A COUNTRY STUDY
Federal Research Division
Library of Congress
Peter R. Blood
The material on Afghanistan that follows represents preliminary drafts of three chapters of the unpublished volume on Afghanistan in the Federal Research Division's Area Handbook/Country Studies Series. This volume was one of several books in the process of research and writing when funding for the Series was eliminated in 1998. Had it been published, the book would have superceded Afghanistan: A Country Study, fifth edition (1986).
Chapter 1, Historical Setting, completed in 1995 by Craig Baxter, provides an historical overview of Afghanistan from the Pre-Islamic period through the period of Soviet intervention in the country, which ended in February 1989. Chapter 2, The Society and Its Environment, completed in 1997 by Nancy Hatch Dupree and Thomas E. Gouttierre, describes the Afghan natural and social environment, and includes, among other subjects, discussion of ethnic groups, religion, education, health, and the country's refugee problem. Chapter 4: Government and Politics, written by Richard S. Newell in 1997, provides additional historical background and analyzes the development of the Taliban regime and opposition to it.
Craig Baxter, Author
AFGHANISTAN'S HISTORY, internal political development, foreign relations, and very existence as an independent state have largely been determined by its geographic location at the crossroads of Central, West, and South Asia. Over the centuries, waves of migrating peoples passed through the region--described as a "roundabout of the ancient world," by historian Arnold Toynbee--leaving behind a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. In modern times, as well as in antiquity, vast armies of the world passed through Afghanistan, temporarily establishing local control and often dominating Iran and northern India.
Although it was the scene of great empires and flourishing trade for over two millennia, Afghanistan did not become a truly independent nation until the twentieth century. The area's heterogeneous groups were not bound into a single political entity until the reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who in 1747 founded the monarchy that ruled the country until 1973. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan lay between the expanding might of the Russian and British empires. In 1900, Abdur Rahman Khan (the "Iron Amir"), looking back on his twenty years of rule and the events of the past century, wondered how his country, which stood "like a goat between these lions [Britain and Tsarist Russia] or a grain of wheat between two strong millstones of the grinding mill, [could] stand in the midway of the stones without being ground to dust?" Constrained by the competing dictates of powerful British and Russian empires, Abdur Rahman focused instead on consolidating his power within Afghanistan and creating the institutions of a modern nation-state.
Islam played a key role in the formation of Afghan history as well. Despite the Mongol invasion of Afghanistan in the early thirteenth century which has been described as resembling "more some brute cataclysm of the blind forces of nature than a phenomenon of human history," even a warrior as formidable as Genghis Khan did not uproot Islamic civilization, and within two generations his heirs had become Muslims. An often unacknowledged event that nevertheless played an important role in Afghan history (and in the politics of Afghanistan's neighbors and the entire region up to the present) was the rise in the tenth century of a strong Sunni dynasty--the Ghaznavids. Their power prevented the eastward spread of Shiism from Iran, thereby insuring that the majority of the Muslims in Afghanistan and South Asia would be Sunnis.
THE PRE-ISLAMIC PERIOD
Archaeological exploration began in Afghanistan in earnest after World War II and proceeded promisingly until the Soviet invasion disrupted it in December of 1979. Artifacts typical of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages were found. It is not yet clear, however, to what extent these periods were contemporaneous with similar stages of development in other geographic regions. The area that is now Afghanistan seems in prehistory--as well as ancient and modern times--to have been closely connected by culture and trade with the neighboring regions to the east, west, and north. Urban civilization in the Iranian plateau, which includes most of Iran and Afghanistan, may have begun as early as 3000 to 2000 B.C. About the middle of the second millennium B.C. people speaking an Indo-European language may have entered the eastern part of the Iranian Plateau, but little is known about the area until the middle of the first millennium B.C., when its history began to be recorded during the Achaemenid Empire.
Achaemenid Rule, ca. 550-331 B.C.
The area that is present-day Afghanistan comprised several satrapies (provinces) of the Achaemenid Empire when it was at its most extensive, under Darius the Great (ca. 500 B.C.). Bactriana, with its capital at Bactria (which later became Balkh), was reputedly the home of Zoroaster, who founded the religion that bears his name.
