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Afghanistan (Pashto/Dari-Persian: افغانستان, Afğānistān) is a country at the crossroads of Asia. Usually placed in Central Asia geographically, Afghanistan is also sometimes categorized within South Asia and the Middle East, as it has cultural, ethno-linguistic, and geographic links with most of its neighbors. It is bordered by Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south and east, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, and China to the east. It has a population of 30 million people, although this remains an estimate, as no official census has been taken for decades.

Afghanistan literally translates to 'land of the Afghans', but a plethora of other names have been applied to its general location in the past. Between the fall of the Taliban after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 Loya jirga, Afghanistan was referred to by the Government of the United States as the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan. Under its new constitution, the country is now officially named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Origin and history of the name
The name of Afghanistan derives from word Afghan. The Pushtuns appear to have begun using the term Afghan as a name for themselves from the Islamic period onwards. According to W.K. Frazier Tyler, M.C. Gillet and several other scholars, "The word Afghan first appears in history in the Hudud-al-Alam in 982 AD."

There are numerous views, regarding the origin of name Afghan, most of them being purely speculative as can be seen below:

Makhzan-i-Afghni by Nematullah written in 1612 CE, traces the Afghan or Pakhtun origin from the super-Patriach Abraham down to one named King Talut or Saul. It states that Saul had a son Irmia (Jeremia), who had a son called Afghana. Upon the death of King Saul, Afghana was raised by David, and was later promoted to the chief command of the army during the reign of King Solomon. The progeny of this Afghana multiplied numerously, and came to be called Bani-Israel. In the sixth century BCE, Bakhtunnasar, or Nebuchadnezzar king of Babul, attacked Judah and exiled the progeny of Afghana to Ghor located in the center of what is now Afghanistan. In course of time, the exiled community came to be addressed as Afghan after the name of their ancestor, and the country got its name as Afghanistan. This traditional view has many historical discrepancies, and is therefore not accepted by modern scholarship---the last pleader for the Bani-Israel hypothesis being Mayor Raverty (The Pathans, 1958, Olaf Caroe).

Another version of Pushtun legend places Afghana, the professed eponymous ancestor of the Afghans or Pushtuns, as a contemporary of Muslim Prophet Mohammad. On hearing about the new faith of Islam, Qais from Aryana travelled to Medina to see the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, and returned to Aryana as a Muslim. Qais Abdur Rashid purportedly had many sons, one of whom was Afghana. Afghana, in turn, had four sons who set out to the east to establish their separate lineages. The first son went to Swat, the second to Lahore and India, the third to Multan, and the last one to Quetta. This legend is one of many traditional tales amongst the Pashtuns regarding their disparate origins. Again, it was this legendary Afghana who is stated to have given the Pushtuns their current name. It is notable that the Afghan of this legend is separated from the Afghana of Solomon's times by at least 11 centuries.

Dr H.W. Bellew, in his book An Enquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, believes that the name Afghan derives from the Latin term Alban, used by Armenians as Alvan or Alwan, which refers to mountaineers, and in the case of transliterated Armenian characters, would be pronounced as Aghvan or Aghwan. To the Persians, this would further be altered to Aoghan, Avghan, and Afghan as a reference to the highlanders or "mountaineers" of the eastern Iranian plateau.

Some people hold that the name derives from "Abagan" (i.e without God) which term the Persians are stated to have coined for the Pushtuns to describe them as Godless or non-believers. It is claimed that word Abagan is antonym of the word Bagan (=believer in God) just as word apolitical is antonym of political in the English language.

There are also a few people who link "Afghan" to an Uzbek word "Avagan" said to mean "original". Still others believe that the name derives from Sanskrit upa-ganah, said to mean "allied tribes".

