Afghan stereotypes.

Philosophy: Concise History of Afghanistan

Buddha and Pre-Nazis

Buddha is the earliest known Afghan. He lived near Jalalabad 100,000 years ago. Naturally, there was no Jalalabad at the time, but there was Buddha, in one of his previous lives. He was a plain guy then, not an enlightened one, but he was given a prediction about becoming Buddha in one of the future lives. And what was the point of that? — he died and forgot it all. And only 97,500 years later, when he got enlightened, Buddha recalled his Afghan past and even flew there once with a peacekeeping mission. And this is how we know about the earliest Afghan.

For the next 96,500 years nothing of interest happened in Afghanistan. Or we just do not know anything interesting. Someone certainly lived there, but it was not Buddha, or he would also recall that and tell us. In about 1500 B.C. Afghanistan was invaded from the north by the Aryans, the same guys the Nazis have originated from. But at the time they were not Hitler's cronies, just nomads. They really liked Afghanistan — wide grazing fields, great weather — and decided to stay there. But then gradually began fighting each other. The locals who lived there before the Aryans were upset too, and in addition some other nomads from Tajikistan began demanding protection money. Everything fell apart.

At this very time, in Afghanistan, in Balkh, Zarathustra was born. To unite everybody, he invented a new religion with a god called Ahuramazda. He also advocated farming activities, like growing cereals, not limited to purely nomadic things like horses. His ideas were popular, and new waves of pre-Nazis went from Afghanistan to Iran where they have organized a whole empire under the banner of Ahuramazda. It was ruled by the Achaemenids dynasty.

Iranians and Alexander

Achaemenids with their king Darius have eventually attacked Afghanistan in the 5th century B.C. But it was good for everybody since Darius built a highway to India through Kandahar, which became Afghanistan's capital. To Afghanistan itself he exiled bad-behaving Greeks, who brought their culture to these lands.

Here is the concise history of Afghanistan, “Daddy is not coming home anymore.” Kandahar cemetery.

But the Achaemenids were destroyed by Alexander the Great. At that time their king was again Darius; however, not the original one but the third. Actually, Alexander's troops were fed up with fighting even before that, but the following happened. Darius III was assassinated by one of his allies, an Afghan called Bessus. He declared himself the new king of Iran, and Alexander just had to invade Afghanistan and chase Bessus around it, capturing the country in the process.

And since Alexander ended up so close to India, he naturally had to invade it, too. But at that point his troops got really tired and declared a strike. Alexander had to turn back home, and he died on the way, in Iraq.

Indians and Ashoka

Alexander's buddies began fighting for control over his empire, while the Indians declared independence from all. Eastern lands — Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan — went to the Alexander's general called Seleucus, who sold Southern Afghanistan to India for 500 elephants and one woman. One result of this deal was the spreading of Buddhism in Southern Afghanistan. It now belonged to the Indians, and their king was Ashoka, a great fan of Buddha and his teachings.

In the North things were also good. The exiled Greeks ignored Seleucus and formed their own country. When Ashoka died, the Greeks gradually got back the southern parts, restoring integrity of the country.

But they too began fighting each other — there is something in the water in this country. Then the nomads from Tajikistan attacked again, and the Greek era was over.

Kushans and Kanishka

The next part of the Afghan history is related to the nomads from the area around the Chinese border. They were called Kushans, and they built a new empire here, from Indian Ganges to the Gobi desert. It even had two capitals, a summer one near Kabul and a winter one in Peshawar. Things went especially good under king Kanishka in about 130 A.D. They got lucky because to the east of them there was the Chinese empire, and to the west — the Roman one. These two began trading actively, and since there were no planes at the time, they shipped everything overland, and there was only one way to do that, along the very same highway, also known as the Silk Route. All goods transited Kushan lands, and the Kushans highly profited from that.

Under Kanishka Buddhism kept developing in Afghanistan. He even invented a new direction, “Buddhism with a human face.” Before that Buddha was depicted as a wheel and similar objects, and Kanishka kept reminding people that Buddha had been a man, so they began painting him properly. There were many Buddhist monasteries and temples along the Silk Route, but practically nothing survived to our times, even the Bamiyan Buddhas are not there anymore.

And yet again everything got broken. Kanishka died, his heirs began fighting each other, the Roman and Chinese empires went sour and stopped trading, thus killing the source of free money for the Afghans. In 241 the country was again captured first by Iran and then by the Central Asian nomads. Gradually the Islamic times came.


