Useful Notes / Afghanistan

"Well that settles it, Chatfield! We must never go into that God-forsaken country again!"
Bremner, Bird, and Fortune, playing Brits with Battleships, in 1842.note 

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
and the women come out to cut up what remains,
jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
and go to your Gawd like a soldier.
—The Young British Soldier, Rudyard Kipling

Where Empires go to die.

Afghanistan (Dari and Pashto: افغانستان‏‎ Afġānistān), also known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (Dari: جمهوری اسلامی افغانستان Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Afġānestān; Pashto: د افغانستان اسلامي جمهوریت Da Afġānistān Islāmī Jomhoriyat), is a South Asian country acting as the crossroad between Western, Central and East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Since The War on Terror, the name is on everyone’s lips, known as the land of the Taliban and the hijinks of Islamic fundamentalists. However, this is but the tip of the iceberg, the latest chapter of a long history of conflict for a key crossroads region, with more than 200 years of Western Involvement and interference in the region.

It is in many respects comparable to Sicily, the Mediterranean island periodically occupied and conquered by empires new and old, and whose constant conquests have left a region run by tribal Feuding Families and a series of grudges among the people against one another, and a culture with a strong emphasis on "honour". Unlike Sicily, which is an island, Afghanistan is landlocked, hilly and mountainous, in the intersection of Iran, the Central Asian Steppes, and the Indian subcontinent. The land has been influenced by all kinds of societies over the millennia. It is most famous in antiquity for being the world's only source of the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli (that crumbly blueish stuff used to make ultramarine dye). During antiquity, the country was divided into four principal regions: Bactria (the northern lowlands, the name evolved into the modern province of Balkh), Arachosia (the southeast, mostly comprising the Hindu Kush and the current Pashtun homeland), Drangiana (the southern desert), and Arianote  (the western mountains, surrounding the ancient city of Herat. By the Middle Ages, it's known as Khorasan.), all of which were also collectively known as Ariana. The land and the people didn't identify itself and themselves as Afghanistan and Afghanis respectively, until their triumph in the First Anglo-Afghan War.

As to be expected from a disjointed land separated by mountains, the region is extremely heterogeneous ethnic wise, although Iranian-speaking peoples have a general dominance then and now. In the 2nd and 1st millennium BC, it was a bastion of Zoroastrianism (which might originate from here and not Persia) as well as one of the earliest centers of Hinduism and Buddhism outside the Indian subcontinent under Gandhara rule. Then it came under influence from Persia, which held it for two centuries until the Macedonians led by Alexander the Great started their South Asian campaign. Alexander's conquest left the legacy of Greek ruling class who settled and intermingled with the indigenous people, resulting in the development of Indo-Greek and Indo-Scythian empires adopting Greek as an official language until the 2nd century AD, when it's replaced by the native languages again. The most notable dynasty was the Kushans, which ruled an empire from Bactria to the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the most famous ruler being Kanishka the Great. The Kushans represented the peak of Afghanistan's Buddhist era, and played a major part in spreading Buddhism into China and the Far East. It was a nexus of the Silk Road and traded with The Roman Empire and Imperial China. The weakness of the later Kushan Kings and the rise of the Guptas and other Indian rulers led to their decline, and eventually the Kushans became vassals to the Sassanid Empire.

The Sassanids lasted until the Arab Conquest. The region was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century and was ruled by them as part of the Rashidun, Umayyad, and the early years of Abbasid caliphates. Islam was proselyted among and eventually embraced by the indigenous people, though, as with Persia, it didn't stop them from breaking away and starting a ruling dynasty of their own. In the 10th century, the Turks set shop and became a major part of the military, resulting in Turko-Persian rule under the Ghaznavids (which took its name from the eastern city of Ghazni), the Seljuks, and the Khwarezmians. 13th century saw the Great Mongol Horde beginning their World-Dominating Campaign, which devastated the region badly, with many cities sacked or completely destroyed. Some Mongols settled and intermingled with the locals, resulting in the birth of the Hazaras, which we will discuss later. The Mongols broke up soon after and one of its pieces, the Chagatai Khanate, ruled the area. They eventually gave up distinguishing themselves and adopted Islam, just in time for Timur the Lame to begin the Second World-Dominating Campaign, although this time the region was spared and actually flourished under his rule.

