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Afghanistan's roller-coaster history

Weigand Florian Kommentarbild App
Florian Weigand
August 19, 2019

It should be joyous: 100 years of independence. But Afghanistan is in mourning after a wedding was attacked. The US and the Taliban are thrashing out a deal, but DW's Florian Weigand predicts an uncertain future.

100 years of independence celebrations in Afghanistan
Image: DW/O. Deedar

There is a myth people in Afghanistan like to recount: Conquerors come and go, none of them stay for long.

This thought fills many people with pride — but also trepidation. They dream of a free Afghanistan that is no longer at the mercy of foreign powers.

On the other hand, how can this country thrive and flourish without help from outside? It is, after all, an arid landlocked country, rich in natural resources but lacking the technology and infrastructure to exploit them.

The first modern-day attempt at creating a stable and autonomous Afghanistan began 100 years ago in 1919. Back then, after three grueling but ultimately unsuccessful wars, the British colonial masters had to accept that they would never be more than a footnote in the nation's history, and granted independence to their former protectorate.

The inaugural ruler, King Amanullah Khan, wanted to open the country to foreign influence without allowing the outside world to impose any demands.

He envisioned following modernist trends across the Orient. Turkey's new secular leader, Kemal Atatürk, was his idol.

But he was also very much impressed by Germany's Weimar Republic, to which he paid an official state visit. His wife, Soraya, cast off her veil. The King pushed ahead with far-reaching reforms in his country.

Today, Afghan leaders like to quote King Amanullah Khan who said that Afghans could only shape their future by taking it into their own hands. So is Amanullah the shining role model for Afghanistan's future leaders?

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Those who applaud his ideas today should heed his ignominious demise: The King was rapidly seen as a traitor, imitating the West and selling out his country's values and culture. A revolution resulted in his exile.

Reformers came and went. They were all overthrown or killed.

This continued until the Soviet invasion in 1979. But they also only lasted ten years before being forced to withdraw.

The 1990s brought civil war — and then came the Taliban.

US troops arrived in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. There were two NATO missions, billions of dollars of development aid were poured into the country, and democracy was enshrined in a constitution over 15 years ago.

But what is in store for the country after the US troops leave?

Read moreViolence spikes in Afghanistan — is peace with Taliban a good idea?

It appears the Afghan roller coaster is plummeting towards an abyss once again. The US has seemingly lost interest.

All Washington has in mind is a face-saving exit — and to achieve that they are even willing to strike a deal with Taliban terrorists. The only prerequisite seems to be that the Taliban must promise not to support international terrorists. The US couldn't care less what happens in the country itself.

A nation acutely aware of its own past is seeing history repeat itself once again: Foreign powers come only to pursue their own interests and try and impose their own values.

Skepticism towards the outside world

The myth of an invincible Afghanistan coupled with the frustrating experience that foreign partners are notoriously unreliable makes the Afghan people wary of new ideas from the outside world. This in turn makes the country easy prey for extremists, who vow to shut out this kind of outside influence and roll back the changes.

The extremists, in turn, seem to forget that the "pure" Afghan culture, which they vow to protect, shows elements from Arabic, Persian, Central Asian and South Asian cultures going back thousands of years.

If the country could rekindle the ability to adapt and incorporate cultural and political influence from the outside world, its reformers would not be doomed to fail again and again.

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