Was Mahmud Ghazni a Pashtun

Country Profiles Migration: Data - History - Politics

Andreas Wilde

Dr. Andreas Wilde is Academic Counselor and Research Associate at the Institute for Oriental Studies, Chair for Iranian Studies at the Otto Friedrich University in Bamberg.

Afghanistan is a relatively young nation-state which, within its current borders, dates back to colonial interventions at the end of the 19th century. The country's recent history has been shaped primarily by internal conflicts and civil wars.

Kabul in August 2018: Children and adults fly paper kites on Nadir Shah Hill (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Geographically, Afghanistan does not belong to either Middle East or Central Asia and is also not part of the Indian subcontinent. Rather, the country is at a geostrategic hinge and receives cultural, economic and political impulses from the three cultural regions of Iran, India and Central Asia. Afghanistan is a landlocked country and borders Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. In the far northeast there is a brief shared border with China. The country's geography is shaped by the Hindu Kush and neighboring highlands and mountain ranges, which gradually descend to the west and south and merge into deserts and semi-deserts. The population centers are along the major rivers such as the Helmand and Arghandab in the south, the Hari Rud in the west and the Kabul River in the east.

The Afghan population is very heterogeneous, although more precise figures on the proportion of the respective ethnic groups in the total population are not considered reliable due to the lack of a census. It is estimated that around 30 million people live in the country today. [1] There is also a large Afghan diaspora; Numerous Afghan war refugees and migrant workers live in the neighboring countries in particular. The largest population groups are Pashtuns (approx. 40 percent) in the south, east and west, Tajiks (approx. 25-30 percent) in the northeast and in the larger cities, Uzbeks (10 percent) in the north and Shiite Hazara (10 percent) in the geographic center of the country. There are also smaller minorities such as Turkmen, Aimaq, Baluch, Nuristani, Pashai, Arabs and other ethnic groups. In addition to the ethnic groups, client associations and local anchoring in certain areas of the country, cities, provinces and valleys offer further identity-creating frames of reference.

Except for the 12 Shiite Hazara and a few other groups, the majority of the population professes Sunni Islam. There are also smaller minorities of Ismailis (7th Shiites), Hindus and Sikhs. The latter live in the urban centers, but have increasingly emigrated to India in recent years. The heterogeneity of the population is also reflected in a great diversity of languages. In addition to the two official languages ​​Pashto and Dari, Uzbek, Turkmen, Nuristani, Pashai and Baluchi as well as other languages ​​are spoken.

Afghanistan has been in a state of upheaval since the intervention of the US and its allies in 2001. On the one hand, the international engagement brought the country a lot of attention and financial support in the form of civil reconstruction aid. At the same time, the State Building (state building, state building) promoted by the international community under the leadership of the USA turned out to be a rocky road paved with many obstacles. In addition to the ongoing war, conflicts in the government camp, corruption and a lack of resources (almost two thirds of the state budget is financed by foreign donors and money pots) are hindering the development of state structures. At the same time, the division in society and local conflicts, for example over land, water and pasture areas, as well as state resources such as access to certain offices and financial resources have intensified. Poverty, war and a lack of prospects have led to increased flight and migration in the past: According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees live in Pakistan alone, and almost a million Afghans in Iran. There are also around 1.8 million internally displaced people, most of whom live in large Afghan cities. [2]

History - From a great empire to a nation-state

The territory of present-day Afghanistan has always been a transit country for nomads and conquerors who passed the area on their way to India or Persia in order to establish their own empires there. Although the region served as a springboard for numerous campaigns, it was rarely a center of political power over long periods of time. Rather, the region was seen as the periphery of the great empires. An exception was the Timurid Empire, which was temporarily ruled from Herat in what is now western Afghanistan in the 15th century. From the 16th to the 18th century, the spheres of influence of the Persian Safavids, the Indian Mughals and the Uzbeks of Transoxania met in the Hindu Kush region.

The core of today's state of Afghanistan emerged from a great empire that went back to the conquests of Ahmad Shah Durrani (reign 1747-1772) in the middle of the 18th century. The empire ruled from the capital Kandahar from 1747 is mentioned in a later Persian source as the empire of Iran, Turkistan and Hindustan (India). This designation reflects the geographical location at the interface of the three great cultural landscapes. The power of the Durrani dynasty was based primarily on regular campaigns in the fertile Indian regions, later also on tax revenues from these areas and on the control of important trade routes in the region. The allegiance of the various tribal associations of the Durrani Federation was also important for securing the rule. Their leaders participated in the rule by providing troops and in return they could reap financial surpluses and crops from the Indian territories.

Until 1820, the Durrani Empire suffered considerable territorial losses. Particularly painful was the loss of the fertile Indus plain, the northern part of which, the Punjab, had been gradually conquered by the Sikhs, as a result of which important tax revenues from these areas were lost. A lack of resources and disputes over the throne ultimately led to the empire breaking up into local principalities.