Once Timur's nomadic empire broke down, the spotlight once again turned to the Persians, who had recently broke free from half a millenium of Turkic rule with the declaration of the Safavid Empire at the start of the 16th century, whose territories included Herat. However, their rather overzealous evangelization campaign from Sunni to Shia Islam didn't sit well with their eastern subjects. A Sunni Hotak Empire was declared in the last years of the Safavids which in managed to completely expel the Mughals (a branch of the Timurids) from the Iranian Plateau. They were historically significant as the first Afghan dynasty whose ruling class came from what we could call today the Pashtun ethnic group. Afghanistan in this era, under the Durrani dynasty, was far larger than it is now — at its height it controlled much of what is now Pakistan as well as all of Kashmir except the Siachen Glacier and the Buddhist outpost of Leh. Their territories were reduced to its modern borders on account of the rising Sikh Empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the "Lion of Punjab". Ranjit Singh's battles led to the formation of a new Sikh empire that included modern day Lahore and Peshawar.note  The Durrani Empire eventually splintered on account of Feuding Families between the Barakzai and Sadozai tribes. The Sadozais, under Shah Shuja Durrani were deposed and exiled from Afghanistan to India during The Raj.

The Barakzai established the Emirate of Afghanistan and under Amir Dost Mohammed and his sons, Afghanistan in the early part of the 19th Century was a thriving Central Asian Kingdom, an important trading area in Central Asia and growing rather prosperous. Of course the wealth also came with the regular instability of the tribes, a number of whom guarded the key mountain passes and most of whom had to be carefully controlled by a Balance of Power. The feudal system was still alive and as such the Amir depended on differing tribes to hold his army, and many of them had grudges against each other. Meanwhile in the Raj, some East India Company planners got it into their heads that the Russians were planning to take Afghanistan and use it as a staging area for an invasion of India. In actual fact the Russians were interested in controlling their Central Asian minorities, and had plans to subvert the Ottoman Empire and retake Constantinople and had no real interest in taking India. Their interests in Central Asia had mainly to do with favorable access to border trade. Fears and exaggerations about Russian ambition led to the "Great Game" between the Russian Empire and the British Empire. The British made the opening move in the Great Game by deciding to topple the popular and competent Dost Mohammed with the weak Shah Shuja. This despite warnings by their own agents, Alexander Burnes, that this was a bad idea. This despite the fact that Dost Mohammed kept asking for a favorable agreement and relationship with the English. But in the end, the English decided to go ahead with their "plan".

The result was a disaster. Shah Shuja Durrani's arrival wrecked the Balance of Power in the region, and the British Occupation proved incredibly unpopular from the very beginning. Small-scale uprisings ultimately led to the start of a major rebellion that led to the British besieged in local fortresses before they decided to mount an incredibly ill-planned retreat from their position in Afghanistan back to India. It was a famous bloodbath and the worst defeat in British military history until the Fall of Singapore. The British lost the Anglo-Afghan War despite mounting a major punitive expedition that saw the destruction of Kabul and its famous bazaar, an expedition that targeted not only Afghani civilians, women and children, but also the Hindu and Persian trading communities in Kabul who were caught in the middle and which the Army of Retribution (yes they really called it that) under General Pollock, did not distinguish or separate form the rest. At the end of the war, Dost Mohammed was returned to the throne, with English support, rendering the entire expedition pointless on the part of the English, and damaging to the Afghan people, who suffered harsh deprivations and impoverishment on account of the English.

In 1893, Afghanistan's current southern border was set up via an agreement with the British called the Durand Line, creating problems later. The Line cuts right through the middle of the homeland of the Pashtun, a highly tribal people who are the largest group in Afghanistan. Regardless of what the various governments did, the Pashtuns never gave much of a flip about the border. They still don't.

Amanullah Khan declared himself King (and Afghanistan a kingdom) in the mid-1920's. He was the first Afghan leader to attempt to modernize the country, proposing a number of reformsnote . This upset the more religiously conservative tribal factions (including a lot of fundamentalists) who staged multiple uprisings beginning in 1923. Amanullah himself was forced to abdicate in 1929 after losing the loyalty of Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line and, by extension, the Army. Most of his reform proposals died with him (the abolition of slavery being a major exception).

1929 was a chaotic year for Afghanistan. After Amanullah Khan abdicated following an uprising in Kabul, he was succeeded by his brother Inayatullah, who managed to reign for all of three days before being overthrown by Habibullah Kalakani, a fundamentalist Tajik. Pashtun tribal leaders may not have liked Amanullah's pro-European reforms, but they really didn't like the idea of being ruled by a Tajik, so Kalakani was overthrown and unceremoniously executed by Mohammed Nadir Khan (later Shah), a distant relative of the previous King who took the throne for himself. Nadir sought to placate the religious conservatives and regain their support by stopping reforms.

Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933. He was succeeded by his son Mohammed Zahir Shah. Those of you who paid close attention in the early days of the War on Terror might remember him. Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan for the next four decades, bring an era of relative peace and stability to the fractious kingdom. Incidentally, he (eventually) restarted the kingdom's modernization – understandable since he finished his education in Paris. This led to Kabul becoming a cultural center for the first time since the days of the old Silk Road. He also continued the efforts of his predecessors in reaching out to the rest of the world, establishing relations with several countries, including the United States. Many of his reforms were, however, stymied by conservative tribal opposition and political infighting.

Note that word "relative" in the preceding paragraph. In 1947, "Pakistan" (Punjab-Afghan-Kashmir-Indus-Sind-Baleuchistan) was created from the former Briitsh Indian Raj and the Afghan government announced they no longer recognized the Durand Line - making claims to Pakistani-Afghan territory ranging from the Indus all the way to Northern Pakistan – though they really just wanted back the Pashtun tribal areas that they had claimed all along. In the 1950s, they tried border attacks. Now, this was not the brightest idea, as Pakistan's Army at the time was a force which had been recently part of Kipling's Finest, with troops who had fought and won two world wars in three decades. So it went about as well as you'd expect. In 1962, the Afghans tried a much larger effort and got absolutely shellacked. Afghans are still a little sore about that (whereas most Pakistanis have no idea the battles ever happened). Afghanistan also lent overt support to the East Turkestan separatist movement in the Xinjiang autonomous region of the People's Republic of China. It went considerably less well than the efforts to cross the Durand line.

In 1973, Zahir Shah was overthrown while abroad in a bloodless coup by his cousin Daoud Khan, a former prime minister who had been influenced by Soviet teachings and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as president. Despite his socialist leanings, Daoud eventually attempted to pivot to a more pro-American stance (mostly for easier access to oil – Iran was still a friend of the USA at the time). In response, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev started fomenting a Communist rebellion, which toppled Daoud's government and assassinated him in April 1978, sparking an all-out civil war – the very thing Zahir Shah had abdicated to avoid.

Infighting between various Communist factions led to the Soviet Union intervening to restore order in 1979. The Soviets were not going to let a state in their sphere of influence go capitalist, and they were especially not going to let it go Islamic-fundamentalist as was happening in Iran. The Soviet prosecution of the War in Afghanistan differed from earlier counter-insurgency efforts in that there was no forcible relocation of populations from areas thought to be supporting the insurgency, as had helped immensely in the immediate post-WWII elimination of Fascist partisans in Belarus and the OUN in western Ukraine. However, perhaps a third of the population fled to Pakistan, facilitating the exchange of personnel and material between the two. The USA provided much of said material through Pakistan, arming and funding the Mujahideen - a hodgepodge of different factions united in fighting the Soviets.

The US provision of MANPADS (man portable air defense systems) to the Mujahideen forced the Soviet Army to abandon the use of helicopters to support light infantry patrols with gunfire and medical evacuation. This caused a spike in deaths and wounds to a level which was politically unsustainable for the Union, to the point that Zbigniew Brzezinski asserts that for the USSR the conflict had become "its Vietnam War". The Soviets withdrew in 1989, leaving a coherent and stable Communist state that sustained itself until 1992, but the civil war continued. This time, it was mainly between the Taliban (originally made of religious schools of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, aided by Al-Qaeda and headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar) and the Northern Alliance and its main man Ahmad Shah Massoud, known in the region as the "Afghan who won the Cold War".

By the end of The '90s, the cultivation and processing of opium into heroin for export had become the second most important sector of the Afghan economy after subsistence agriculture. World demand for heroin had reached an all time high by the end of The '90s as the 'War on Drugs' raised profits for producers and traders all the way from Afghanistan, then competing with Burma/Myanmar, to north America. Opium taxes and heroin production served as an important source of revenue for the Taliban, especially once it had established control over most of the country and declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Emirate instituted Sharia law, obligatory use of the burqa for women, destroyed the country's non-Islamic monuments and cultural artefacts, and other pleasant things. Massoud continued to rule a rump state in the north, where he had established democratic institutions and tried to give equal-gender rights, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of refugees that fled the Taliban to areas controlled by Massoud. He tried to obtain help from external powers and, in 2001, even tried to warn them of a possible large-scale attack on the USA by Al-Qaeda, to no avail.

Al-Qaeda instituted four plane-based attacks against US targets on the 11th of September 2001, a day after Massoud died in a helicopter crash - possibly by Al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers (which has been seen as the attack’s point of no return). The USA demanded the Taliban hand over the mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, and disband Al-Qaeda’s forces in the area (by then, Al-Qaeda was already a state within a state). After the predictable refusal, the USA successfully obtained the UN's permission to invade the country and disband the Taliban.

