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Afghanistan's History

Variations on the word Afghan in reference to people may go back as early as a third century A.D. Sasanian reference to "Abgan" (Caroe, 1965, A. Habibi, 1969). The earliest known reference to the Afghans in a Muslim source probably occurred in A.D. 982 (Caroe, 1965, 112), but tribes related to those of the modern Afghans probably have lived unrecorded in the region for many generations.

For millennia, the land now called Afghanistan sat in the centre of the action, the meeting place of four ecological and cultural areas: the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and even the Far East, because the Pamir Mountains intrude into Chinese Sin kiang.

Palaeolithic man probably lived in the caves of northern Afghanistan as long as 50,000 years ago. North Afghanistan also possibly sits in the zone of the development of the domestication of the wheat/barley, sheep/goat/cattle complex, the Neolithic Revolution which gave man control of his food supply about 11,000 years ago, which led ultimately to the urban civilisations of the Nile Valley, the Tigris-Euphrates Valleys, and the Indus Valley. Post-World War II excavations in south-central Afghanistan point to intimate relationships with the Indus Valley civilisation, fourth-second millennia B.C.

Another important event in world history occurred in the Afghan area as a result of Alexander’s passage through the region in the fourth century B.C. Out of a mixture of the sensuous Indian, humanistic, classical, and vigorous Central Asian-Sino-Siberian ideologies rose the Mahayana Buddhism practiced in most of the modern Far Eastern world. As a result of intensive contacts, particularly from the first to the fifth centuries AD, the Mahayana (northern school) ideology and its attendant art styles travelled across Central Asia through the Dzungarian Gates to Mongolia, China, Korea, and eventually to Japan along the luxury trade Silk Route, which connected ancient Cathay with the Mediterranean classical world of the Roman Empire. During the early part of this east-west contact, Buddhist artists first began to depict the Buddha in human form, essentially an orientalised version of the Greek god Apollo.

The great civilizations of early Asia were based on the control and use of water, and great surpluses then created great civilizations and empires (Wittfogel, 1957).

Afghanistan has been variously translated: "Land of the Unruly," "Land of the Free," "Land of Rebels," and "Land of Insolence" (Coon, 1951b).

The insolence of the Afghan, however, is not the frustrated insolence of urbanised, dehumanised man in western society, but insolence without arrogance, the insolence of harsh freedoms set against a backdrop of rough mountains and deserts, the insolence of equality felt and practiced (with an occasional touch of superiority), the insolence of bravery past and bravery anticipated.

Islam exploded into the region by the mid-seventh century AD, and remains an important element in modern cultural and political patterns. Traditionally an area through which armies passed on their way to somewhere else, Afghanistan nevertheless witnessed the rise of several of its own indigenous empires. The Ghaznavid (tenth-twelfth centuries AL.), probably the most important, was a true renaissance of juxtaposed military conquests and cultural achievements.

Political instability, brought by the destructive Mongol arid Turco-Mongol invasions of the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries AD, and recurring localised, fratricidal wars broke up the Silk Route trade, and by the fifteenth century European navigators sought new sea routes to the East, which led to the rediscovery, exploitation, and development of a New World.

Asian invaders (Persian Safavids and Indian Moghuls) fought over the Afghan area in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries AD, but in 1747 the last great Afghan empire rose under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durani, crowned king in Qandahar.

Fratricidal tribal wars and the intrusion of European colonialism into the area characterised nineteenth-century Afghanistan. Twice (1839, 1878) British armies invaded Afghan territories in response to real or imagined threats to India as Tsarist armies moved into the Muslim khanates of Central Asia, including lands claimed by the Afghan amirs.

The creation of modem Afghanistan began during the reign of Abdul Rahman Khan (1 880-1901). While external powers (Britain, Russia) drew the boundaries of Afghanistan, the Amir attempted to spread his influence over the kingdom.

British and Russian empires, however, blocked Abdul Rahman Khan, preventing him from spilling over into India, Persia, and Central Asia and creating another great Afghan empire. European colonialism had replaced Asian colonialism in the region.

The British, with at least the tacit consent of the Russians, controlled Afghan relations with other countries until 1919, when the Afghans gained the right to conduct their own foreign affairs after the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The Afghans consider 1919 as the year in which they truly became independent of foreign domination.


Afghanistan is a landlocked nation in Central Asia and covers an area of approximately 647,497 sq km (250,000 sq miles). The greatest distance north to south is 563 km (350 miles), and the greatest distance east to west is 1,239 km (770 miles).

Afghanistan shares its total international frontier of 5,770 km (3,585 miles) with four neighbors as follows:
    • China (71 km, 44 miles) at northeast
    • Pakistan (2,466 km, 1,532 miles) at south and east
    • Iran (850 km, 528 miles) at west, and
    • Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan (2,383 km, 1,481 miles) at north.
The border with Pakistan marked by an imaginary line named the Durand Line was drawn by the  Indian British Government and has been contested by Afghanistan since 1893.

The capital is Kabul with a 1973 population of 534,350.

The other major urban centers are:
    • Qandahar (140,024)
    • Baghlan (110,874)
    • Herat (108,750)
    • Tagaab (106,777)
    • Chari-kar (1 00,443) and
    • Mazar-i-Shariff (60,000).
There are three main geographic regions:
    1. The central highlands: part of the Himalayan chain, which total approximately 416,398 sq km (160,000 sq miles), fan out from the Pamir Knot. Peaks on the main ridge, the Hindu Koosh, rise above 6,400 meters (21,000 f t), with passes up to 4,600 m (15,000 ft).
    2. The northern plains: approximately 103,600 sq km (40,000 sq miles) in areas with elevations of about 600 meters (2,000 ft), are fertile and populous areas.
    3. The southwestern plateau: is an arid zone of approximately 155,399 sq km (60,000 sq miles) with an altitude of about 900 meters (3,000 ft). Elevation varies between 6,000 meters (20,000 ft) in the east and 152 m (500 ft) in the west.
Three-fourths of the country is covered by mountain ranges.

The principal rivers are the:
    • Amu Darya: 1,250 km (700 miles), which rises in the Hindu Koosh and flows northwestward into the Sea of Aral
    • Largely un-navigable Kabul River: 611 km (380 miles), which joins the Indus at Attock in Pakistan and
    • Helmand River: 1,126 km (700 miles), which flows into Haamoon, an inland lake in Iran.