A Short History

Jolyon Leslie

Afghanistan first emerged as a defined territory under the reign of Ahmad Shah Abdali, who was chosen as its leader by an assembly of Pashtun elders in 1747. Using a mixture of conquest and diplomacy, Ahmad Shah succeeded in extending his writ from Kandahar to Kabul and territory west of the Indus. He occupied Delhi in 1756, but military victories did not translate into political control, and he was forced to withdraw from India.

Ahmad Shah’s death in 1772 brought a period of instability, as his relatives vied with each other for power and finally lost control of the throne to a rival clan led by Dost Mohammed. He had to contend with the growing interest in Afghanistan shown by the expanding British and Russian Empires. The British, who felt that Dost Mohammed’s pro-Persian position risked the exposure of Afghanistan to Russian influence, invaded and in 1839 installed Shah Shujah as leader, having brought him back from exile in British India. He was an ineffective ruler, however, and after he was assassinated in 1842, the unpopular British lost 16,500 soldiers in the retreat from Kabul. By 1843, Dost Mohammed was back on the Afghan throne. He ruled for a further twenty years and in that time managed to extend somewhat the authority of the state.

After some squabbling among Dost Mohammed’s presumptive heirs, Sher Ali succeeded to the throne and tried to consolidate his father’s reforms in the face of spirited opposition from religious conservatives. A second invasion of Afghanistan by the British prompted Sher Ali’s flight to the Russian frontier, where he died in 1879. In order to keep hold of the throne, his son and successor, Yaqub Khan, signed away many sovereign rights under the Treaty of Gandamak, which allowed for a permanent British residency in Kabul. When the bulk of the British military force returned to India, Afghans sacked the residency and massacred its occupants. The British, in retaliation, launched a punitive raid that forced the abdication of Yaqub Khan.

The military reach of the British was limited, however, and they were forced to accept the claim to the throne of Dost Mohammed’s grandson Abdur Rahman Khan, who set about transforming a tribal confederacy into a centralised state. Playing the British off against the Russians to secure subsidies, he was able to build an effective army, which he used to repress domestic opposition and promote Pashtun dominance over minority groups. Although he ceded control of foreign relations to the British, his domestic strength made possible the legal and political reforms that became the basis of the modern Afghan state.

Abdur Rahman’s son Habibullah Khan took over in 1901, and pursued a path of modernisation and nation-building, though the British did their best to obstruct any domestic or foreign policies that weren’t in their interest. In the end, frustration at the slow pace of reform prompted Habibullah’s assassination in 1919. His son and successor Amanullah Khan aligned himself with those who wanted to modernise the country and resented its lack of independence. He declared jihad against the British and there was a brief military confrontation. The treaty signed in 1921 to end this third Anglo-Afghan war finally recognised Afghanistan’s independence, though the British continued with their intrigues. Amanullah, too, had to contend with resistance among tribal and religious conservatives to his social reforms, but managed even so to found lasting administrative and economic systems. In 1929 he was forced to abdicate in the face of a popular uprising, whose leader ruled for less than a year before being replaced by Nadir Khan, a member of the powerful Musahiban family, which would rule Afghanistan until 1978.

Nadir Shah, who had the support of the British and, eventually, the Russians, positioned himself between reformist and conservative forces, in the belief that progress and religion were not incompatible. His reforms were cautious, but the country’s slow development was helped by a more neutral approach to external relations. Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933 by a relative of a rebel leader he had executed earlier. He was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Zahir Shah, but the real power lay with the more senior members of the royal clan, who were split between various factions. It wasn’t until 1953, under the premiership of Mohammed Daoud, Zahir Shah’s cousin, that real social and economic progress was made, although the bureaucracy remained dysfunctional, nepotistic and prone to financial corruption. Domestic revenue was limited and external economic support critical, with the Soviets more responsive than the US.

When Daoud resigned in 1963, Zahir Shah became more active in politics. For the first time he looked beyond the royal clan to form a cabinet, which cautiously tried to free up the economic and social environment. A new constitution was promulgated in 1964, but the manner in which political power was exercised didn’t really change much. Zahir Shah’s administration grew increasingly unpopular, and in 1973, after the mishandling of a famine in which tens of thousands died, Daoud staged a coup and declared Afghanistan a republic.

Having relied on leftist support to carry out the coup, Daoud quickly clamped down on opposition to his vision of a modern, secular and neutral state. In the face of perceived threats from Communists within his administration, he started a series of purges of the civil service and the military. In 1978 the assassination of a Communist leader prompted another coup, during which Daoud and his circle were murdered.

The Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which had seized power from Daoud, was itself immediately beset by factional rivalry. The more radical Khalq group won the day, but land redistribution programmes and measures to improve the treatment of women soon provoked a reaction, particularly in rural areas. In the cities, anyone deemed to be an opponent of the regime was imprisoned, tortured or executed. The Soviet Union, alarmed by the growing disorder and fearful of US intentions in the region now that it had lost influence in Iran as a result of the Islamic revolution, sent troops into Afghanistan in December 1979. Although, technically, the troops had been ‘invited’ by the Afghan government, they were generally seen as foreign occupiers and resistance quickly spread. Over the next five years, the Soviets extended their control over the Afghan state and economy, while conducting a merciless military campaign in the countryside against the resistance, or mujahedin. But the mujahedin had the support of the US and a number of Arab countries as well as the benefit of the opium trade, and the reach of the state shrank as they gained control of large areas of territory.

In 1986, the Soviet protégé Babrak Karmal was replaced by Mohammed Najibullah, who not only liberalised the economy and abandoned many previous reforms, but embraced Islam under the banner of ‘national reconciliation’. Early in 1989, political change in the Soviet Union, together with the high cost of the conflict, prompted the withdrawal of Soviet troops under the terms of the Geneva Accords. Against all expectations, Najibullah managed to stay nominally in power until 1992. But the defection of one of his key militia allies to the mujahedin paved the way for the formation of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The new administration gained international recognition, while its members competed for territory, loot and political power. No single force was strong enough to take overall control, however, and the state disintegrated into autonomous fiefdoms. In many ways, Afghanistan had reverted to the tribal confederacies of the past.

It was into this lawless environment that the Taliban movement emerged in the early 1990s, avowedly to reassert central control through a state structure based initially in Kandahar. As well as the young foot-soldiers who gave the movement its name, the Taliban appealed to disaffected (and opportunistic) mujahedin, whose diverse interests had to be reconciled. By compromising with local leaders, and with significant Pakistani support, by 1996 the Taliban had extended its area of control to Kabul. The new regime (or emirate), intolerant of practices deemed to contravene Islam, retained much of the existing administrative structure, reclaimed the formal authority of the state and governed by edict. As with the mujahedin before them, the Taliban’s vision of Afghanistan as a ‘pure’ Islamic state concealed a more worldly structure, with regional trading networks providing the movement – as it does individuals in the current Afghan administration – with an important source of revenue. The Taliban were largely denied international recognition and, under huge external pressure as a result of abuses of human rights and, after 11 September, the presence in the country of terrorist suspects, were driven out of Kabul late in 2001 by an international military force. The UN then convened a meeting of prominent Afghans, which took place in Bonn in December 2001 and resulted in an agreement outlining key steps for a political transition in Afghanistan.