Chapter 1

A Brief History of Afghanistan 

from the Dawn of Time until 1901

By Bijan Omrani

Before one sets out to investigate Afghanistan and its past, there are two pieces of advice it would be well to bear in mind. The first is not to be daunted by its complexity. The region occupied by Afghanistan (which emerged as a state only in the 18th century) has seen around two-dozen major empires since the dawn of recorded history. If one were to go into detail, there would be an interminable and dizzying list of conquerors and rulers, a whirligig of petty states and grand kingdoms which have occupied its territory over the last 3,000 years.

It would be easy to be mesmerised or intimidated by this morass of empires, and conclude that the history of the region is unabated chaos. Yet, one must always remember that this is not at all the case. A number of simple forces, primarily fostered by Afghanistan’s geography, can be seen at work beneath the surface complexity. If we understand these before all else, then we can begin to determine patterns and make sense of the apparent confusion.

The second piece of advice is always to bear in mind the long historical view. The forces of geography and politics which act on Afghanistan now have been remarkably consistent and coherent over the last 3,000 years. Many of the conflicts which Afghanistan is now enduring are in essence reincarnations of those which it has seen many times before. People speak of the Great Game in Afghanistan developing in the 19th century, but should one look back two hundred years, one will see an equal situation, albeit between the Mughals and the Persians rather than the British and Russians.

Beyond this, one must be careful not to look at the last 30 years of war, or the previous period of apparent peace in the mid 20th century, and declare either to be Afghanistan’s natural state. Similarly, any solution to Afghanistan’s current difficulties which takes into account only recent events, and which does not bear in mind the grand sweep of historical pressures on Afghanistan, is unlikely to succeed. Afghanistan should always be approached with an Olympian perspective.

The main factor dictating Afghanistan’s history is its position at the heart of Asia. The land of Afghanistan is, in the words of the historian Arnold Toynbee, “a roundabout of empires”. A British diplomat and Afghanistan scholar, W.K. Fraser-Tytler was also close to the mark in writing that Afghanistan stands “at the meeting point of three great empires”. The land of Afghanistan has always acted as a buffer zone between three historic centres of empire. It sits between an Indian centre of power to the south-east, a Persian centre of power to the west, and a Central Asian centre of power to the north, represented throughout history in the earliest times by Scythians, and later Turks, Mongols, Uzbeks and latterly Russians.

Crucially, Afghan territory provides no clear and impregnable physical boundaries to separate these different powers. The Hindu Kush which runs from the north-east to the south-west, the Suleiman mountains on the modern Pakistan frontier and the Oxus river on the northern boundary are all formidable, but not insuperable. As a result, each neighbouring empire is constantly drawn into Afghanistan to seek advantage against its opponents, holding more of its territory when they are strong, and retreating when they are in decline. It was only when all three empires were decadent at the same moment in the 18th century that the Pashtun tribes in the south of the country were able to throw off the outsiders’ dominance and establish their own state. Nonetheless, the propensity of Afghanistan’s neighbours to project their power into its territory has never fallen away.

Although Afghanistan’s position at the heart of Asia has led it to habitual wars, it has also brought times of great prosperity. The historic land-trading routes from all parts of Asia converge on Afghanistan, and valuable merchandise from China, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Central Asia and the Mediterranean for thousands of years would pass through Afghan territory. This trade had several effects. It led to the growth of a number of prosperous cities, such as Herat, Balkh, Bamian, Kabul (and its near neighbour Bagram) and Kandahar.

These places based their wealth on long-distance commerce and the manufacture of luxury goods. The abundance of wealth allowed the liberal cultivation of the arts and sciences. In addition to this, the variety of goods and travellers from all nations meant that Afghanistan was intellectually cosmopolitan, a melting pot for different ideas, arts and even religions. Frequently, Afghanistan was at the intellectual cutting edge of civilisation, and to its land the world owes not only some of the finest creations in architecture, painting and poetry, but even new directions in faith.

The wealth generated by trade led to another important force in the development of Afghan history. The wealth of the cities far outstripped that available in the rural areas. Apart from occasional mining activity for gold and precious stones, the main income outside the cities came from settled agriculture and the nomadic raising of livestock in the large tracts of marginal land less suitable for cultivation. The great disparity of wealth and differing lifestyles led to a perpetual tension. In particular, the nomadic peoples viewed their way of life as more noble than that of the city dwellers. These people, thought the nomads, were weakened by luxury and ease, whilst they themselves were more self-reliant, hardened by living on the move without luxury. The nomads also thought themselves the possessors of true liberty, able to move freely, say what they thought, and defend themselves by their own actions and vendettas rather than depending on the laws and officials of a distant capital. The life of the nomad, they considered, was true democracy. 

By contrast, the city dwellers looked down on the nomads as uncivilised and dangerous. The cities, with their surfeit of wealth and inhabitants less accustomed to war, made easy pickings for sudden nomadic attacks. Nomads, relying on their mastery of horses and archery, were incredibly difficult to meet on the battlefield. Their tactic of riding out of nowhere, attacking at a distance with arrows and melting into the wilderness – quintessential guerrilla warfare – was nearly always impossible for a conventional army of serried ranks of foot soldiers with heavy weapons to defeat.

A general pattern is visible throughout history in the relationship between the settled cities and the nomadic peoples of the rural wilderness. In general, there is an uneasy truce as the two, despite their contempt and antagonism, are dependent on each other. The merchants of the cities rely on nomads for animal products, wool, carpets and livestock, as well as providing the manpower and expertise to conduct long-distance journeys and trade; the nomads possess the knowledge of how to travel safely through the trackless wildernesses between the cities. On the other hand, the nomads are also dependent on the cities. They look to them not only for the income from conducting trade caravans (and even protection money for keeping trade routes open) and selling their animal goods, but they also require some of the manufactures of the city.

Nonetheless, the relationship may sometimes break down and the nomads will take over the cities, sometimes driven by desire for wealth, or at other times by wider population movements forcing them to look for new lands and pastures. Frequently, new waves of nomads, impelled by disturbances as far away as northern China, would migrate south across Central Asia and Afghanistan in search of new homelands, leading to attacks on the cities and settled territory. There is an ironic coda in this pattern that when nomads do conquer cities, they are beguiled by the wealth and civilisation which they find, and within a few generations assimilate themselves fully into city life, losing their nomadic hardiness. In their turn, they are ripe for conquest by a new wave of nomads.