Another etymological view is that the name Afghan evidently derives from Sanskrit Ashvaka or Ashvakan (q.v), the Assakenoi of Arrian. This view was propounded by J. W. McCrindle and is supported by numerous modern scholars (Lassen, Martin, Bishop, Crooks, Vidyalnar, Singh, Smith, Dey and several others). In Sanskrit, word ashva (Iranian aspa, Prakrit assa) means "horse", and ashvaka (Prakrit assaka) means "horseman". Pre-Christian times knew the people of eastern Afghanistan as Ashvakas (horsemen), since they raised a fine breed of horses and had a reputation for providing expert cavalrymen. The fifth-century-BCE Indian grammarian Panini calls them Ashvayana and Ashvakayana. Classical writers use the respective equivalents Aspasios (or Aspasii, Hippasii) and Assakenois (or Assaceni/Assacani, Asscenus). The Aspasios/Assakenois (= Ashvakas = cavalrymen) is stated to be another name for the Kambojas because of their equestrian characteristics (see List of country name etymologies).

The last part of the name Afghanistan originates from the Persian word stān (country or land). The English word Afghanland that appeared in various treaties between Qajar-Persia and the United Kingdom dealing with the Eastern lands of the Persian kingdom (modern Afghanistan) was adopted by the Afghans and became Afghanistan.

Before being called 'Afghanistan', the region had gone through several name changes in its long history of around 5000 years. One of the most ancient names, according to historians and scholars, was Ariana - the Greek pronunciation of the ancient Avestan Aryanam Vaeja or the Sanskrit "Aryavarta", Land of the Aryans. Today this Old-Persian, and Avestan expression is preserved in the name Iran and it is noted in the name of the Afghan national airline, Ariana Airlines. The term 'Ariana Afghanistan' is still popular amongst Persian speakers in the country.

Many centuries later, Afghanistan was part of Greater Khorasan, and hence was recognized with the name Khorasan (along with regions centered around Merv and Neishabur), which in Pahlavi means "The Eastern Land" (خاور زمین in Persian). (Dehkhoda, p8457)

Main article: History of Afghanistan

Afghanistan exists at a unique nexus-point where numerous Eurasian civilizations have interacted and often fought and was an important site of early historical activity. Through the ages, the region today known as Afghanistan has been invaded by a host of peoples, including the Aryans, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Mauryans, Kushans, Sassanians, Arabs, Turks, British, and Soviets, but rarely have these groups managed to exert complete control over the region. On other occasions, native Afghan entities have invaded surrounding regions to form empires of their own.

Buddhas of Bamiyan, dating back to the 1st century Pre-Islamic Afghanistan, were the largest Buddha statues in the World. They were destroyed by religious zealots Taliban in 2001 calling them Un-IslamicBetween 2000 and 1200 BCE, waves of Indo-European-speaking Aryans are thought to have flooded into modern-day Afghanistan, setting up a nation that became known as Aryānām Xšaθra, or "Land of the Aryans." Zoroastrianism is speculated to have possibly originated in Afghanistan between 1800 to 800 BCE. Ancient Eastern Iranian languages such as Avestan may have been spoken in Afghanistan around a similar time-line with the rise of Zoroastrianism. Around 1000 BCE (or earlier), the Indo-Aryan Vedic civilization may have arisen near the vicinity of the Kabul valley of eastern Afghanistan, but this remains speculative as more viable theories based upon archaeological finds tend to support the emergence of the Vedic civilization east of the Indus and/or Ganges in what is today Pakistan and India. By the middle of the 6th century BCE, the Persian Empire supplanted the Medes and incorporated Aryana within its boundaries; and by 330 BCE, Alexander the Great had invaded the region. Following Alexander's brief occupation, the Hellenic successor states of the Seleucids and Bactrians controlled the area, while the Mauryans from India annexed the southeast for a time and introduced Buddhism to the region until the area returned to the Bactrian rule.

During the 1st century CE, the Kushans, a Tocharian people from Central Asia with Indo-European origins, occupied the region. Thereafter, Aryana fell to a number of Eurasian tribes — including Parthians, Scythians, and Huns, as well as the Sassanian Persians and local rulers such as the Hindu Shahis in Kabul — until the 7th century CE, when Muslim Arab armies invaded the region.

