Afghanistan Essay

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Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim, landlocked country bordered by Iran, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It is not a nation-state along European lines—it shares no common language or ethnic heritage. Instead, it consists of a host of different groups, including Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. It also occupies rugged, divided terrain. This diversity has translated into a weak central state prone to interventions from the outside. From the 19th to early 20th centuries Afghanistan was caught between the Russian and British Empires as each expanded into Central Asia.

During the second half of the 20th century Afghanistan again found itself a buffer between large empires, in this case between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1933 Afghanistan’s king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, began what would become a 40-year reign, during which he would only rule directly during the final decade. Just before the end of World War II, in which Afghanistan was neutral, one of Zahir Shah’s uncles, Shah Mahmud, gained control of the country. In the immediate postwar years Shah Mahmud saw the breakdown of relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan’s subsequent movement toward the Soviet Union.

Tensions with Pakistan, especially over the border issue, would characterize postwar Afghanistan’s history. The 1,300-mile border with Pakistan, the so-called Durand Line, had been established by the British decades earlier to divide the fractious Pashtun tribe. Pashtuns ended up on both sides of the border. The departure of the British in 1947 gave Shah Mahmud and other Pashtuns in Afghanistan hope for Pashtun unification. Mahmud and others called for an independent “Pashtunistan” and encouraged rebellion on the Pakistan side of the border. In 1950 in retaliation, Pakistan halted shipments of petroleum to Afghanistan. Crippled without oil, Afghanistan turned to the Soviets and signed a major trade agreement. Pakistan, meanwhile, became an important part of the American military alliance.

In 1953 Mohammed Daoud, the king’s cousin and brother-in-law and a young, Western-educated modernizer, came to power. His vigorous pursuit of Pashtun unification created more tensions with Pakistan and pushed Afghanistan further toward the Soviets. Interested in spreading and consolidating power along its border regions, the Soviet Union was eager to assist. At the same time, though, the United States also tried to win influence in Afghanistan. As part of cold war strategy, the United States wanted to create an alliance of nations along the Soviet Union’s border—Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey. Daoud refused to join the resulting Baghdad Pact but accepted U.S. aid.

During his 10 years in power, Daoud pursued a cautiously reformist agenda, in which economic development became the chief goal of the state. To help with modernizing projects, Daoud skillfully played the Soviets and the United States off of each other. Afghanistan received $500 million in aid from the United States and $2.5 billion from the Soviets. Daoud used this aid to consolidate his own power.

In the early 1960s Daoud, obsessed with Pashtun unification, made payments to tribesmen on both sides of the border and spread propaganda. In 1960 he sent troops across the border. As a result the two countries severed relations in September 1961 and the border was closed to even nomadic sheepherders. In 1963 as it became clear that an extended showdown with Pakistan would only hurt Afghanistan, King Zahir Shah dismissed Daoud and took direct control of the country.

The king ruled from 1963 to 1973. Within two months of taking power he had reached an agreement reestablishing diplomatic and trade relations with Pakistan. He also began an experiment in liberalization called “new democracy.” At the center of this was a new constitution, promulgated in 1964. It barred the royal family—except the king—from politics, created a party-less system of elections, extended full citizenship to all residents of the country, including non-Pashtuns, and created a secular parliament and an independent judiciary. Although Afghanis voted in elections in 1965 and 1969, the king held most of the power.

After a decade of economic stagnation and political instability, the king was deposed while in Europe in 1973 by Mohammed Daoud. The economy continued to stagnate and Daoud could only maintain stability through repression. In April 1978 a communist coup forced Daoud from power.

In December 1979 intending to support the pro-Soviet communist regime and install Soviet favorites in power, 75,000 to 80,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. The decade long war that resulted killed approximately 1 million Afghanis and forced another 5 to 6 million into exile in Iran and Pakistan.

The United States, under Jimmy Carter, responded strongly. It withdrew consideration of the Soviet-American Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) in the U.S. Senate, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, leveled economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, and increased U.S. aid to Pakistan. The United States committed to protecting the greater Persian Gulf region from outside intervention. The United States also started to funnel millions of dollars of aid through the CIA to rebel groups in Afghanistan.

The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1988 and 1989. By this time Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to power in 1985, had decided that the costs of the Afghan war in both soldiers and finances outweighed the benefits. The Soviets faced a fierce insurgency within Afghanistan and a growing antiwar movement at home, as well as continued international pressure. The last Soviet troops left in February 1989.

The communist regime in Afghanistan collapsed in April 1992. The early 1990s saw a struggle for control between the various forces within Afghanistan. In 1996 the Taliban—an extremist Islamic regime backed by Pakistan—captured power. The Taliban consisted of religious students and ethnic Pashtuns, as well as roughly 80,000 to 100,000 Pakistanis. They espoused an antimodernist plan to create a “pure” Islamic society in Afghanistan, which included repressive treatment of women. The Taliban allowed al-Qaeda, an anti-American Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization led by the Saudi Osama bin Laden, to establish bases in Afghanistan in return for moral and financial support.

In November 2001 after the Taliban rejected international pressure to hand over al-Qaeda leaders, the United States attacked al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Joining forces with the Northern Alliance—minority Tajiks and Uzbeks from the northern part of the country— the United States defeated the Taliban and destroyed the al-Qaeda bases, although it failed in its mission to capture Osama bin Laden or to destroy al-Qaeda or the Taliban completely.

The December 2001 Bonn Agreements handed temporary power to Hamid Karzai, a moderate Pashtun from a prominent and traditionalist family. A new constitution, written by the Loya Jirga (national assembly), was ratified in early 2004. In October 2004, an overwhelming popular vote elected Karzai president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

After 2001 the country saw dramatic changes. Hundreds of thousands of refugees returned, pushing the population of Kabul from 1 million to 3 million. In 2005 5 million girls were attending school; four years earlier fewer than 1 million had been in school. The economy, however, was still weak and dependent upon international aid. Indeed, despite this aid in 2005, Afghanistan was moving toward becoming a narco-state. In that year roughly 2.3 million Afghanis (out of a population of 29 million) were involved in the production of poppies for opium and heroin. Poppy profits equaled 60 percent of the legal economy. Warfare also continued in isolated pockets of the country as U.S. soldiers tried to mop up remnant Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.


  1. Anderson, John Lee. “The Man in the Palace.” The New Yorker (June 6, 2005);
  2. Cullather, Nick. “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State.” Journal of American History 89, no. 2 (September 2002);
  3. Rubin, Barnett R. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

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