In 642 Muslims conquered Iran and invaded Afghanistan. They quickly took western provinces, but the mountain regions were never fully controlled. But there was no alternative to Islam in that situation, and the next dynasty that ruled the whole country was Islamic — the Saffarids. Their main enemy were the Samanids who were based not even in Afghanistan but in Bukhara. When the founder of the dynasty Yaqub Saffari died in 879, the Samanids conquered first Balkh in 900 and then the rest of the country.

But the Samanids could not control the country properly, and power belonged to various small tribal chiefs. Ghaznavids were the ones to unite them all. It started with a guy named Alptigin, a Samanid general. He rebelled and overtook Ghazni in 962, hence the name Ghaznavid. Alptigin was succeeded by his slave Sebuktigin, and that one — by Sultan Mahmud who did really well: he took Kabul and Bost in 977, Balkh in 994, and Herat in 1000. He even conquered a piece of Iran and invaded India.

This is when the problems with the Ghorids started. Those guys lived in Ghor province; it is in the center of Afghanistan. Eight brothers were in power, but started fighting each other, and one of them, Qutubuddin, emigrated to Ghazni. There he was poisoned by a Ghaznavid sultan Bahram Shah in 1146. The remaining brothers promised revenge, and in 1151 one of them, Alauddin, burnt Ghazni to the ground and destroyed Bost, the Ghaznavids' backup capital. Now the Ghorids controlled the country. As was customary here, they built a giant empire, conquering everything around them from India to Iraq.


The Ghorids were taken care of by the Shah of Khwarizm who controlled Afghanistan by 1215. But it was not his luck: Genghis Khan came to power in Mongolia at that time. Genghis Khan wanted to be friends with Khwarizm Shah and sent diplomats and gifts to him, but a border area commander killed the embassy and stole the gifts, thus forcing Genghis Khan to invade in retaliation.

As a part of Khwarizm Shah's empire, the Mongols took Northern Afghanistan in 1221, destroying cities and breaking everything. Bamiyan was completely demolished because Genghis Khan's favorite grandson was killed there. Balkh suffered the same fate even though it did not resist and no one favorite was killed there.

Only in 1332 the Kart dynasty became more or less independent from the Mongols. A certain Timur appeared on the scene at that time. He first was a mercenary but then went into politics and founded his own empire in Balkh in 1369. The Karts defended their territory till 1381 but have lost. Timur also conquered neighboring countries, creating a giant empire with a capital in Samarkand.

After his death in 1405, his heirs began splitting the empire, and his youngest son Shah Rukh got a piece from Iraq to India with a capital in Herat. Shah Rukh's wife, Gawhar Shad, was into architecture and built many fine buildings in Afghanistan, some of which still exist.

Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur, ruled Ferghana originally but was evicted from there by Uzbek invaders and went to Afghanistan. There he started from capturing Kabul and so on: Balkh, Herat, Kandahar — this was the end of the Timurids. Babur then turned his attention to India and stayed there till his death in 1530.


For the next 150 years Afghanistan was split between India and Iran. The Safavids controlled Herat, and the Mongols controlled Kabul. It all changed in 1709. The Safavids sent their representative, a Georgian named Gurgin, to Kandahar, where he was poisoned by Kandahar's mayor, Mir Wais Khotak, who then proceeded to imprison an investigatory team sent by the Iranians, and finally crushed their military force sent to retaliate. After Mir's death, his nephew Mahmud conquered Iran itself in 1722. This was, however, the last time the Afghans conquered anything outside of their country.

Ahmad Shah Durrani ruled the country from 1747 to 1772, gradually capturing all its cities and creating Afghanistan proper. But after his death his heirs began fighting each other, and the country was split into small pieces. In 1819 the Sikhs detached Kashmir and later Peshawar, which in their turn was captured by the British who controlled India at that time.

British and Russians

A period of Russian-British interference started. It is hard to believe it without looking at a map, but Russia and India had a common border, and moreover, the Russians attempted to invade India a few times. But recall that Pakistan was a part of India until 1947, and that the small tongue of land that separated the USSR from Pakistan was artificially created exactly with the idea to separate the Russia-controlled and Britain-controlled areas.

Russia first tried to invade Afghanistan in 1801, when its emperor Pavel I ordered his troops numbered at 22,500 to crush the British, to free the Indians, and to enslave them again. Luckily, Pavel I had died before the invasion group reached the border.

Then, under Alexander I, it was planned to invade India in a joint operation with Napoleon, but that did not work out either.

