In 1978, a Soviet-backed coup ousted Mohammed Daoud Khan and created the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Next year, in the wake of the Iranian revolution and fearful of its ability to energise resurgent Islamism and threaten socialism, the USSR airlifted tens of thousands of troops into Kabul and instigated a ten year war. They also instigated the funding of the anti-Soviet resistance by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. For various reasons, all of these countries opposed the spread of Communism into South Asia. In doing so they helped convert Osama bin Laden from someone considered an intellectually dull financier of Islamist struggle to the leader of an international terrorist network.
In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. However, it continued to supply military and economic aid to the Afghani government until January 1, 1992; that is, six days after the liquidation of the Soviet Union. By April, Ahmed Shah Masood's opposition forces were in the capital. But factionalism was rife and the country increasingly descended into anarchy. Over the coming years, the Taleban created a kind of order out of chaos, taking Kabul in 1996 and controlling most of the country by 1998. The Taleban were largely students from the radical madrassas of Pakistan, and were funded and supported by the Pakistani government; many were in fact Pakistanis. Pakistan encouraged their activities because they hoped to secure their western border, and because a compliant government in Afghanistan gave them strategic depth against India.
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and his plans to invade Saudi Arabia during this period also had a huge impact on future events. Firstly, they led to the American containment package of sanctions and military strikes that continued until Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was much resented in the Arabic world. Secondly, they intensified Osama's conflict with the Saudi royal family. OBL offered his forces to King Fahd to protect the kingdom from Iraqi aggression, but he was rebuffed. Instead, the House of Saud turned to the Great Satan to keep it on the throne. The military bases established on Saudi soil, which remained until shortly after Saddam's overthrow, remained a major bone of contention both between OBL and Saudi Arabia, and OBL and America. OBL was expelled from Saudi Arabia and set up shop in Sudan, financing terrorism and moonlighting building infrastructure.
The Taleban gained international notoriety quickly. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognised their legitimacy. They were criticised not just for their harsh and non-traditional interpretation of the Shar'iah and their establishment of a religious police. Dozens of ordinances and laws were completely incomprehensible and despicable to outsiders. For example, the wearing of white shoes - the colour of the Taleban flag - was illegal, because someone doing so was trampling the flag. Beards had to be the length of a clenched fist. Other actions shocked the international community. These included the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, UNESCO World Heritage sites that were one and a half thousand years old, and the use of a UN-constructed football stadium for conducting public executions (people from the streets were forced into the stadium to watch).
In 1996, OBL, no longer welcome in Sudan, moved to Afghanistan and soon established close links with the Taleban. He was able to conduct terrorist training activities on a large scale in the country and set about supporting the Taleban government. The Taleban were, Condi Rice remarked, 'not so much state sponsors of terrorism as a state sponsored by terrorists'. The Taleban had by 1998 reduced the opposition, the Northern Alliance of Ahmed Shah Masood, to controlling ten per cent of Afghanistan and roughly thirty per cent of its population.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the events of early September, 2001, were supposed to be a double coup for the Taleban and Osama bin Laden. On September 9, 2001, Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated by two Arabs posing as journalists in a suicide attack. Two days later, members of al-Qaeda attacked the premier symbols of American commerical and military power.
If the Taleban hoped that they would be able to finally destroy the Northern Alliance after their decapitation strike at its leadership, they were mistaken. In less than a month airstrikes began to fall on Afghanistan, and U.S. special forces joined the Northern Alliance in routing the Taleban within a few months. The Taleban withdrew to the region around the Pakistani border, which is not in the orbit of any of the regional states. From here they could receieve new recruits from Afghanistan. Major U.S. and Afghani government offensives have been launched since against the remnants of the Taleban, dubbed Operation Anaconda and more recently Operation Lightning Freedom. The Taleban have shown no signs of making any sort of major comeback, and their failure to disrupt the election is surely a sign of their waning power.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. In December of 2001, the Bonn conference was held. Here, anti-Taleban elements decided on a process to bring the country to democracy, which was endorsed by the UN. The Afghan Interim Authority was set up on 22 December, to be replaced in six months by a Transitional Authority which would rule for two years, after which elections would be held. As planned, in June 2002 a loya jirga (a consultative assembly based partly on election and partly on representation of interests) was convened which established the Transitional Authority, to be headed by Hamid Karzai.
The next loya jirga was convened in December of 2003 to hammer out the details of the proposed Afghan constitution. Karzai hand-picked only 50 of the 500 delegates, with 344 elected by regional representatives; 64 delegates were female. Probably the key issue in the constitution was the strength of the presidency - Afghanistan traditionally has a very weak central government, as no Kabul state has ever been able to enforce its will with regularity on the warlords in the localities. The constitution gives the President strong powers, seen as essential to bringing about stability in Afghanistan. But it also aims to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan by being inclusive. There is no national language, with the official language varying by region depending on what is most widely spoken. At least 64 of the 250 delegages in the legislature must be women, and they are directly appointed by the President. The President at two Vice-Presidents, so that all three of Afghanistan's ethnic communities could be represented (this system worked in Lebanon until it tragically collapsed).
With a Constitution in place, the first of the Presidential elections which it specified to take place ever five years could commence.
There were eighteen candidates in the Presidential election. Karzai was the favourite throughout the campaigning, basing his bid on promises of economic reconstruction, ending corruption and destroying the drugs trade. These themes naturally dominated the campaign.
The voting took place inside Afghanistan and also in refugee communities in neighbouring countries; fiitingly, the first voter was 19 year old woman from a refugee camp in Pakistan. Women had a high involvement in the election, as election workers, voters, and in a candidacy - Dr. Massaouda Jalal. Interviews with Afghan women showed that many endorsed Karzai due to him removing all of the Taleban's legal restrictions on women working or being educated. Karzai had picked up a lot of political capital due to the relative stability and increasing prosperity Afghanistan had enjoyed since the ouster of the Taleban, and in the end he received 55.4% of the vote, 39% ahead of his nearest rival.
Of Afghanistan's twenty eight million people, ten million registered to vote - 850,000 were refugees. Eighty per cent of these turned up on the day to cast their ballot. Following the election, there were allegations of fraud by the losing candidates, and at one point every single one of them threatened to boycott the election. However, an investigation revealed that although there had been minor instances of fraud, they did not effect the material result of the election.
All in all, the Afghan Presidential election is a hugely significant event for the country and the region. Although there are still significant problems in areas of the country where the central government's power is not strong, this is the rule rather than the exception in Afghanistan's history. What is an exception is a democratic election in which over ten million people took part and which was not violently contested by an armed group. USAID and other countries continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Afghanistan to build infrastructure, improve communications (radio is the key to political education as most Afghans are illiterate), instituting free speech, and most critically of all, prepare the country for legislative and regional elections mid-way through next year.
For the first time in decades, Afghanistan's future looks bright.
Sources: BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/), Chrenkoff (http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/), USAID (http://www.usaid.gov/locations/asia_near_east/afghanistan/), Weekly Standard (http://www.weeklystandard.com/), Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/)