The Indo-Europeans and the Rise of Ancient Persia

(2000–500 bc)

These patterns and tensions are manifest even as the land of Afghanistan comes into the first light of history. The first visible participants in this cycle of nomadic invasions were the Aryan tribes, which crossed the River Oxus southwards into Afghanistan during the 2nd millennium bc. These tribes encountered a native population in the lands of Afghanistan which showed signs of wealth and great cultural sophistication thanks to international trade. These early inhabitants of Afghanistan, with important administrative and religious centres at Dashly near Balkh and Mundigak near Kandahar, oversaw the export of tin and lapis lazuli as far afield as Egypt and modern-day Iraq.

The funeral mask of Tutankhamen (c. 1300 bc) is embellished with deep-blue lapis lazuli from the mines of Badakhshan in north-east Afghanistan, as is the much older Queen’s Lyre of Ur in Iraq (c. 2500 bc), which is now in the British Museum. The striking bull’s head motif on this lyre, a design native to Iraq at that time, was also found on a gold bowl discovered at Tepe Fullol in northern Afghanistan in 1966. This bowl, dating to around 2200 bc and found to be manufactured locally, demonstrates how even at that early stage the trade routes brought external ideas into a wealthy Afghanistan.

A number of Aryan tribesmen remained in Afghanistan, whilst others pushed southwards through the Bolan Pass into India, and others turned westwards to settle on the Iranian Plateau. To this Aryan presence we owe two primary legacies. Many of the modern languages of Afghanistan, including Dari (a dialect of Persian) and Pashto trace their ancestry back of the Indo-European language of the original Aryan tribesmen. There is also a religious inheritance. According to Persian legend, the prophet and religious reformer Zoroaster (also known as Zardusht or Zarathustra) is closely associated with the city of Balkh.

Although there is no agreement at what time he might have lived (scholars argue for any time between 1400 and 600 bc), the ideas of the Zoroastrian religion have had a profound impact on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It proclaimed that there was a supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, and that the universe was a cosmic battleground between Good and Evil. By “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”, each person would play a role in this conflict and aid Good towards a final triumph over Evil in the millennial age. Besides this, all good people would also be rewarded by Ahura Mazda for their conduct.

The doctrines of Zoroaster went on to furnish the religion of state for the Persian Empire, ruled over by descendants of the western branch of the Aryan migrants. The Empire, under Cyrus the Great (r. 550–529 bc) of the Achaemenian dynasty, was the first great dominion of the ancient world, reaching from Egypt in the west to the Indus river in the east. Little in the way of detailed history is known about Afghanistan for this period, though ancient Persian inscriptions at Behistun in Iran, along with the 5th-century account of the Greek historian Herodotus, confirm that the Persian King divided the Afghan territory into districts known as satrapies.

These were governed by deputies, or satraps, and each paid an annual tribute of precious metals and luxury items to the Great King of Persia. Carved reliefs at the ruined Persian palace of Persepolis showing officials from the Afghan satrapies presenting the tribute are some of the first depictions we possess of inhabitants of Afghanistan. Herodotus also describes divisions of soldiers brought from the Afghan satrapies to fight in the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 bc. We have the faintest glimpses of warriors wearing caps and carrying bows, suggestive of the nomadic means of war.

The Conquest of Alexander the Great (330 bc)

The Afghan satrapies remained under Achaemenid Persian control until the conquest of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire began in 334 bc after his father, Philip of Macedon, managed to unify Greece under his rule. Many things motivated Alexander to launch this attack on Persia. He desired to lift the long-term threat which the Persian Empire had cast over the Greek world. He undoubtedly cherished a personal ambition for conquest, but some commentators argue that he wished to dissolve the distinctions between Greek and non-Greek, and popularise a western, Greek way of life throughout Asia.

With Alexander’s conquest, we possess some of the first detailed written source material about the land of Afghanistan and a military campaign within it. It is instructive to study the records of Alexander’s Afghan campaign, particularly in the light of later western military engagement. With a small and highly trained body of around 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, he was able to conquer the western half of the Persian Empire – Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, the regions of modern-day Iraq and Iran – with relative ease. His drilled and disciplined army was able to overcome the chaotic massed ranks of the Persian forces, many times larger than his own, in three major set-piece battles.

After the third of these in 331 bc, he was able to take possession of the capital of the Empire, Persepolis itself. The Persian King, Darius III attempted to flee eastwards into the Afghan satrapies, but was murdered by one of his satraps, Bessus, who declared himself King and then hurried to his satrapy in northern Afghanistan to raise a resistance. Here, he was able to collect a force of 8,000 horsemen. Thus to secure his conquest, Alexander was compelled to continue his offensive in the Afghan satrapies and eastern half of the Persian Empire.

Alexander travelled from Ecbatana (modern-day Hamadan) to Herat, where he received the submission of the local satrap, Satibarzanes. Yet having begun his march north-east directly towards Balkh and the northern half of Afghanistan, Satibarzanes rebelled, slaughtered the officials Alexander had left behind, and declared for Bessus. On learning of this news, Alexander halted his column, and sent two generals back to Herat to take it by storm. Although the detachment was victorious, Alexander was not reassured, and decided to change his strategy. Instead of marching directly towards Bessus, he decided to sweep through the south of Afghanistan via Kandahar, Bagram near Kabul, and then to approach the north via the Panjshir Valley on the eastern side. He must have come to the conclusion that it was difficult to assure himself of the loyalty of cities which he had nominally taken, and that a show of force and mobility was required to overawe the local rulers.

Passing through the mountain ranges between Kandahar and Bagram, Alexander’s troops encountered terrible privations. The mountain people were, in the words of one historian, “wild . . . uncivilised even for barbarians”. Yet, they had never seen strangers such as Alexander’s troops in their land, and they “brought them everything they possessed, begging them only to spare their lives”. Despite this, the men suffered starvation, frostbite and snow blindness. When they had made it through the Panjshir Valley and the Khawak Pass – a shorter and more difficult route which Bessus did not conceive Alexander would attempt – the troops suffered the opposite problems of heat and drought. When Alexander appeared by this unexpected route, Bessus’ horsemen fled and disappeared into the background rather than fight a pitched battle. 

Alexander easily captured Bessus, having chased him across the River Oxus and sent him for execution, but he now faced an unaccustomed problem. His troops had performed perfectly in conventional set-piece battles, but in attempting to conquer the area of northern Afghanistan and the lands beyond the Oxus he was fighting a different type of conflict. Rather than ordinary battles, he faced the difficult guerrilla-style of nomadic warfare described above. He spent two years in this region alone, attempting to find the best means of responding to nomadic attack.

