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 

Where Empires go to die.

Afghanistan (Persian: افغانستان; Pashto: Afġānistān), also known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (Persian: جمهوری اسلامی افغانستان Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Afġānestān; Pashto: د افغانستان اسلامي جمهوریت Da Afġānistān Islāmī Jomhoriyat), is a South Asian country located between Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan and China. The name is on everyone’s lips. Everyone knows one of the theaters of The War on Terror, 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.

Being right where Persia meets the Central Asian Steppes meets 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). Ethnically and religiously heterogenous for all of recorded history, its initial religions were a mix of steppe faiths, Indian Hindu faiths, Zoroastrianism (Zoroastrianism may have originated here and not in Persia), Buddhism, and finally Sunni Islam. Famous empires which conquered the region included that of Alexander of Macedon 'the Great', the Seleucids/Persia, the Indian Maurya, the Timurids, the Mongols, and the Mughals.

Originally a bunch of tribal fiefdoms of several ethnicities later united as an Emirate (controlled by the Pashtun ethnic group) in the 18th century, Afghanistan as it is now only came to being in the early 19th century under the House of Barakzainote  as a result of the "Great Game" between the Russian Empire's muslim protectorates (the Emirate of Bukkhara and Khanate of Kokkand) and the Indian princely states backed by Great Britain. To prevent Bukkharan-Kokkandi expansion the British made peace with the Afghan Emirs and made them a British protectorate, which lasted from the 1870s until 1919, when Emir Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan's total sovereignty.

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, an infamously 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 expecially 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 ISIS 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 an incredible mix, of which the Pashtuns form the plurality with 42%, followed by Tajiks at 27%. They are not Arabs (there are Arabs, but they make up less than 4% of the population). Similarly, there are all kinds of languages spoken, the main ones being Dari (a dialect of Persian) and Pashto. The breadth of different ethnicities is similar to that of neighboring Iran, except that that country has an outright ethnic majority (Persians).

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 is an example of the following:

