This country in S Central Asia is bounded on the N by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, on the E by China, on the S by Pakistan, and on the W by Iran. It is central to passage to and from the above countries and its very centrality explains its turbulent political history, with countless changes of government, boundaries, and allegiances. Afghanistan had a civilization long before Darius I annexed it to Persia. It subsequently became part of Alexand er’s empire. The Seleucid dynasty finally gained effective control and founded many Greek towns in eastern Iran after c. 310 b.c. In 255 b.c. the satrap of Bactria took the opportunity to found the independent Greek kingdom of Bactria. Many examples of Greek architecture may be found in Kashmir and the Peshawar valley, but otherwise Greek influence waned fairly rapidly.
Western Afghanistan was conquered by Muslims in the seventh century a.d. In spite of all the later political reorganizations, Islam became the stable religion of the region. This has been the one solid unifying factor at the core of later Afghan history and has much to do with the cohesion and fierce sense of independence of its people.
In 1747 Afghanistan was established as a kingdom. At the death of the Persian Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1773, the Afghan kingdom consisted of Eastern Persia, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Kashmir, and the Punjab. Under a succession of rulers, various territories were lost. In 1809 Afghanistan joined the British against the Russians and the Persians. However, they were attacked by the British in the First Afghan War of 1838–42. Throughout the 19th century Afghanistan had a troubled history and was caught between rival British and Russians in the Second Afghan War of 1878–80. A degree of independence was gained under Abd-er-Rahman Khan between 1880 and 1901, when he ceded the Khyber Pass, long the gateway for invasions of India, to the British. He also settled the boundaries with India in 1893 and with Russia in 1895.
Afghanistan stayed neutral during World War I and by various treaties was recognized as independent by Britain, Russia, Turkey, and Persia. The progressive Amanullah Khan assumed rule in 1919 and adopted a constitution in 1923. However, his Westernization provoked opposition, and he was overthrown in 1929. His successor, Nadir Shah, was assassinated in 1933. Nadir Shah’s son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, formed the Oriental Entente in 1937 with Turkey, Iraq, and Iran and continued to modernize the country.
Afghanistan again remained neutral in World War II. In 1940 it signed a trade pact with the USSR, and in subsequent years became a member of the United Nations. In the 1950s and 1960s the government took broad measures to modernize and improve the economy. In 1973 the monarchy was abolished and a republic established. After a coup, in December 1979 the country was occupied by the USSR in order to bolster its pro-Russian government, which had nearly collapsed. The occupation was a stormy one, and the Russians faced much organized resistance. The Afghan resistance and internal problems in the USSR pushed the Soviet occupation out by 1989. In 1992 an Islamic State was declared, but fighting continued among factions and warlords. In 1996, the government was taken over by the Taliban, an Islamic extremist group that became world renowned for its militancy, suppression of women, and xenophobia. In 2001 the 9-11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., focused attention on Afghanistan as the home base for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organization. In October of 2001 the United States and Britain, supporting an offensive by the Northern Alliance coalition of Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara tribespeople, bombed Taliban and al-Qaeda positions. The Taliban were forced from the capital of Kabul, and their home bases in Kand ahar. Many fled to the Pakistan border area or took refuge in Pakistan. The leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are still at large as of 2006. In 2002 a loya jirga (tribal council) chose Hamid Karzai, a Pushtun, as interim leader. Karzai was subsequently elected president. Much of the country outside of the cities is still in conflict as Afghan, U.S., and other forces continue the fighting.