Background

  • Until the beginning of the 19th century, Afghanistan's history was characterized by centuries of local resistance to various conquerors who marched through the area and by in-fighting among local leaders when there was no foreign power to oust. All these incursions have left their mark, either in archeological treasures or in cultural and religious influences. 

  • The struggle for power–tribe against tribe, family against family, brother against brother–characterizes the intertribal relationships among the Afghans, and continued as their territory became crucial to the interests of greater powers, most notably the czarist Russians in the north and the British in the south. 

  • By 1979 Marxist reform programs had sparked major rebellions in the countryside. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prevent their Afghan clients from being overthrown, but in the war that followed, groups of Afghan mujaheddin were able to mount a successful guerrilla resistance. Millions of Afghan civilians fled into Pakistan and Iran to escape the destructive Soviet military campaigns against the insurgency. 

  • The United States supported the Afghan rebels, pouring supplies and weapons into the country via Pakistan. After years of futile effort, the Soviet Union withdrew its 100,000 troops from Afghanistan from May 1988 to February 1989. Once the Soviets had left the country, the United States withdrew as well, leaving Afghanistan to its own devices.

  • In April 1992, several rebel factions succeeded in capturing Kabul, overthrowing the communist government, and establishing a provisional Islamic republic headed by the Tajik northerner Bernahuddin Rabbani. Rival rebel groups fought among themselves, however, and the civil war continued. 

  • The Taliban developed in religious schools in Pakistan. They were mostly Pashtuns, young and poorly educated; many had lost their fathers and uncles in the struggle against the Soviets.Their success was largely due to their popular support, gained as a result of their ability to restore civil order after the chaos of the preceding years. 

  • The Taliban restored order by imposing extreme interpretations of Islamic law, with severe restrictions on the activities of women; measures were enforced with public floggings and stoning. Their extreme measures alienated most of the world.

  • In the recent conflict, the Taliban’s fighting force was decimated and their rule ended. A provisional government has been established, and the country is tentatively beginning, once again, to rebuild.

Culture and Religion

  • There has never been an accurate population census taken in Afghanistan, but the most common estimate is approximately 26 million. Afghanistan has a wide variety of ethnic groups, 77 in total, with each having different linguistic, religious and ethnic identities.

  • The Pashtuns, or Pushtuns, constitute an estimated 38% of the population of Afghanistan, and as such are the ethnic majority.

  • The two major languages in Afghanistan are Pashto and Persian, known in Afghanistan as Dari. 

  • Located in south-central Asia, Afghanistan is a high, landlocked country a little smaller than Texas. It is bordered on the west by Iran and on the east and south by Pakistan. Its northern neighbors are Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. China lies to the northeast.

  • In terms of its mountain ruggedness and its climate of hot summers and bitterly cold winters, it is much like Wyoming. Temperatures vary according to altitude, but in general the average highs are above 90° F in the summers, and the winter lows drop well below freezing. 

  • Well over 40% of the land in Afghanistan is high pastureland. Accordingly, the country has a tradition of nomadism in which herds of sheep, goats, and occasionally cattle are taken up to high mountain pastures for extended periods of time. The typical herdsman is usually a small farmer as well, with a permanent home and village from which he takes his flocks to summer pasturage, leaving family members behind to care for the crops. 

  • Many Afghans are small farmers, growing wheat, barley, corn, and rice as major crops for internal consumption. Orchards are also highly prized and produce fruits and nuts for export. 

  • In towns, there are traders and tea houses, as well as fulltime craft specialists, such as potters, weavers, and shoemakers. However, few such centers exist in Afghanistan, which is still a land of small villages. Only the large cities, and particularly the capital, Kabul, have a modernized economic sector, although a very small number of factories and mining centers exist in other locations. 

  • 99.7% of Afghans are Musilm, and Islam is a very powerful social force

  • Afghanistan is one of the most solidly Muslim countries in the world. The great majority of Afghans follow the mainstream branch of Islam, the Sunni tradition, although there is a Shi'a minority.

  • The impact of Islam on individuals and families depends on the degree of adherence to traditional rituals. The majority of Afghans adhere to Islamic principles of hygiene, modest behavior, and moral values. Islam expects modest dress and behavior, including chastity until marriage for girls and women. Nonetheless, people vary in their practice of their religion.

  • Some strictly adhere to tradition, praying five times a day, maintaining halal food practices, and dressing to cover head, arms and legs. Other are more relaxed, praying to themselves when the spirit moves them rather than at specific times, and dress less conservatively. 

  • Adults work very hard but also do extensive visiting or entertaining during weekends and sometimes on weekday nights as well. Hospitality, one of the most important Afghan values, requires elaborate food preparation and a very clean house. 

  • Children are expected to work hard in school and to come home after school to do homework; boys, however, have much more freedom than girls do. 

  • Afghans see family matters as strictly private. People are generally reluctant to share personal and family issues with nonfamily members, including health care professionals, though women may discuss their problems with friends, including non-Afghans.

Adjusting to Life in America

  • The Afghan population in the United States shares a common nationality and religion but is diverse in terms of political orientation, religious affiliation, ethnicity, social class, and attitude toward modernization. The importance of this diversity cannot be overstated.

  • Most Afghanss are familiar with Western dress and will have no trouble adapting, although they might be scandalized at the amount of flesh we bare in the summer.

  • In general, speakers of Dari and Pashto will have fewer problems learning English than the speakers of many other languages due to the distant relationship between English, Dari and Pashto. 

  • "In Afghanistan, life doesn't belong to just one person," an Afghan commented. "Every decision is connected to the family – we are all tied together." At the same time, Afghans are some of the most independent people in the world, disliking others, especially outsiders, telling them what to do. 

  • Cross-gender platonic friendships almost never occur in Afghan society: Just about any friendly overture on the part of an American woman to an Afghan man will be interpreted as a sexual or romantic advance. The situation is further confusing as the young men observe American couples expressing affection in public, which is never done in Arab society.

  • For men, the sense that they have lost control over their lives and over their wives and children is a source of great stress. Because most Afghans do not seek help for mental problems, the resettlement community may not think that they need psychological care. Yet the need clearly exists.

  • Arab refugees might be puzzled at our American customs involving the necessity of invitations and giving notice before we visit. An Afghan family might issue a general invitation, not realizing that they must pin down a specific time and place, then sit at home socially isolated and lonely, wondering why Americans are so unsociable.

  • Hospitality is cherished tradition, to the point that Afghans might insist on paying, even when it is spending more than they can afford.