Larry P. Goodson is an associate professor of international studies at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. He is the author of Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban (University of Washington Press, 2001).
In 1747, the ethnic group known as the Pushtuns united under Ahmad Shah Durrani into the kingdom of Afghans. Until the early 20th century, Afghanistan primarily was a buffer state, caught between the expansionist Russian and British empires and the contracting Safavid Dynasty in Persia. Afghanistan's present borders and national identity took shape gradually, as Afghan monarchs fought wars and negotiated boundaries with British and Russian conquerors.
The Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) brought full independence for Afghanistan, but conflicts over modernization and political power prevented any single monarch from establishing a stable or long-lasting reign. For most of its history, Afghanistan has had a central government that could not intrude very heavily into the countryside. Rugged topography and geographic isolation, combined with deep ethnic, linguistic, tribal, racial, and regional cleavages, created a country that was unified by Islam while it was divided by hundreds of variations on its practice. Qawm (the group to which the individual belongs, e.g., a sub-tribe, village, valley, or neighborhood) identity and emphasized allegiance to the local over central authority guaranteed a difficult time for any leader who took on the task of state building.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, leadership shifted back and forth between ministers who established cordial relations with the Soviet Union and those who favored Western notions of democracy. By the 1980s, Islamism (Islamic fundamentalism or radical Islam) had enjoyed a great resurgence throughout the Islamic world, from the Khomeini Revolution in Iran, the attacks of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Hamas-led Intifada in Palestine, to the social welfare activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Communists seized power in Afghanistan in a 1978 coup. The secular and centralized approach of Communist rule sparked a rebellion in the countryside. As the rebellion grew in strength, the U.S.S.R. decided to intervene in order to help defend the new Communist regime. In December 1979, when the Soviets finally intervened, it transformed the rebellion into a war of national liberation that drew on a tradition of rural resistance to the impositions of the central state.
Because the Soviet Union sought to replace Islamic rule with secular rule, the war of national liberation from the Communists also became a jihad (holy war). Meanwhile, the United States, motivated both by Cold War politics and Saudi Arabia, which was eager to see a strong Islam state emerge in Afghanistan, led an international effort to support a squabbling band of resistance groups (known as the "mujahedeen") based in Pakistan. Thus it was that the U.S., in arming anti-Communist fighters, found itself arming and supporting a movement whose leaders often railed against the very things the West stood for and, increasingly, against the West itself.
-- The Soviets Withdraw; A Power Vacuum Ensues
Unable to eliminate the mujahedeen, the Soviets withdrew their troops from Afghanistan in February 1989, though they continued military and economic support until the U.S.S.R. collapsed in January 1992. The end of the Cold War wrought profound changes in the region. Once the Soviet threat was gone, Washington turned away from Afghanistan and Pakistan, shifting its political and military might toward the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and its economic attention toward India's much larger consumer market. The resulting power vacuum opened the doors to a regional power struggle, as neighboring states intervened in Afghan politics for their own ends. Especially important was a three-way struggle between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, all of which wanted access to the markets and Muslims of Central Asia, and to deny those things to their rivals. In the chaos that ensued, Afghanistan descended into factional fighting and regional fragmentation.
In 1994, the Taliban, a movement of Islamist religious students, emerged in reaction to widespread lawlessness in the south. Trained primarily in the religious colleges of Pakistan, the Taliban gained control of almost all of Afghanistan. When the Taliban gained Jalalabad in 1996, they began a partnership with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. Over the next few years, the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus became more puritanical and intolerant of Afghanistan's northern minorities. Large numbers of Pakistani "volunteers" joined the movement. During the 1990s, Al Qaeda became increasingly aggressive, targeting the U.S. in several high-profile operations, culminating in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. response to those attacks led to the implementation of an interim government in December 2001, headed by moderate Pushtun tribal chieftain Hamid Karzai.
Afghanistan today is once again a country defined by localism. Afghanistan's ethnic mélange, reinforced by varying Islamic practices and terrain so rugged that dialects can change from one valley to the next, has produced a country where Pushtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and 20-odd other groups tend to live in separate areas and reinforce their differences in numerous ways (religious practice, dialect, facial features, dress, etc.). The Northern Alliance, for example, can be understood as a collection of militias primarily constructed along ethnic lines. The militias, in turn, have several factions. In other words, the Northern Alliance is made up of hundreds of small groups of armed men who share local qawm identity and who are affiliated with one of the larger factions (not always permanently).
It is difficult to find Afghan leaders today who do not make a virulent blend of radical Islam, gratuitous violence, and control of some portion of the illicit economy the foundation of their authority. More traditional elements of political authority -- such as Sufi networks, royal lineage, clan strength, age-based wisdom and the like -- still exist and play a role, but it is unclear how potent or resilient these sources of authority are. Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, is relying on these traditional sources of authority in his challenge to the warlords and older Islamist leaders. He embodies this struggle for the soul of Afghanistan.
As for sentiments toward the U.S., Islamists in Afghanistan have questioned Washington's involvement in the region. While the U.S. government claims that its interest is to foster democracy, its actions often seem to be more about preserving market access for American companies. Islamists see those market interests as counter to their religious beliefs and resist the potential undermining of Islamic economic, political, and cultural interests. They also question U.S. support for Israel and for the so-called moderate Arab regimes, which have tended to be corrupt, un-democratic, and, therefore, unacceptable as leaders of the Arab or Islamic world.
-- Damage Assessment