Afghanistan has been a veritable crossroads and through route to many other regions and travelled by many people over the centuries. Strategically it has been important because it has been such a thoroughfare for trade and conquest.
Afghan history can take us back at least 30,000 years and many great civilisations such as the Achaemenid Empire from Persia, Alexander the Great and the Greeks, the Mauryan Empire from India, the Sassanid Empire also from Persia and the Hephthalite Empire from the Hindu Kush have all had their moment in Afghan history.
The Islamic conquest of Afghanistan took place in the mid-7th Century as Arab armies from the west defeated the Sassanids and then the Mongol hordes plundered their way through in the 1200s. The battles for control of Afghanistan continued into the modern era. Mughals and Safavids were followed by the Hotaki Dynasty which was defeated by the Afsharids who in turn bumped up against expanding British and Russian Empires.
Two wars were fought between the British and the Afghans, the first between 1838 and 1842 and the second between 1878 and 1880. In the first war the British sort of won, although they left as soon as it was practical to do so and in the second war they did win – twice – but having achieved their objectives they left.
After the British left and with their blessing Abdur Rahman Khan became the Emir of Afghanistan and ruled the country for the next 21 years until 1901. It was Abdur Rahman who moulded Afghanistan into the state it is today and who created many of the boundaries of the modern state. His rule was so successful that when he died in 1901 the succession was peacefully handed to his son Habibullah Khan who went on to rule until 1919.
Having successfully steered his country throughout the First World War without taking sides Habibullah Khan was assassinated in 1919 and was replaced by Amānullāh Khān. He managed to plunge the country into another war with the British between May and August 1919; this resulted in the Treaty of Rawalpindi which pretty much gave the troublesome Afghanistan independence.
Amānullāh Khān was another reformer and he modernised the country as well as abolishing the Emirate in 1926 and turning the country into the Kingdom of Afghanistan. But his popularity was short lived and after a trip to Europe in 1927 he returned to a quarrelsome country and eventually abdicated in January 1929. The next two kings didn’t last very long and it was only in 1933 after the assassination of his father Nadir Khan that Mohammed Zahir Shah was installed as King.
Mohammed Zahir Shah was to remain on the throne until 1973. His reign was not a huge success and the country didn’t move forward that much, although he did introduce free elections and a parliament in 1963 after constitutional changes.
In 1973, whilst in Europe for medical treatment Zahir Shah was removed in a coup d’état and rather than risk a civil war he abdicated. Mohammed Daoud Khan who deposed his cousin created the first Afghan Republic in 1973, but it was short lived after a communist driven military coup in 1978 known as the Saur Revolution.
Daoud Khan and his family were all killed as the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) replaced his republic with the Soviet supported Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. From the very beginning the new government and communist party was riven with fighting factions, purges and assassinations. In 1979 Babrak Karmal became President and with it he brought Soviet troops to provide security against an insurgency by Mujahideen rebels (who were subsequently backed and financed largely by the United States). The Soviet troops faced a wily and well equipped enemy; the Soviets committed around 150,000 troops but failed to make any progress and suffered around 15,000 casualties before pulling out in 1986. Around 18,000 members of the Afghan forces were killed and some estimates put the number of civilians killed at 1.5 million.
With the withdrawal of the Soviet troops it was only a matter of time before the Afghan army folded, which it did by 1992 when Mohammad Najibullah, the last President of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was forced to resign. Najibullah fled to the UN compound in Kabul where he stayed until 1996 when the Taliban came for him, tortured and mutilated him before hanging his body from a traffic light. Meanwhile the country was wracked by a civil war as its name was changed to the Islamic State of Afghanistan with Burhanuddin Rabbani as its President.
By 1996 the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist political movement, had taken control of Kabul and introduced yet another form of government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law). Over the next five years Afghans experienced strict controls on their freedoms and human rights, especially women and girls.
After the Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks on the United States the Americans were determined to root out the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda. Unfortunately for the Taliban they had given al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden bases in Afghanistan and on 7th October 2001 US and British forces bombed various targets in Afghanistan before a full land invasion of the country by NATO forces.
Following negotiations between NATO, the United Nations and anti-Taliban factions in Bonn the Afghan Interim Administration was established between 22nd December 2001 and 13th July 2002. This was followed by the Afghan Transitional Administration which was put in place by a loya Jirga (a kind of Grand Assembly of Tribal Elders) and which lasted until elections could be held in 2004. In the meantime Hamid Karzai was elected president of the transitional administration on 13th June 2002
In October 2004 Karzai was officially elected President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with 55.4% of the vote. On 20th August 2009 Hamid Karzai came top in the first round of the presidential election with 49.67% of the vote but faced a runoff on 7th November against Abdullah Abdullah who took 30.59%. However Abdullah Abdullah withdrew and on 2nd November 2009 Karzai was declared the winner for a second term.
In September 2005 Afghans voted for the 249 seat House of the People (Wolesi Jirga) or lower house; most of those elected were former warlords.
In September 2010 fresh elections were held for parliament. Following the promulgation of a new law governing the formation of political parties, some 84 parties were registered but people were still elected in a non-partisan capacity despite their loose political affiliation.
Meanwhile the war against the Taliban continues in Afghanistan. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO-led force in Afghanistan, is nearing the end of its mission with many troops withdrawing in 2014. At its height there were more than 87,000 ISAF troops on the ground and 3,424 had been killed with more than 23,500 wounded. Civilians killed are believed to be around 20,000.
The president and two vice presidents are elected for a five-year term and can stand for a second consecutive term. If no candidate gets 50% in the first round then the top two candidates participate in a second round.
The bicameral National Assembly consists of the House of Elders with 102 seats. One third of members are elected from provincial councils for four-year terms, one third are elected from local district councils for three-year terms and one-third are nominated by the President for five-year terms. The House of People (Wolesi Jirga) has no more than 249 seats and members are elected for five-year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Afghanistan at 169 out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 15 (where 100 is least corrupt).