It is notable that when he reached Afghanistan, Alexander not only established strong garrisons around the country to keep it under control, but he also resorted to a cultural strategy to give himself a greater aura of legitimacy. He assumed the dress and court ritual of a Persian monarch, in particular the act of proskynesis, in which people of lower rank had to prostrate themselves before him. This greatly upset the Greeks and Macedonians in his train. He also married a native princess in northern Afghanistan, named Roxane, a union which gave rise to many later Afghan myths and stories of tribal chiefs descended from Alexander.

Alexander’s armies reached as far as the Indus river. He even fought in the modern tribal areas on the north-west frontier of Pakistan, encountering, according to the classical historian Arrian, a city established by the wine god Dionysus, which followed Greek customs and laws. Despite this great career of conquest, Alexander’s early death in Babylon in 323 bc at the age of 32 meant that he was not able to consolidate his new empire.

After several years of strife, one of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was for the most part able to take over Alexander’s territories in the east. However, he could not enforce his writ south-east beyond the Hindu Kush. A resurgent Indian empire, the Mauryans, under the great conqueror Chandragupta (known to classical historians as Sandracottus) was able to bring together much of the subcontinent under unified rule for the first time, and to include the southern part of Afghanistan in its realm. Thus, by the 3rd century bc, Afghanistan was divided into a westward-looking Greek-ruled zone in the north, and an eastward-looking Indian zone in the south.

The Mauryans and Greek Kingdoms

(3rd Century bc–1st Century ad)

The Mauryan Empire left a lasting impression on the south of Afghanistan. The greatest ruler of the dynasty, Ashoka (273–232 bc) started his reign as a particularly violent empire-builder, but around 250 bc he underwent a sudden conversion. Repenting of the great suffering his campaigns were causing, he converted to Buddhism and spent his life attempting to spread the religion throughout his empire. He sent out missionaries, founded monasteries and built monuments to house relics of the Buddha. Besides this, he attempted to raise the standard of living for all people in his dominions by building hospitals, roads and irrigation systems. He even reduced the consumption of meat in the royal household, and put severe restrictions on hunting throughout his territories.

He described his deeds in edicts carved into rock pillars erected in the great cities of his empire. Those displayed at Kandahar still survive, outlining in Greek and Aramaic – the two predominant languages in the area at the time – his conversion to Buddhism and his wide reforms. He not only left behind a material legacy in terms of his building work, but also a spiritual legacy. It is thanks to his work that Buddhism began to spread beyond its Indian cradle and secure a place for itself as a major religion, not just in Afghanistan but further afield through the whole of Asia.

The Greek Empire in the north similarly left an enduring legacy. Around 250 bc, it appears that the Greek satraps north of the Hindu Kush declared independence from the wider Seleucid Empire and ruled a series of independent Greek states until around the 1st century ad. These Greek kingdoms were cut off from the west from the 2nd century bc, when the Seleucid territories in the Persian heartland fell to the nomadic Parthian dynasty. The remains of one of the Greek cities from this period, discovered at Ai Khanum in northern Afghanistan, amply demonstrate how the land of Afghanistan even then functioned as a cultural melting pot.

The city was possibly established as a garrison by Alexander the Great as early as 327 bc, and from its foundation was inhabited by Greek settlers. The settlement boasted every amenity which a conventional Greek city by the Mediterranean would at that time possess. It had temples to Greek divinities, a shrine to its nominal founder, Kineas, along with sayings of the Delphic Oracle brought over from Greece. Young men learned philosophy from copies of Aristotle, fragments of which were discovered in the ruins, and were educated by a bearded philosophic schoolmaster whose statue survives to this day. They had a colonnaded main street, a gymnasium for exercise and recreation, and even a theatre for tragic and comic performances.

Nonetheless, this imported Greek culture mixed with indigenous ideas. Prominent civic buildings were a blend of native Greek architecture and the designs of Persian royal palaces. People with local names are seen in dedicatory Greek inscriptions, and similarly native Persian divinities are honoured with Greek statues. On their coins, the Greek rulers began to demonstrate claims to the Indian lands south of the Hindu Kush by sporting an elephant’s head helmet, and a number began to show an interest in Buddhism. One of them, King Menander (fl. c. 150 bc), is known as Milinda in Buddhist tradition and his conversion to the faith is described in a surviving Buddhist text called the Milinda Panha.

A debate has long raged over Alexander’s motivation for his conquest of the east. Many argue that he was driven for the sake of ambition, personal gain and imperialism, whereas others argue that he had a desire to overcome the traditional barriers between east and west. Whatever the truth, Alexander’s legacy in Afghanistan, whilst not overcoming the contrast between city dweller and nomad, was certainly a mixing of cultures and blurring of distinction between Greek and non-Greek at this time.

The Kushans and the Rise and Fall of the Early Silk Road

(130 bc–ad 651)

The Greek kingdoms were eventually swept away by nomadic invaders from the north. A confederation of tribes called the Yuezhi (Yueh-Chih) had been displaced from their original territories towards the north of China and pushed down through Central Asia. They crossed the River Oxus in search of new grazing lands, destroying Ai Khanum in about 130 bc and overcoming the other Greek settlements by the 1st century ad. Shortly afterwards, they also absorbed the remains of the Mauryan territories, and before long commanded their own kingdom, known as the Kushan Empire, which reached from the Caspian Sea down as far as Baluchistan. 

Despite their initial destruction of native settlements, the Yuezhi swiftly adopted the settled culture which they discovered in the Afghan lands. The sudden development of international trade routes at this time led to a period of great prosperity. Whilst the Yuezhi were moving into Afghan territory around 130 bc, they had been contacted by a Chinese envoy and explorer, Zhang Qian, who had been sent by the Chinese Emperor Han Wudi to look for allies to attack China’s nomadic enemies beyond the Great Wall. Although the Yuezhi were not willing to join China in a military adventure, Zhang Qian’s visit led to the development of the classical Silk Road.

By the beginning of the 1st century bc, trading links had been established between the Chinese capital Chang’an (Xi’an) in the east, across Afghanistan, with India, the Parthian Empire and Rome in the west. The two Kushan capitals, Bagram and Peshawar, became opulent transcontinental centres of commerce. Vivid examples of luxury goods from all parts of the world then available in Afghanistan were discovered by French archaeologists in Bagram in 1939. A merchant’s warehouse yielded up elaborately carved ivory panels from India, Chinese lacquer work, painted glassware from Roman Alexandria in Egypt, some of which featured illustrations of gladiators, plaster casts of Greek gods and other Roman bronze statuary. This cosmopolitan outlook even affected the other nomadic tribes in northern Afghanistan. A spectacular find of gold nomadic grave goods at Tillya-Tepe in 1978, exhibited at the British Museum in 2010, contained ornaments which combined local nomadic motifs, such as ram’s horns, with Greek gods and goddesses and Indian icons such as the swastika.