  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion was not a wealthy first-world place, but still far above the war-torn country of Taliban and barbarous AK-47 armed gangs modern people are familiar with. Which gave birth to the "Afghanistan 1967 and 2011" meme.
  • A Father to His Men: Massoud, to non-Pashtuns. Mullah Omar for the Taliban.
  • Assassin Outclassin': Hafizullah Amin, the second of the four Communist leaders – and the last not directly chosen by Moscow – was like this before his enemies were finally successful. Soviet special forces, who weren't too keen on his independence, tried to eliminate him through poison (Amin switched out his food out of sheer paranoia, accidentally poisoning his son, who ate it), then they tried to poison him again via a sleeper agent, again failing, finally deciding it would be easier to just shoot him instead.
    • Yet Amin himself had a blind spot regarding the Soviets, not wanting to believe they were the ones trying to kill him until shortly before they actually pointed the guns in his face.
  • Church Militant: The Taliban.
  • Culture Police: The Taliban may well be history's most infamous example. They banned all non-religious music, all dancing, all movies, all television, the Afghan New Year, Buzkashi (that Afghan sport Rambo played), kites, and the Internet. They're like a version of the Amish who only make exceptions for modern inventions if they kill people.
  • Cultured Warrior: Ahmed Shah Massoud, in the eyes of non-Pashtuns.
  • Dead All Along: Possibly Mullah Omar. Though many recordings have been released since his overthrow that are purported to be him, his voice is only known by hearsay.
    • Strike that "possibly". The Taliban confirmed in July 2015 that Mullah Omar had died in April 2013.
  • The Faceless: Mullah Muhammad Omar, who's known only for the fact that he has just one eye. All the pictures of him are just presumed to be him.
  • Fisher King: King Zahir Shah. Before his cousin deposed him, Afghanistan was one of the most modernized states of the Islamic world, with a niche market in certain fruits and textiles unavailable elsewhere, making people pay top dollar for Afghan products. After his overthrow, it first became a Dirty Communist People's Republic of Tyranny before devolving into chaos before finally coming under the control of the Taliban and housing terrorists.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: The name 'Taliban' actually means "students".
    • That makes their attitude about female education especially ironic.
  • Forever War: The current civil war started in 1979 in retaliation against poorly thought-out land reforms by communists.
  • Lost Tribe: The Nuristanis speak an Indo-Iranian language that is nevertheless not quite in either the Iranian or Indian group, and up until 1895 they were relatively isolated and practiced an animistic religion before being conquered and forcibly converted to Islam by Abdur Rahman Khan. The related Kalasha tribe across the border in Pakistan maintain their ancient customs and religion.
    • The Hazaras are a downplayed example. While they are Muslims (albeit of the Shia denomination, which makes their life among the mainly-Sunni Pashtuns and Tajiks a wee bit difficult) and speak Persian as a mother language, they are suspected to be the descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongol armies, who settled in the Bamyan Valley after the subjugation of Afghanistan. They might originally be Tengrists (as with ancient Mongol peoples) and speak Mongolian, but converted to Islam over time. However their culture more or less stays as it was before, and this includes a take of the Persian language with clearly Mongolian vocabulary, or even their adoption of Shia Islam itselfnote .
  • Monumental Damage: The Taliban engaged in a diligent campaign of blowing up anything considered non-Islamic, most notorious of which were a couple of giant statues of the Buddha in the Bamyan Valley. To add insult to injury, they ignored pleas of Buddhist states and Japan even offered to remove them and take them to Japan. The only possible explanation is that the Taliban did it For the Evulz (although some did speculate that they were really doing it to kick up enough of a fuss that it would draw attention to how rough things were in the country).
    • The latter speculation likely has a grain of truth. Afghanistan was under various UN sanctions before the Bamyan Buddha incident. UNESCO, in a badly timed move, proposed the preservation of the Bamyan statues. This allowed radicals to use the argument that the UN cared more about monuments than the poverty and hunger of the Afghan people.
  • Never Learned to Read: Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the country's population. Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world (38.2%), equalled only by some of the poorest countries in Africa, and Yemen. As you'd expect with the history of Taliban rule, female literacy is especially bad and somewhat drags down the average. Male literacy is better on its own, but still pretty abysmal. This stands especially in contrast to its northern neighbor, Tajikistan, which is just as poor as Afghanistan but has a near-perfect literacy (99.8%) for both the male and female populaces by virtue of being a former Soviet republic; the Soviet Union, in spite of what they did, encouraged education among their people.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Afghanistan is very cosmopolitan. Very, very, very cosmopolitan. There is no ethnic group that completely dominates the country. The ethnic Pashtuns that have historically been predominant make up a mere 30-40% or so. Tajiks make up an additional 27%. The third largest, Hazaras, make 9%. The remaining 30% are entirely minorities (Uzbeks, Balochis, Nuristanis, Brahui, Wakhis, Arabs, Kyrgyz...).
    • Which actually makes the country's name a bit of an Artifact Title. "Afghan" is a mere archaic exonym for the Pashtuns, so the correct term for referring the country would be something like "Pashtunistan". However, one of the Pashtun tribes managed to prove their luck by uniting other unrelated ethnic groups as part of their domain, which made the Pashtuns no longer dominant by the time the country became internationally-recognized in the 19th century.
  • No Woman's Land: Especially blatant during the Taliban government, whose attitude towards women was arguably worse than in Saudi Arabia.
  • Patchwork Map: Sand to the south, dry lands to the west, green valleys to the east, mountains in the center, snowy mountains to the north. Yeah, pretty sure it's all desert.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Under the 1980s Soviet-backed government, the country's official name was the "Democratic Republic of Afghanistan". Yeah, no.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: There are blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale people in Afghanistan that wouldn't look out of place in, say, Germany. There are also many people with strong Asian features. Take for example the Hazara ethnic group, in which when you compare them to let's say, with the Mongols, are barely distinguishable. Ditto with the Uzbeks. Being in the path of every invading army or tribe since the dawn of history will do interesting things to your gene pool.
    • In fact, one of the most memorable photos taken during the Soviet invasion is the photo of Sharbat Gula A.K.A. the "Afghan Girl", who has striking, piercing, looking-down-to-your-soul lime green eyes. Still don't believe it?
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: To this day, Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan, remains well liked for having tried to modernize his country while he still reigned.
    • Intriguingly, he never did do that much, leaving most of the actual ruling to his surprisingly competent (if autocratic) relatives.
  • The Remnant: The modern Afghan state is all that remains of the once-vast Durrani Empire that included nearly all of Pakistan, along with parts of modern India, Central Asia, and Iran. Most of it had been devoured by the Russians and British during the 19th century and as a result, the Pashtun ethnic group was split amongst the Afghan and Pakistani states, in turn leading every single government in Kabul since the British left (including the Taliban) to never recognize the Durand Line that defines Afghanistan's southern border with Pakistan (Indeed, there is a perennial desire to unify the Pashtun regions of Pakistan with the rest of Afghanistan). Needless to say, Pakistan hasn't taken it well, and it is a major factor as to why Islamabad allegedly keeps meddling in Kabul's affairs.
    • Considering the problems Pakistan has keeping those tribal areas in check, perhaps they should consider taking Afghanistan up on its request to reunite the Pashtun lands.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: That panhandle you see jutting from the northeast is called the Wakhan Corridor, a rugged and untamed snowy mountainous region and a part of the Hindu Kush range. Because of the natural barrier, the region is barely, if at all, touched by all troubles the country has experienced and the people there (the Wakhis, who are, like the Hazaras, Shia Muslims in a sea of Sunnism) continue their long-running semi-nomadic life to the present day.

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).