A look at some of the key players
by David Johnson
Afghanistan's location between India, Persia, China, and the steppes of Central Asia has led to a history dominated by invasion. Alexander the Great, ancient Persians, Seljuk Turks, Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes, Indian Moguls, Russian czars, Queen Victoria, Leonid Brezhnev, and American presidents have all noted Afghanistan's strategic importance.
The endless fighting has turned Afghans into some of the best warriors on earth. The invasions have also left a mosaic of tribes: Pashtuns; Tajiks, related to Persians; Turkic Uzbeks; and Hazaras, descendants of the Mongols, are the main ethnic groups. Most Afghans are Orthodox Sunni Muslims, but there are also many Shi'ites, including a number of Ismailis. Ideological differences have also split the country, with communists, former communists, strict Muslims, and modern reformists all having factions in recent years.
Former President of Afghanistan
Karzai was named to head an interim Afghan government on Dec. 5, 2001, after eight days of discussions held in Bonn, Germany, between various Afghan factions. He was chosen partly based on his modern political skills and his traditional credentials. Karzai, who attended college in India, speaks fluent English. An ethnic Pashtun from the city of Kandahar, Karzai is leader of the powerful 500,000-strong Populzai clan, which has supplied Afghanistan's kings since 1747. Both his father and grandfather also headed the clan. Karzai was a close ally of the former king, Muhammad Zahir Shah. Even many Taliban supporters, most of whom were ethnic Pashtun centered in Kandahar, found Karzai preferable to Northern Alliance leaders who were ethnic Tajiks or Uzbeks.
Karzai won the 2004 presidential election. In 2009, he was re-elected to a second five-year-term amid controversy that the elections were fraudulent. Because of term limits, he did not seek reelection in 2014. He was succeeded by Ashraf Ghani. Early in his tenure enjoyed strong support from the West. However, that support diminished amid rampant government corruption, weak leadership, and a resurgence of the Taliban. Likewise, Karzai was initially embraced by a broad spectrum of factions in Afghanistan, where ethnic and tribal identity dominates politics. But his influence throughout Afghanistan grew increasingly tenuous during his presidency, as entrenched warlords continued to exert regional control.
During the fight against the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, Karzai provided money and arms to the mujahideen. He then served as deputy foreign minister in the post-Soviet government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, which was overthrown by the Taliban in 1996. At first a Taliban supporter, Karzai gradually came to oppose their rigid policies and distrust their connections to Pakistani intelligence and Arab Islamic radicals. When the Taliban asked Karzai to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, he refused. During the American-led campaign against the Taliban in the fall 2001, Karzai was instrumental in convincing a number of Pashtun tribes to end their support for the Taliban. In 1999 Karzai married a doctor named Zenat. They have no children.
Abdul Rashid Dostum
President of Afghanistan
Ghani, a former minister of finance and World Bank official, headed the 2002 loya jirga (grand council) of more than 1,500 delegates from around the country to elect a president and government. He held the post of finance minister from 2002 to 2004 under President Hamid Karzai. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 2009.
Ghani faced Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in 2014's runoff election, which was marred by allegations of fraud. Abdullah claimed the race was rigged, saying the election commission and Karzai conspired against him. Ghani and Karzai are both Pashtuns, while Abdullah Abdullah's ethnicity is Tajik-Pashtun. Abdullah refused to accept any decision reached by the country's election commission, and threatened to form a parallel government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Kabul to try to work out a compromise between Ghani and Abdullah. After an intense 12-hour negotiation session, the parties agreed that each of the 8.1 million votes cast would be audited. The winner would form a unity government, with the second-place finisher serving as chief executive of the government. Three months after the controversial runoff election, Ghani and Abdullah agreed in September to form a unity government with Ghani as president and Abdullah in the newly formed position of chief executive, a role similar to that of prime minister. The day after Ghani was installed as president, he signed the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which lays out the status of the U.S. troops who remain in the country after the U.S. formally ends the combat mission. For months after the presidential election, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah struggled to form a 25-member cabinet that satisfied the country's regional and ethnic groups.
Abdul Rashid Dostum
Former Afghan defense minister, warlord, leader of the Union of the North
An Uzbek, a minority group closely related to the Turks, Dostum joined the mujahideen in 1985. He later joined the communist government, serving as defense minister for President Muhammad Najibullah, until the mujahideen defeated it in 1992. For the next couple of years, Dostum's forces allied with various other military factions, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Pashtun warriors and the Shi'ite guerrillas. In 1995, Dostum agreed to a United Nations plan for an interim government. After the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996, Dostum then joined his old enemies, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud, to fight the Taliban. His forces were accused of suffocating as many as 2,000 Taliban insurgents in container trucks. In 2003, after serving as a deputy defense minister in the national government, Dostum became the Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Afghan National Army. In early 2008, Dostum was removed from his army role because of the Akbar Bai kidnapping incident. In June 2009, shortly before the presidential elections, President Karzai reappointed Dostum to his army post. Dostum was elected vice president of Afghanistan in 2014, serving under Ashraf Ghani.
