Civil War in Afghanistan


Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty

and dies with chaos.

– Will Durant


Gayle Mertz

This lesson plan was first published, in a slightly different version, in January 2001 as part of a collection, Conflict in Context: Understanding Local to Global Security.1

I have expanded and updated it to keep in step with recent events since the tragedies of September 11. The point of the lesson is to provide students with some background on the civil war in Afghanistan as well as a foundation for further study of the dynamics of civil wars occurring throughout the world today. By focusing on the specific case of Afghanistan, students can become familiar with the complexities of civil war in general, learning how civil strife can be affected by many factors. Students can use research skills to analyze factors that contribute to ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world.

The lesson, for secondary students, takes at least two class periods, but teachers should adjust the length of the lesson to the ability of their students. If the lesson is extended with discussions of current events or outside research, it could easily take a week. Class materials are the handouts in this article. Students can do further research with the use of the Internet, books and magazines at a library, and (for current events) daily newspapers. At the conclusion of this lesson, students will have met these learning outcomes:

• Practiced reading for understanding.

• Learned about the basic geography, history, culture, and politics of Afghanistan.

• Learned about the effects of the Afghan civil war on civilians, the infrastructure of that country, and the international community.

• Considered factors that contribute to civil wars in different times and places.

• Analyzed data and shared new information with classmates.

Lesson Sequence

Explain to students that they will be looking at the civil war in Afghanistan as an introduction to the study of civil war in general. Ask students to define civil war (a basic definition is “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country”) and to identify civil wars (past or present) that they have learned about. Brainstorm reasons why citizens might enter into combat with one another.

Assemble groups of eight students. Distribute copies of Handouts A-D to everybody. Each student should choose one handout to “specialize” in, coordinating with other members of the group so that all topics are covered. Students can begin reading the handouts, finishing them for homework. Explain the next day’s activity to them so they will be prepared.

The next day, have students discuss among themselves what they have read, each student taking responsibility for his or her chosen handout. (Research shows that people retain information better if they have explained it to another person). Write guidelines for these discussions on the board:

• Work together;

• Review the countries bordering Afghanistan and identify major landmarks in Afghanistan;

• Review the names of ethnic groups and significant events in Afghan history;

• Practice defining Afghan and Arabic terms and names.

After a twenty-minute discussion, ask the class for questions or comments. (Complex questions that arise might serve as topics for further research.) Then distribute Handout E. Within
each group of eight students, students should now pair up and select one of these four ethnic groups to report on, using all of the handouts as their source of information: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Pairs from different student groups may work together if they are researching the same ethnic group, to answer these questions:

• Which political or military faction in the Afghan civil war seems to derive support from this ethnic group?

• What outside nation or political party might be supporting or supplying this faction?

• Are most members of the ethnic group Muslim? If so, to which denomination of Islam do they belong?

Students should be prepared to discuss these questions with their original groups the next day. Tell the class that Handout E is crucial for answering these questions, but that all of the handouts contain relevant information. Each student should give a brief report to his or her group on what he or she has learned about the ethnic group.


Further Research

As an extension activity, students could do further research, in a library or on the Internet, to answer these questions:

• How would someone identify members of this ethnic group? That is, in what ways are members of this group different from other populations residing in Afghanistan?

• With what other group does this group have the greatest conflict? What is the conflict based on?

• How has this group contributed to, or defended itself during, the civil war?

• How has the civil war influenced civilian members of this group?

• What effect has the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, and the subsequent U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, had on this group?

Alert students to the fact that many newspapers, magazines, and humanitarian organizations have recently produced brief reports and background information about the civil war in Afghanistan (see Selected Resources). In reporting back to the class, students should discuss how an ethnic group may have contributed to the civil war and how each has been affected by it. They might also discuss current events in Afghanistan as they relate to their assigned ethnic group. Students should be encouraged to identify trends, similarities, or dissimilarities, and not simply report data. The purpose of this discussion is to help students become familiar with the diversity and complexity of issues and positions that have contributed to the creation, escalation, and continuation of the civil war and recent international hostilities.

Other Civil Wars

In more than thirty nations today, there is civil strife that is at or near the point of bloodshed.2 To learn more about civil war as a phenomenon, students could choose one of these research topics:

• Compare and contrast the role that tribalism, religion, and/or nationalism have played in the civil conflict in two different nations.

• What would you, as a peacekeeper, suggest to put an end to the civil war in Afghanistan or another nation that you investigate?

