A Layman’s History of Afghanistan

Compiled by Gp Capt Kumar Kirinde, SLAF (Retd)  = “AFGHANISTAN:  THE SOUTH ASIAN NATION IN TURMOIL Part 1″ …. compiled with use of Wikipedia

Introduction:  Afghanistan is a landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. It is bordered by Pakistan to the east and south, Iran to the west, TurkmenistanUzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, and China to the northeast. Occupying 652,864 square kilometers (252,072 sq mi), the country is predominately mountainous with plains in the north and southwest. It is inhabited by 31.4 million people as of 2020, with 4.6 million living in the capital and largest city, Kabul.

The country’s strategic location along the Silk Road* connected it to the cultures of the Middle East and other parts of Asia. The land has historically been home to various peoples and has witnessed numerous military campaigns, including those by Alexander the GreatMauryasMuslim ArabsMongolsBritishSoviets, and lastly by the United States with NATO-allied countries. It has been called “unconquerable” and nicknamed the “graveyard of empires” though it has been occupied during several different periods of its history.

* The Silk Road was and is a network of trade routes connecting the East and West; from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century CE it was central to the economic, cultural, political, and religious interactions between these regions. “The Silk Road” usually refers to certain land routes, but it may also refer to sea routes that connect East Asia and Southeast Asia with South AsiaPersia, the Arabian PeninsulaEast Africa and Southern Europe.

                                                              Main routes of the Silk Road

Time period around 114 BCE–1450s CE ………………. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road

In the late 19th century, Afghanistan became a buffer state in the “Great Game“* between British India and the Russian Empire.

* “The Great Game” was a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire, over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia. It also had direct consequences in Persia and British India. Britain feared that Russia planned to invade India and that this was the goal of Russia’s expansion in Central Asia, while Russia feared the expansion of British interests in Central Asia. As a result, there was a deep atmosphere of distrust and the talk of war between two of the major European empires. Britain made it a high priority to protect all the approaches to India, while Russia continued its conquest of Central Asia

Following the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 the country was free of foreign influence, eventually becoming a monarchy under King Amanullah, until almost 50 years later when King Zahir was overthrown and a republic was established. In 1978, after a second coup, Afghanistan became a socialist state, provoking the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s against mujahideen rebels. By 1996 most of Afghanistan was captured by the Islamic fundamentalist group, the Taliban, who ruled most of the country as a totalitarian regime for over five years. The Taliban were removed from power after the US invasion in 2001 but still controlled a significant portion of the country. The twenty-year-long war between the government and the Taliban reached a climax with the 2021 Taliban offensive and the resulting fall of Kabul which returned the Taliban to power.

Modern History

The modern state of Afghanistan began in the 18th century with the Hotak dynasty (1709 to 1738) and Durrani Empire (1747 to 1823, and then again from 1839 to 1842).

   Mirwais Khan Hotak,                   Ahmed Shah Durrani,

                                         Founder of the Hotak dynasty     1st Emir of the Durrani Empire  Pics: Google Images

The first Anglo – Afghan War (1838)

By 1838, the King (Emir) of Afghanistan was Dost Mohammad Khan Barakzai. In that year the country saw the first invasion by a western power, Great Britain leading to the first Anglo-Afghan War. A British expeditionary force marched in and arrested the Emir and exiled him to India in 1839. He was replaced with the previous ruler, Shah Shuja Durrani. But in 1845 following an uprising, the British restored Dost Mohammad Khan as the Emir who then ruled for 18 years. The British withdrew their military forces from Afghanistan once Dost Mohammad Khan was restored.

Dost Mohammad Khan       Shah Shuja Durrani  ………..Pics: Google Images                        


                                    Paintings depicting the first Anglo – Afghan War, 1878 ..………..Pics: Google Images

British and allied forces at Kandahar after the 1880 Battle of Kandahar,   during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.                                                                                                                                       (The large defensive wall around the city   was removed in the early 1930s by order of King Nadir).

