Afghanistan has been populated for over 50,000 years, and holds the roots of some of humanity’s oldest cultures and civilizations. Many of the earliest records set the pattern for Afghanistan’s history; brief periods of enforced unity, followed by long periods of equally enforced separation. The country was ruled by the Persians, then Alexander the Great. After the dissolution of his empire, one of Alexander’s generals traded most of Afghanistan to an Indian Empire for 500 elephants. Parts of the country would change hands frequently, influenced and absorbed by the empires and kingdoms of western China and northern India. Half the country was conquered by Arabs in 641 C.E.; the other half remained Hindu until a Muslim army completed their conquest four centuries later. The whole of the region was conquered by Genghis Khan’s Mongols in the 13th century, but Afghanistan was fractured again during the fragmentation of that empire. Kabul was briefly the capital of Babur, founder of the Mughal Dynasty. For many centuries after, Afghanistan was fragmented between the Uzbeks, Persians, and Indians, all of whom were competing with local Pashtun tribes.
In the 18th century, the nation of Afghanistan began to take shape. Persia, then dominant in much of the country, sent a Georgian ruler to quell tribal uprisings in Afghanistan. His brutal policies inspired some unity among the tribes, under Mirwais Hotak, then mayor of Khandahar and leader of the largest Pashtun tribe. The tribes succeeded in ousting the Persians in the early 18th century. Decades later, this newfound unity was sized upon (and enforced) by Ahmad Shah Durrani, who created an Empire spanning the whole of modern-day Afghanistan, as well as parts of Pakistan, Iran, and India. As has occurred before, this Afghani Empire was forced to deal with the stronger powers of Russia and Britain, both of whom were moving into that region in an effort to out-do the other. The British fought two major wars with Afghanis, eventually coming to dominate the region. The borders of modern-day Afghanistan were created by British and Russian decree. Continued rebellions and internal strife led the British to leave the country, relinquishing control in 1919. With the foreign occupier removed, Afghani development was stifled over the following decades by inter-tribal strife, frequently taking the form of assassinations or open combat. Ruling governments frequently attempted economic and social reforms, but often held power for too short a time to see these changes implemented.
In the late 1970s, Afghanistan again fell victim to dueling powers, this time the United States and the Soviet Union. A pro-Soviet Afghani party seized control of the country in 1978, enacting sweeping changes and enforcing Marxist policies, including secularism. This proved unpopular with many Afghani groups, many of whom organized into mujahedeen. The U.S. began backing these groups in an effort to weaken the Soviet Union, who in turn responded with a large-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Between 1979 and 1989, the mujahedeen (backed by the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia) fought the Soviet Army and their Afghani supporters to a standstill. This conflict saw the rise to prominence of Osama bin Laden, and was the inspiration for the founding of Al-Qaeda. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the conflict continued on a smaller scale between Marxist and Muslim factions until the latter emerged victorious in 1992. The Islamic State of Afghanistan was established. Again, with the foreign threat removed, the various factions began in-fighting, effectively dividing the country into innumerable mini-states under the dominion of a certain warlord, tribal leader, or religious figure.
One of these factions, a radical religious group called the Taliban, slowly emerged as dominant, subjugating almost all of its competitors by 2000. The Taliban, largely comprised of former mujahedeen, supported its former compatriots in Al-Qaeda, allowing them to establish numerous training camps throughout the country. In response to the 2001 attacks on the United States, the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan, with the stated goal of eliminating both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. A swift bombing campaign was followed by a ground invasion, rapidly eliminating most Taliban and Al-Qaeda positions and driving them into mountain hide-outs (especially along the border with Pakistan). An interim government under Hamid Karzai was selected by a gathering of tribal leaders and other Afghani factions, later confirmed by a loya jirga (a traditional assembly-style electorate). National elections were held in 2004, again confirming Karzai as President.
Karzai was elected president once more on 2 November 2009 after the Afghani election commission canceled a planned runoff following the presidential challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew his candidacy, ending a political crisis that followed the fraud-marred first round held in August.
Today, Afghanistan is in a historically recognizable state of turmoil. The vast majority of the 2001 invading army was withdrawn for service in Iraq at the commencement of that war in 2003, leaving a massive power vacuum that was promptly filled by the pre-Taliban Afghani powers: warlords, tribal leaders, and religious figures. With fluctuations in the U.S. troop commitment, NATO forces have taken up much of the peacekeeping duties; there are roughly 70,000 foreign troops currently in-country, 25% of which (mostly U.S. forces) are exclusively hunting Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, while the remainder (mostly NATO forces) are involved in peacekeeping and stabilization operations.
Despite these efforts, the writ of the official Afghani government does not extend to most of the country. The government remains crippled by corruption at every level. In 2009, Hamid Karzai (whose brother has alleged ties to the Afghani drug trade) was re-elected during an election that suffered from widespread and overt voter fraud. A planned runoff election was canceled when Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from the race declaring that "a transparent election is not possible". The situation does not bode well for Afghanistan's political stability.
In early January 2012, the Taliban’s political wing announced it is ready to enter peace talks with the Afghan government and its Western allies to end the war in Afghanistan. The insurgents, however, will continue their armed struggle during the talks. The peace talks will be held in Qatar where the Taliban set up a political office. However, in mid-March, following the murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier, the Taliban suspended the talks. The murder also prompted President Karzai to call on the Nato-led forces to move out of Afghan villages and rural areas and end their mission to Afghanistan by 2013 a year before the planned withdrawal date
Opium production (the pre-Taliban cash crop) has skyrocketed; almost all of the opiates used worldwide now originate in Afghanistan, exceeding even pre-Taliban levels. Opium sales account for half of the national GDP; much of that money is used to fund anti-government forces such as local warlords and insurgents. Afghanistan’s aboveboard economy is virtually nonexistent, with over 80% of the populace engaged in agriculture, and the unemployment rate exceeding 40%. The country is one of the poorest in the world, with one of the lowest standards of living. Without massive international aid (economic and military), there is a high probability the country would once again split into mutually hostile fragments.