By the fourth century B.C., Iranian control of outlying areas and the internal cohesion of the empire had become tenuous. Although outlying areas like Bactriana had always been restless under Achaemenid rule, Bactrian troops nevertheless fought on the Iranian side in the decisive Battle of Gaugamela (330 B.C.). They were defeated by Alexander the Great.
Alexander and Greek Rule, 330-ca. 150 B.C.
It took Alexander only three years (from about 330-327 B.C.) to subdue the area that is now Afghanistan and the adjacent regions of the former Soviet Union. Moving eastward from the area of Herat, the Macedonian leader encountered fierce resistance from local rulers of what had been Iranian satraps. Although his expedition through Afghanistan was brief, he left behind a Hellenic cultural influence that lasted several centuries.
Upon Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his empire, which had never been politically consolidated, broke apart. His cavalry commander, Seleucus, took nominal control of the eastern lands and founded the Seleucid dynasty. Under the Seleucids, as under Alexander, Greek colonists and soldiers entered the region of the Hindu Kush, and many are believed to have remained. At the same time, the Mauryan Empire was developing in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. It took control, thirty years after Alexander's death, of the southeasternmost areas of the Seleucid domains, including parts of present-day Afghanistan. The Mauryans introduced Indian culture, including Buddhism, to the area. With the Seleucids on one side and the Mauryans on the other, the people of the Hindu Kush were in what would become a familiar quandary in ancient as well as modern history--that is, caught between two empires.
In the middle of the third century B.C., an independent, Greek-ruled state was declared in Bactria. Graeco-Bactrian rule spread until it included most of the territory from the Iranian deserts to the Ganges River and from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea by about 170 B.C. Graeco-Bactrian rule was eventually defeated by a combination of the internecine disputes that plagued Greek rulers to the west, the ambitious attempts to extend control into northern India, and the pressure of two groups of nomadic invaders from Central Asia--the Parthians and Sakas (perhaps the Scythians).
Central Asian and Sassanian Rule, ca. 150 B.C.-700 A.D.
In the third and second centuries B.C., the Parthians, a nomadic people speaking Indo-European languages, arrived on the Iranian Plateau. The Parthians established control in most of what is Iran as early as the middle of the third century B.C.; about 100 years later another Indo-European group from the north--the Kushans (a subgroup of the tribe called the Yuezhi by the Chinese)--entered Afghanistan and established an empire lasting almost four centuries.
The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians. By the middle of the first century B.C., the Kushans' control stretched from the Indus Valley to the Gobi Desert and as far west as the central Iranian Plateau. Early in the second century A.D. under Kanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached its greatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature and art. Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled area north of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was during his reign that Mahayana Buddhism, imported to northern India earlier by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (ca. 260-232 B.C.), reached its zenith in Central Asia.
In the third century A.D., Kushan control fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms that became easy targets for conquest by the rising Iranian dynasty, the Sassanians (ca. 224-561 A.D.). These small kingdoms were pressed by both the Sassanians from the west and by the growing strength of the Guptas, an Indian dynasty established at the beginning of the fourth century.
The disunited Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were in a poor position to meet the threat of a new wave of nomadic, Indo-European invaders from the north. The Hepthalites (or White Huns) swept out of Central Asia around the fourth century into Bactria and to the south, overwhelming the last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms. Historians believe that their control continued for a century and was marked by constant warfare with the Sassanians to the west.
By the middle of the sixth century the Hepthalites were defeated in the territories north of the Amu Darya (the Oxus River of antiquity) by another group of Central Asian nomads, the Western Turks, and by the resurgent Sassanians in the lands south of the Amu Darya. Up until the advent of Islam, the lands of the Hindu Kush were dominated up to the Amu Darya by small kingdoms under Sassanian control but with local rulers who were Kushans or Hepthalites.
Of this great Buddhist culture and earlier Zoroastrian influence there remain few, if any, traces in the life of Afghan people today. Along ancient trade routes, however, stone monuments of Buddhist culture exist as reminders of the past. The two great sandstone Buddhas, thirty-five and fifty-three meters high overlook the ancient route through Bamian to Balkh and date from the third and fifth centuries A.D. In this and other key places in Afghanistan, archaeologists have located frescoes, stucco decorations, statuary, and rare objects from China, Phoenicia, and Rome crafted as early as the second century A.D. that bear witness to the influence of these ancient civilizations on the arts in Afghanistan.