The Rise and Fall of Kandahar in Afghanistan

Aerial photograph of an area near Kandahar

Kandahar is a city in south-central Afghanistan. It lies on a flat next to the River of Tarnak, at an elevation of about 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). It is southern Afghanistan’s leading commercial center and is located at the junction of highways from Herāt, Kabul, and Quetta (Pakistan). Although Kandahār has an international airport, Traveling to Kandahar is not recommended for tourists. In addition to the high probability of terrorist attacks or military action, the town has a high crime rate. The villages around Kandahar are not free from land mines, and Armed robberies are a widespread occurrence.

So what happened? Why Kandahar, a beautiful city with such a storied past, is on the verge of total collapse?

Let’s explore the history of Kandahar and see what went wrong.

Kandahar was an important region of ancient India called ‘Gandhara.’ The Name Kandahar is derived from the Indian Kingdom of Gandharas.

Kandahar (Gandhara’s) capital was the grand city of Takshashila. According to the Ramayana, the town was founded by King Bharata and named after Taksha, its first ruler. Greek historians later shortened it to Taxila. The Mahabharata is said to have been recited at this place for the first time.

Kandahar was the cultural meeting place and trade crossroad between India, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Ancient writings mention Gandhara (which included Swat, Peshawar, and Kabul) as one of the 16 leading states of northern India.

After conquering it in the 4th century B.C.E., Alexander was confronted with an endless army of the Nandas in Punjab, causing him to leave India and abandon Kandahar.

Later, Kandahar was controlled by the Maurya dynasty of India. During their rule in southern Afghanistan, Buddhism was introduced and become a major religion alongside Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. There was religious tolerance, and Kandahar was perhaps the oldest definition of unity in diversity.

All this glorious past was destroyed forever with the bloody plunder of Sinh by Mohammad Bin Qasim starting in the 7th Century. After Qasim conquered Raja Dahir’s Kingdom in Sindh, the religious persecution of Hindus and Buddhists began in the region. In AD 870, Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, a local ruler of the Saffarid dynasty, conquered Kandahar and the rest of the nearby areas in the name of Islam. Mass migration soon followers, the most of the traders from Kandahar escaped the kingdom towards present-day India. Kandahar, a trade capital of Ancient India, was abandoned by traders to escape religious persecution. The peasants remained, and they were forcefully converted.

Kandahar was attacked by a Mongol army in 1221 CE, although Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu reportedly defeated them. In 1251 CE, upon accession to the Mongol royalty, Möngke Khan granted Kandahar and other lands in Afghanistan to the Kart dynasty. Tamerlane’s descendant, Babur, the Mughal Empire’s founder, reportedly annexed Kandahar in 1508 CE. In 1554 CE, Babur’s son, Humayun, presented it to the Safavid Shah Tahmasp in return for the 90,000 soldiers he received from the Safavid Shah to reconquer India. In 1595, Humayun’s son Akbar reconquered the city by diplomacy and restored traders. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, visited the town in 1521 CE during his spiritual journey between Hindustan and Mecca in Arabia. Kandahar kept changing hands repeatedly because it was one of the major gateways to India and an important trade location.

Mirwais Hotak, Ghilji tribe chief, revolted in 1709 CE by killing Gurgin Khan, an ethnic Georgian subject and administrator of the Shia Safavid Persians. After installing the Hotak dynasty in Kandahar, Mirwais and his army successfully defeated expeditions by Kay Khusraw and Rustam Khán. After wiping out all other religions in the region, the intra-religious fight appeared. Mirwais withstood attempts by the Persian government seeking to convert the Afghans from Sunni to the Shia sect of Islam. He died of natural death in November 1715 and was replaced by his brother Abdul Aziz, but after being speculated of giving Kandahar’s sovereignty back to the Persians, he was killed by Mahmud Hotak, his nephew.

British forces from neighboring British India tried to take over the town in 1839 CE, during the First Anglo-Afghan War but withdrew in 1842 CE. The Indian and British forces returned in 1878 CE during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. They rose from the city in July 1880 CE to confront the forces of Ayub Khan but were repulsed at the Battle of Maiwand. They were again forced to walk away a few years later, despite winning the Battle of Kandahar.

During Zahir Shah’s rule, the town slowly expanded by adding housing schemes and modern-style streets. In the 1960s CE, during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, Kandahar International Airport was established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers next to the town. The U.S. also completed several other significant projects in Kandahar and other parts of southern Afghanistan.

During the 1980s CE Soviet-Afghan War, Kandahar saw heavy fighting as it became a center of resistance as the mujahideen extremists conducted powerful guerrilla warfare against the Soviet-backed government, who tightly held on control of the town. The war saw numerous casualties and loss of property. After the withdrawal of the Soviet and Najibullah’s government collapsed in 1992, Kandahar fell to local mujahideen chief, Gul Agha Sherzai.

In August 1994 CE, the Taliban extremists captured Kandahar from commander Mullah Naqib almost without a fight and turned the town into its capital. The Taliban introduced a strict form of sharia law, banning formal education for girls and boys, including watching films, TV, music, and playing sports. Kandahar was back in the 8th Century. In December 1999 CE, a hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 plane by Pakistani terrorists loyal to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen landed at Kandahar International Airport. It kept the passengers hostage as part of a demand to release three Pakistani terrorists from prison in India.

In October 2001, The United States took down the airport and buildings that the Taliban occupied. However, despite a long 20-year war between NATO and the Taliban, the latter is still strong. There are no laws, no administration, no human rights, and dead bodies are mere numbers.

So, what do you think? When did Kandahar start falling? What lead to the collapse of once the most important trade route in the world?

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