Afghanistan (officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) may not be high on everyone’s ‘must visit‘list because of its recent troubledpast. It is, however, a truly historic land which encompasses some breathtaking mountain scenery, beautiful lakes and a wealth of bird and animal life. The majority of its people still live simple lives close to nature and the seasons. Its natural resources have provided its people’s livelihood for centuries, whether farming, livestock grazing, huntingor building with the abundant local stone.

Where Exactly Is It?

Afghanistan is alandlocked mountainous country, with plains in the north and southwest. It straddles Central and South Asia and shares borders with Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Its area is approximately 652,000 square kilometers which makes it the 41st largest country in the world. With a 32-million person population, it holds a similar positionin the list of the most populous countries (in fact it is 41st). Its capital city, Kabul has a population of about three and a half million people.

An Archaeologist’s Dream

Diggings at some of the archaeological sites in Afghanistan suggest that humans were living in the area at least 50,000 years ago and that farming communities there were amongst the earliest anywhere. Many historians believe that Afghanistan is comparable to Egypt in terms of the importance of its archaeological sites.

A Strategic Crossroads

The country’s checkered history has in fact been molded by its position. It sits in a unique area where numerous civilizations have interacted and often fought. Its strategic location along the ‘Silk Road’ fostered early connections to Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia.

The land which is now called Afghanistan has been home to various civilizations throughout the ages including the ancient Iranian people from whom the dominant Indo-Iranian languages originated. At different points in history the land has been incorporated in a wealth of large regional empires and kingdoms and witnessed many military campaigns notably by Alexander the Great, Muslim Arabs, the Mongols, the British and the Soviet Russians.

Recent Times

The recent political history of the modern state of Afghanistan stems from the time in the late 19th century when it became a buffer state in the “Great Game” between British India and the Russian Empire. After the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1926, it was established as a constitutional monarchy under King Amanullah Khan. In 1933 the crown was inherited by King Mohammed Zahir Shah and he reigned for 39 years. During his reign the kingdom joined the League of Nations (1934) and remained neutral and pursued a diplomatic policy of non-alignment during the World War II.

King Zahir Khan was overthrown by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1972. Daoud Khan successfully established a republican Afghan Government and became its first president.

Communist Influence

There was more turbulence ahead,however,when Daoud Khan’s centrist government was overthrown by left wing military officers in April 1978. The leader was Nur Mohammed Taraki and power was shared by two Marxist-Leninist political groups which forged close links with the Soviet Union. The new government had little popular support and organized ruthless purges against opponents. They also instigated unpopular land and social reforms which were bitterly resented by the devoutly Muslim and mainly anti-communist population. Armed resistance to the government arose from different Islamic tribal and urban groups – collectively known as the mujahideen (those who engage in jihad).

These insurgencies directly led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December 1979 with the purpose of supporting the Communist government. Soviet troops remained in the country until February 1989. The withdrawal did not herald the longed for peace however, and more conflict was to besmirch the troubled republic.

Whenever we think of Afghanistan the thoughts that come to mind are of the Taliban and that girl with the beautiful eyes who graced the cover of National Geographic one time. We think of a country tortured by decades of war and of women hidden away whose right to freedom had been robbed.

Although it might seem that the country has been living a permanent state of war since the dawn of time, in the past Afghanistan had the potential to be a pretty modern and forward thinking place. One of Internet’s favourite “you-won’t-believe-it’s-real” photographs is one that depicts a group of Afghan girls in front of a university, studying and – gasp – wearing mini-skirts and that 1970s’ extra high coiffure (if you haven’t, go look it up, it’s totally worth the fuss). But how come the country did not fulfil the promise behind those students?

Afghanistan was recognised as a sovereign nation at the beginning of the 1920s; soon after, King Amanullah Khan followed with this plan to modernise the country and introduced several reforms, including making elementary education compulsory for all people – the constitution of 1923 guaranteed the right to free education. Of course not many people were over the moon with these changes, and he was forced to abdicate. The next king, his cousin, switched the reforms (perhaps a little to forward to some) in favour of a more gradual approach to modernisation. Unfortunately, he was assassinated a few years later.

With that Mohammed ZahirShahis crowned king, and he ruled from 1933 to 1973; during that time, he governed with the assistance of Prime Ministers. They managed not only to not be involved in WW II but also benefited from the rivalry between USA and URSS – as both countries vied for Afghanistan’s support they built motorways, airports, and other major infrastructure.

