Language and Ethnicity
As reflected in the map, Afghanistan's citizens hail from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The country's official languages are Dari (Southern Farsi) and Pashto, but there are more than 30 other languages spoken within the country. Of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups, the largest (at 42 percent of the population) and most historically powerful is the Pashtun from the southern part of the country. Interim President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun. The second largest ethnic group (at 27 percent of the population) is the Tajik, who made up the majority of Northern Alliance fighters participating in the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. The Shia Muslim Hazara, who came from Mongolia in the 13th century B.C.E., and the Uzbek, tie for the title of Afghanistan's third largest ethnic group (at 9 percent of the population each). The formerly nomadic Uzbek group from the far north has, in recent history, come under the protection of the powerful warlord General Dostum. Dostum initially sided with the communists in the 1980s before switching allegiances in the early '90s. Other groups such as the Aimak, Turkmen, and Baloch form much smaller communities throughout the mountainous country.
Since 329 B.C.E. Afghanistan has been invaded multiple times by forces as varied as Alexander the Great (329 BCE), the Huns (400 A.D.), and Genghis Khan (1219 A.D.). Each invading force was ultimately unable to conquer the fiercely independent tribes they found within the region. But in 1747 the Islamic Pashtun King Ahmad Shah united the area and conquered most of what is now Pakistan, and parts of Turkmenistan as well. This sweep of power marked the beginning of the Durrani Dynasty, during which descendants of Ahmad Shah ruled an ever-shrinking Afghanistan until 1818. The region was subsequently fragmented with internal and external power struggles until the Afghans united to oppose the last British attempt at invasion in 1919. Between the final defeat of the British in 1919 and the Invasion of the Soviets in 1979 Afghanistan experienced short periods of peace followed by civil unrest and severe internal power struggles. During this time, wars, compounded by earlier conflicts with the British and continuing conflicts with neighboring countries further ate away at Afghanistan's borders.
In 1978 the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) staged a coup against then President Sardar Mohammed Daud Khan, a leftist leaning Pashtun who had come to power in a coup against his cousin, the former king. Eventually Babrak Karmal, leader of a faction of the People's Democratic Party, was established as ruler. When Karmal's government came under pressure from insurgents within the country, the Soviet Union mobilized troops, in what it claimed was an effort to help stabilize the new government. By 1979 the international community had labeled the Soviet action an invasion. Rebel forces known as the mujahedin began to fight in earnest against the Soviets. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Afghanistan across the borders of southern Pakistan and Iran. After years of resistance and an estimated 50,000 Soviet casualties (including more than 13,000 dead), the Soviets pulled 115,000 troops out in 1989.
In the power struggle left behind when the Soviet's finally withdrew from Afghanistan, several factions vied for control. Among them was a fundamentalist Islamic group known as the Taliban. Under the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban took over Kabul and set up a government based upon the strict interpretation of Islamic law. To ensure control they began offensives in various parts of the country and in 1996 they invited Osama bin Laden to take up residence in Afghanistan. Over the course of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 they implemented Islamic punishments -- including stoning to death and amputations -- abolished women's right to an education, and attempted to cut Afghanistan's ties with the international community among other extreme acts. On September 11th, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States destroying the World Trade Center in New York City and damaging the Pentagon in Washington D.C.; Osama bin Laden is widely believed to have been responsible. In response to the terrorist attacks, the United States and England began air strikes against Afghanistan, and in late 2001 the Taliban fell due to a combined offensive between Northern Alliance resistance troops and the U.S. and British military.
History has shown that regardless of the type of central government established in Afghanistan, ethnic and tribal ties have remained strong. In recent history the manifestation of this kind of tribal fiefdom has been the emergence of notable warlords who still control specific regions of the country. Over the course of Afghanistan's history many ruling governments have dissolved, resulting in power vacuums. During these times, warlord power has been most prominent. In 2002 various warlords ruled over large sectors of Afghanistan. Many of these warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan are still in control of areas in Afghanistan in 2004.