In 1828 Russia had a lot of military and political influence in Iran. The Iranian army, accompanied by Russian advisers, invaded Afghanistan and besieged Herat for a year in 1837–38. From the British point of view — and a correct one — all Russian designs in Afghanistan were aimed at Britain and its interests in India. The British sent their forces to help Herat and also began supporting a certain Shah Shuja in his struggle against the then ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Dost Muhammed. Thus the First Anglo-Afghan war has started.

Shah Shuja eventually conquered the southern areas, but his power was limited to the cities where his troops were. The British army was stationed in Kabul to protect Shah. As is now with Karzai and the Americans, peace was supported by paying money to the local warlords. As soon as that distribution ended, Dost Muhammed's son began an uprising in 1841, and a successful one. Dost Muhammed himself was in British captivity at the time.

In January 1842 the British army negotiated a withdrawal from Kabul and began retreating to Pakistan. Of 16,000 people who left Kabul only one person made it to Peshawar — the rest were killed on the way by guerillas. The British garrison in Kandahar destroyed Ghazni in retaliation, and in September, joined by a reinforcement that came from Peshawar, it completely wiped out the male population of Kabul. In December all British troops were withdrawn. This was the end of the First Anglo-Afghan war. Shah Shuja was killed even before that, in April. Dost Muhammed was released and came back to power two years later and spent the next twenty years reuniting the country.

The second Anglo-Afghan war began in 1878. Russia was actively enlarging its empire at that time by conquering Central Asian states and coming closer and closer to Afghanistan. In 1873 Russia and Britain negotiated the northern border of Afghanistan, not asking the Afghans themselves. However, Afghanistan got some Russian-controlled territories through that settlement, and that explains the current presence of the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, and others in Northern Afghanistan. Sher Ali, the then ruler of Afghanistan, was concerned with the expansion of the Russian empire and kept asking for British help. Getting none, he switched the sides and turned to Russia for protection from Britain.

In 1878 a Russian diplomatic mission came to Kabul. A similar British mission was not let in, and the British had to invade again. The promised Russian help never came, and the Afghans signed a peace treaty with Britain, giving it the right to represent it internationally. Not everybody liked that, however, and in 1879 the British ambassador with his crew was slaughtered in Kabul. That forced Britain to invade again. The Afghan opposition was headed by one Abdurrahman who had been hiding in Russia for 11 years before that. The guerillas terrorized the British army for a year, eventually forcing it to retreat.

Before that the British helped Abdurrahman, as the least of all evils, to get to power. Already after the withdrawal, the British convinced him to invade Russian Pamir, and Russia in response invaded parts of Afghanistan. The situation was straightened out in 1886 with a new peaceful border agreement.

In the south the British cut out a lot of Pushtun territories. In 1893 colonel Durrand came to Kabul and declared that the Afghan-Indian border would from now on look like this. Like it still looks, and that is why, by the way, it is called the Durrand Line. The Afghans still do not recognize this border.

And if we look at a map now, we will understand a lot in the present day Afghanistan. Why is the south inhabited by the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, and other Central Asian people, not by the Pushtuns? Because it was a part of the Russian empire. And why is Northwestern Pakistan almost completely inhabited by the Pushtuns? Because it was a part of Afghanistan. If we moved the Afghan borders to the south by about 200 km, everything would be more sensible. But we can understand the British, too. If they did not create the Durrand Line, the Russian forces could traverse Afghanistan and congregate in masses in open plains at the Indian border without crossing it. And now the Indian border was deep in the mountains, and any invader had to stop at the few mountain passes like Khyber, Khojak, or Bolan, which is much more favorable for defensive operations than open plains.

Our Times

Abdurrahman was succeeded by his son Habibullah who ruled from 1901 to 1919. He was killed on a fishing expedition. His brother Nasrullah ruled for seven days and was deposed by Habibullah's son Amanullah. That one was openly hostile to Britain, which prompted the Third Anglo-Afghan war on May 6, 1919. The war continued for less than a month. On the one side, technological supremacy of the British left no hope to the Afghans — their cities were bombed from the air, and their troops were machine-gunned. On the other side, there were revolts in India and a revolution in Russia, and Britain did not have enough time to handle Afghanistan properly. On June 3 a truce was signed.

After ten years of rule, Amanullah surrendered his position to his brother Enayatullah in 1929 because of a popular uprising under one ex-NCO Bacha Saqao. Under this pretext the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and even captured Mazar-i-Sharif, but turned back when Amanullah resigned.

Enayatullah ruled for three days and fled to his brother; both later emigrated to India. One Ali Ahmad Khan declared himself the Afghan ruler but was quickly executed by Bacha Saqao who enthroned himself. He was crushed five months later by Amanullah's uncle, general Muhammed Nadir Khan, who had been in exile but came back to handle Bacha Saqao. In October of 1929 he turned into Nadir Shah, the new king of Afghanistan.

