Afghanistan: Short history of modern Afghanistan


Called “the Graveyard of Empires”, Afghanistan has long been the battlefield of foreign powers. The Macedonians under Alexander the Great, the Mongols and more recently the British and Soviet empires all have tried and failed to exert control over the rugged landscape of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has existed under nearly every form of government known, at some point in time. Slightly larger than the Ukraine and home to nearly 30 million people, Afghanistan is a primarily Sunni Muslim nation with many ethnic group, pashtun and Tajik being two of the most predominant. Afghanistan is characterized by its inaccessible mountainous countryside dotted with villages but few large cities.

History: 1700s-1989

Modern Afghanistan has its roots in the Duranni Empire, which was founded in 1787. As competition between the British and Russian empires spilled over into Afghanistan, “the Great Game” led to Britain attempting to install a puppet regime in Kabul, acting as a buffer between their Indian colony and the Soviet Empire. Following the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, Afghanistan achieved independence and existed as the Kingdom of Afghanistan under King Amanullah.

A bloodless coup in 1973 turned Afghanistan into the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) under the presidency of Mohammed Daoud Khan. Daoud and his Marxist-styled government forged closer ties with communist Russia yet at the same time began losing control to a little known rebel group called the Mujahedeen. In an attempt to prop up the PDPA government, the USSR invaded Afghanistan on August 7, 1978 and installed pro-Soviet Babrak Karmal as President. Afghanistan became the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, once again under a Communist government. The invasions lead to a ten-year guerilla war claiming the lives of some one million Afghans. Unable to achieve a decisive victory, the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 leaving Afghanistan devastated and without a stable government.

An important aspect of the Mujahedeen success was the support they received from the United States. During the Soviet Afghan War, the United States used the anti-Communist Mujahedeen to conduct a proxy war against the Soviet Union.  By directly or indirectly supplying them with military and financial aid, the US allowed the Mujahedeen to resist Soviet control of Afghanistan.

Taliban: 1996-2001

Withdrawal of Soviet forces left a power vacuum and Afghanistan descended into lawlessness under tribal warlords. Soon, a small religious group, known as the Taliban, emerged and began bringing law and order to the streets of Afghanistan.

Initially applauded for ending the chaotic rule of the warlords, the predominantly Pashtun religious militia under Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban occupied Kabul and imposed its own interpretation of a Wahhabi-influenced Sharia law.

Using Taliban-staffed institutions such as the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice (PVSV) the Taliban enforced stringent social and legal codes; forbidding women from working and attending school. Likewise, men were forced to wear a beard while the few non-Muslim Afghans were compelled to identify themselves with a yellow badge. Music, photography, kite flying, dancing, clapping and all forms of entertainment were strictly banned, often under pain of death. The Taliban called their new nation the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and it soon became known for its intolerance and violation of human rights.

Discontent with the Taliban’s brutal policies, resistance movements soon grew in opposition to the Taliban. Under the leadership of “the Lion of Panshir” Ahmad Shah Massoud, various opposition groups meshed into the Northern Alliance and full scale civil war broke out in 1996.

US Invasion: 2001

Following the terror attacks on the United States in September of 2001, the United States identified Osama Bin Laden as the architect and issued an ultimatum to the Taliban who had been providing Bin Laden refuge in Afghanistan. The US demanded that the Taliban hand over Bin Laden and close all terrorist training camps within its borders. The Taliban refused, citing lack of proof for the US allegations. The US, working closely with the Northern Alliance, invaded in October of 2001 under Operation Enduring Freedom.

The union of the American Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division and the Northern Alliance quickly toppled the Taliban. With the assistance of US air power, they occupied Kabul and defeated the Taliban in places such as Kandahar, the caves of Tora Bora and Mazari Sharif, thus ending the civil war. Following the loya jirga, (traditional Pashtun council) of 2003, a constitution was adopted and Hamid Karzai was elected as President of the Afghan Interim Authority. Parliamentary elections were held in 2005.


Karzai remains the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the National Assembly serves as its legislature. The Afghan government faces a variety of challenges and relies overwhelmingly on outside support. The government must contend with a shattered economy (unemployment rate is 40%) and a resurging Taliban among a host of other difficulties. Since 2006, a reinvigorated Taliban functioning from bases in Pakistan has taken the offensive striking NATO forces, aid workers, civilians and Afghan government institutions.

In 2008, President Hamid Karzai narrowly survived an assassination attempt and elsewhere Taliban forces struck a jail in Kandahar freeing many Taliban fighters.  Hopes for the future of Afghanistan hang on newly elected US President Barak Obama and the 17,000 additional US troops planned for Afghanistan in 2009.

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