Warlord, leader of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan
Trained as an engineer, Hekmatyar is an ethnic Pashtun. According to some reports, he was a communist in his youth but later became a devout Muslim. Hekmatyar was the most powerful mujahideen until the Taliban, leading a radical Sunni group receiving Saudi Arabian and U.S. aid. Following the fall of the communist regime in 1992, Hekmatyar was named prime minister of an interim government, which was formed with various mujahideen groups. However, continued infighting caused Hekmatyar to withdraw from the government and launch a military assault on Kabul. In 1996 Hekmatyar made peace with President Burhanuddin Rabbani, and was again named prime minister. However, three months later the Taliban captured Kabul, defeating the government. Hekmatyar fled to Iran, but his vocal opposition to the Americans and to the new regime of President Karzai embarrassed the Iranian government, which threw its official weight behind Karzai. In 2002, Iranian authorities expelled Hekmatyar and closed down the offices of his mujahideen faction, Hezb-e-Islami. He returned to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan due to threats by the Afghan government to arrest and try him for war crimes. A spokesman for Hezb-e-Islami claimed Hekmatyar was giving his full support to the Karzai administration, but soon members of Hezb-e-Islami were detained after conspiring to plant bombs in Kabul. Hekmatyar remained elusive will steadily rebuilding his power base in eastern Afghanistan. He has continued to reiterate his ties to the Taliban and al-Qadea. In 2006, Hekmatyar claimed his fighters helped Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora and his group is believed to have attempted to assassinate President Karzai in April 2008 in an attack that killed three people, including a member of Parliament.
Ahmed Shah Massoud
Former Afghan defense minister, warlord, leader of the Islamic Society of Afghanistan
An ethnic Tajik, Massoud studied engineering in Kabul. After the Soviet invasion of 1979, he joined the mujahideen, becoming a major anti-Soviet figure. Following the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992, Massoud served as defense minister in the interim government, but resigned in 1993. As leader of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, Massoud continued to resist the Taliban, which had captured much of the country by 1996. He died when an Algerian posing as a journalist, but believed to be working for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, detonated a bomb, killing both of them.
Amid the social tumult of the 1970s, Meena (who is known only by her first name) left her university classes in the 1970s to organize and educate women, founding the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in 1977. RAWA opposed the communist regime, which took control in 1979, and the later Soviet invasion, organizing women throughout the country. In 1981, Meena helped launch a bilingual magazine, Women's Message, which advocated greater rights for women and opposed both the communists and the fundamentalists. RAWA established schools for refugee children, a women's hospital, and a center in Pakistan where women could support themselves by selling handicrafts. Meena was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1987. RAWA claims the Afghan branch of the KGB, the KHAD, with help from fundamentalists, was responsible
Founder of the Taliban
Son of a poor farmer, Omar grew up near the southern city of Kandahar. An ethnic Pashtun and a Sunni Muslim, in the early 1980s Omar studied in religious schools in Quetta, Pakistan. Although he is known as a mullah, a religious teacher, he is not a cleric. While fighting the Soviets, Omar reportedly lost an eye, which is now stitched shut. After the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in 1992, civil war erupted between various warlords and factions. In an effort to establish order, Omar founded the Taliban, which quickly captured much of the country, including the capital, Kabul, in 1996. Since then Omar has been the leading member of the Taliban's six-member ruling council. Known as "Commander of the Faithful," Omar is reportedly married to one of Osama bin Laden's daughters, and is believed to have close ties with the Pakistani intelligence service. Omar is wanted by the FBI since October 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda militants in the years prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks. He is believed to be in Pakistan directing the Taliban. He was last heard from in 2006, in an audio recording. In late July 2015, Afghanistan's intelligence agency announced that it believed that Omar died in 2013 in Pakistan. Rumors of his death have been frequent, and he has not been seen for several years. The Taliban confirmed Omar's death, and on July 31 announced that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had taken over as the group's supreme leader.
Afghan president in exile
After graduating from Kabul University in 1963, Rabbani received a graduate degree in Islamic philosophy from Cairo's prestigious al-Azhar University, in 1968. He then taught theology at Kabul University. A Tajik, Rabbani joined the fight against the Soviets, becoming leader of one of the five major factions of the mujahideen. After the fall of the communist regime in 1992, Rabbani became president of the interim government that lasted until 1996, when it was overthrown by the Taliban. He returned to Afghanistan after the start of the the U.S.-led attacks in 2001. He temporarily served as interim president prior to the election of Hamid Karzai. Beginning in 2010, he headed the High Peace Council, which was pursuing peace negotiations with the Taliban. Rabbani was assassinated in Kabul in 2011. His death dealt a blow to the peace process, as he was considered one of the few politicians who could bring the Taliban and former members of the Northern Alliance to the bargaining table.
Spiritual leader and deputy commander of the Taliban, 1994–2001
Rabbani (no relation to former President Rabbani) dropped out of Islamic seminary and joined the mujahideen when the Soviets invaded in 1979. He became a prominent commander and developed a considerable following. Although he originally returned to his religious studies when the communist government fell in 1992, the continuous fighting among the warlords prompted Rabbani and 30 other students to form the Taliban, a fighting force to restore order. The Taliban quickly conquered much of southern Afghanistan. When they captured Kabul in 1996, Rabbani gave a press conference and was named head of the Kabul Council, in effect making him prime minister, second in command only to Mullah Omar. Rabbani died of cancer in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.