed between the legislative and the executive branches, and an independent Supreme Court, as called for in the 1964 constitution, was never appointed.
Mohammad Daud Khan sensed the stagnation of the constitutional processes and seized power on July 17, 1973, in a virtually bloodless coup. Leftist military officers and civil servants of the Banner Party assisted in the overthrow, and a number of militant Islamists were forced to flee the country. Daud Khan abolished the constitution of 1964 and established the Republic of Afghanistan, with himself as chairman of the Central Committee of the Republic and prime minister.
Afghanistan since 1973
The Republic of Afghanistan (1973–78)
During Daud Khan’s second tenure as prime minister, he attempted to introduce socioeconomic reforms, to write a new constitution, and to effect a gradual movement away from the socialist ideals his regime initially espoused. Afghanistan broadened and intensified its relationships with other Muslim countries, trying to move away from its dependency on the Soviet Union and the United States. In addition, Daud Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan, reached tentative agreement on a solution to the Pashtunistan problem.
Daud Khan received approval in 1977 of his new constitution from a Loya Jirga, which wrote in several new articles and amended others. In March 1977 Daud Khan, then president of Afghanistan, appointed a new cabinet composed of sycophants, friends, sons of friends, and even collateral members of the royal family. The two PDPA organizations, the People’s and Banner parties, then reunited against Daud Khan after a 10-year separation. There followed a series of political assassinations, massive anti-government demonstrations, and arrests of major leftist leaders. Before his arrest, Hafizullah Amin, a U.S.-educated People’s Party leader, contacted party members in the armed forces and devised a makeshift but successful coup. Daud Khan and most of his family were killed, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was born on April 27, 1978.
Civil war, communist phase (1978–92)
Nur Mohammad Taraki was elected president of the Revolutionary Council, prime minister of the country, and secretary-general of the combined PDPA. Babrak Karmal, a Banner leader, and Hafizullah Amin were elected deputy prime ministers. The leaders of the new government insisted that they were not controlled by the Soviet Union and proclaimed their policies to be based on Afghan nationalism, Islamic principles, socioeconomic justice, nonalignment in foreign affairs, and respect for all agreements and treaties signed by previous Afghan governments.
Unity between the People’s and Banner factions rapidly faded as the People’s Party emerged dominant, particularly because its major base of power was in the military. Karmal and other selected Banner leaders were sent abroad as ambassadors, and there were systematic purges of any Banner members or others who might oppose the regime.
The Taraki regime announced its programs, which included eliminating usury, ensuring equal rights for women, instituting land reforms, and making administrative decrees in classic Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. The people in the countryside, familiar with Marxist broadcasts from Soviet Central Asia, assumed that the People’s Party was communist and pro-Soviet. The reform programs—which threatened to undermine basic Afghan cultural patterns—and political repression antagonized large segments of the population, but major violent responses did not occur until the uprising in Nūrestān late in the summer of 1978. Other revolts, largely uncoordinated, spread throughout all of Afghanistan’s provinces, and periodic explosions rocked Kabul and other major cities. On February 14, 1979, U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed, and the elimination of U.S. assistance to Afghanistan was guaranteed.
Hafizullah Amin became prime minister on March 28, although Taraki retained his posts as president of the Revolutionary Council and secretary general of the PDPA. The expanding revolts in the countryside, however, continued, and the Afghan army collapsed. The Amin regime asked for and received more Soviet military aid.
Taraki was overthrown in mid September and, under orders from Amin, was killed three weeks later. In a plot hatched in Moscow, Amin was to have been removed, largely in the belief that he bore major responsibility for sparking the rebellion. But Amin learned of the plan and preempted his would-be assassins. Amin then tried to broaden his internal base of support and again to interest Pakistan and the United States in Afghan security. Despite his efforts, on the night of December 24, 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Amin and many of his followers were killed on December 27.