The Arabs initially annexed parts of western Afghanistan in 652 and then conquered most of the rest of Afghanistan between 706-709 CE and administered the region as Khorasan, and over time much of the local population converted to Islam, but retained their Iranian languages. Afghanistan became the center of various important empires, including the Ghaznavid Empire (962-1151), founded by a local Turkic ruler from Ghazni named Yamin ul-Dawlah Mahmud, that expanded its suzerainty over a vast area from Kurdistan to northern India. This empire was replaced by the Ghorid Empire (1151-1219), founded by another local ruler, this time of Tajik extraction, Muhammad Ghori, whose domains included huge parts of Central and South Asia, and laid the foundations for the Delhi Sultanate in India.

In 1219, the region was overrun by the Mongols under Genghis Khan, who devastated the land. Their rule continued with the Ilkhanates, and was extended further following the invasion of Tamerlane (Timur Leng), a ruler from Central Asia. By 1400, all of Afghanistan came under his dominion, and he also laid the foundation of another Islamic empire in India, the Mughal Empire. The Uzbek-born Babur, a descendant of both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, established an empire with its capital at Kabul by 1504, and then expanded into South Asia in 1525 and established the Mughal Empire's rule throughout much of what is today Pakistan and northern India by 1527. As the empire shifted eastward, the Safavids of Persia challenged Mughal rule while the two superpower empires of the day battled over the fate of Afghanistan for decades with the Persians acquiring the area by the mid-17th century.

Local Ghilzai Pashtun tribesmen successfully overthrew Safavid rule, and under the Hotaki dynasty, briefly controlled all or parts of Persia itself from 1722 to 1736. Following a brief period under the rule (1736-1747) of the Turko-Iranian conqueror Nadir Shah, one of his high-ranking military officers, Ahmad Shah Abdali, himself a Pashtun tribesman of the Abdali clan, called for a loya jirga following Nadir Shah's assassination (for which many implicate Abdali) in 1747. The Afghans/Pashtuns came together at Kandahar in 1747 and chose Ahmad Shah, who changed his last name to Durrani (meaning 'pearl of pearls' in Persian), to be king. The Afghanistan nation-state as it is known today came into existence in 1747 as the Durrani Empire, and expanded outward from traditional Pashtun territories to include all of what is today Afghanistan, a portion of Mashad in Iran, and all of Pakistan and Kashmir as well. The Durrani Empire lasted for nearly a century until internecine conflict and wars with the Persians and Sikhs diminished their empire by the early 19th century. However, the current borders of Afghanistan would not be determined until the coming of the British.

During the 19th century, following the Anglo-Afghan wars (fought in 1839-1842, 1878-1880, and lastly in 1919), Afghanistan saw much of its territory and autonomy ceded to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom exercised a great deal of influence, and it was not until King Amanullah acceded to the throne in 1919 (see "The Great Game") that Afghanistan regained complete independence. During the period of British intervention in Afghanistan, ethnic Pashtun territories were divided by the Durand Line, and this would lead to strained relations between Afghanistan and British India, and later the new state of Pakistan, over what came to be known as the Pashtunistan debate.

The historical rulers of Afghanistan were part of the Abdali tribe of the ethnic Afghans, whose name was changed to Durrani upon the accession of Ahmad Shah. They belonged to the Saddozay segment of the Popalzay clan, or to the Mohammadzay segment of the Barakzay clan, of the ethnic Afghans. The Mohammadzay frequently furnished the Sadozay kings with top counsellors, who served occasionally as regents, and identified with the name Mohammadzay.

Since 1900, eleven monarchs and rulers have been unseated through undemocratic means: in 1919 (assassination), 1929 (abdication), 1929 (execution), 1933 (assassination), 1973 (deposition), 1978 (execution), 1979 (execution), 1979 (execution), 1987 (removal), 1992 (overthrow), 1996 (overthrow) and 2001 (overthrow).

The longest period of stability in Afghanistan was between 1933 and 1973, when the country was under the rule of King Zahir Shah. However, in 1973, Zahir's brother-in-law, Sardar Mohammed Daoud launched a bloodless coup. Daoud and his entire family were murdered in 1978 when the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan launched a coup known as the Great Saur Revolution and took over the government.