With the British expansion in India, the territory of the rival Afghan princes came into the focus of colonial policy. The period from the 1830s onwards was marked by the British-Russian rivalry for spheres of influence and interests in Central and Western Asia. At the same time, the term Afghanistan developed as a state-political concept that was increasingly transferred to the entire buffer zone between the British and Russian spheres of influence. Originally, the term Afghan only referred to the members of the Pashtun tribes.

The two Anglo-Afghan wars (1838-1842 and 1878-1880) were owed to the attempt to bring the buffer zone beyond the Indus and Khyber Pass under British control or to install a ruler who was balanced with the interests of Calcutta and London. The British interventions were partly direct responses to Russian diplomatic or military actions in the region north of the Amu Darya River. The two wars followed a similar pattern: the most important cities and key positions were conquered relatively quickly by the British-Indian troops, but resistance from various tribes as well as local leaders and religious dignitaries (ulama) soon arose. At the same time, the rulers installed by the British turned out to be weak, so that a quick withdrawal was out of the question. The latter hindered the long-term safeguarding of British interests in the first Anglo-Afghan war. The Emir Abdarrahman Khan, who reigned from 1880 to 1901, had to accept extensive assignments of territory, who returned from exile in Samarkand after the second Anglo-Afghan war and was recognized by England as the new ruler. These had already been fixed in the Treaty of Gandamak (1879). In addition, the country lost its foreign policy sovereignty and was given the status of a British protectorate. In the 1890s, British-Russian border commissions took over the task of setting the external borders. This was less of a problem in the north, as the border here largely followed the course of the Amu Darya River. In the east, the Durand Line, named after the chairman of the border commission responsible for this section, Sir Mortimer Durand, cut across the Pashtun settlement area. The borders established Afghanistan's status as an isolated, politically neutral buffer state between Russian Central Asia and British India. The artificial borders have repeatedly led to territorial disputes, particularly with Pakistan. Many Afghans have relatives in neighboring countries (see box).

Afghanistan in the 20th century

The first half of the 20th century was marked by the attainment of foreign policy sovereignty, attempts at reform and subsequent political stagnation. The first reforms in the socio-political area (expansion of the school system and women's rights) were initiated by Amanullah Khan (reign 1919-1929) after the third Anglo-Afghan war (1919) and the simultaneous end of the British protectorate. However, they failed due to a lack of financial resources and resistance from conservative tribal leaders and religious forces. The increase in the pace of reform that Amanullah set about after a trip to Europe and even more far-reaching plans with regard to women (e.g. restricting polygamy and raising the age of marriage) ultimately led to a rebellion in the east of the country and the overthrow of the ruler.

After a brief civil war, a sideline of the royal family came to power in 1930 with the Musahiban dynasty. This endeavored to restore the old balance of power and reversed the reforms. The government came to terms with the rural elites (tribal leaders, religious dignitaries and large landowners) by no longer attacking their power and property. She left the rural areas to fend for themselves and did not interfere in the affairs of the tribes in the east and south. In doing so, the government accepted that it had hardly any room for maneuver. In return, the village leaders recognized the Musahiban rule. The following decades were marked by a conservative course in domestic politics and a swing politics towards the outside, which relied on balancing the influence of the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the USA. In addition, there were conflicts with neighboring Pakistan over the more than 2,000-kilometer-long border, which was not recognized by the Afghan government. Instead, it became customary in Kabul to continue to refer to the common border as the Durand Line.
1955: Nikita Khrushchev, head of government of the USSR, is greeted by an honor guard in old German uniforms on a visit to Afghanistan. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)


Border disputes

The Afghan governments supported the Pashtunistan movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, which pushed for a revision of the political status of the predominantly Pashtun (called Pathan in Pakistan) areas of western and northwestern Pakistan. This repeatedly brought Kabul into conflict with Islamabad, which at times led to a break in diplomatic relations and border closings. The question of the disputed border is a burden on the relationship between the two countries to this day and is considered a motive for the repeated Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan. *

* See Giunchi, Elisa (2013): The Origins of the Dispute over the Durand Line. International Asia Forum 44 / 1-2 (2013), pp. 25-46.

A phase of internal liberalization and democratization began in 1963, but the 1960s were also marked by internal contradictions. On the one hand, the constitutional constitution of 1964 allowed political participation and opening up of the country; on the other hand, King Muhammad Zahir Shah, who was in office from 1933 to 1973, intervened more than ever in politics. In doing so, he failed to sign a party law that would have legalized the formation of political parties. The political parties and movements that formed around Kabul University at that time therefore often acted underground or in a legal gray area. This phase of recent Afghan history ended with a bloodless military coup in 1973. Zahir Shah went into exile in Italy and left the field to his cousin Muhammad Daud Khan, who proclaimed the republic and ruled authoritarian. In April 1978 he was killed in a military coup that brought the Communist Democratic People's Party of Afghanistan (DVPA) to power.