The Kushan Empire’s legacy to Buddhism still possesses worldwide significance. Up to the time of the empire’s greatest ruler, King Kanishka (r. c. ad 120), the religion placed greater emphasis on its founder as a teacher and sage. However, after a great council held by Kanishka, this emphasis moved to the Buddha’s miraculous life and divine humanity. In Buddhist art, the Buddha had up to that point been depicted by his absence through symbols such as a parasol, an empty throne or a footprint.

The new type of Buddhism developed after Kanishka’s council, Mahayana or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism, required the depiction of the Buddha himself and the incidents of his life. To generate such a figure, the Kushan artists drew on Greek and Indian traditions, mixing the conventional portrayals of Greek philosophers with Indian representations of gods and holy men. The resulting artistic representation of the Buddha is one with which we are still familiar today. A new artistic style, known as Gandharan, accompanied this development, melding Greek, Persian and Indian influences in the service of Buddhism.

Kanishka possessed the open-minded approach to religion which was a mark of the steppe nomads. Although he was more likely to have followed Zoroastrian beliefs himself, he still supported the work of Buddhist missionaries throughout his dominions. The Kushans oversaw the wide construction of Buddhist monasteries and monuments throughout Afghanistan, often ornamented with art in the Gandharan style. These developments in art, religious doctrine and building work were intimately linked with the rise of trade and general wealth; the Silk Road merchants relished a reformed Buddhist religion which sanctioned the display of affluence in its service. The work of the Kushans led to the development of Buddhist sites such as Bamian, Hadda and Ainak, which would continue in use for hundreds of years until the rise of Islam. 

As an empire whose wealth was based on trade, the Kushans were vulnerable whenever the strength of their trading partners went into decline. Such became the case later in the 2nd century ad, when the two powers at either end of the Silk Road – Rome and Han dynasty China – began to decay. The volume of commerce passing through Afghanistan dropped off sharply. The Kushans, weakened by this loss of business, fell prey around ad 250 to civil war and then conquest by the neighbouring Sassanians, who had become masters of the Persian Empire in the west.

Worse was to come when a new wave of nomadic invaders, the Hephthalites or White Huns, attacked Afghanistan from the north. Of them, and of the period from the 3rd to the 7th centuries ad, little can be said for certain. It is not known whether they were of an Iranic or Turkic background. They have had a fierce reputation, known for defeating the Sassanian Empire in a number of battles and even having killed one of their Shahs, Peroz I, in 484. Buddhist travellers also accuse them of destroying many monasteries and shrines, though it seems that many survived or were rebuilt, and the religious diversity of the Afghan lands was preserved, with Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Hinduism and even Nestorian Christianity all possessing adherents.

Moreover, the recent discovery of fragmentary documents from their rule in Afghanistan seems to confirm the statements of a late classical historian from Byzantium, Procopius, who claims that the Hephthalites were a well-regulated and orderly people. The documents suggest that the Hephthalites continued to use a legal system inherited from their Kushan predecessors, and that they were able to collect taxes and run an orderly administration. Nonetheless, they were not able to hold all of the Afghan territories, and by the middle of the 6th century Kabul, along with its surrounding lands to the southeast, fell under the control of an Indian dynasty, the Hindu Shahis. Similarly, the Sassanian Empire was able to regain a foothold in the north of the Afghan territory, turning the Hephthalite princes north of the Hindu Kush into vassals.

The Rise of the Islamic Dynasties (651–1219)

The rise of Islam in Afghanistan was to have little effect on the well-established trends of history. The Arab armies, suddenly unified by the inspiration of Muhammad, were easily able to capture large swathes of territory in the Middle East from the late Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanian empires, worn out as they were with centuries of constant feuding. In 632, the Arabs first attacked the Sassanian Persians, and by 642 they had overthrown the Sassanian monarchy and captured an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Iran.

Eager to capitalise on this momentum, the governor of Basra, Abdullah ibn Amir, ordered an Arab force to launch an attack against the principalities in the Afghan territories. Their progress was nowhere near as swift as was their original conquests. They were able to capture the southern desert area of Sistan as well as the cities of Herat and Balkh, using the latter to stage further assaults on Central Asia. However, Balkh in particular suffered from a number of revolts, and the Arab invaders were not able to push eastwards into the dominion of Kabul and the Hindu Shahi dynasty.

It is difficult to comment with any certainty on how swiftly the new Islamic faith was accepted in the Afghan territories. The best conjecture, based on the scraps of available evidence in the historical and geographical writers, would be that it was a steady process which took place over a number of centuries. Herat and Balkh continued to be centres of Nestorian Christianity. A Christian church was known to have existed in Herat at least until the 10th century and a Zoroastrian shrine in Sistan in the 12th century. The Buddhist kingdom of Bamian is thought to have remained autonomous until at least the end of the 9th century. In the 10th century, Arab travellers describe the population of Kabul as being a mix of religions, whilst the mountainous territories in the centre were full of “idolaters”. Indeed, a number of isolated tribes in the valleys of modern-day Nuristan in the Hindu Kush maintained ancient forms of pagan religion until forcibly converted to Islam by the Afghan throne in 1895.


Like many empires before it, the new Islamic empire found it difficult to maintain its authority over its outlying provinces. Its vast extent, reaching from Spain in the west to Transoxiana in the east, combined with a number of internal feuds over the question of leadership, meant that it was difficult for the rulers in Damascus and later in Baghdad to project their power far beyond their immediate heartlands. By the beginning of the 9th century, it was becoming possible for local strongmen, governing only nominally on behalf of the Muslim caliph, to start ruling their own dominions in the Afghan territory.

At this period, a confusing succession of new empires and dynasties rose and struggled for primacy in the Afghan region. The first of these known to history is the Tahirid, founded in northern Afghanistan by an Arab chieftain named Tahir “the Ambidextrous” in 822. Shortly afterwards in Sistan, an itinerant apprentice coppersmith Yakub bin Lais, nicknamed “Saffar” (copper) after his trade, was able to take over a garrison and start a career of conquest.

Having unsuccessfully attacked Bamian and Kabul, he captured Herat and the modern Iranian cities of Kerman and Shiraz, eventually overthrowing the Tahirids in 872. Yakub even marched against the caliph in Baghdad in an attempt to win greater legitimacy for his rule, but he was beaten back and died in 875. His brother Amr succeeded to his throne, but was in his turn defeated by a new Persian dynasty, the Samanids, based in the Central Asia city of Bokhara. The Samanids, having defeated Amr, were able to build an empire which encompassed much of modern Afghanistan and large tracts of land as far as Baghdad in the west.