• Research several different civil wars, focusing on a specific factor contributing to war (such as foreign aid or intervention, or religion) or a topic related to it (such as the experience of women and children in the conflict). What similarities or differences stand out when you compare civil wars that occurred in different times and places?

• Role play conflict resolution sessions where students try to reach (even a minor) agreement between parties in a conflict related to civil war.3

• Investigate the work of international courts in helping to hold human rights abusers accountable, and assess their success or lack of success in the last two years. (See Joanne Dufour’s article “War Crimes: An End in Sight?” in this issue.)



1. Gayle Mertz and Carol Miller Lieber, Conflict in Context: Understanding Local to Global Security (Boston, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility, 2001). This book and other resources are described online at, or call (800) 370-2515.

2. Amnesty International (; United Nations, The Geneva Spiritual Appeal (New York: UN, 24 October 1999), online at

3. Arlene Gardner and John Chambers, “Conflict Resolution in History: The War with Mexico as a Case Study,” Social Education 65, no. 5 (September 2001): 292.


Gayle Mertz, a co-author of Conflict in Context, has developed curriculum, trained teachers, and written extensively on law-related education, conflict resolution, and social justice. She has directed projects for the Colorado Supreme Court and the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and can be reached at



Selected Resources

Curry, Andrew. “History’s Graveyard,” U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 1, 2001): 39-40.

Hiltermann, Joost. “Pakistan, Iran, Russia Fueling Afghan Civil War.” New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001; Available on the web at See also “Military Assistance to the Afghan Opposition.”

Oxfam, “An Introduction to Afghanistan for Teachers and Students,” online at


Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).


U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook. Online at

Handout B
Background on Afghanistan

Afghanistan is about the size of Texas. It is traversed east to west by the Hindu Kush Mountains, which rise to heights of 24,000 feet. Valleys between the mountains, and plains in the north and southwest, hold the scarce topsoil that can be farmed (only 12 percent of the land is arable). The fabled Silk Road, linking India and the Far East with Europe, passed through valleys and mountain gaps, making Afghanistan a hotspot for the transport of goods (both legitimate trade and smuggling) and international intrigue. The climate is dry, winters are cold, and summers are hot. The nation is landlocked, surrounded by six countries: Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China.

People and Culture
The population is about 26 million. Over 3 million Afghan refugees now live in bordering nations such as Iran and Pakistan.

There are three main ethnic groups (Pashtuns are 38 percent of the population, Tajiks 25 percent, and Hazaras 19 percent). Uzbeks make up 6 percent, while other minorities (Aimaks, Turkmen, Baluchis, and others) make up 12 percent. These groups arise from independent, nomadic tribes. More than twenty separate languages are spoken; the major ones are Afghan Persian or Dari (spoken by 50 percent of the population), Pashtu (35 percent), and Turkic dialects, such as Uzbek and Turkmen (11 percent). The Pashtun group has traditionally provided the country’s top leadership, but the elites of other groups have been involved in the nation’s administration.

Islam is the religion observed by 99 percent of the population (Sunni Muslims comprise 84 percent, Shiite Muslims 15 percent). Traditionally, Islamic culture was a unifying force, providing a common bond among the many different ethnic groups. The Koran, the holy book of Islam, has long been the basis of not just religious practices, but also cultural and political norms.

Several statistics tell the story of poverty in Afghanistan today. Nearly half the population is under 15 years old. The average life expectancy is only about 45 years. Adult illiteracy is 69 percent for men and 84 percent for women. Less than one-quarter of all young women attend primary or secondary school. Infant mortality is 151 deaths for every 1,000 live births (in the United States, the ratio is 7: 1,000). There is one telephone, on average, for every 1,000 inhabitants.

Brief History
The kingdoms and oases of Afghanistan were major stops along the Silk Road during Europe’s Middle Ages. Empire-builders have desired control over the mountain passes (such as the famous Khyber Pass) that allowed travel from India (and thus from all of the Far East) to the Middle East (and thus to all of Europe). For example, the British Empire’s covert struggle against Russian influence in Afghanistan in the 1800s was immortalized in the works of British author Rudyard Kipling (author of The Jungle Book).

Historically, the Afghan tribes have not taken kindly to invaders or would-be rulers. For example, the army of Alexander the Great was almost destroyed in the mountains in 329 B.C. Genghis Khan conquered the region in 1219 A.D., but could not hold onto it. The British stormed Kabul and set up a puppet ruler in 1839, but two years later their 16,000 soldiers were slaughtered in retreat, except for one wounded survivor.

