AFGHANISTAN'S HISTORY, internal political development, foreign relations, andvery existence as an independent state have largely been determined by itsgeographic location at the crossroads of Central, West, and South Asia. Over thecenturies, waves of migrating peoples passed through the region--described as a"roundabout of the ancient world," by historian ArnoldToynbee--leaving behind a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. In moderntimes, as well as in antiquity, vast armies of the world passed throughAfghanistan, temporarily establishing local control and often dominating Iranand northern India.

Although it was the scene of great empires and flourishing trade for over twomillennia, Afghanistan did not become a truly independent nation until thetwentieth century. The area's heterogeneous groups were not bound into a singlepolitical entity until the reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who in 1747 founded themonarchy that ruled the country until 1973. In the nineteenth century,Afghanistan lay between the expanding might of the Russian and British empires.In 1900, Abdur Rahman Khan (the "Iron Amir"), looking back on histwenty years of rule and the events of the past century, wondered how hiscountry, which stood "like a goat between these lions [Britain and TsaristRussia] or a grain of wheat between two strong millstones of the grinding mill,[could] stand in the midway of the stones without being ground to dust?"Constrained by the competing dictates of powerful British and Russian empires,Abdur Rahman focused instead on consolidating his power within Afghanistan andcreating the institutions of a modern nation-state.

Islam played a key role in the formation of Afghan history as well. Despitethe Mongol invasion of Afghanistan in the early thirteenth century which hasbeen described as resembling "more some brute cataclysm of the blind forcesof nature than a phenomenon of human history," even a warrior as formidableas Genghis Khan did not uproot Islamic civilization, and within two generationshis heirs had become Muslims. An often unacknowledged event that neverthelessplayed an important role in Afghan history (and in the politics of Afghanistan'sneighbors and the entire region up to the present) was the rise in the tenthcentury of a strong Sunni dynasty--the Ghaznavids. Their power prevented theeastward spread of Shiism from Iran, thereby insuring that the majority of theMuslims in Afghanistan and South Asia would be Sunnis.


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