The Samanids were great patrons of the arts, supporting Persian poets and orchestrating the construction of magnificent religious buildings such as the No Gumbad mosque in Balkh, whose delicately ornamented arches and columns are still standing today. However, Bokhara’s distant position in Transoxiana led it to experience the same problem as the Islamic caliphate in Baghdad. It found great difficulty in governing its more distant possessions. In Sistan, the Saffarid heartland, despite their original defeat a number of Yakub’s descendants managed to hold on to power as provincial officials until 1163. The Indian Hindu Shahi dynasty continued to retain their position in the district of Kabul. Other local potentates managed to hold individual cities throughout the south and east of the Afghan lands, often rising up against Samanid power, and it was only the north-west which was reasonably secure under Samanid control.

Yet even the manner in which the Samanids projected their military strength into the Afghan regions undermined the maintenance of their power. Over the course of their rule, they became increasingly dependent on Turkic slave soldiers, or mamluks, as mercenary forces to enforce their dominion. However, it was just as difficult to maintain the loyalty of such slave armies as the ordinary subjects of the empire. It was an easy matter for one of the Turkic generals of these forces, named Alptagin, who, although governor of Nishapur, was still a slave, in 961 to rebel against his Samanid masters and carve out his own kingdom. He took his force of 7,000 men, marched to the fortress town of Ghazni on the Kabul to Kandahar road, and there established the capital of his own fiefdom.

This entity quickly matured into an empire. In 976 a son-in-law of Alptagin, named Subuktagin, was able to conquer and destroy the Hindu Shahi dynasty, adding Kabul to his possessions. His son Mahmud continued this trend, taking Bost, Balkh, Herat and many of their

dependent territories, including parts of western Persia. At the time of his accession to the throne of Ghazni in 998, it became clear that the Samanid Empire north of the Oxus was on the verge of collapse, and that the new empire of Ghazni – the Ghaznavid – was in the ascendant. The final seal of approval was given by the caliph in Baghdad, who gave Mahmud the title of Yamin-ad-Daulah, or “Right Arm of the State”. Thanks to this endorsement, Mahmud could now be recognised as a legitimate Islamic ruler in his own right.

Mahmud is considered by many Islamic historians to have been one of the most illustrious rulers of the Afghan territories. He was a belligerent and successful leader in war, but also a discriminating patron of the arts. He led his men not only to capture the remaining Samanid lands and swathes of Persia, but also on 17 expeditions of Jihad into India, conquering great tracts of territory for his empire, smashing idols and carting away huge masses of loot.

This influx of treasure, which he distributed generously amongst his men, not only served to cement their loyalty, but also financed the magnificent embellishment of the Ghaznavid cities. Near the Helmand river at Bost and Lashkar Gah, the empire’s winter capital, the Ghaznavid nobles built a grand array of pleasure palaces adorned with lavish decoration and colourful frescoes. In Ghazni itself, there were not only imposing mosques and beautiful gardens, but also a host of scholars, poets, historians, musicians and artists all under the patronage of Mahmud.

It is striking to note that at this time again, the land of Afghanistan was conforming to its earlier pattern as being a cultural melting pot. Although Mahmud was of a Turkic origin in Central Asia, he made Persian the language of government. The most prominent man of letters in his entourage was Firdousi, the Iranian equivalent of Homer, whom Mahmud supported in writing the great epic of the Persian-speaking peoples, the Shahnameh or “Book of Kings”, which did much to preserve their pre-Islamic history, culture and identity.

Similarly, although Mahmud’s Turkic nobles boasted of their Islamic orthodoxy, the frescoes they enjoyed in their palaces at Lashkar Gah depicted the pre-Islamic Persian heroes from the Shahnameh. In their architecture, fragments of which remain, influences can be seen from not just earlier Persian and perhaps Zoroastrian structures, but also Central Asian and Indian religious buildings as well. Although a new religion had come to the land of Afghanistan, it did not deviate from the precedents of history.

The power of the Ghaznavids was not of long duration, and as with the ephemeral empires before, its strength declined swiftly soon after it reached its apogee. As with its predecessors, their empire came under pressure from a new Turkic power in the north, the Seljuks, who by 1040 were able to capture Herat and Balkh. In 1118, when a leadership struggle threatened anarchy, one of the contenders for the throne, Bahram, secured power with the help of a Seljuk force in return for acknowledging them as overlords.

Although this brought the independence of the Ghaznavids to an end, the final extinction of their kingdom around half a century later came from another source. In the inaccessible district of Ghor, east of Herat, lived a group of semi-independent mountain tribes who had only just been converted to Islam. These fell into dispute with the Ghaznavid kingdom, and erupting from their high strongholds destroyed the magnificent city of Ghazni in 1149, and the Ghaznavid palaces in the south after a battle near Kandahar in 1151.

The ferocity of their attack and subsequent destruction earned their chief Alauddin the sobriquet of Jahansuz, or “World-burner”. The Ghorids’ military vigour allowed them to inherit the Ghaznavid possessions in India and northern Afghanistan, driving back the Seljuks, and for the latter half of the 12th century the Afghan regions enjoyed brief stability and prosperity. Like the Ghaznavids, the Ghorids were equally adept in the arts of peace; parts of the great Mosque of Herat, a new city in Bamian, as well as the astonishing 213-foot-high Minaret of Jam hidden in one of the mountain valleys of Ghor, owe their existence to Ghorid patronage.

The Mongol Cataclysm (1218–1369)

For all this, the cycle of history swept away the Ghorids in their turn. Again, a nascent power in Central Asia, the Khwarazm-Shahs pushed down into the Afghan lands, capturing Balkh and Herat by 1206, and the whole of the Afghan territories by around 1215. However, this new dynasty was to be the shortest-lived of all those who played a part in Afghanistan’s history. Far to the east, in the pasture lands north of China between Lake Baikal and the Gobi Desert, dwelt the nomadic confederation of the Mongol tribes. Just as the Prophet Muhammad’s unification of the Arab tribes allowed them to divert their military strength from internal strife to external conquests with astonishing results, so the same was the case for Genghis Khan and the Mongols.

Originally from a noble background and acceding to a tribal chieftainship at the age of 13 in 1175, he was able to bring together a number of warring factions by 1206, and lead them in a series of campaigns against China and other neighbouring states. By 1218, the Mongol Empire had expanded so greatly that it was contiguous to the Central Asian possessions of the Khwarazm-Shahs.