Babrak Karmal returned to Afghanistan from the Soviet Union and became prime minister, president of the Revolutionary Council, and secretary-general of the PDPA. Opposition to the Soviets and Karmal spread rapidly, urban demonstrations and violence increased, and resistance escalated in all regions. By early 1980 several regional groups, collectively known as mujahideen (from Arabic mujāhidūn, “those who engage in jihad”), had united inside Afghanistan, or across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan, to resist the Soviet invaders and the Soviet-backed Afghan army. Pakistan, along with the United States, China, and several European and Arab states—most notably Saudi Arabia—were soon providing small amounts of financial and military aid to the mujahideen. As this assistance grew, the Pakistani military’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) assumed primary responsibility for funneling the money and weapons to Afghan resistance groups. Pakistani authorities were determined to exercise tight control over all such groups, and upwards of 40 separate resistance and refugee organizations coalesced, under Pakistani influence, around seven resistance parties. These parties, in turn, came together into two rival alliances, one dominated by traditional Islamic conservatives and the other by Islamic radicals. In 1985, under pressure from Pakistan and outside supporters, as well as from guerrilla commanders inside Afghanistan, these two alliances set aside their differences and formed a single coalition represented by a Supreme Council, which was responsible for making major decisions. Pakistan’s exclusion of secular groups from any role in the struggle fit the ideological temper of the military regime of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq—which played heavily on Islamic symbols for legitimacy—but also suited Pakistan’s determination that no aid would go to Afghan nationalists who might harbour long-standing territorial designs on Pakistan.
Recruits to the mujahideen came in large numbers from young Afghan men living in refugee camps in Pakistan. They were joined throughout the 1980s by thousands of volunteers from across the Muslim world, especially from Arab countries. (A young Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden, was among them, and, while he saw little military action, his personal wealth enabled him to fund high-profile mujahideen activities and gain a widely favourable reputation among his colleagues.) The bulk of the fighting was undertaken by small units that crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan and engaged mostly in brief hit-and-run operations. One of the most persistent and often most effective militant groups, however, was under the command of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who instead fought the Soviets from a redoubt in the Panjanshīr River valley (commonly Panjshēr valley) northeast of Kabul. Massoud was among those commanders affiliated with the Islamic Society (one of the most influential mujahideen groups), then headed by an Azhar-trained scholar, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Among the other Peshawar-based parties were Abd al-Rasul Sayyaf’s militant Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan (Ettiḥād-e Eslāmī Barā-ye Āzād-e Afghānistān), which derived its support largely from foreign Islamic groups, and three parties headed by traditional religious leaders, including the most pragmatic of the mujahideen parties, the National Islamic Front (Maḥāz-e Mellī-ye Eslāmī), led by Ahmad Gailani. But the party receiving the most material support from the ISI was the extremist and virulently anti-American Islamic Party (Ḥezb-e Eslāmī; one of two parties by that name) loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Separate from the Peshawar front of Sunnite parties was an ethnic Shīʿite resistance group among the Ḥazāra, which received strong support from Iran.
Other than the Afghan fighters themselves, few had faith that the mujahideen could prevail in a military conflict with the Soviet Union. The movement’s Western sponsors viewed resistance operations as an opportunity to keep the Soviet army bogged down and to bleed Moscow economically. However, the mujahideen remained convinced that they ultimately would liberate their country from the foreign invaders. After years of bedevilment by the Soviet military’s use of helicopter gunships and jet bombers, the mujahideen’s prospects improved greatly toward the end of 1986 when they began to receive more and better weapons from the outside world—particularly from the United States, the United Kingdom, and China—via Pakistan, the most important of these being shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles. The Soviet and Afghan air forces then began to suffer considerable casualties.
In May 1986 Najibullah, former head of the secret police, replaced Karmal as secretary-general of the PDPA, and in November Karmal was relieved of all his government and party posts. Friction among the Banner and People’s parties continued. A national reconciliation campaign approved by the Politburo in September, which included a unilateral six-month cease-fire to begin in January 1987, met with little response inside Afghanistan and was rejected by resistance leaders in Pakistan.
In November 1987 a new constitution changed the name of the country back to the Republic of Afghanistan and allowed other political parties to participate in the government. Najibullah was elected to the newly strengthened post of president. Despite renewals of the official cease-fire, Afghan resistance to the Soviet presence continued, and the effects of the war were felt in neighbouring countries: Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran numbered more than five million. Morale in the Afghan military was low. Draftees deserted at the earliest opportunity, and the Afghan military dropped from its 1978 strength of 105,000 troops to about 20,000–30,000 by 1987. The Soviets attempted new tactics, but the resistance always devised countertactics.