In 1747, a Pashtun tribal leader, Ahmad Shah Abdali, was chosen by tribal chiefs to be ruler. He is widely considered to be the father of the Afghan nation. Pashtun clans provided leadership for this loose confederation of tribes for the next two hundred years. A leftist coup in 1973 established Afghanistan as a republic. The deposed King Zahir Shah fled to Rome, where he lives in exile today. The coup initiated a cascade of political splintering. Just five years later, in 1978, Marxists in the Afghan army staged another coup, but the group split into factions that fought among one another, while also battling anticommunist, Islamic opponents. The civil war had begun.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to end the chaos and establish a stable communist regime. Initially, Afghans resisting the invasion were armed with outdated weapons. Soon the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) of the United States began providing, with the help of Pakistan, funds, weapons, and training to Afghan Mujahideen resistance fighters. This support was part of the U.S. Cold War strategy against the communist Soviet Union at the time, but it made leaders out of warriors who believed their battle against communism was part of a great Muslim cause. The Mujahideen included boys as young as ten.

Civil War
The desire for freedom from Soviet rule brought many local quarrels to a halt as leaders of various ethnic groups combined forces to defeat the “Soviet infidels.” Soviet soldiers were easy targets for guerrillas armed with U.S. lightweight missiles and modern guns and familiar with the rugged mountains. By 1988, the Soviets realized that they were in a no-win situation and signed an accord with the United States and Pakistan to end the war. The communist regime, led by President Najibullah, lasted until 1992, when Mujahideen took over the city, forcing the president to take shelter in a U.N. compound.

Amazingly, Afghan foot soldiers had defeated a world superpower, but their country lay in ruins, with 1.5 million dead, 6 million refugees, cities and water supplies wrecked, and the countryside strewn with as many as 15 million active landmines. Significant foreign aid was never forthcoming, from the United States or elsewhere. The various groups that had coalesced to fight against the Soviets immediately began fighting one another for control of the country. The resulting civil war, which continues into the present, brought further ruin to a people already exhausted by war. Factional fighting reduced much of the capital to rubble.

The Taliban
In 1994, in the refugee camps of Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, a group of graduates of Islamic schools (madrassahs) founded the Taliban. These young men, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, were dismayed by the ongoing chaos in their homeland. The Taliban seized control of the capital city of Kabul in 1996, executed former President Najibullah, and ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Although the Taliban declared themselves the legitimate government of Afghanistan, only three other nations granted such recognition.

This event quickly realigned political forces within the region. The anti-Taliban United Front is a loose coalition of political and ethnic groups, held together primarily by their dislike of the Taliban and fear of Pashtun rule. It is headed by the ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani (who is an ethnic Tajik) and other non-Pashtun political leaders and generals.

Initially, the Taliban were popular because they disarmed petty regional warlords who exploited and abused civilians. But the Taliban, under the leadership of mullah (religious leader) Mohammad Omar, soon imposed harsh laws based on their fundamentalist interpretation of Koranic law. Women are forbidden to attend school, earn a salary, or show their faces in public. Men must grow beards. The depiction of living things (photographs, stuffed animals, statues) is forbidden. Punishments include severing a hand for theft and stoning for adultery. Taliban training camps provide volunteers for the continued fighting in Afghanistan and, allegedly, for acts of terror abroad.

By late 1998, the Taliban controlled 90 percent of the country. Approximately 3.7 million Afghan citizens who fled the civil war are reluctant to return to a war-ravaged nation ruled by a repressive fundamentalist regime. There are over 2 million refugees in Pakistan, 1.5 million in Iran, and about 10,000 camped at the border of Tajikistan.

In July 2001, Human Rights Watch released a report on human rights abuses in Afghanistan, “Crisis of Impunity,” to the United Nations (UN). The report stated:

In the war, all major factions have repeatedly committed serious violations of international law, including killings, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, summary executions, rape, persecution on the basis of religion, and the use of antipersonnel landmines. Most of the recent violations, especially summary executions and indiscriminate aerial bombardment, have been by the Taliban, while the United Front has failed to hold its commanders accountable for past abuses.1

The report asks the UN to impose sanctions on Pakistan, Iran, and Russia in an effort to stem their practices of providing military support to warring factions.