                       Afghan tribesmen in 1841, painted by British officer James Rattray   (Pics: Google Images)

The 2nd Anglo-Afghan War (1878)

In 1863, Sher Ali Khan became the Emir who ruled for 3 years till his older brother, Mohammad Afzal Khan captured power in 1866. In 1867, Mohammad Azam Khan, the 5th brother in the Khan family became the Emir. Just after ruling the country close to one year in 1868, his brother Sher Ali Khan recaptured the power he lost 5 years back and ruled again for 11 years.

Sher Ali Khan                             Mohammad Azam Khan             Pics: Google Images

In 1878, the Second Anglo-Afghan War was fought over perceived Russian influence in the region and Britain gained control of Afghanistan’s foreign relations as part of the Treaty of Gandamak.


                                             Paintings depicting the first Anglo – Afghan War, 1878 ..………..Pics: Google Images

British and allied forces at Kandahar after the 1880 Battle of Kandahar,   during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.                                                                                                                                       (The large defensive wall around the city   was removed in the early 1930s by order of King Nadir).

In 1879, Mohammed Yaqub Khan became the Emir for a very brief period i.e. for little less than a year with Abdur Rahman Khan becoming the Emir in 1880 and ruling for 21 years.

In 1893, Amir Abdur Rahman signed an agreement in which the ethnic Pashtun and Baloch territories were divided by the Durand Line, which forms the modern-day border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was known as the “Iron Amir” for his features and his ruthless methods against tribes. The Iron Amir viewed railway and telegraph lines coming from the Russian and British as “trojan horses” and therefore prevented railway development in Afghanistan. In 1901 he was replaced by his son, Habibullah Khan who ruled for 18 years.

  King Amanullah Khan   Pic: Google Images

Habibullah Khan  Pic: Google Images


During World War I (1914-1918), when Afghanistan was neutral, Habibullah Khan was met by officials of the Central Powers in the Niedermayer–Hentig Expedition* , to declare full independence from the United Kingdom, join them and attack British India, as part of the Hindu–German Conspiracy, a series of Indo-German efforts to provoke a nationalist revolution in India.  Their efforts to bring Afghanistan into the Central Powers failed, but it caused discontent among the population for keeping neutrality against the British. Habibullah was assassinated during a hunting trip in 1919, and Amanullah Khan eventually assumed power.

* The Niedermayer–Hentig Expedition, also known as the Kabul Mission, was a diplomatic mission to Afghanistan sent by the Central Powers in 1915–1916. The purpose was to encourage Afghanistan to declare full independence from the British Empire, enter World War I on the side of the Central Powers, and attack British India. Nominally headed by the exiled Indian prince Raja Mahendra Pratap, the expedition was a joint operation of Germany and Turkey and was led by the German Army officers Oskar Niedermayer and Werner Otto von Hentig. Other participants included members of an Indian nationalist organisation called the Berlin Committee, including Maulavi Barkatullah and Chempakaraman Pillai, while the Turks were represented by Kazim Bey, a close confidante of Enver Pasha.

    Mahendra Pratap, centre, with (left to right) Maulavi Barkatullah, Werner Otto von Hentig, Kazim Bey, and Walter Röhr. Kabul, 1916 …..Source:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niedermayer%E2%80%93Hentig_Expedition

The 3rd Anglo-Afghan War (1919)

A staunch supporter of the 1915–1916 expeditions, Amanullah Khan evoked the Third Anglo-Afghan War, entering British India via the Khyber Pass.

 Painting depicting the third Anglo – Afghan War, 1919

Pic: Google Images

 Becoming an independent state

After the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War and the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi on 19 August 1919, King Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan a sovereign and fully independent state. He moved to end his country’s traditional isolation by establishing diplomatic relations with the international community, particularly with the Soviet Union and Germany.

Modernisation through reforms

Following a 1927–28 tour of Europe and Turkey, King Amanullah Khan introduced several reforms intended to modernize his nation. He fought for Article 68 of Afghanistan’s 1923 constitution, which made elementary education compulsory. The institution of slavery was abolished in 1923. Khan’s wife Queen Soraya Tarzi was an important figure during this period in the fight for woman’s education and against their oppression.

