The future of Afghanistan

January 1, 0001

The Central Asian country of Afghanistan is one of the most restricted and least-evangelized of the world. If the whole of the world is to be evangelized, this nation’s peoples, too, must hear the gospel. What is the likely religious future of Afghanistan? Could it be presented with the gospel of Jesus Christ by 2025 or beyond?

Afghanistan is a landlocked country situated in the middle of Central Asia. Its position, in the midst of ancient trade and invasion routes from Central Asia to India, has been the greatest influence on its history, since invaders often settled there. It has been been fought for by nearly every world empire throughout history, beginning with the Persians (6th century BC) and Alexander the Great (330BC). Buddhists dominated from the 1st to the 8th centuries, but lost hold as Islam invaded and became the driving force from the 600s to 1200s. In 1220 Genghis Khan swept the land. Toward the end of the 14th century, Tamerlane conquered it before moving on into India. The Mughal Empire (in Kabul) and the Safavid dynasty in Persia (occupying Herat) fought over Afghanistan throughout the whole of the 16th and 17th centuries, with most of their battles centered on Kandahar.

In the late 1700s, the Persian king Nadir Shah hired the Abdali tribe of Pashtuns in his wars against India. Upon Nadir’s assassination in 1747, Ahmad Shah proclaimed himself Shah and led the Afghans to extend their rule to Kashmir, Delhi, north to Amu Darya, and west into Persia.

In the 1800s, internal conflicts gradually reduced Afghanistan’s empire to its modern borders. At the same time, the British and the Russians both wanted Afghanistan in their sphere of influence. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought—the first in 1838; the second in 1878—which brought control of Afghanistan to the British, and Abd-ar-Rahman into power as Emir of Afghanistan. Habibullah (reigning 1901-1919) began to modernize the country; his son, Amanullah, began the Third Anglo-Afghan War which led to the end of British control and the independence of Afghanistan.

Amanullah continued modernization: the women would give up the full-length veil and men could wear Western clothing in certain public areas. Traditionalists revolted against him and drove him from Afghanistan. Power became concentrated in the hands of Muhammad Zahir Shah, and was retained by his family four decades. Muhammad Daud became prime minister in 1953, and began a development program with the assistance of economic and military aid from the USSR. He was ousted as the King attempted to end Soviet influence and improve relations with Pakistan; ten years later he was back, overthrowing the king and declaring Afghanistan to be a republic. After a period of intense political turmoil, Daud himself was overthrown by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. New president Taraki announced a broad program including land reform, women’s rights, and a campaign against illiteracy. Reforms were again opposed by traditionalists and ethnic leaders, and by 1979 the nation was in the midst of yet another internal war.

In September, Taraki was deposed and killed. His successor Amin tried to suppress the rebellion, but the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 on behalf of the opposition, executed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as president. The period of political chaos was bad, but the ensuing war was devastating. Half the population was displaced; 4.5 million refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran. Deaths were estimated at between 700,000 and 1.3 million. The economy was crippled and the infrastructure all but destroyed. The rebellion intensified as the mujahadeen (‘freedom fighters') battled against the ‘atheists', sustained by weapons and money from the USA, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. The Soviets had better equipment, but much of it could not be used effectively in Afghanistan’s harsh, mountainous landscape. Analysts have likened the Soviet invasion to the action of Americans in Vietnam: the Afghani rebels could simply fade back into the mountains and wait to strike again. Finally, in May 1988, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR and the USA agreed to the end of foreign intervention, and the Soviet troops were withdrawn. The rebels, however, had nothing to do with the peace accords and kept up their battle against the Afghani government, scorning all attempts at peace talks. Soviet economic and military aid kept the government in power. When it was withdrawn in late 1991 the rebels finally made headway, and the government fell in 1992. 

A new government took control of Kabul, but efforts to keep Pashto leaders out of office caused new hostilities as the Pashto-dominated Taliban sought to re-establish their dominance in the capital. The Taliban began in the south in 1994 as guerrilla soldiers who called themselves religious students. They took Kabul in September 1996. They insisted on imposing the strictest interpretation of shari’a law, leading to the expulsion of women from most aspects of society. Harsh punishments were imposed for crimes. Most of the intellectuals of Afghanistan (who were also more liberal) fled. Unsurprisingly, opposition to the Taliban’s extremist rule rose quickly. The two sides fought back and forth through 2001, but the Taliban maintained the upper hand. After the bin-Laden inspired attacks on the United States, American forces began attacking Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. The Taliban government was quickly toppled and a new government installed under Karzai. However, never fully defeated, Taliban forces regrouped and have continued battling the government to this day.

While the Soviets controlled Afghanistan, there was some freedom for Christians to work and evangelize. After the Taliban takeover, these freedoms evaporated. Even after the US-led toppling of the Taliban government, it has been extremely dangerous for Christian work of any sort (including aid, development, and medical work). Many Christian workers have been expelled and some killed, and the church has been persecuted harshly. Absent a divine move of God, the short-term future of Christianity in Afghanistan is bleak. Islam has been the driving force in Afghanistan, and it holds a tight grip on its citizens.

The wars have destroyed much of the technological infrastructure used to beam the gospel into the nation. While obviously some have radios and Internet access, most of the population does not. Much of the country is inaccessible to foreign workers, in the grip of fundamentalists, fighters, and organized crime bosses (particularly in the area of drug trafficking). Those most open to the gospel (intellectuals and liberals) have fled the country’s new regime. Existing Gospel work in the nation is highly dangerous to the lives of the workers.

Based on this short profile, we can sketch three scenarios: 

Scenario No. 1: Status Quo. Islam continues in its grip on the nation. Aid from Islamic countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enable some improvements in the country and the provision of Islamic education (mosques, teachers, copies of the Koran). Christians are for the most part kept out. Some work is possible, and some are martyred every year. 

Scenario No. 2: Costly revival. Islam largely keeps control, but a movement begins (perhaps among some of the less fortunate ethnic groups). Although bitterly persecuted, the revival continues to grow until a church of several thousand is established in the rural areas of Afghanistan.

Scenario No. 3: Downfall of fundamentalist Islam. Some form of more moderate or liberalized government takes form, the Taliban are thoroughly ejected, foreign aid is accepted, and workers can move in.

Of the three scenarios, right now it appears the most likely is scenario 1. Networks that most desire to see Afghanistan impacted need to recruit personnel with a long-term view and the passion to persist through a long winter with the hope of a harvest in an eventual spring. The best options right now appear to be working amongst diaspora with the idea that some will be able to return to Afghanistan and bring the Gospel through their family networks.