Genghis sent a diplomatic mission to the Khwarazm-Shah ruler Muhammad offering to establish political and commercial relations, but Muhammad refused to accede to this request, fearing that he would end up subordinate to the Mongol dominion. However, when one of Muhammad’s governors captured and executed the members of a Mongol trade caravan, and Muhammad refused to hand the official over to Genghis to face retribution, it provided the Mongols with the pretext they needed for new hostilities.

In 1219, the Mongols made their first move, attacking and routing a large force of the Khwarazm-Shahs, perhaps over 200,000 strong, near Osh in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. They then captured and sacked the cities of Central Asia one by one. They massacred the men or took them to use as sword-blunters, enslaved the women and children, sparing only the artisans whose economic value they recognised, retaining them for use in Mongol service.

The Mongols’ policy of destruction can be attributed to a number of causes. The Mongols did not share the Muslim religion with the peoples of Central Asia, and thus a sense of religious fellowship was not able to mitigate their violence. Genghis’ obliteration of cities and their entire populations was a clinical means of ensuring the safety of his communications and supply routes, and prevented any pockets of resistance from arising in his rear. Beyond this, he attacked the agricultural hinterlands beyond the cities, going so far as to wreck the ancient irrigation systems, a number of which were many hundreds of years old. This was done to allow cultivated land to degenerate into pastureland, suitable for the flocks and herds which followed and maintained the Mongol military train.

The effect of this destruction is still visible today, and much of the agricultural land which Genghis took out of commission still lies as waste. Genghis pursued this strategy throughout the Afghan territories. He destroyed Balkh, Merv and Nishapur without compunction. Herat capitulated and was initially spared, but after suffering a reverse at Ghazni in 1222 Genghis ordered Herat to be destroyed in retaliation. According to the Persian historian Khwandamir, only 40 people out of a population of 1.2 million survived the massacre, which took seven full days to complete.

Such was the scale of Mongol devastation that the land went into a state resembling hibernation for over a century. The trade and settled agriculture which sustained the region all but evaporated. The only exception was Herat, which the Kurt Malik dynasty, descended from the Ghorid emperors, was able to obtain as a province from the Mongol rulers. Herat’s fertile location near the Hari river and its place on the main east–west route allowed it some measure of recovery under their capable rule. After a time, they were even able to expand their control as far as Kandahar.

However, much of the rest of the country, as the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta says, had been reduced to little more than villages whose history is shrouded in obscurity. One of the few lights to be shone in the darkness is that of Marco Polo, whose account provides a remarkably accurate description of northern Afghanistan at that time. The desolation at least brought some measure of peace throughout Asia, which at least allowed security to anyone who cared to travel. 

The Timurids and the Islamic Renaissance (1369–1507)

It was unlikely that such a general state of weakness and disunity could abide in the long term. The absence of a strong and indigenous power was an invitation for ambitious chieftains to carve out new kingdoms. Ultimately, it was a descendant of Genghis Khan who was to benefit from this opportunity. Timur, known in the west as Tamerlane (a knee deformity led his detractors to brand him Timur-i leng or “Timur the Lame” which led to the familiar European version of his name) was born in Kesh (modern-day Shahr-i Sabz) near Samarkand in 1336. At an early age he came to prominence amongst the local notables for his courage and martial ability, and was awarded the governorship of his home city.

Yet he was soon perceived as a threat by his peers and superiors as they jockeyed for position, and he was forced to flee for his life southwards to Sistan. Here, he lived for a number of years amongst a band of outlaws and freebooters, showing his prowess in local conflicts. Over time, as his prestige increased, he was able to rally a number of tribes and, leading them back to Central Asia, to capture Samarkand, Kesh and Balkh. After the capture of this last city in 1369, a wide number of princes came to offer their obedience, and he became ruler of a new empire reaching from Central Asia down to Kabul.

He continued on military campaigns up to the end of his life in 1405. He not only took Herat and Kandahar from the Kurt Maliks, but also conquered Sistan, and attacked Georgia, Armenia, Persia, and India as far as Delhi. At his death, he was even planning an invasion of China.

Despite his skill in warfare, Timur had no equivalent genius for administration. He filled regional governorships with members of his family, but this did not preserve the stability of the empire; fratricide destabilised it constantly until its final extinction in 1507. However, the accomplishments of Timur and his successors were very great. He was able to ensure the safety of travellers and merchants throughout his empire. Such was his fame that he received an embassy from Henry III, King of Castile, whose diplomats travelled all the way to meet him in Samarkand. Just 10 years after his death, trade links with China were also fully revived, and further embassies were exchanged between the Ming Emperor and Herat.

With respect to culture, although Timur did not have the chance to enjoy a full education, like other rulers in the Afghan vicinity before him he was an unabashed supporter of the arts. He and his successors beautified Samarkand and Herat (which after Timur’s death was declared the capital of the empire) building palaces, gardens and places of worship. This patronage was not just at the behest of the royal princes; female members of the imperial family were also responsible for the cultural renaissance which took place in these territories. In particular, Timur’s daughter-in-law Gawhar Shad, the queen of the empire and wife of his heir Shah Rukh, commissioned the building of a huge educational complex in Herat, the Musallah, which stood until 1885 and was described by Robert Byron who saw its ruins in 1933 as one of the greatest buildings of the Islamic world.

This architectural glory was matched by a general renaissance across the arts. Poets, painters, scholars, calligraphers and musicians all flocked to the Timurid court. Even the members of the royal family itself could boast distinguished poets amongst their number.

Their work was encouraged by a “Mongol tolerance”, particularly with respect to religion. Although Timur and his successors were Sunni Muslims, they allowed and indeed encouraged diverse manifestations of Islam such as Sufi mysticism, dervishes and local saints’ cults, which bore the disapproval of the most orthodox. The commandments of Islamic shari’a law were often mingled with or subordinated to the Mongolian yasa, or law of the steppe, and even Shi’ite Muslims were protected from any grand persecution. Here again, the Afghan lands, blending together a variety of influences, gave rise to a culture that was dynamic and inventive.

The Rise of the Mughals and Tripartite Afghanistan


This time of high culture in Herat was coupled with decadence. The Timurid rulers who devoted their time to poetry, squabbles over the succession and an endless whirl of drunken parties gave little attention to their own military security. The cycle of history again turned, and a new nomadic confederation, the Uzbeks, arose in Central Asia and seized the opportunity to capture Herat in 1507 and sweep away the Timurid establishment.

There was, however, one descendent of Genghis Khan and the Timurids who was still to play an important role in the history of the Afghan lands. His name was Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad, better known by his nickname of Babur (“Tiger”). Babur is one of the few historical personalities of earlier Central Asian history who can be intimately known and understood by the modern age thanks to his extraordinarily frank and personal memoirs, the Baburnama. In them, we can gain an immediate glimpse of everything from Babur’s love of wine, warfare and gardening, to the problems of governing the unruly Pashtun tribes of the Afghan/Indian frontier.