After the Taliban were overthrown, the former King Mohammed Zahir Shah returned to his country after 29 years of exile to open the Loya Jirga – a traditional meeting of tribal chieftains – which was to decide the future of Afghanistan. Once it became clear that the chiefs wanted to simply restore the monarchy, the U.S. (in a supremely shortsighted self-serving move) strong-armed the Loya Jirga into installing the American-educated Pashtun Hamid Karzai as president of an Afghan Republic instead – Zahir Shah was given the ceremonial position "Father of the Country", which died with him in 2007. The Bush administration had hoped for a compliant puppet in Karzai, but ended up with a corrupt Spanner in the Works instead. A botched presidential election to replace Karzai nearly erupted in yet another war before the two main candidates reached an agreement and power was handed to current president Ashraf Ghani.

Karzai's official Afghan federal government has been superficial and ineffectual, as its inability to engage in the production of Heroin for export means that its opponents have access to an immensely valuable source of revenue which it does not. UN (chiefly US) funding, trainers, personnel, and weapons+equipment for the federal government have been effectively checked. Donations have been forthcoming from wealthy parties within Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring states, training and combat power have been provided by mercenaries hired using Heroin and charity funds, and weapons+equipment have been bought from traders in neighbouring states or even from within the country itself. Perhaps the greatest problem facing the federal government has been the ability of its opponents to corrupt local and regional administrations, creating a number of areas which are not definitively under the control of either party and which can seemingly change hands overnight. The remnants of the Taliban have taken advantage of Pashtuns' traditional disdain of the Durand Line to launch attacks from across the border in Pakistan, and groups affiliated with the Islamic State/IS seem to have infiltrated through the northern border as well.

The UN may have mostly pulled out of the country at this point, but anyone with a brain can see the civil war is not going to end when they do.

Remember that cryptic line at the very top of this page? Every major power that has ever tried to establish a foothold in Afghanistan or lasting control over it has eventually wrung its hands and given up. The country is just too poor, and asserting effective control too difficult, for anyone with half a brain to continue seriously believing that it's worth it once the costs start stacking up - every effort to establish even a foothold has become a massive resource-sink. Even the Soviets – who were never exactly renowned for their sensitivity to public opinion – quit once their inability to use chopper support made the going too tough.

Ethnically, Afghanistan is dominated by the Pashtuns, who settle in the south (roughly in the ancient provinces of Arachosia and Drangiana) and Tajiks, who settle in the north and west (in Bactria and Aria/Khorasan). Tajiks, should we mention, are a subset of Persians who live east of Heratnote  so they speak a Persian dialect influenced by the ancient languages that used to exist in the area with some archaisms due to relative isolation from the centers of power. This dialect is known as Dari, but for all respects it's still mutually intelligible with Persian and was renamed for political reasons.note  The third largest ethnic group, Hazaras, as we mentioned above are descendants of Mongols who intermarried with the locals, shifted to speak a Mongolian-influenced Persian, and adopted (Shia) Islam. The last bit works out at their expense since it adds up yet another reason for the mainly Sunni fundamentalists to discriminate against them, as depicted in The Kite Runner. Other than them, there are Uzbeks, Aimaqs/nomadic Tajiks, Turkmens, Baloch, Nuristanis, Pamiris, Kyrgyz, and yes, Arabs (but they make up less than 1% of total and virtually all speak Persian, so, no, don't call Afghans Arabs, unless they specifically identify so).

Despite all the problems, the country is still a marvelous tourist site. You’d be surprised how much Scenery Porn you can get from a bunch of mountains and sand. Monuments are a fair game, too, especially if you're interested in Persian and Turco-Mongol architecture as can be seen in the mosques and shrines, though if you're looking for the Bamyan Buddha Statue, surprise, surprise, the Taliban already blew that up.

Afghanistan in media:

Anime & Manga

  • Afganisu-tan (it's a Webcomic, to be more precise).
  • Black Lagoon: Balalaika, leader of the local branch of The Mafiya, is a veteran of the Soviet intervention. So are all of her top underlings. It messed them up pretty bad. In spite of the mental and physical scars they endured there, the combat experience they garnered has resulted in them arguably being the deadliest faction in the series.

Comic Books

  • Sooraya Qadir, a.k.a. Dust from X-Men, is Afghan.



Live-Action TV

Video Games

The Afghan flag
The black, red, and green stripes symbolize the colonial period, the revolutions, and independent Afghanistan, respectively. At the center is the coat-of-arms, featuring a mosque with a mihrab (niche facing Mecca), flanked by two Afghan flags; above the mosque are the worlds "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great"), and below is the Islamic year 1298 (1919, the year of its independence from Britain); surrounding the mosque is a wreath of wheat, above which is the shahada (the Islamic creed), and below is a scroll containing the country's name in Pashto).