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History of Afghanistan

WARNING: Afghanistan is currently unstable, please read this travel warning before going!

People have lived in what is today Afghanistan for tens of thousands of years, working as farmers, hunters, and gatherers. Over time numerous people settled the region and many of these early people were probably related to the people of the Indus Valley. In about 500 BC the Persian-led Achaemenid Empire ruled the region, some of the inhabitants being the Pactyans, perhaps the descendants of today Pashtuns.

In the 300s BC Alexander the Great took much of the region, overthrowing the Persian leaders of the time. Despite Alexander's death and the collapse of his empire, the descendent rulers in the Afghanistan region maintain rule for the next couple centuries.

Over the next few centuries numerous people took over the region, with great influences from the Buddhist and Hindu worlds. During this time the region was called "Khorasan," which roughly covered the modern day border of Afghanistan along with additional lands. Among the greatest rulers of this region over these years were a group of Buddhist and Hindi from India called the Pala, who ruled much of the region from the late 700s to the early 1100s.

Under Pala rule most of the people were either Buddhist or Hindi, however in the western part of modern day Afghanistan the Arabs were introducing Islam as early as the mid-600s. It wasn't until the Saffari people, a Pashtun group, took over neighboring people in the name of Islam did the people truly convert; this process began in the 800s, but much of eastern Afghanistan was still in the hands of the Pala.

For much of this time the lands of modern day Afghanistan fell under numerous rulers, including the Pashtuns, the Pala, and in the early 1200s, the Mongols. The Mongols were the most successful in taking and holding the entire region under the leadership of the Timurid rulers.

Timur and his descendants began taking power in Central Asia in the early 1300s and they slowly moved to the southeast, taking most of Afghanistan in the process and eventually taking on the name of the Mughal Empire. From this time until the 1700s the modern day country of Afghanistan was divided among numerous rules. Much of the north was ruled from Bukhara (in modern day Uzbekistan, the east was controlled by the Mughals, and the west was ruled by the Safavid (Persians).

In the early 1700s this disunity finally ended when the Hotaki rulers came to power by overthrowing the Safavid rulers. After some wars with the Persians, the Pashtuns found themselves victorious and they started a kingdom in the south. This new rule by the Hotaki was solidified when they took the Safavid capital of Isfahan (in modern day Iran) in 1722.

The Hotaki rulers continued to take lands over the next century, but also fought amongst themselves over power, hurting the growth of the empire. This expansion of power moved east as the empire took much of what is today Pakistan, even getting as far as modern day India.

In the 1800s much of what is known as "The Great Game" took place on Afghan soil as the Russians and British sought greater control in the region. This led to a number of armed conflicts between the British and Afghan, first beginning in 1839 then the second beginning in 1878. These battles occurred primarily due to the Afghan people's belief that the British were attempting to take control of the region or, at a very minimum, trying to gain greater influence in the region.

After these wars ended the British and Russians ended their Great Game with Afghanistan's current borders being created. The British held control in what is today Pakistan and India, while also gaining greater control over Afghan international affairs. The Russians remained in Central Asia, not quite getting the foothold in Afghanistan that they had desired.

The peace between the Afghans and British was short lived though, when, in 1919, Afghanistan attacked India (today's Pakistan) to begin the third Anglo-Afghan War. This war finally ended British occupation over Afghanistan's foreign affairs, and hence gave Afghanistan complete independence. From this point forward Afghanistan no longer had foreign influence in their borders, and had, for the first time, established a sovereign state with their current borders.

After independence King Amanullah Khan set about a fairly rapid modernization schedule, modeled perhaps after Turkey's. This extended women's rights and expanded education, but it was met with fierce resistance among more conservative tribal leaders, leading to his overthrow in 1929.

Despite the king's overthrow, his supporters soon re-took control and the wars and battles had begun with another assassination before 19 year old Mohammad Zahir Shah took power in 1933. During his 40 year reign the country faced difficult modernization decisions and altering international relations. The most significant relations were those with the Soviet Union to the north and Pakistan to the south.

In the 1960s the king decided to introduce a representative government, however this only magnified the country's disunity as extremist parties on all sides developed and soon there was a growing communist movement in Afghanistan. Amongst this growing chaos a coup ousted the king in 1973, but the new leadership did little to improve the country's state as the economic continued to decline.

In 1978 the government then began arrests and assassinations of opponent parties, which led to the overthrow of this government, leading to the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan that same year. This new government swung towards Communist ideologies as women were granted greater rights, education and healthcare was encouraged, but religion was restricted, land was taken and redistributed, and a number of laws were passed dictating how men and women could or could not dress. This led to numerous imprisonments and deaths, primarily in the villages among the many people who opposed these changes or had in the past.

This new government then invited the Soviet Union into their country to improve their infrastructure. However these changes and the Soviet involvement in the country didn't sit well with the people and soon the people were revolting with much international support as the Cold War was at its peak. To counter this, the Soviet Union entered the country in 1979 in accordance to a pact the new government signed with them. Although the government supported this move, the people did not and soon the country was at war. Most of the people fought the government and the Soviets as much of the Muslim world and Western Europe supported the people. The Muslim world viewed this as defending their religion and their right to practice, while the western countries saw it as another front of the Cold War, fighting communism. The United States and Saudi Arabia were the two biggest supporters of these troops.

Eventually, the Soviets gained great strides in taking Afghanistan, but the battles and arguments never ceased as warring continued on a small scale until 1989 when the Soviets finally withdrew their troops from the country. Despite Soviet withdrawal, the communist-leaning party in power continued to rule the country until 1992.

In 1992 nearly all the parties agreed to work together as the Islamic State of Afghanistan was created. However, there were still critics, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who took it upon himself and his Pakistani supporters to regularly bomb the capital city of Kabul. Additionally, in a state of flux, the neighboring powers, in particular Iran sent in forces to push their objectives and politics in Afghanistan, almost guaranteeing that the new union would fail as soon these various political parties were again fighting each other.

In 1994, Pakistan shifted its support to the Taliban, a small, but growing organization in southern Afghanistan with extreme political views. This organization, led by Mullah Omar, gained much power as rival groups fought each other. The Taliban began their attack on the capital in 1995 and by 1996 had taken power with foreign support. Under their rule, the country's name changed once again, this time to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban never took the entire country though as fighting never ended.

The Taliban began willing to murder any detractor and over time became more violent as they implemented numerous laws banning the education of women and not allowing women to leave their home without a male family member accompanying them. This was supported by al Qaeda, which was led by Osama bin Laden and who worked through the country with the Taliban to take and maintain power in the country.

On September 9, 2001 the leader of the Taliban resistance movement, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated and two days later al Qaeda attacked the United States by destroying the World Trade Centers in New York City with other attacks in Washington D.C. After the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the United States and United Kingdom attacked the country, destroying numerous Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds, as many of these leaders fled to Pakistan.

By December, 2001 the Taliban government had fallen and Hamid Karzai was inserted as the new president. The United Nations also came in to secure peace, although violence has continued on a small scale ever since this time. In May, 2011 Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, but this only encouraged al Qaeda to target Afghan politicians in assassination attempts.

Afghanistan's future is still very uncertain as a number of democratic institutions have been implemented, but not with full support of the people. Additionally, due to years of violence and war, the country has very few industries to base their economy as education lags behind other nations, their infrastructure was destroyed during the many wars, and foreign investors are rarely willing to put money into the country as stability is still delicate.

This page was last updated: July, 2012