The Tale of Afghanistan: A Century of Turmoil

Depanjali Roy and Apon Zahir | 01 September 2021
No image


The story of modern Afghanistan began the day Amanullah Khan seized the throne by assassinating his father and shortly afterwards going to war with the British. The third Anglo-Afghan war which followed resulted in the kingdom of Afghanistan reclaiming its sovereignty. During his rule, Amanullah Khan and his queen pioneered radical reforms and modernization to Afghan society. Important reforms were made in the fields of education and women’s rights, and the institution of slavery was abolished. The king also began building international relations. However, such rapid reforms alienated many tribal and religious leaders who saw these acts as heretical.


Civil war erupted when multiple tribes took up arms against the king and forced him to abdicate. Their main grievances were with the royal family meddling with the role of women in Afghan society and the introduction of a military draft. Habibullah Kalakani, a tribal leader seized the throne of Afghanistan by force and ruled briefly before being defeated and executed by Mohammed Nadir Shah. Afterwards, Nadir Shah declared himself the new king of Afghanistan. 


Nadir Shah started a more gradual process of modernization for Afghanistan than the previous king, focusing on infrastructure development, building commercial relations with foreign powers, introducing a banking system, and long term economic planning. He was assassinated by a student of the Hazara ethnicity while visiting a graduation ceremony. His son Mohammed Zahir Shah would take the throne after him and rule for over 39 years, becoming the longest-serving ruler of modern Afghanistan. 


The rule of Zahir Shah was a relatively peaceful era in an otherwise unstable and war-torn Afghanistan. The king made efforts to gradually move the nation towards modern democracy. To this effect, the 1964 constitution of Afghanistan was drafted by appointment of the king which included a bill of rights for all afghans, explicitly including women. The constitution also mandated that the position of the prime minister cannot be held by a member of the royal family. 

The parliamentary monarchy formed by the constitution proved to be ineffective in promulgating the laws and acts it passed. It failed to adequately respond to the afghan famine of 1971 that reportedly killed thousands. Taking advantage of weak leadership and the discontent of the people, the king’s cousin Daoud Khan seized the throne in a relatively bloodless coup and abolished the monarchy to create a republic. Daoud Khan declared himself the head of state, head of government, foreign minister and head of the army.

Daoud Khan moved to centralize his power further by creating a presidential one-party state. This, along with a deteriorating relationship with soviet powers at the time brought the ire of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a communist party whose members had helped Daoud Khan seize power from the monarchy. Discontent escalated into a bloody coup where the president and his family were executed by pro-PDPA actors, and a new socialist government was created with Nur Muhammad Taraki as president. They began to push for hard socialist reforms and was brutal in their repression of opposition. The regime alienated a wide variety of people and various uprisings started popping up and by 1979, large parts of the country were in open rebellion.

Vicious internal rivalry within the PDPR resulted in the assassination of Nur Mohammad Taraki under orders of Hafizullah Amin, an important figure of the revolution and second in command of PDPR. The Soviet Union feared that Amin might switch sides to the United States and invaded Afghanistan, killing Amin and installing a soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal into power. The Soviet troops occupied the major cities and waged a war of attrition against the Islamic guerrilla insurgent factions knows as mujahideen.

Eventually, the cost of war proved too much for the Soviet Union who after 9 years finally began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, sealing the fate of the soviet backed Afghan government. The USA played a major role in the Afghan-soviet war by funding the insurgents through Pakistan. Troop withdrawal was completed by 1989 and the mujahideen continued the fight against the Soviet-backed government.  

Due to the fall of the Soviet Union, all forms of aid ended. The Afghan air force had no more fuel for their fighter planes, and their military deserted and defected in large numbers. THE PDPA finally capitulated to the mujahideen factions, but internal conflicts among the mujahideen resulted in open conflict to decide who would rule Afghanistan. Civil war flared up once more and at least five armies sponsored by foreign powers battled over control of Kabul.

In September of 1994, Mullah Mohammad Omar formed a group with 50 of his students in his home town of Kandahar. This group became known as the Taliban. Omar was unhappy that Islamic law had not been installed in Afghanistan after the ousting of communist rule. Now, his group pledged to rid Afghanistan of warlords and criminals. The Islamic fundamentalist group quickly rose to power and in a surprise attack conquered Kandahar city. At the early onset of the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan, they became popular as they stamped out corruption, curbed lawlessness and made roads and areas safe again.

The Taliban successfully conquered Afghanistan and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They sought to establish an Islamic government through law and order alongside a strict interpretation of sharia law. The Taliban inherited a nation ravaged by twenty years of continuous warfare. Pakistan played a large part in keeping the Taliban in power and helping them conquer Afghanistan. An anti-Taliban alliance was formed called the northern alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, who wanted to establish a more democratic form of government. Over time, Massoud would become popular and powerful enough to unite almost all ethnicities of Afghanistan against the Taliban, as well as maintain good relations with the USA and western powers.

One of the darkest years in the history of Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated. Two days later the 9/11 attacks occurred on US soil. Al-Qaeda was blamed for the attacks and the US demanded that the Taliban regime hand over all the leaders of Al-Qaeda including Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban refused to cooperate, they launched a full-scale invasion with the aid of the United Islamic Front (northern alliance). In less than two months, the Taliban was ousted from power. A majority of their leadership fled to Pakistan. Afghan groups create an interim government and Hamid Karzai is sworn in as its head.


Afghanistan adopts a new constitution that provides for a strong presidency. The Presidential elections take place and Hamid Karzai is declared the winner. Mohammed Omar, the founder of the Taliban declared that they will mount an insurgency against America and the new government.

Afghans vote in the first parliamentary elections in more than 30 years. Parliament opens with warlords and strongmen in most of the seats. Civilian casualties due to the actions of the US military lead to rising resentment against foreign presence. Suicide attacks and other terrorist activities swelled.

The leader of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, is killed in an assault by US Navy Seals on a compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan. Bin Laden’s body is removed and buried at sea. The operation ends a 10-year hunt led by the CIA.

The founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, dies. His death is kept secret for more than two years. According to Afghan intelligence, Mullah Omar dies of health problems at a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi.

The next round of presidential elections takes place. Two rivals for the Afghan presidency, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah, sign a power-sharing agreement, following a two-month audit of disputed election results. Ashraf Ghani is sworn in as president. At a ceremony in Kabul, Nato ends its combat operations in Afghanistan. With the surge now over, the US withdraws thousands of troops.  Most of those who remained focus on training and supporting the Afghan security forces.

The US and the Taliban sign an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan, in Doha, Qatar. The US and Nato allies agree to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the militants uphold the deal.

The Taliban led a major offensive in Afghanistan during the withdrawal of US troops from the country, which gave them control of over half of Afghanistan's 421 districts.

By mid-August 2021, the Taliban controlled every major city in Afghanistan; following the near seizure of the capital Kabul, the Taliban occupied the Presidential Palace after the incumbent President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan to Tajikistan on 15 August 2021. Remaining Afghan forces under the leadership of Amrullah Saleh, Ahmad Massoud, and Bismillah Khan Mohammadi retreated to Panjshir to continue resistance

By 30th August the US concluded evacuating all troops and personnel from Afghanistan, finally ending the 20-year war. 

Please click here to download the full article.

Depanjali Roy is a Program Assistant at Centre for Governance Studies 

Apon Zahir is a Research Assistant at Centre for Governance Studies 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.       


  • 08 Sep 2021, 12:02 PM