Nadir Shah was killed in 1933 by a cadet whose father had been executed on king's orders. The boy joined a military school and studied very well because he knew that the king would greet the best cadets at the graduation. This is how he got a chance to revenge his father.

Zahir Shah and Nazis

Nadir Shah's son, Zahir Shah, ruled from 1933 to 1973. He is still alive. He stays away from modern politics and is usually painted as a noble elder. To expose his true face we need to remind that on June 22 of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, he gave his own money to pay for the thank-you prayers in Kabul mosques.

The Nazis, by the way, were very interested in controlling Afghanistan because from there they could attack the British-controlled India. Even before the war, the Germans devised a plan of returning Amanullah from emigration and putting him on the throne with the Soviet help, but it did not work out. They also proposed in 1939 to station an SS brigade and a Wehrmacht division in Soviet Turkestan, but it somehow tanked, too.

After invading the Soviet Union, the Nazis kept these ideas in mind. The invasion force included the so-called Afghanistan Team of 17 divisions that was supposed to attack India after the Nazis have conquered Caucasus — something that never happened.

The Afghan government supported the Nazis since it was interested in getting back its southern territories from Pakistan and also needed protection from the Soviet Union, which on pair with Britain had already invaded and occupied Iran in August of 1941. The Afghans slowly conduced negotiations with the Nazis on joint operations against Britain and the Soviet Union, but as it became clearer and clearer who would win the war, the Afghans kept distancing themselves from the Nazis more and more. By 1943 all German representatives were evicted from the country.

After the War

Nothing of great interest happened in Afghanistan for three decades after the World War II. The country took a neutral position in the cold war, getting help from both sides. A constitution was adopted. Women got more freedom. Afghanistan became quite popular among the hippies who crossed it in masses on the way from Iran to India and back. Economy developed; natural gas was produced. There was not, however, enough money to guarantee happy life to the population that was getting more and more unhappy.

Kind of Democracy

In 1973 Zahir Shah had an eye injury and went to Italy for treatment, and while there he was deposed by his cousin, an ex-prime minister general Daud.

In 1975 the political arena was entered by the people whose names are well-known today. Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, Ahmad Shah Massoud were interested in Islamic ways of developing the country, but Daud was not, and they had to flee to Pakistan after a failed uprising.


Daud was not quite democratic in the way he ran the country, and while he had crushed the Islamists, the Communists crushed him. A Communist party existed in Afghanistan since 1965, and in 1978 it came to power, killing Daud — and his family — in the process.

A peaceful Soviet presence existed in Afghanistan for decades by that point, and on a large scale. The US had provided some help after the World War II and built roads, for example, but quickly got disappointed and withdrew. The Soviets kept helping all these years, building dams, factories, plants, and the Salang tunnel. Gradually, military advisers began appearing, even before the Communist revolution. They hardly participated in the coup itself since it was not expected by anyone including the Communists themselves, but the revolution was performed with Soviet weapons by Afghan officers educated in the Soviet Union.

Little by little, an opposition to the Communists began to grow in the country. The leadership started asking for military supplies or even direct involvement of the Soviet military. On March 15, 1979 there was an anti-Communist uprising in Herat, which brought to the scene yet another currently well-known warlord, Ismail Khan. An army officer, he began an uprising in his garrison, killed its Communists officers and Soviet advisers, and distributed firearms to the population. The population rushed to killing advisers and their families; the total number of Soviet losses was supposedly a few hundreds, although the Russians today know of only two officers killed. Soviet Air Force and tanks from Turkmenistan made a strike on Herat, terminating about 20,000 Afghans. Ismail Khan and his friends fled to Iran, and for the rest of the war he ran the resistance in Herat and its surroundings.

Drawing conclusions, on March 17 the Soviet leadership decided to send its troops to Afghanistan, but that action was postponed for a while.

It must be stressed here that the still existing in the West idea of the Soviets invading Afghanistan is pure cold war propaganda. They were invited by the government, by one of the sides in a civil war. By an overwhelming side, by the way, — if the Islamists were supported by the people, they would overthrow Daud and get to power, not the Communists. The Islamists were persecuted even by Daud, well before any Communists began doing that, and Daud was not pro-Soviet. What exactly the Islamists were and what they would do to the country were they in power — all this was obvious when they were in power in 1992–1994. The Communists were Afghans, too, and the Soviets came to Afghanistan by a request of a part of the Afghan people.