King Zahir Shah’s reign ended when former PM Daoud Khan launched a coup and became president; a few years later the Saur Revolution broke and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (a communist party) took control. The socialist agenda of the party was stark clear: modernise and secularise (i.e., become non-religious) the country, declare the equality of genders and introduce women into politics. While that seem like a good idea, the way that the PDPA decided to carry it on was not. You see, they were trying to push drastic changes and were very harsh about it.

Well, here is where our tale gets very ugly, very fast: some people – especially the very religious folk at the countryside weren’t keen on those changes imposed by the government; the regimen, then,had an incredibly violent response to it, which led to yet another civil war. Only this time the soviets were involved, because of the party. And because the soviets were involved, so were the USA. The aftermath of this was over one million dead (mostly civilians) and other 6 million refugees who fled the country.

The soviets withdrew in 1989 (because of international pressure over the number of deaths), but the wars continued. President Mohammad Najibullah tried to put a halt to them, but was unsuccessful. Because of the chaotic situation the government couldn’t establish any working departments or police units; Afghanistan was being governed by local commands. Cue more death and insecurity.

In 1996 the Taliban seized control of Kabul and instituted the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. A rigorous religious group, they forced the strictest form of sharia law on the population. Their rules were so restrictive that human rights agencies describe their actions as violently forcing people into house arrest.

When they refused to comply with the USA after the attacks of September 2001 a coalition between American, British, and opposition group Northern Alliance was formed to take the Taliban down. More than a decade later, the war still goes on, but the government (established with foreign help) was able to rebuild some structures and work on improving healthcare, education and economy.

Hindered by war and the Taliban’s actions, Afghanistan is now one of the poorest and underdeveloped countries. Could those people who smiled so brightly for a photo in 1970 ever predict such dire future? Could any of us?

The Taliban regime, which started in the 1990s and still affects the lives of the Afghan people, was known internationally for the adoption if the strictest form of the Sharia law – mostly when it comes to women.

Because among the horrors of war, women saw most of their rights be cut down practically in one fell swoop. While it’s true that the majority of the population was basically held in home arrest, for women the situation was aggravated by the misogynist interpretation of the sacred book. The burqa was reinstate after decades of banishment; they weren’t allowed outside the house without an appropriate male escort, which meant that women could no longer work outside the household – and that caused a veritable crisis, since they made up significant part of the country’s workforce. Since women weren’t allowed to teach many schools simply shut down, leaving both girls and boys without any formal education.

It’s a hellish situation, and, in order to remind us that this monstrosity exists and to celebrate those who have to live under it, I’d like to present some Afghani women who made a difference to their country!

· Anahita Ratebzad (October 1931 – 7 September 2014)


The first woman to have an active role in the Afghan government. Founding member of the communist party, medical doctor and women’s rights activist, Ratebzad started making noise in the 1950s, when she and a group of women who uncovered their faces and went to work – in public; she also worked as a nurse, tending to male patients, a feat unheard of thus far. After a year as Education Minister she became deputy head of state until 1986. When the mujahidin took over Ratebzad and her family were forced to escape the country; she was living in Germany by the time of her death.

· Sitara Achakzai (1956/1957 – 12 April 2009)


One of many women assassinated by the Taliban for daring to defend women’s rights. Months before her death she commemorated the International Women’s Day by leading a sit-in of 11,000 Afghan women gathered to pray for peace. She was also a local politician in Kandahar, and vocal about empowering women to take jobs and demand equal rights. Achakzai was killed in front of her house, as she arrived from a meeting.

· Malalai Kakar (1967-28 September 2008)


The first woman to graduate from the Kandahar Police Academy, Lieutenant Colonel Kakar was also head of the department of crimes against women. Policewomen are invaluable for law enforcement in Afghanistan, since gender division is still very strong: female cops can perform searches on women for concealed weapons and maintain decorum when the police need to enter a household with women inside. She too was murdered just outside her house, as she prepared to leave for work. Since her assassinationmany other officers were also murdered by the Taliban.

· Safia Ahmad Jan (1941–25 September 2006)


Not only a women’s right advocate, Jan had stayed in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime to secretly teach girls. She was chief of the Woman’s Affairs department in Kandahar, position that Jan occupied for five years. Like Achakzai and Kakar she was killed near her house.