In October 2001, as the United States began bombing Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan as part of its war on terrorism, even more Afghan civilians, tens of thousands, are deciding that they too want to leave the country, only to find that the borders are closed. Many of these people have no food or shelter. The United Front, which is supported by the United States, prepared for a possible assault against the Taliban. It is not clear how the Afghan people will fare in, or the rest of the world will respond to, this next chapter in the tragic recent history of Afghanistan.

1. Human Rights Watch, Crisis of Impunity: The Role of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Fueling the Civil War (New York: HRW, 2001), 1.

Handout C
Causes of the Civil War in Afghanistan

Civil wars, armed conflicts between citizens of the same nation, are rarely simple matters. In the War between the States, for example, the main disagreements were over states rights and the institution of slavery, but other cultural, economic, and philosophical conflicts inflamed citizens in the North and South. And once the U.S. Civil War began, the actions of other nations toward the two sides also became important to its outcome. In the civil war in Afghanistan, which has been ongoing for 22 years, many factors are at play, as suggested by this summary. Attempts to end the war will have to take account of all of these contributing factors.

International Factors
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, various ethnic groups within Afghanistan united to defeat it and the secular government it supported. After ten years of war, the Soviets retreated. During that time, the United States gave military and financial support to the resistance groups, including radical Islamic revolutionaries. But once the Soviets were defeated, Afghani tribal leaders fought one another over who would control the country. The United States, which had made promises of aid for national recovery, left the scene.
Today, each nation bordering Afghanistan desires certain outcomes in the civil war, and so it provides support to one combatant group over the other with money, supplies, or fighting men. Each nation is concerned about the balance of power with other nations in the region, the sentiments of its own citizens, and the burden of caring for refugees.
For example, Pakistan has provided the Taliban with military advisors and funds, permitted the recruitment of young Pakistani men to the Taliban, and allowed the shipment of arms and fuel. Iran, on the western border, gives military support to the United Front, which fights the Taliban and controls about 10 percent of the land in northern Afghanistan. The nations to the north each give support to their ethnic counterparts within Afghanistan—
Tajikistan to Tajiks, Uzbekistan to Uzbeks, and Turkmenistan to Turkmen—many of whom fight with the United Front. Saudi Arabia and Russia have given support to members of the United Front. Thus, Afghanistan’s civil war could be called a “war by proxy,” inflamed by the involvement of at least a half-dozen other nations.

Ethnic Factors
Afghanistan is a tribal society that has never been a strongly unified nation, but has a tradition of tolerance among groups. There are three main ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras) and several minorities. Over twenty separate languages are spoken. Even so, the flow of trade with people from other tribes and other nations fostered, in Afghani society, an acceptance of ethnic and cultural differences. For example, Sikhs and Jews played a significant role in the country’s economy. But after Soviet soldiers left Afghanistan in 1989, the Afghan ethnic groups, brutalized by the war, turned on one another, fighting over which group would control the nation. The civil war destroyed the age-old attitude of tolerance. There have been several horrible massacres in the last decade, with one ethnic group attacking another.
Ethnicity threatens the cohesion of many nations around the world. One example is Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf has been supportive, but wary, of the Taliban (who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns) because of their close ties to Pakistan’s militant National People’s Party, whose base of support is Pakistan’s Pashtun population, and which is potentially secessionist. By allowing the U.S. military to use Pakistani airports to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan, President Pervez Musharraf is apparently reversing this policy of support for the Taliban, but he risks the ire of his own Pashtun constituents.

Economic Factors
Today, shipping by sea and air has made the overland trades route through Afghanistan less crucial to other nations, but the movement of goods is still central to Afghanistan’s own economic future. Pipelines to bring oil and gas from yet-untapped fields in landlocked Central Asia to the world’s markets may someday be built across Afghanistan.
With their irrigation systems and fruit orchards wrecked by war, many Afghan farmers turned to growing poppies. Afghanistan is now the number-one producer of opium (from which heroin is made), so factions fight for control of it as well as illegal trade in weapons, consumer goods, food, and fuel. This contraband economy cripples legitimate local economic activity and destabilizes industry and trade in the bordering nations. Even so, contributions of arms and money from these nations are key to the civil war’s continuance.
Many young Afghan men, with no vocational training, will become soldiers to avoid poverty and starvation. Thus, the civil war itself has become a “major employer” in Afghanistan. The problems of widespread poverty and illiteracy, displaced refugees, millions of landmines, and a wrecked infrastructure (roads, water supplies, etc.) would make economic recovery difficult even if all combat stopped tomorrow.