During the 1980s, talks between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan were held in Geneva under UN auspices, the primary stumbling blocks being the timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the cessation of arms supplies to the mujahideen. Peace accords were finally signed in April 1988. Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev subsequently carried out an earlier promise to begin withdrawing Soviet troops in May of that year; troops began leaving as scheduled, and the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989. The civil war continued, however, despite predictions of an early collapse of the Najibullah government following the withdrawal of the Soviets. The mujahideen formed an interim government in Pakistan, steadfastly resisting Najibullah’s reconciliation efforts, and disunity among the mujahideen parties contributed to their inability to dislodge the communist government.
Civil war, mujahideen-Taliban phase (1992–2001)
Najibullah was finally ousted from power in April 1992, soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union (which had continued to provide military and economic assistance to the Kabul government). A coalition built mainly of the mujahideen parties that had fought the communists set up a fragile interim government, but general peace and stability remained a distant hope. As rival militias vied for influence, interethnic tensions flared, and the economy lay in ruins.
Under an arrangement to provide for the rotation of the executive office between different factions, the presidency passed after two months from interim president Sebghatullah Mujaddedi to Burhanuddin Rabbani. Rabbani, however, refused to relinquish power to his successor after the expiration of his two-year term in office. Over the next three years, rocket attacks by opposition forces—primarily those of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Islamic Party—caused severe damage to large sections of the capital. Delivery of food from international aid organizations and the UN became indispensable.
Outside of Kabul, law and order broke down across much of the country, and Afghanistan became, in effect, a country ruled by militia leaders and warlords who exacted road taxes and transit fees from trucks engaged in cross-border trading and promoted extortion in most other areas of normal life. Kidnappings, whether for sadism or profit, were not uncommon, and the people generally fell into a state of despair.
Partly in response to this situation, the Taliban (Persian: “Students”) emerged in the fall of 1994. The movement’s spiritual and political leader was a former mujahideen fighter, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who was best known for his displays of piety and participation in the fight against the Soviet occupation. Drawing its recruits from madrasah (religious school) students in Pakistan and the southern province of Kandahār, the Taliban gained international attention when it was able to defeat those groups preying on the transit trade and when it succeeded in ridding Kandahār of its predatory and corrupt governors. The Taliban’s eventual success in extending its territorial control is largely attributable to the war-weariness of the Afghan people. In a short time others joined the students, including fighters formerly associated with the communists and a number of mujahideen defectors—many of whom were induced to switch sides by generous payments funded by the government of Saudi Arabia, then a major Taliban supporter.
The Taliban also won the early backing of senior Pakistani officials—including members of Pakistan’s ISI—who, along with companies involved in cross-border trading, were anxious to secure a road route through Afghanistan to markets in Central Asia. These same officials felt that the development of lucrative gas and oil pipelines from Central Asian fields to a Pakistani terminus would also be realized sooner were the Taliban to wrest full control of the country from other factions. Importantly, Taliban rule promised for Pakistan a pliant, friendly regime in Kabul, which contrasted with previous Afghan governments that often deflected Pakistani influence in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs through political overtures to India, Pakistan’s archrival. Despite the Taliban’s mostly Pashtun membership, the absence from their agenda of the familiar irredentist Pashtun claims against Pashtun regions of Pakistan—the Pashtunistan issue—made the Taliban a seemingly safe choice.
However, the Taliban’s initial appeal counted heavily on uniting those Pashtuns deeply resentful of the Rabbani government, which was dominated by ethnic Tajiks. Not until the Taliban ventured into areas of the country populated largely by non-Pashtuns could its wider popular acceptance be tested. Minority-dominated Herāt, Afghanistan’s third largest city, fell to Taliban fighters in September 1995, and a year later the Taliban captured multiethnic Kabul, setting to flight both anti-government troops and those of Rabbani. The northern city of Mazār-e Sharīf, populated by many ethnic Uzbeks, fell in August 1998. By 2001 the Taliban’s power extended over more than nine-tenths of the country, and in most areas under its control the militia succeeded in disarming the local inhabitants. A loose coalition of mujahideen militias known as the Northern Alliance maintained control of a small section of northern Afghanistan. Fighters for the Northern Alliance, particularly those under the command of Ahmad Shah Massoud, remained the only major obstacle to a final Taliban victory.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates gave formal recognition to the Taliban government after the fall of Kabul, but the movement was denied Afghanistan’s seat at the UN and came under vigorous international criticism for its extreme views—with regard to women in particular—and its human rights record. Refusal by the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, an Islamic extremist accused by the United States of planning violent acts and organizing a global terrorist network, led to UN sanctions against the regime in November 1999 and again in January 2001. The Taliban was also accused of harbouring and training militants—many of whom were holdovers from the war against the Soviets—planning insurgencies in the Central Asian republics and China. Iran objected to the treatment of the Shīʿite Muslim population and to the Taliban’s alleged association with groups that smuggled narcotics across the Iranian frontier. Pakistani authorities, although concerned about the possible ramifications of Islamic radicalism on their own society, continued to assist the Taliban economically and were given varying degrees of credit for aiding the Taliban in its military successes.
Fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance continued, and the international community made little headway toward inducing the combatants to observe a cease-fire or in convincing the Taliban to share power in a broadly representative national government. Though foreign humanitarian assistance to the Afghans continued, large-scale reconstruction was not addressed. Just as the commitment of international agencies and donors was uncertain, the capacity of Taliban leaders to manage a rebuilding effort remained questionable. The transition from a heavily criminalized domestic and regional economy—based on smuggling weapons and narcotics and the uncontrolled exploitation of Afghanistan’s natural resources—remained indispensable for the country’s rehabilitation and for a sustainable peace.
Struggle for democracy
U.S.-led invasion and toppling of the Taliban
Conditions continued to deteriorate in late 2001. Blame for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and a simultaneous attack on the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., on September 11 quickly centred on members of a Muslim extremist group, al-Qaeda, based in Afghanistan and headed by bin Laden. (See September 11 attacks.) The Taliban refused repeated U.S. demands to extradite bin Laden and his associates and to dismantle terrorist training facilities in Afghanistan. Within weeks of the attacks, the United States and Britain launched an intensive bombing campaign against the Taliban and provided significant logistical support to Northern Alliance forces in an attempt to force the regime to yield to its demands. Devastated by the U.S. bombardment, Taliban forces folded within days of a well-coordinated ground offensive launched in mid-November by Northern Alliance troops and U.S. special forces. On December 7 the Taliban surrendered Kandahār, the militia’s base of power and the last city under its control. At nearly the same time, representatives of several anti-Taliban groups met in Bonn, Germany, and, with the help of the international community, named an interim administration, which was installed two weeks later. This administration held power until June 2002 when a Loya Jirga was convened that selected a transitional government to rule the country until national elections could be held and a new constitution drafted. (For more-detailed coverage on the war, from the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 until the end of NATO’s combat mission in 2014, see Afghanistan War [2001–14]).
In December 2003 another Loya Jirga was convened to consider a draft constitution that had been released in November. In January 2004, after three weeks of debate, the Loya Jirga approved the constitution, which called for a directly elected president and a two-chamber legislature. It was then signed into law by Hamid Karzai, leader of the transitional government. Democratic elections, in which women were granted the right to vote, were held in October 2004, and Karzai was elected president, winning 55 percent of the vote.
The Hamid Karzai presidency, NATO takeover, and Taliban resurgence
In March 2005 Karzai announced that legislative elections would be held later that year. Although al-Qaeda and Taliban elements had threatened to disrupt the elections, they took place on September 18, 2005—the first time in more than 30 years that such elections were held—and in December the newly elected National Assembly convened its first session. Ongoing violence throughout 2005 increased steeply at year’s end and worsened considerably the following year as instability and warfare spread. Attacks and violent exchanges between the U.S.-led coalition and the Taliban forces became more frequent, particularly in the eastern and southern provinces, and casualties increased. In July 2006, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops replaced the U.S.-led coalition at the head of military operations in the south, and in October they also took command of the eastern provinces, thus assuming control of international military operations across the entire country. Fighting between NATO and Taliban forces continued, and civilian casualties remained numerous; in 2008 they reached their highest levels since the start of the war. In keeping with campaign statements that the war in Afghanistan would require greater attention and commitment on the part of the United States, newly elected U.S. Pres. Barack Obama announced in February 2009 that some 17,000 additional U.S. troops would be sent to Afghanistan in the spring and early summer of that year.
