September 10, 2003


Afghanistan has long been a patchwork of different ethnic groups spread across its mountainous landscape. The largest group, the Pashtuns, makes up less than half the population. This group provided the leaders of the country.

During the 1900s, Afghan kings tried to modernize in order to survive. Trying to balance Islamic beliefs with a modernized society was not an easy task. Deeply conservative tribesmen resisted many of their efforts. The kings tried to end “purdah” for women, which confined them to a life behind the veil. Rural tribesmen overthrew King Amanullah in 1929 when he attempted to give women their freedom. By 1959 women were given the legal right to choose for themselves whether or not to wear the veil. For the next couple decades women in the cities wore Western clothes and girls attended schools.

In 1973, King Zahir Shah was deposed while in Italy. Pro-Soviet officers and the king’s brother were responsible. Communist forces announced radical social and economic changes, which the population rejected. Afghanistan had always staved off invaders, including Britain in 1842. The independent citizens were not pleased with their new Soviet residents. In the city of Herat, Ismail Khan led a rebellion that was responsible for killing Soviet advisers and their families.

In 1979, with the new Communist regime failing, Russia decided to intervene. Russian troops murdered Afghan President Amin and installed a new regime in his place. The new leader was Babrak Kamal, who was meant to smooth over the discontent in Afghanistan. However, the occupation of the country by 100,000 Russian troops fueled resentment amongst the Afghans. The former problems between different tribal groups and the quarrels between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims disappeared. Everyone seemed united in hatred of this foreign occupation.

The Russians now faced a formidable opponent. Afghanistan had maintained its independence throughout history thanks to its mountainous terrain and tradition of guerrilla warfare. Now the Afghans also had the support of the United States. President Ronald Reagan wanted to supply weapons and money to the Afghans’ fight against the Russian “evil empire.”

The Mujahideen (soldiers of God) used American anti-aircraft missiles to destroy 600 Russian aircraft, which the Soviets could not afford to replace. Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 and quickly looked for ways to withdraw from Afghanistan. Gorbachev backed Najibullah as the new leader, and in early 1989 the Russians withdrew their troops.

Russian money and weapons kept Najibullah in control of Kabul, but the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the collapse of the communist regime in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen marched to Kabul in the spring of 1992 while Najibullah and his family sought refuge at the UN compound. They were safe there until 1996 when Taliban fighters hung Najibullah and his brother.

The fall of the Soviet Union overshadowed the events in Afghanistan. The fall of Kabul didn’t register in the Western world. The Afghan warlords carved up the country for their own gains. The population that expected liberation was now subjected to looting, rape, and other whims of the Mujahideen. Up to four million Afghans fled to other countries...mostly Pakistan.

Many of the refugees felt abandoned by the Western world. Islamic fundamentalism grew, as did the resentment of a generation of young men. These students, or “Taliban,” were bitter and disillusioned. The warlords were running Afghanistan, and the Taliban wanted to put a stop to the lawlessness. Enter Mullah Muhammed Omar, who lost an eye fighting the Russians. In 1994 he, a few students, and 16 guns confronted a local warlord. The man had kidnapped two girls so his men could rape them. The small Taliban group defeated him, and Omar had him executed.

Mullah Omar’s law and order was welcomed by the Afghan people, and the Taliban was now being helped by Pakistan and Saudi fundamentalists. Pakistan’s interest was mostly economic, hoping to establish trade with a peaceful Afghanistan. Saudi interest was largely religious, given the Mullah’s appreciation of their land as the source of pure Islam.

Mullah Omar executed the captured leaders of the Mujahideen, and when the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, they took Najibullah and his brother, as well. Their hanging was a sign for the country that the Taliban was in control. Mullah Omar became Emir, the leader of the faithful.

The Emir issued a religious edict requiring women to once again wear the full burka. Women were also restricted to keep their education and work in the home. Widows could not work to feed their children. The Taliban insisted God would provide. The war had left many widows, and they now faced poverty and starvation.

The lawlessness of the warlords was gone, and some were attracted to the Taliban’s return to “pure” Islamic values. Some people regarded Afghanistan as a model for Muslim societies. One of them was Osama Bin Laden.

Bin Laden was born the seventh son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate in 1957. He fought with the Mujahideen after 1984, but then turned against America in 1991. He believed the Saudi government was a puppet for the United States and resented American troops being allowed to attack Iraq from Saudi Arabia. He spent several years in exile in Sudan, but was driven out for his support of terrorism.

In 1996 Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, where Omar was wary of him at first. Soon Bin Laden won him over with his fanatical Islamic beliefs. Bin Laden married one of Omar’s daughters and set up Al-Qaeda (Citadel) training camps in Afghanistan. The Taliban had only aspired to purify Afghanistan, but with the joining of Omar and Bin Laden, they now planned a global anti-American movement.

The final culmination of their efforts was the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

(ed. That’s right. Final.)

Posted by Jennifer at September 10, 2003 03:58 AM


Great history! Thoroughly enjoyed it as it puts a lot of things into perspective.

Posted by: Daniel at September 10, 2003 07:34 AM

Very nice. Did you run across anything suggesting that Bin Laden was 'using' the Taliban as a means to an end? I've heard reports that he really didn't care one way or another about them, as long as they were useful pawns.

Posted by: Ted at September 10, 2003 08:50 AM

wow...I just finaly realized something. My school curiculum sucks.

Posted by: Rachael at September 10, 2003 04:14 PM

Ted, I didn't find anything specifically saying that, but I think that would be a safe assumption.

Posted by: Jennifer at September 10, 2003 05:07 PM