Religious Factors
Islam is the common faith and has, in the past, served as a common ground among the many different ethnic groups in the country. The rituals of prayer, fasting during the holy days of Ramadan, and giving alms to the poor have been a central part of life throughout the country. Traditionally, each group practiced tolerance toward other Muslim groups, and other religions and modern lifestyles. Fundamentalist Islam, in which there is only one “right way” to practice Islam religion and law, was not commonly practiced in Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power in 1996. The predominant Muslim legal tradition in Afghanistan is the Hanafi school of law, considered the most liberal of the four main Sunni schools. Rather suddenly (in a historical sense), the issue of religious allegiance has become a matter of life or death for Afghani citizens.

Political (Domestic) Factors
Ethnic leaders became warlords during the civil war as they attempted to gain control over rival groups, lands, and contraband trade. For many of these warlords, the well-being of their own tribe seems to have been forgotten in the desire for revenge, military victory, and control of local trade. Alliances between factions have shifted frequently during the civil war; yesterday’s ally becomes today’s enemy. Thus, since the defeat of communist Soviet troops, nonsectarian political ideology and political platforms are no longer major factors fueling the civil war.

Handout D

Many Afghan and Arabic words are spelled differently in different Western sources. English translations are not always identical, and different factions, for political or religious reasons, sometimes favor different spellings. The ethnic groups are listed in order of their size in the population.

Major Ethnic Groups
PASHTUN (PUSHTUN, PASHTOON, or PATHAN): An ethnic group living mostly south of the Hindu Kush Mountains, comprising 38 percent of the population of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s members are mostly from this group, as were most of the nation’s rulers in modern times. Pashtu is the language spoken by over one-third of the Afghan population.

TAJIK: An ethnic group that resides in Tajikistan, China, and Afghanistan. Members comprise 25 percent of the population, and live in the Western portion of Afghanistan. Tajik is the spoken language.

HAZARA: An ethnic group representing 19 percent of the population. This group is believed to be descended from thirteenth-century Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan. Most Hazara live in the northern foothills or near Hazarajat in the central highlands.

UZBEK: Turkish-speaking people who comprise 6 percent of the population. They have traditionally lived in the northern part of the country, and are mostly Sunni Muslims.

OTHER: Minor ethnic groups, such as the Aimaks, Baloch, and Turkmen, comprise 12 percent of the population.

Religious Terms
ISLAM: The religious faith of Muslims, including a belief in God (Allah) as the sole deity and in Muhammad (570-632 A.D.) as his prophet. Islam is divided into two main branches, the Sunni (about 90 percent of all Muslims in the world), and the Shia (or Shiites, most of the remaining 10 percent).

JIHAD: Arabic term meaning striving or effort in the service of God. It refers to an individua#146;s struggle to overcome personal traits that are in conflict with the Koran. It is often used to describe a war undertaken by Muslims as a sacred duty—a political or military struggle on behalf of Islam.

KORAN (QURAN): The sacred scriptures of Islam. Muslims regard the Koran as the revelation of God to Muhammad, who recorded God’s words. Muslims believe that God (Allah), not Muhammad, is the author. The Koran prescribes rules not just for religious life, but also for civic and criminal law.

MADRASSAH: Islamic school that teaches primarily religious subjects, Islamic law, and math.

MUJAHID (plural MUJAHIDEEN or MUJAHEDDIN): A practitioner of Jihad. Often used to describe the Afghan guerrillas who resisted Soviet occupation.

MULLAH: A religious leader; trained in Muslim religious law and doctrine.

SHARIA: The law of Islam derived from the Koran and the Hadith (published traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad.

SHIA (SHIITES): Shia believe in Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali and the Imams who followed him as the rightful successors of Muhammad and advocate a religious and political ideology based on guidance by Imams.

SUNNI: Muslims who adhere to orthodox traditions.

Handout E
Political Factions in the Civil War in Afghanistan

The civil war in Afghanistan (as of September 2001) could roughly be described as a struggle between the Taliban, which held the capital city of Kabul and controlled most of the country, and the United Front (or Northern Alliance), which held about 10 percent of the land in the north. Alliances between factions during the civil war of 22 years have shifted as internal and international conditions change. The current war on terrorism, led by the United States, will likely cause further realignments. Both sides in the civil war have been cited for gross violations of human rights.

