Afghan history, like its famous cultural export The Kite Runner, is a tragedy in three parts. The first part follows the rise of the region from a diverse tribal nation to the heartlands of not one or two, but three Islamic Empires. The second follows the fight for independence from those Empires, the boon and the great cost of its last few kings. And the last part creates the Afghanistan we know today – beset by poverty, extremism, civil war and invasion – as the Cold War and the Taliban take turns breaking down the nation. It’s not a happy story but it’s a good one, and an important one – an example of the rise and fall of the Middle East in global politics, of the effect of foreign intervention on a small country, of the unifying and dividing power of Islam through the ages. It started, fittingly enough, with an invasion.
Afghanistan as we know it didn’t exist before the Arabs invaded. The region was inhabited, of course, but by a hugely diverse group of tribes with wide ranges of beliefs – Zoroastrians, Christians, Buddhists and Sun-Worshippers to name only a very few. The Arabs not only brought their technology and culture to the region (the Arabic Golden Age was just starting, and its unusual mix of science, law and religion was about to invent everything from hospitals to trigonometry), but also a religion that would spread like wildfire across the nation and change Afghan society forever – Islam. Islam was a religion perfectly suited to the Middle East at that time; it offered complex and relatively fair systems of law and order, it adopted large elements of Christianity and Judaism that made conversion easy and it relieved tensions between the previously diverse religious groups in the area. It allowed certain tribes like the Pashtun to grow powerful and regain control of the area, but it created huge divides between those that had adopted Sunni Islam and those who chose Shia. These problems came to a head in the 1980s, during the Islamic Revival, but we’ll get to that later.
So Afghanistan became important if not independent, as major cities like Kabul and Herat were beautified by Caliphs, Sultans, even the Mongol Emperors who settled in the region (The effect of the Mongols on Afghanistan was largely lost, but they did leave behind the Hazara people, who adopted Shia Islam and quickly became the country’s most oppressed, if largest, minority). Each empire followed a distinct pattern – rising in a wave of wealth and public opinion, then succumbing to decadence or some greater power – and as they fell the Afghans developed more and more separatist tendencies. In the 1700s, thanks to some regrettable government decisions by their incumbent Persian masters and a fair few rumours about ethnic cleansing, tensions in the area became too strong and a revolution began that would install an Afghan prince and an absolute monarchy. Afghanistan’s independence had begun.
Unfortunately, independence couldn’t have come at a worse time. It put Afghanistan right in between the competing powers of the Russian Tsardom and the British Empire, each wanting to control the Middle East and the valuable trading assets it owned while ensuring the other didn’t get too big – a sort of Victorian-era cold war with the occasional open conflict. Afghanistan became a pawn in this so-called “Great Game”, where a precarious balance between British and Russian diplomacy made wars frequent and bloody. At the same time, as the enlightenment swept across the Middle East, more and more people questioned the right of the Princes to rule with absolute power, and from the 1900s onwards revolts about the state of the country became common. The people wanted democracy and they were willing to go to lengths to get it.
This is where part three of the tragedy comes in, and the Kite Runner’s first part starts – the fall of the monarchy in the 1960s and the rise of republicanism, the second great game in Afghanistan and the Islamic Revival all take their turns in the limelight. This is where the trouble really starts.