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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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A Fragile Nation Divided

CIRCA 1996 CE
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Geography & Destiny

Reveal Source

0030. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

26-13. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
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Producer: Grace Norman

 

Reveal Transcript

For people who know Kabul, it’s hard to reconcile what life is like today compared to 50 years ago.

When the Soviet Union withdrew its troops, it also withdrew its financial and infrastructural support to the Afghan government. The Afghan government—unable to provide for its people—quickly lost credibility. Various warlord-led militias grouped outside of Kabul, vying for power. It wasn’t clear whether the government was trying to hold things together, or if it was ripping itself apart by participating in factional fighting. In the power vaccuum that resulted, no one was left to protect the capitol city of Kabul.

Fierce gun fights and rampant missile strikes, spiraled downwards into abject rejection of wartime conventions. Hospitals were bombed, the Red Cross targeted, civilians killed. By the time the Taliban arrived in Kabul in 1996, their numbers far outranked most of the other factions. The Taliban chased the warlords out of Kabul. The people who were left in Kabul cheered the Taliban liberators and welcomed a return to relative peace. But cheering was replaced by despair all too soon.

The Taliban had a very particular and narrow interpretation of sharia, the Islamic law. Cultural artifacts were destroyed because they were anti-Islamic in the eyes of the Taliban. Music was silenced. Shiites and Hazaras were persecuted and many were slaughtered. All men were commanded wear beards and a head covering and live by a strict code of conduct. Women had to wear burqas and were not allowed to work or have an education. Seemingly innocent past times were punishable by public flogging, mutilation, or worse.

Life, as Afghanistan had known it, had changed radically. The people were persecuted by harsh laws and even harsher punishments.

Muslims around the world argued that the practices in Afghanistan were a desecration of the sharia. But in Afghanistan, there was no room for debate.

After the fall of Kabul, the Taliban went on to control an estimated 95% of Afghanistan by September 2001. Taliban rule, following a quarter century of fighting, had all but destroyed Afghanistan. The chaos that resulted harbored an international terrorist movement that would lead Afghanistan to war with a faraway, but very powerful nation.

The civil war between the Northern Alliance and Taliban attracted international attention.

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