Karzai’s term as president was due to expire in May 2009, and at that time he was constitutionally obligated to step down. Because of logistical and security reasons, however, the approaching presidential election—in which Karzai would be a candidate—was postponed from May to August of that year. Karzai asserted that for reasons of security he should remain in office until the election took place. Critics were concerned that maintaining his position would give Karzai an undue electoral advantage, and they urged him to step down as mandated by the constitution and turn power over to an interim government. In March 2009 the Supreme Court ruled that Karzai could legally retain his position until the election in August. Discontent with Karzai’s leadership produced a number of presidential hopefuls, though Karzai was deftly able to neutralize or secure the backing of most of those who might have challenged him.
The presidential election was held on August 20, 2009, and was followed by weeks of political turmoil. In September a preliminary count awarded Karzai almost 55 percent of the vote, thus indicating that he had won an outright victory over his closest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. With more than 2,000 complaints of fraud and intimidation, however, the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) ordered an audit of suspect polling stations, including those that registered a turnout exceeding 100 percent, and began an investigation into fraud allegations. In mid-October the ECC ruled that the fraudulent activity was pervasive enough to invalidate votes from more than 200 polling stations. As a result of the ruling, almost one-third of Karzai’s votes were invalidated, and his proportion of the vote slipped to 49.7 percent, just below the majority he had claimed and low enough to warrant a second round of elections. Although Karzai initially resisted the call for a runoff, on October 20 he conceded to a second round of polling between himself and Abdullah, which was scheduled for November 7. Shortly thereafter, however, Abdullah withdrew from the race, a decision he cited as being in the country’s best interest. The runoff election was canceled, and shortly thereafter Karzai was inaugurated as president for a second term.
Opium production reached record levels within a few years of the ouster of the Taliban government: it was estimated that Afghanistan produced more than nine-tenths of the world’s opiates. Complicating government efforts to curtail production was the fact that many segments of the population, including the Taliban and supporters of the central government, profited from opium production. Indeed, the Taliban derived a substantial income from the industry, using the proceeds to fund their insurgency.
NATO troop surge and continued stalemate
Insurgent attacks increased in 2009. By the middle of the year, U.S. commanders had become convinced that troop levels in Afghanistan were too low to implement their counterinsurgency strategy, which called for international forces to focus on protecting the population and securing areas for reconstruction projects, rather than simply killing large numbers of insurgents. After some debate within the Obama administration, Obama announced in December 2009 that the U.S. would temporarily increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by 30,000. This increase in troop strength would be tied to an accelerated timetable for the training of Afghan security forces and the transfer of security responsibilities from NATO to the Afghan government.
The number of NATO troops in Afghanistan peaked in 2010 at nearly 150,000. The increase in troops delivered mixed results; although NATO troops were able to sweep the Taliban out of areas that it had previously controlled, militants continued to launch devastating surprise attacks against military, government, and civilian targets. Two factors that allowed the Taliban to remain resilient in spite of NATO’s territorial gains were the widespread unpopularity of the Afghan central government and NATO among Afghans and the presence of a safe haven for Taliban fighters across the eastern border in Pakistan.
With a military resolution to the conflict seeming increasingly unlikely, and public support for the war declining in both Europe and the U.S., NATO members agreed in November 2010 to withdraw combat troops by 2014. The apparent stalemate between international troops and the Taliban also made U.S. and NATO leaders more willing to explore prospects for a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban. However, diplomatic contact between the U.S. and the Taliban in 2011 and 2012 was intermittent and failed to make progress toward an agreement. The gradual transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces began in 2011 and was accompanied by a significant reduction in the number of NATO troops.
Meanwhile, the situation of the Afghan central government remained precarious. Afghans’ confidence in governing institutions was low, in large part because of rampant corruption at the local, provincial, and national levels. Parliamentary elections in 2010 were marred by low turnout in areas where Taliban threats kept voters away from the polls, while last-minute changes to electoral law and new allegations of vote rigging further damaged the credibility of the electoral process.
