Asia and Oceania
Last reviewed: 6 January 2009
At the crossroads of central Asia, Afghanistan is proud of having preserved its national identity in the face of the often intrusive interests of other regional powers. The foundation of modern Afghanistan is usually attributed to Ahmad Shah Abdali (1747-72) who built an empire in Afghanistan as Mughal power declined in northern India and British influence rose. The Anglo-Russian struggle for influence in Central Asia, the ‘Great Game', in the nineteenth century fuelled three British Afghan Wars in 1839-42, 1878-81 and 1919. For much of the twentieth century successive Afghan governments worked to preserve the independence of the country amidst tumultuous changes: the advances and retreat of European influence in the Middle East; the change from Tsarist to Communist ambition in the north; and independence for, and partition of, British India.
After the Second World War (in which Afghanistan remained neutral), a liberal, largely urban government attempted to modernise a rural and traditional Muslim society. In 1973 Prime Minister Daud overthrew King Zahir Shah and established a republic. Daud was overthrown himself in 1978 by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, who tried to impose a socialist state. This led to armed resistance by conservative Islamic elements, and in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Soviet intervention lasted ten years and sparked a bitter civil war with anti-Soviet mujahideen forces, supported by considerable outside aid. The departure of Soviet troops in 1989 did not bring an end to the conflict, as mujahideen groups began to struggle among themselves. By 1994 the Pashtun Taliban began to emerge as the dominant power in Afghanistan, taking Kabul in October 1996 and controlling most of the country by 1998. They were opposed by mujahideen commanders Massoud, Dostum and others in the predominantly Tajik and Uzbek United Front (previously the Northern Alliance).
The Taliban were already largely isolated internationally. But after 11 September 2001 they came under immense international military pressure for their refusal to give up Usama bin Laden. After the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, the United Nations brought together leaders of Afghan ethnic groups in Germany. The Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions (the Bonn Agreement), signed on 5 December 2001, set out a road map for the restoration of representative government in Afghanistan.