The war and its consequences

The armed conflict that has now set in can be divided into four phases. The first phase (1978/79) presents itself as a modernization conflict. The DVPA implemented reforms (e.g. land and educational reform) to the decades-long unwritten pact between the village elites and the Afghan state. A popular uprising directed against the DVPA and its reforms developed into a civil war in 1979, in which the Soviet Union (USSR) intervened by sending troops at the end of December 1979. The conflict entered a second phase, which was characterized by the internationalization of the war. While the Soviet troops remained stationed to protect the DVPA government for more than nine years, the mujahideen resistance received financial and military support from the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other states. The war turned out to be a catastrophe for Afghanistan in several respects: In addition to the large number of fatalities (estimates speak of up to a million deaths on the Afghan side), the country had to cope with the widespread destruction of its physical and state infrastructure; More than six million people fled to Pakistan and Iran, plus more than 2.5 million internally displaced people. With this influx of refugees, Afghanistan was the main country of origin in global refugee events for decades until 2011/12. The war was also a catalyst for social upheaval: the old rulers (e.g. large landowners and aristocratic families) in the countryside lost their position to commanders and armed forces with ties to the major mujahideen parties. The power of the tribal elders also increasingly eroded.


Faith fighter

The word mujahed (other spelling mujahid; plural mujahideen) comes from the Arabic verb jahada (fight, strive) back. The substantiated form Jihad means something like effort, struggle, war or holy war. In the technical-religious sense, Mujahed describes a religious fighter in a war against unbelievers. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the Afghan resistance fighters referred to themselves as mujahideen. *

* Bosworth, C.E. : Mud̲j̲āhid. Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/ (accessed: September 20, 2018).

After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in early 1989, the conflict turned into a civil war (third phase) largely ignored by the international community, which was fought in changing constellations until 2001 with the indirect participation of Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia. As protective powers, these states supported their respective allies and thus further fueled the civil war. The overthrow of the last pro-Soviet head of state, Muhammad Najibullah, and the capture of Kabul by the mujahideen in April 1992 and the seizure of power by the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 1996 were further turning points. The support of external powers for various political camps led to a weakening of the central government and a Fragmentation of the country into competing centers of power and zones of influence of militias and commanders. Between 1996 and 2001 the Northern Alliance, an alliance of former Mujahideen groups and warlords, fought against the Taliban government. The latter had set up a rigid Islamic regime that met with opposition, especially from ethnic minorities and the urban population of Kabul and Herats.

With the intervention of the USA and NATO on the part of the Northern Alliance after September 11, 2001 and the overthrow of the Taliban government, the so-called Bonn Process (initiated at the Afghanistan Conference in Bonn in December 2001) laid the foundation for a Reorganization of the country laid. At the same time, the conflict entered a fourth phase, which continues to this day, which is characterized by the overlap between the internal Afghan conflict and the global war on terror.

The Taliban and some other groups were not involved in the Bonn Agreement and now fought against what they saw as the occupying NATO troops (within the framework of the UN mandate International Security Assistance Force, ISAF) and the Afghan government army. The two large Loya Jirgas (large council meetings of tribal elders, local rulers and other representatives) in 2002 and 2003 as well as three presidential elections (2004, 2009 and 2014) and two parliamentary elections (2005 and 2010) did not bring lasting peace to Afghanistan. In the elections, so-called ethnic voting could be observed, i.e. the allocation of votes to candidates from their own ethnic group based on ethnic affiliation.While everyday life in Kabul and other large cities is characterized by attacks, the war has escalated since 2005/06, especially in the provinces. Also an increase in troops made by the USA from 2009 as part of the so-called operation Surge (until 2012) and increased reconstruction aid in rural areas have done little to change this. The externally sponsored State Building didn't seem to be under a lucky star right from the start. Afghan society is deeply divided by decades of war and external influence. The structures of a war economy still dominate, based on the sale and maintenance of security or insecurity by commanders and their militias as well as the exploitation and smuggling of natural resources (opium, wood, marble and rare earths, gemstones, etc.). In addition to the warlords who returned to the political stage in the maelstrom of international intervention after 2001, the religious establishment also plays in the form of the former mujahideen leaders and other Islamic dignitariesulama) play a major role. These actors are pushing for the observance of Islamic rules based on Sharia law and a conservative orientation in Afghan society. Warlords and ulama have repeatedly intervened in government policy in recent years and occupy important positions in both chambers of parliament. They also managed to get their fighters into the army and police, who are still more loyal to their commanders and their respective groups than to the Afghan state.

The government of national unity, established through mediation by the USA since the controversial presidential elections in 2014, has long been considered internally at odds. The two main factions in the government are grouped around President Ashraf Ghani and the executive director of the government, Abdullah Abdullah. In recent years, their dispute has increasingly led to political blockades and continued paralysis of the institutions. At the same time, the ISAF mandate ended in December 2014. The successor mission, Resolute Support, is a numerically limited NATO training mission. Against the background of the escalating war, the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015 were repeatedly postponed. While the security situation is further complicated by the appearance of the so-called Islamic State in some eastern and northern provinces, the Taliban have cope with the deaths of two leaders and attacked and briefly occupied important provincial cities (Kunduz 2015 and 2016; Lashkargah 2017 and Farah and Ghazni 2018) . The end of flight from and displacement in Afghanistan is therefore not in sight. According to the UN, Afghanistan is still considered one of the countries with low human development. [3] Much of the population lives below the poverty line.

On the subject

This text is part of the country profile Afghanistan.