Babur’s early career is not dissimilar to that of Timur. He came to the throne of the petty Central Asian principality of Ferghana in 1494 at the age of 12. By the age of 18, he had captured and lost the city of Samarkand twice, losing it once to his Timurid cousins, and a second time to the Uzbeks. Fleeing south into the Afghan territories, he was instead able to capture the cities of Kabul and Kandahar in 1504 and 1507 respectively, and use these as a basis to found his own principality.

Baulked of his desire to extend his control into Central Asia by the strength of the Uzbeks, he instead turned his attention south-east into India. Although it was a land he did not much care for, much preferring the cooler climate of Kabul, he began to launch annual raids across the Indus from 1519. His memoirs provide one of the first detailed accounts in history of warfare with the Pashtun tribes of the mountainous Indian frontier, and although distant in time from today, show that his problems then with governing the tribes were strangely reminiscent of those which face the international community today.

Babur’s raids across the Indus turned into a full-blown invasion of India. In 1526 he staged a concerted attack against the Lodi dynasty, and after the Battle of Panipat he was able to claim the throne of Delhi, establishing the Moghul Empire of India, which would abide until it was extinguished by the British in 1857. Babur survived until 1530, spending the rest of his days consolidating his new possessions. After his death, his body was taken back to Kabul and interred in the Bagh-i Babur, a garden which he himself planted and which survives to this day as one of the city’s most prominent pleasure resorts.

It is useful at this moment to pause and take stock of the situation, as the machinations of the 16th century put in place the conditions for the rise of the modern Afghan state. The territory of Afghanistan was divided into three parts. The south-east, including Kabul and Jalalabad, was held by the Mughal Empire of India. The west, including Herat and ultimately Kandahar, was taken by the Safavid Empire of Persia, a new and vigorous dynasty which rose at the end of the 15th century, unifying the Persian lands after a century of disorder and propagating Shi’ism as the religion of state. The lands north of the Hindu Kush were held by a succession of Uzbek and Turkic warlords. Each of these powers would from time to time attack each other and attempt to gain traction outside their heartlands, but with little success, and the land of Afghanistan maintained this tripartite division until the beginning of the 18th century.

The Rise of Modern Afghanistan (1704–1901)

The initiative now moves to the indigenous dwellers of the south of the Afghan territories, the Pashtun tribes. Their origins are unknown, though they are perhaps an agglomeration of the waves of immigrant nomadic tribes dating back as far as the Yuezhi in the 2nd century bc. Some scholars are inclined even to see traces of them in Herodotus’ histories in the 5th century bc, though their own foundation myths declare them to be descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

By the 17th century they were widely disposed across the south of the Afghan territories (indeed, the word “Afghan” was originally another name for Pashtun amongst non-Pashtuns) reaching from Herat to the Punjab. Some were fully or partially nomadic, some had taken to a more settled agricultural life, and others resided in the cities of the south. A number of their tribes in the mountain territories on the modern frontier with Pakistan, living on marginal land with little means of generating income, were dependent on plundering trade caravans, the local settled districts of the plains, or else receiving protection money from the Mughal government in Delhi to keep the roads open.

The problem of governing these tribes, which was first fully discussed by Babur, loomed large in the attention of the Mughal Empire in particular, and their combination of bribery, playing one off against the other and brutal wide-scale campaigns had a long-term deleterious effect. It disinclined them to accept the authority of central governments in distant cities, to coalesce into larger and more orderly units, and to maintain a tribal way of life that made their incorporation into more modern settled states and ways of life problematic.

They stoutly preserved their own customs, in particular those of rigorous hospitality and the use of vendetta to avenge slights against the honour of themselves or their kin. In general, self-reliance was the order of the day, and the individual rather than society had a duty to protect himself and his close associates. They cared little for the notion of outside forces, police or tax-collectors, and would generally coalesce into a unified front only when their liberty from such officers was threatened, or they thought that their religion was in danger. Otherwise, on account of vendettas the region was frequently unstable through low-level conflict.

It was in such conditions that the modern Afghan state was brought into being. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Safavid Empire sent a particularly despotic governor, Gurgin Khan, to oversee Kandahar. Fearing that the local Pashtun tribe, the Ghilzai, were intriguing with the Moghuls, he put in place a severe programme of repression, strenuously crushing any sign of dissent amongst the tribe and sending its chief, Mir Wais, into captivity in the Persian capital of Esfahan. Here, however, he was able to persuade the Persian Shah that nothing was amiss in Kandahar, as well as observing that the Safavid regime had followed the usual path to decadence. Allowed to return to Kandahar, he whipped the city into revolt, murdered the Safavid Persian officials in the city, and declared independence. Another Pashtun tribe around Herat, the Abdali, followed suit, and for the first time perhaps since the Ghorids in the 12th century large parts of the Afghan territories were under indigenous control.

The Pashtun uprising unleashed a wave of chaos and unrest throughout Asia. The Ghilzai forced the Abdali Pashtuns to submit to them, and then marched into the heart of Persia, laying siege to Esfahan in 1722 and effectively bringing the Safavid dynasty to an end. However, they were not able to hold this new conquest and their rivals, the Abdali, in conjunction with a Turcoman adventurer, Nadir Shah, were the new power in Persia. Together, they went on a spree of expeditions for plunder, raiding as far as Delhi, where they captured the Koh-i Noor diamond, and also sacking Bokhara, Samarkand and Khiva.

Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1747, and his Abdali soldiers at this point realised that with the extinction of the Safavid Empire and the weakness of the Mughals, they had a perfect opportunity to assume full power in their own land. Consequently, they chose the tribal chief who had commanded the Abdali contingent under Nadir Shah – Ahmad Shah – and acclaimed him King of a new Pashtun Empire, or “Afghanistan”; it is with this that Afghanistan as a modern entity comes into being. He was crowned by a Sufi with a garland of wheat – an act which is commemorated on the Afghan flag by the inclusion of such a garland – and given the title Dur-i Durran, or “Pearl of Pearls”. Accordingly, the Abdali tribe changed its name to the Durrani.

Ahmad Shah, over his 25-year reign, continued the earlier wars of plunder and conquest, carving out an empire which at its height reached as far as the Indus and Kashmir, down to the Indian Ocean, and west into modern-day Iran. Despite the grandeur of this achievement, the polity he created was intrinsically unstable. Bearing in mind their revulsion of powerful leaders or outside control, the Pashtuns did not allow the creation of a strong central monarchy. Although Ahmad Shah was himself a fine warrior, he came from a relatively weak sub-group of the Pashtuns, and his power was balanced by his hereditary vizirs (chief ministers) from a more powerful Durrani grouping, the Barakzai. 