However, the Communist leadership itself was deeply divided. The party had two fractions: Khalq and Parcham. Khalq represented the poorer part of the population while Parcham consisted of well-to-do land owners and the like and did not rush to become poor. Parcham lost, and in 1978 its leaders were quietly send out of the country. Babrak Karmal became an Afghan ambassador in Czechoslovakia, and Najibullah — in Iran. Some people plainly went to prison. Khalq's leader, Taraki, became the president of Afghanistan.

International Solidarity

In March of 1979 a certain Hafizullah Amin became the prime minister. In September he organized a military coup and arrested Taraki, who was then executed in October. On the other side, the Islamists also got more powerful. There were about 10,000 guerillas acting in the country, with some provinces under their full control. Mujaheds, Communists, other Communists killed each other. Amin more and more often asked the Soviet Union for military involvement. On December 25, 1979 his wish was granted, and the Soviet military came to Afghanistan officially.

Two days later Soviet special forces stormed Amin's residence and executed him, finishing an unlucky chain of assassination attempts the Soviets tried to carry out since the moment of the September coup. Babrak Karmal returned from Czechoslovakia to become the president.

The outcome of the war was strangely defined by a small detail. The Soviet forces were equipped to fight a large, full scale inter-country war because it was expected that either Iran or Pakistan could interfere on the mujaheds' side. The results were horrible.

Although Iran housed Afghan refugees and did not take any active measures against the mujaheds operating from its territory, it stayed well away from the conflict because it clearly understood that the Soviet Union could destroy Iran in no time. In the very 1979 they had an Islamic revolution in Iran, then Iraq invaded it, and Iran really could not mind the Afghan affairs in addition to all this. Were the Soviet Union to attack it, nobody would say a word against that since the US hated Iran for taking American hostages and other things, and the Muslim world had an issue with Iran's Shia orientation. By the way, nothing has yet changed in these areas.

Pakistan, however, which always saw the Soviet Union as its enemy because of the USSR supporting India, understood the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan as the last step before the invasion of Pakistan. Really, the Soviets were armed with weapons they definitely could not use against the mujaheds: giant tank armies, tactical missiles, and so on. All this could be used against Pakistan only, as it clearly realized.

Plainly for self-preservation Pakistan took active part in the guerilla war. It first built refugee camps on its territory and then organized guerilla training facilities based on those refugee camps. From the many Afghan political parties seven were selected as the recipients of all financial, humanitarian, and political aid.

But the biggest achievement of Pakistan, the one that determined the outcome of the war, was its success in reclassifying the conflict from a civil war to a holy war. If before that it was an internal fight of the Afghan political groups nobody except Pakistan cared about, now it was turned into an aggression of the Soviet Union against Islam, no less.

While the Soviets could handle plain guerilla war, it was a quite different thing to fight an enemy that could easily withdraw across the border and recuperate and regroup there; the enemy that was backed by all the monetary and human resources of the Islamic world, not to mention the US with their own, quite different in nature but same in expression interests.

The war quickly ended in a stalemate. The Soviets controlled all the cities, and the mujaheds — 90% of the rest of the country. Panjsher under control of Ahmad Shah Massoud was never taken by the Soviets at all, although they did conduct major military operations there each year. On the other side, the mujaheds controlled an empty desert, and the cities belonged to the Soviets.

Through the nine years of conflict, 641,000 Soviets served in the 100,000-strong Soviet military group. Despite yet another stereotype, their losses were minimal: 11,897 dead in nine years. It is a lot, yes. For comparison: in modern Russia, which is quite smaller than the Soviet Union, each year — not in nine years, but in a year — 15,000 women are killed by their husbands.

As for the Afghans, they lost over a million people.

Soviets Leave

The Soviet withdrawal was considered many times in these nine years. Already in February of 1980 Brezhnev offered to withdraw, but the then minister of defense Ustinov was against that. In summer of 1980 they took out those notorious tank and missile units, but it was too late. In March 1981 a withdrawal was again considered and postponed. In 1983 a new Soviet premier Andropov began preparing the withdrawal, but died. Chernenko succeeded him and left the troops where they were despite the pressure from the military. Finally, Gorbachev in 1985 was very much for a withdrawal. Karmal was replaced by Najibullah in 1986, and some units were withdrawn then. In 1988 an official disengagement plan was signed, and the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989.

The Afghans got a three-month supply of ammunition, and Najibullah started his own war. Contrary to any predictions, the Communists hold the power till 1992, the year when the Soviets stopped any military help. In April Najibullah hid in the UN mission in Kabul, and the city was taken with no battle by Doustum, Massoud, and Hikmetyar. Rabbani was appointed the president.

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