    Queen Soraya Tarzi  Pic: Google Images

Some of the reforms that were put in place, such as the abolition of the traditional burqa for women and the opening of several co-educational schools, quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders, and this led to the Afghan Civil War (1928–1929). Faced with the overwhelming armed opposition, Amanullah Khan abdicated in January 1929, and soon after Kabul fell to Saqqawist forces led by Habibullah Kalakani who became the King. Prince Mohammed Nadir Shah, Amanullah’s cousin, in turn defeated and killed Kalakani in October 1929, and was declared King Nadir Shah. 

Habibullah Kalakani          Nadir Shah    Pics: Google Images

King Nadir Shah abandoned the reforms of Amanullah Khan in favor of a more gradual approach to modernization but was assassinated in 1933 by a fifteen-year-old Hazara (Persian speaking ethnic group) student who was an Amanullah loyalist. Then Nadir Shah’s 19-year-old son Mohammed Zahir Shah, succeeded to the throne and reigned 40 years from 1933 to 1973.

       Mohammed Zahir Shah   Pic: Google Images

Afghanistan under King Zahir Shah who ruled for 40 years

Close relations with the Muslim states Turkey, the Kingdom of Iraq and Iran/Persia were also pursued, while further international relations were sought by joining the League of Nations in 1934. The 1930s saw the development of roads, infrastructure, the founding of a national bank, and increased education. Road links in the north played a large part in a growing cotton and textile industry. The country built close relationships with the Axis powers, with Germany having the largest share in Afghan development at the time, along with Italy and Japan.

Until 1946, Zahir Shah ruled with the assistance of his uncle, who held the post of Prime Minister and continued the policies of Nadir Shah. Another of Zahir Shah’s uncles, Shah Mahmud Khan, became Prime Minister in 1946 and began an experiment allowing greater political freedom, but reversed the policy when it went further than he expected. He was replaced in 1953 by Mohammed Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin and brother-in-law.  During his ten years at the post until 1963, Daoud Khan pressed for social modernization reforms and sought a closer relationship with the Soviet Union. Afterward, the 1964 constitution was formed, and the first non-royal Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Yusuf Khan was sworn in.

King Zahir Shah, like his father Nadir Shah, had a policy of maintaining national independence while pursuing gradual modernization, creating nationalist feeling, and improving relations with the United Kingdom. However, Afghanistan remained neutral and was neither a participant in World War II nor aligned with either power bloc in the Cold War thereafter. However, it was a beneficiary of the latter rivalry as both the Soviet Union and the United States vied for influence by building Afghanistan’s main highways, airports, and other vital infrastructure in the post-war period. On a per capita basis, Afghanistan received more Soviet development aid than any other country. Afghanistan had, therefore, good relations with both Cold War enemies.

Presidential system of government replacing the monarchy (1973)

In 1973, while the King was in Italy, Daoud Khan a former PM and king’s cousin and brother–in-law launched a bloodless coup and became the 1st President of Afghanistan, abolishing the monarchy

. Dauad Khan

Khan was known for his autocratic rule, educational and progressive social reforms, pro-Soviet policy and Pashtun irredentism; his social and economic reforms during his time as prime minister & president were thought to be relatively successful, but his foreign policy led to tense relations with neighbouring countries.

Afghanistan in 1950s and 1960s  ………………Pics: Google Images

Pics: Google Images


Kabul, 1970s ….…..Pics

: G


Afghanistan in 1970s ……………(Pics: Google Images)



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Filed under accountability, Afghanistan, art & allure bewitching, authoritarian regimes, British imperialism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, democratic measures, economic processes, female empowerment, fundamentalism, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, politIcal discourse, Taliban, transport and communications, travelogue, unusual people, war reportage, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes, zealotry

One response to “A Layman’s History of Afghanistan

  1. Sugath Kulatunga

    Very interesting and informative. Perhaps more material could have been given on Buddhism in Afghanistan.

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