The story of Afghanistan is in so many ways a very tragic one. Afghanistan is one of the most impoverished nations of the world. It is one of the most war-torn, most ravaged, and most beleaguered of nations. It is a nation that has been beset by invasion, external pressure and internal upheaval since before the time of Alexander the Great. Its people are a people who have endured more than most of us can ever imagine. In fact, for many Afghanis, all that has changed in the last one thousand years are the weapons which have been used against so many of them. It is therefore with great sadness and respect that I tell the story of Afghanistan.
First of all, who are the Afghanis? Afghanistan has historically been the link between Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It is therefore a nation made up of many different nationalities – the result of innumerable invasions and migrations. Within its current borders there are at least a dozen major ethnic groups – Baluch, Chahar Aimak, Turkmen, Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Nuristani, Arab, Kirghiz, Pashai and Persian.
Historically the Pashtun nationality has been the most dominant. The term Afghan, for example, generally is viewed by other peoples in the country to refer to the Pashtuns. The royal families of the country were Pashtun, and today the Pashtun represent about 50% of the total population. Tajiks come in second with 25%, and the rest make up considerably smaller percentages.
Within the country there are tiny Hindu, Sikh and Jewish communities, but the vast majority of this people are Muslims – and in fact many ethnic groups consider Islam to be one of the defining aspects of their ethnic identity. This is true of the Pashtun for example.
Islam was brought to Afghanistan during the eight and ninth century by the Arabs. Prior to that the nation had been ruled by various Persian, Greek, Sassasian and Central Asian empires. Following a subsequent break down in Arab rule, semi-independent states began to form. These local dynasties and states however were overwhelmed and crushed during the Mongolian invasions of the 1200s – conquerors who were to remain in control of part or all of the country until the 1500s, despite much resistance and internal strife. Following the collapse of Mongol rule, Afghanistan found itself in a situation much like what has continued into modern times – caught between the vice of two great powers. During this time it was the Mughals of northern India and the Safavids of Iran that fought over the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. Armies marched to and fro devastating the land and murdering the people, laying siege to city after city, and destroying whatever had been left by the invading army that preceded it.
It was not until 1747 that Afghanistan was able to free itself. This was the year that Nadir Shah, an empire builder from Iran, died and left a vacuum in central Asia that a former Afghan bodyguard, named Ahmed Shah, was able to fill. Ahmad was a Pashtun, and his Pashtun clan was to rule Afghanistan, in one form or another, for the next 200 years.
Ahmad was able to unify the different Afghan tribes, and went on to conquer considerable parts of what are today eastern Iran, Pakistan, northern India and Uzbekistan. His successors though proved unable to hold his vast empire together, and within 50 years much of it had been seized by rival regional powers. Within the country there were numerous bloody civil wars for the throne, and for many Afghanis it meant little that their lives were now being uprooted and destroyed by ethnic kin, as opposed to foreign invaders.
Beginning in the 1800s Afghanistan’s internal affairs became dramatically aggravated by the increasing intervention by two new imperialist powers – the British Empire and Czarist Russia. The British were expanding and consolidating their colonial holdings on the India sub-continent, and were looking at the...