Opposition against, and conflict within, the series of communist governments that followed, was considerable. As part of a Cold War strategy, the US government began to covertly fund and train anti-government Mujahideen forces through the Pakistani secret service agency known as Inter Services Intelligence or ISI, which were derived from discontented Muslims in the country who opposed the official atheism of the Marxist regime, in 1978. In order to bolster the local Communist forces the Soviet Union - citing the 1978 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborliness that had been signed between the two countries in 1978 - intervened on December 24, 1979. The Soviet occupation resulted in a mass exodus of over 5 million Afghans who moved into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. More than 3 million alone setteled in Pakistan. Faced with mounting international pressure and the loss of approximately 15,000 Soviet soldiers as a result of Mujahideen opposition forces trained by the United States, Pakistan, and other foreign governments, the Soviets withdrew ten years later, in 1989. For more details, see Soviet war in Afghanistan.

The Soviet withdrawal was seen as an ideological victory in the US, which ostensibly had backed the Mujahideen in order to counter Soviet influence in the vicinity of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Following the removal of the Soviet forces in 1989, the US and its allies lost interest in Afghanistan and did little to help rebuild the war-ravaged country. The USSR continued to support the regime of Dr. Najubullah (formerly the head of the secret service, Khad) until its downfall in 1992. However, the absence of the Soviet forces resulted in the downfall of the government as it steadily lost ground to the guerrilla forces. [1]

As the vast majority of the elites and intellectuals had either been systematically eliminated by the Communists, or escaped to take refuge abroad, a dangerous leadership vacuum came into existence. Fighting continued among the various Mujahidin factions, eventually giving rise to a state of warlordism. The chaos and corruption that dominated post-Soviet Afghanistan in turn spawned the rise of the Taliban in response to the growing chaos. The most serious fighting during this growing civil conflict occurred in 1994, when 10,000 people were killed during factional fighting in Kabul.

Exploiting the chaotic situation in Afghanistan, a few regional bedfellows including fundamentalist Afghans trained in refugee camps in western Pakistan, the Pakistani secret intelligence service (ISI), the regional Mafia (well-established network that smuggled mainly Japanese electronics and tyres before the Russian invasion, now involved in drug smuggling) and Arab extremist groups (that were looking for a safe operational hub) joined forces and helped to create the Taliban movement (Rashid 2000).[2] Backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other strategic allies, the Taliban developed as a politico-religious force, and eventually seized power in 1996. The Taliban were able to capture 90% of the country, aside from the Afghan Northern Alliance strongholds primarily found in the northeast in the Panjshir Valley. The Taliban sought to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law and gave safe haven and assistance to individuals and organizations that were implicated as terrorists, most notably Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

The United States and allied military action in support of the opposition following the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks forced the Taliban's downfall. In late 2001, major leaders from the Afghan opposition groups and diaspora met in Bonn, and agreed on a plan for the formulation of a new government structure that resulted in the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) on December 2001. After a nationwide Loya Jirga in 2002, Karzai was elected President.

On March 3 and March 25, 2002, a series of earthquakes struck Afghanistan, with a loss of thousands of homes and over 1800 lives. Over 4000 more people were injured. The earthquakes occurred at Samangan Province (March 3) and Baghlan Province (March 25). The latter was the worse of the two, and caused most of the casualties. International authorities assisted the Afghan government in dealing with the situation.

As the country continues to rebuild and recover, as of late 2005, it was still struggling against widespread poverty, continued warlordism, a virtually non-existent infrastructure, possibly the largest concentration of land mines on earth and other unexploded ordinance, as well as a sizeable illegal poppy and heroin trade. Afghanistan also remains subject to occasionally violent political jockeying, and the nation's first elections were successfully held in 2004 as women parliamentarians were selected in record numbers. Parliamentary elections in 2005 helped to further stabilize the country politically, in spite of the numerous problems it faced, including inadequate international assistance. The country continues to grapple with occasional acts of violence from a few remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban and the instability caused by warlords.

See also: Afghanistan timeline, Invasions of Afghanistan


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