· Malalai Joya (born April 25, 1978)


As a Parliamentarian in the National Assembly of Afghanistan Joya called out – publicly – the presence of warlords and war criminals in the Parliament, causing her to be dismissed from in 2007. A human-rights activist and public denouncer of injustice and wrongdoing, Joya today travels the world speaking against the people who stand between Afghanistan and true democracy, always accompanied by armed guards after surviving four assassination attempts.

· Maryam Durani (born 1987)


The receiver of the International Women of Courage Award of 2012 and the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award in 2014 may be young, but has a lot on her CV. Besides having degrees in business, law and political science, Durani is a people’s representative in the provincial council and owner of Merman Radio of Kandahar, which broadcast specifically to women, and the Malalai Maiwandi Internet cafe, the first free internet café for women in the country.

Disclaimer: the following post is based solely on my opinions. Which in turn are based on Internet research. As with everything in life, it should be taken with a pinch of salt.

After a development spurt in the 1970s sponsored by the extinct URSS Afghanistan seems to have entered a state of permanent war. The never-ending conflict has taken its toll on the country and sometimes it feels like there’s no way out of this misery and onto a better future. I’d like to take a moment to just examine the current situation of the country and offer my thoughts on the matter.

The Past

Afghanistan became a sovereign country in the beginning of the 20th century. The decades between the 1930s and the 70s were of stability and the government leaned more and more on the soviet side, which meant investments in infrastructure, modernisations and social reforms that saw an increasing participation of women in public life – including attending university and becoming part of the workforce.

In the late 1970s the People’s Democratic Party Afghanistan (PDPA) launched a coup and took over the country. What had the potential to be a good thing (the party prohibited usury, declared the equality of genders and introduced women in politics) was handled with violence and intolerance, including inside the party itself. The result was a civil war opposing the Party and the Mujahidin, at first – the war escalated from guerrilla proportions to being a sophisticated international affair in which the USA and the URSS were closely involved.

The aftermath of the Soviet War was chaos: although the international forces withdrew,the government was unable to put the pieces back together and create a united nation. It wasn’t an easy feat for the Taliban to take over, in 1996, and they did it at the cost of thousands of lives. The group controlled the country by applying an extremely strict and misogynist version of the Sharia law, which not only led millions fleeing out of the country but also removed half the workforce of the country from public life; moreover, they weren’t able to supress the conflicts within the country and against other nations – besides the casualties, Afghanistan saw the ruin of its infrastructure.

Following the attacks of 9/11 the country was invaded by military forces from around the world seeking to destroy Al-Qaeda (who had a safe place in Afghanistan under the Taliban); associated with them was the Northern Alliance, a rebel group bent on removing the Taliban from the government.

The Present

After more than ten years of war, the results could not be any different: the number of casualties is monumental and the country was left, at least for a while, in shards. Following the destruction of pretty much everything, the international forces that had arrived in the country as combative switched their efforts to the reconstruction of Afghanistan once their opponents had been somewhat neutralised. As a result, hospitals, schools and other basic infrastructure were rebuilt, and the people started returning to the country.

Economically, Afghanistan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Its economy is based on agriculture; however the production of pomegranates, melons, grapes and apricots is overshadowed by the cultivation of opium. And more and more women are retaking their public life and re-entering the work force, as the 2004 Constitution calls for gender equality.

The great challenge faced by Afghanistan is garnering international investments; far from stability due to the mini-wars waged locally and largely dependent on donated money, it’s not shocking that investors don’t see the country as a possible candidate.

The Future

At the last U.N. General Assembly (2015) Afghanistan delivered a very much-improved image of the country: better life expectancy, better literacy and diminished gender gap, all due to a democratic regime (one could argue the meaning of this data, since the base for comparison was a state of war).

The focus was strengthening the idea that Afghanistan is, in fact, developing and is an ideal candidate for foreign investments, especially because one of their sources of income is mining, with the land being rich in coal, copper, gold, lithium, etc., oil and natural gas liquids.

Behind all these statements, the appeal for international support – while Afghanistan isn’t able stop all internal conflicts they’ll need foreign help. For now, it’s implausible to see the country standing on its own two feet on the near future. But it’s possible to glimpse it being slowly rebuilt and overcoming the stigma of war, all because of millions of brave men and women who work everyday towards such goal.