The Pashtun tribes were not inclined to pay tax, and in general were only inclined to provide men and cavalry for military service in a feudal fashion. This, combined with the fact that the Pashtun heartlands had difficulty in generating enough revenue to be sustainable (the old Silk Road trade routes had gone into decline thanks to the rise of east–west sea trading routes), meant that the only way of sustaining the empire economically was to persist in the campaigns of external plunder, and rely on tribute paid by the more affluent non-Pashtun provinces such as Kashmir. It should be borne in mind that since it was an empire of Pashtuns over peoples of other tribal and ethnic backgrounds, this was an inherent element of instability. There was always a centrifugal force, encouraging outlying provinces to rebel, and generating a longstanding hostility between the Pashtuns and other tribal peoples. On account of these tensions, feuding over the succession and strife between the Popalzai kings and their Barakzai vizirs, the empire built up by Ahmad Shah fragmented by the 1820s into a number of petty principalities, and only the ethnically Pashtun areas remained under the control of a range of Pashtun chiefs.

The 19th century saw the rise of Western control of the Central Asian arena – the presence of Russia taking over the Central Asian Uzbek khanates and projecting its influence into Persia, and the British extending their control over India and pushing towards Afghanistan via the Punjab and Sindh. Again, although new powers were involved, the use of Afghanistan as a buffer state and cockpit between opposing centres of empire remained unchanged. The role of Afghanistan in the Great Game conflict between Britain and Russia in the First and Second Afghan wars will be dealt with in other chapters, but it is fitting to conclude this history with a brief discussion of how the last Afghan King of the 19th century, Abdur Rahman (r. 1880–1901), known as the “Iron Emir”, reunified Afghanistan after its collapse and fragmentation in the two Afghan wars.

Abdur Rahman, a descendent of the Barakzai family of vizirs, had grown up as an exile in Russian Central Asia, and had perhaps learned something from the methods of the Tsars; certainly his policies bear notable resemblances to those later carried out by Stalin. He rejected the notion of a weak kingship as borne by Ahmad Shah and his successors. He conceived the philosophy that kingship came from God, not the acclamation of the tribes, and hence that rebellion against the King was a rebellion against God. With this in mind, he unleashed a reign of terror against any tribes who resisted his authority. He killed rebels without mercy or led them into slavery, destroyed their homes, villages, crops, and had their women raped. Pyramids made of the skulls of rebels were raised as a warning against revolt – a method which had earlier been used by Babur.

He did not scruple to use sectarian differences in his favour. At the beginning of his reign, he declared a Sunni Jihad against the Shi’ite Hazara “heretics” to rally men to his cause (the Hazaras, descendants of the Mongol garrison troops established in the mountainous centre of Afghanistan by Genghis Khan’s successors, had converted to Shi’ism under Safavid influence). He aimed to cut out what he called the “middlemen” – tribal chiefs and officials who in former times had wielded their control almost autonomously. Killing or deposing any of these who stood in his way, he substituted them with obedient placemen who only did his bidding.

As soon as a tribal group had submitted fully to him, he enforced conscription on them, taking one young man in every eight to build a large and centrally controlled standing army to replace the old feudal levies. Each unit was of a single tribal grouping, and they were moved around the country to prevent their commanders from building up regional power-bases, and to play them off against other tribes. Indeed, troublesome tribal groups were uprooted in their entirety and transplanted around the country. In this way, there are a number of Pashtun sub-tribes located in the north of the country who were moved there in Abdur Rahman’s reign to undermine their ability to revolt. By this fashion, he firmly joined together the Afghan provinces which had a tendency to break away from the centre.

There was very little in the way of any government machinery when Abdur Rahman came to power. He rectified this by establishing a host of government departments. Each was charged with keeping extensive records, and the penalty for any corruption was at the very least a lengthy prison term, but in many cases blinding or death. Over this apparatus Abdur Rahman maintained a close control, signing off in person every single cheque issued by the government. He also kept close watch on the doings of all classes of people through an extensive spy network, daily reading reports sent to him from all over the country, and ordering the disappearances of anyone who gave him a cause for concern.

He took a similar centralising and harsh approach to the legal system. He worked for the standardisation of the Afghan courts. He approved of shari’a courts, but reserved many of their cases for his own attention so that he could impose the most severe punishments and keep the nation terrified into obedience. Imprisonment, which had hardly been known in Afghanistan before his reign, became commonplace, and the prison population soared from 1,500 in 1882 to 20,000 in 1896. Such was the brutal and insanitary nature of his prisons that imprisonment was frequently little more than a delayed sentence of death.

Nonetheless, his other punishments were public and frequently horrifying. Convicts might be blown from a gun, and others, particularly robbers, exposed in cages suspended above the roads and left to starve to death; their rags and bones were left as warnings to others not to offend. Other punishments included the sewing-up of lips and the pouring of boiling oil on scalps. Villages nearby the scenes of robberies might also suffer collective punishment, such as a fine of 10,000 rupees, and have a regiment of the army quartered on them to exact the sum.

Abdur Rahman further considered that it would enhance Afghanistan’s unity by detaching it as much as possible from the outside world. Making himself the final arbiter of the Islamic faith in the country, he issued many pamphlets claiming that now Central Asia and India were occupied by Western powers, Afghanistan was the last remaining true Islamic state in the region. It must at the very least be isolated from outsiders, and the people must consider Jihad against them a long-term duty. In this way, he encouraged a sense of unity through separatism.

He deprecated Western education and knowledge, fearing that this would cause the people to doubt the authority of the crown. He spurned external investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources and infrastructure, fearing that the development of roads, railways, telegraphs and mines would assist any external invader. He kept a close central control over the small developments in Afghan industry, turning it as exclusively as possible to military uses, and taxed other traders and businessmen relentlessly, imposing monopolies on the export of many Afghan goods.

When Abdur Rahman died in 1901, although he had unified the country and passed the throne peacefully to his son Habibullah, it had been at the expense of the development of infrastructure, industry and education, and keeping it overly detached from the outside world. Even still, he could only maintain his new army and government with an annual subsidy from the British of over one million rupees. Bearing in mind the pattern of history, that Afghanistan has been at its most prosperous when open, dynamic and profiting from its position at the heart of Asia, Abdur Rahman’s solution went against the grain of its deeper identity. The problems which he generated by his fashion of unifying the country were to plague it for the rest of the 20th century.


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