The Ashraf Ghani presidency, NATO withdrawal, and pursuit of peace
In 2014 Afghanistan held a presidential election to pick a successor to Karzai, who was constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office. As was widely expected, the start of the presidential campaign in February was met with an upsurge of insurgent violence, but the first round of voting was held on schedule in April. A runoff between the two leading candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, followed in June. A preliminary count placed Ghani ahead, but Abdullah demanded a recount, charging that as many as two million of the ballots for Ghani were fraudulent. With both candidates claiming victory, a period of deadlock followed. In July, under pressure from the United States, both sides agreed in principle to accept the results of an internationally supervised audit of the vote and to form a national unity government in which the winner would take the position of president and the losing side would nominate someone to occupy a newly created office with powers similar to those of a prime minister. The situation, however, remained delicate; disagreements between the two sides threatened to derail the process before a final agreement could be reached.
On September 21 Ghani and Abdullah signed an agreement under which Ghani would become president and Abdullah or a nominee from his party would take the new, prime minister-like position of chief executive officer. Abdullah ultimately took the post. The position had more of an advisory role; constitutionally, its authority derived from the power of the president to delegate some presidential duties to other government members. The Loya Jirga would have to amend the constitution to formalize the post or grant it powers independent of the president.
Ghani’s presidency faced a new set of issues. The end of NATO’s combat mission was in December 2014, only months into his presidency. U.S. troops remained, however, to focus on training Afghan forces and assist in counterterrorism operations. At the same time, a resurgent Taliban continued to present a challenge for the central government in asserting control over Afghanistan. In an effort to stabilize the country, Ghani’s administration began pursuing peace negotiations with the Taliban and other militant groups in 2015. The first formal meeting between the central government and the Taliban was held in July. In 2016 Hizb-i Islami, the largest militant group after the Taliban, agreed to accept the country’s constitution and renounce violence in a peace deal with the central government. Many observers hoped the deal would pave the way for an agreement with the Taliban down the road. In 2017 the United States increased its troop presence from 8,400 to 14,000 at the request of its top commander in Afghanistan, boosting support to the central government against the Taliban and other insurgents. The surge failed to halt the advance of the Taliban, however.
As the 2018 parliamentary elections approached, the Taliban sought to undermine the legitimacy of the elections. They called on Afghans to boycott the elections and threatened violence at the polls. Two days before the elections set for October 20, the Taliban killed the police chief of Kandahār. The elections in Kandahār were delayed by a week, but the rest of the country held elections on time, despite attacks on polling places and on Afghans heading to them. In the weeks that followed, the country’s election commission released the results slowly. On December 6 an election complaints committee declared votes in Kabul to be invalid, citing fraud and mismanagement, but the election commission rejected the invalidation. With about one-fourth of all votes nationwide cast in Kabul, the dispute over the city’s vote endangered the legitimacy of the poll altogether. Nonetheless, despite the many challenges to the election and its outcome, a good case remained for its legitimacy: turnout was high at an estimated 4 million voters (out of 8.8 million registered), and preliminary results for the elections in Kabul were released in mid-January. Still, the election commission was dismissed for its handling of the elections, and its members were replaced by commissioners selected by the upcoming presidential election candidates. Final election results were released in May 2019.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the electoral count, the push for peace talks was renewed in mid-December 2018. On December 17 the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan met with the Taliban in Abu Dhabi to discuss how to advance the peace process. Just days later the United States announced its intention to withdraw thousands of its troops from Afghanistan, a move interpreted by many as signaling the United States’ seriousness in reaching a peace deal and ending the war. Afghanistan’s central government had not been informed of the decision before it was announced, however, and Afghan officials expressed shock at the United States’ lack of coordination with the government but noted that Afghan forces already handled most security operations anyway. Talks with the Taliban, although shaky at times, continued into 2019, and U.S. troop levels were sustained during the negotiations.
Because of the many problems that had plagued the parliamentary elections as well as the renewed attempt toward peace talks with the Taliban, the presidential election originally set for April was pushed back twice. The election was finally held on September 28, but, amid threats from the Taliban and lack of trust in the electoral process, turnout was significantly lower than in previous presidential elections. Shortly after the election, top contenders Ghani and Abdullah both declared that they had received the majority of votes. The official vote tally released in early 2020 showed that Ghani had received more than 50 percent of the vote, while Abdullah had received less than 40 percent, which Abdullah contested.
Days after the results of the election were released, the United States and the Taliban announced that they had reached an agreement: the United States would withdraw its troops over 14 months on the condition that the Taliban would pursue peace negotiations with the Afghan government and prevent al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL; also called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]) from operating within Afghanistan. The deal was signed on February 29, 2020, after a weeklong reduction of violence from both sides.