Who are the Taliban?
The Taliban are an ultraconservative political and religious faction created in 1994 following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the collapse of Afghanistan’s communist regime, and the subsequent outbreak of civil war. The faction took its name (which means “students” in the Arabic language) from its early membership, students in fundamentalist schools (madrasahs) located in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The teachers at these madrasahs often had no formal training in non-religious subjects such as history, geography, or science.
The Taliban first emerged as a military force for social order in 1994 in southern Afghanistan. It quickly subdued local warlords and won many followers among former Mujahideen and young war refugees. By late 1996, popular support for the Taliban among Afghanistan’s southern Durrani Pashtun ethnic group, as well as assistance from conservative Islamic elements abroad, enabled the faction to seize the capital of Kabul and gain effective control of the country. By 2001, they controlled all but a small northern section of Afghanistan. Most nations, however, disapproved of the Taliban’s social policies—including the near-total exclusion of women from public life (including employment and education), the systematic destruction of non-Islamic art relics (as occurred in the town of Bamiyan), and the implementation of harsh punishments for breaches of Islamic law.
The Taliban leader is a secretive man, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who lost one eye in combat with the Soviets. The Taliban have given safe harbor to a wealthy Saudi exile, Osama Bin Laden, who has coordinated the flow of funds and volunteers coming from other Arabic nations. Osama Bin Laden is the leader of al Qaeda, a group of Islamic militants from several nations that has proclaimed war against the United States. In October 2001, four members of al Qaeda were convicted in a U.S. court for bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Members of al Qaeda allegedly planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States.

Who is in the United Front?
Resistance to the Taliban arose quickly among the non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the north, west, and central parts of the country. They saw the power of the predominantly Pashtun Taliban as a continuation of the traditional Pashtun hegemony over the country.
In 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul, the groups opposed to the Taliban formed an alliance which is now called the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan. The United Front supports the government ousted by the Taliban, the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which is recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate national
government. The president of the ousted government, Burhanuddin Rabbani, remains the president of the nation and is the titular head of the United Front. For the past year his headquarters have been in the northern Afghan town of Feyzabad. A powerful military leader of the United Front was Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was assassinated in September 2001.
Each party in the United Front is militaristic and rooted in ethnic (not national) loyalty. The precise membership of the United Front has varied from time to time, but includes:

• Jamiat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Party). Jamiat-i Islami was one of the original Islamist parties in Afghanistan, established in the 1970s by students at Kabul University where its leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was a lecturer at the Islamic Law Faculty. Rabbani is an ethnic Tajik (Persian-speaking Sunni Muslim). The group’s ethnic power base has been in the Parwan and Takhar provinces in the northeast. The group has received significant military and other support from Iran and Russia.

• Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party). Hizb-i Wahdat is the principal Shiite party in Afghanistan, with support mainly among the Hazara ethnic community. It was originally formed in order to unite eight Shiite parties in the run-up to the anticipated collapse of the communist government in the late 1980s. Its current leader is Muhammad Karim Khalili. Hizb-i Wahdat has received significant military and other support from Iran, although relations between Iranian authorities and party leaders have been strained over issues of control. The party’s leadership includes well-educated Hazara women.

• Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement). Junbish brought together northern (mostly ethnic Uzbek) former militias of the communist regime, who mutinied against President Najibullah in early 1992. It also included mainly Persian-speaking former leaders and administrators of the old regime from various other ethnic groups, and some ethnic Uzbek guerrilla commanders. In 1998, it lost all of the territory under its control, and many of its commanders have since defected to the Taliban. Its founder and principal leader is Abdul Rashid Dostum (an Uzbek), who rose from security guard to leader of former President Najibullah’s most powerful militia.

• Harakat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Movement of Afghanistan). Harakat is a Shiite party that never joined Hizb-i Wahdat. It is led by Ayatollah Muhammad Asif Muhsini and was allied with Jamiat-i Islami in 1993-1995. Its leadership is mostly non-Hazara Shiite. Its most prominent commander is General Anwari. The group has received support from Iran.

• Hizb-i Islami (Islamic Party). A Mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, founded Hizb-i Islami, which is a secretive, centralized political party whose members are largely urban Pashtuns. It has received support from Saudi Arabia.

The King
The 87-year-old former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, has been living in exile in Rome since the coup of 1973. Removed from the civil war, he has recently expressed interest in helping to unify the country, either as a constitutional monarchy or as a republic.