Afghanistan is a country of mountains and deserts. This has made it difficult for conquerors to subdue it, though many have tried. Resistance fighters have found refuge in remote mountain regions, from where they could launch fierce attacks. The armies of both the British Empire and the Soviet Union suffered terrible defeats in Afghanistan. However, the reasons that have made Afghanistan difficult for invaders to dominate have also made it difficult for the country to enjoy peace and stability.
A CULTURAL CROSSROADS
Archaeologists discovered that around 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age the early inhabitants of Afghanistan mined rich deposits of the semi-precious stone known as lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan was used in the death mask of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen.
Around 2,500 years ago Afghanistan became part of the Persian empire of Cyrus the Great. In 330 bc this empire was conquered by Alexander the Great, and Afghanistan was opened to influences from Ancient Greece. Around 135 bc Afghanistan was conquered by the Kushans, a Central Asian people. Under the Kushans, the country flourished as part of the Silk Road—an important trade route that linked Europe and China. The Kushans were Buddhists and, under their ruler Kanishka, the Kushan Empire became a famous centre of Buddhist culture. Among the great monuments left by the culture were two gigantic statues of Buddha, measuring 55 metres tall, carved into the rock of the Bamian valley in central Afghanistan.
THE COMING OF ISLAM
Muslim Arab armies entered Afghanistan in the 640s, and the cities of Balkh and Herāt became great centres of the Islamic world. Babur, the founder of the great Mughal dynasty that ruled India between 1526 and 1857, established a kingdom around the city of Kabul. Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Afghanistan was divided between the Safavid rulers of Iran and the Mughal rulers of India.
WAR WITH THE BRITISH EMPIRE
During the 19th century, Afghanistan was caught between the Russian and British empires. Each empire was anxious that the other would not gain influence in Afghanistan, and they made alliances with Afghan tribal leaders to serve their interests. In 1838 the British army invaded Afghanistan. Although it occupied Kabul it soon faced a revolt, and the British army suffered one of its greatest defeats as it retreated to India in 1842. About 4,500 British and Indian soldiers were killed or captured in the Khyber Pass, the narrow valley that leads from Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent. The British and the Afghans fought two more wars. Although Afghanistan never became part of either the British or Russian empires, Afghans did not gain control over their country’s affairs until 1919.
ONE KINGDOM, MANY PEOPLES
The new country was made up of different peoples, speaking different languages. The Pashtuns, or Pathans, lived in the south-east of the country. They made up the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan and followed the Sunni form of Islam. In the north-east lived the Tajiks, many of whom were members of the Ismaili sect of Islam. In the north-west lived the Uzbeks. In central Afghanistan were a people called the Hazaras, partly descended from the Mongol conquerors who had settled there in the 13th century. Apart from these ethnic and religious divisions, Afghanistan was divided between those who wanted the country to live according to conservative traditions rooted in religious belief and others who wanted to learn from the West and to modernize. These conflicts made ruling Afghanistan a difficult and dangerous business.
Between 1933 and 1973 Afghanistan was ruled by a king, Muhammad Zahir Shah. He tried to make the country a democratic constitutional monarchy (a country where the monarch is a symbolic figure and has no real power), but Afghanistan remained poor and dependent on aid from other countries. In 1978 a left-wing government came to power, with support from the Communist Soviet Union. Many Afghans were fiercely opposed to the reforms that the new regime wanted to enact and rose up in revolt. In December 1979 the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan to help suppress the revolt. Even after it pulled out in 1988, Afghanistan continued to be torn apart by civil war.
The eventual winners of the war were the Taliban, a group of mainly Pashtun Islamic extremists. They imposed their strict interpretation of Islam on those they ruled. Women were forbidden to work or even receive an education. The famous Bamian Buddhas were destroyed because the Taliban regarded them as unIslamic. Islamic terrorists, such as the leaders of Al-Qaeda, were given shelter by the Taliban. Followers of Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden carried out terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001. The United States and its allies responded by launching attacks against the Taliban and supporting its enemies in Afghanistan. A new government, led by a Pashtun called Hamid Karzai, was established after the Taliban was defeated.