Who's Who in Afghanistan

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

A look at some of the key players

by David Johnson
Hamid Karzai

Hamid Karzai, former president of Afghanistan. Source: AP Photo/Allauddin Khan.

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.

Hamid Karzai

Former President of Afghanistan
Born: 1957
Birthplace: 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
Born: 1949
Birthplace: Logar Province, 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.

Muhammad Daoud

President of the Republic of Afghanistan, 1973–1978
Born: circa 1910
Birthplace: Kabul, Afghanistan

An ethnic Pashtun of noble birth, Daoud graduated from Amania High School and attended the Infantry Officer's School. He held a series of military and governmental posts before becoming minister of defense in 1946 and minister of the interior from 1949 to 1950. As prime minister from 1953 to 1963, Daoud sought to modernize the country, supporting rules permitting women to remove the veil in 1959. His support for an independent Pashtun nation, Pashtunistan, to be created in northwest Pakistan led to a crisis in Pakistani-Afghan relations in 1963. As a result, Daoud's cousin, King Muhammad Zahir Shah, removed him from office. In 1973, Daoud deposed the king and proclaimed a republic. Daoud relied on support from leftists, while crushing the emerging Islamist movement. He maintained close ties with the Soviets, while improving relations with Iran and several Arab states in the Persian Gulf. In 1978, Daoud was overthrown and assassinated during the Saour Revolt, which brought a communist government to power.

Died: 1978

Abdul Rashid Dostum

Former Afghan defense minister, warlord, leader of the Union of the North
Born: 1954
Birthplace: Khowja Dokoh, Juzjan Province, north Afghanistan

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.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Warlord, leader of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan
Born: 1940s
Birthplace: Baghlan Province, north 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.

Babrak Karmal

Afghan president, 1979–1986
Born: 1929
Birthplace: Kabul, Afghanistan

Although he claimed to be a Pashtun, some reports indicated Karmal was Tajik. A founder of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1964, he was elected to parliament in 1965 and 1969. Following the communist coup in 1978, Karmal was named deputy prime minister. He became prime minister the following year when the Soviets invaded. In 1986 the Soviets replaced Karmal with Muhammad Najibullah. Karmal moved to Moscow, later returning to Afghanistan for several years, where he lived under protection of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. After several years, Karmal returned to Moscow, where he died of liver disease.

Died: 1996

Ahmed Shah Massoud

Former Afghan defense minister, warlord, leader of the Islamic Society of Afghanistan
Born: probably 1953
Birthplace: Panshir, Parwan Province, north of Kabul

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.

Died: 2001

Ali Mazari

Religious leader, warlord, leader of the Unity Party
Born: 1935
Birthplace: Kandahar Province, south Afghanistan

An ethnic Hazara, Mazari is a Shiite Muslim who studied at a Shi'ite university in Iraq. An ayatollah (religious leader), Mazari was elected chairman of the Afghan Shi'ite Alliance in 1980, which was headquartered in Iran, and later Pakistan, during the Soviet occupation. In 1990, the alliance formed the Unity Party. Mazari was killed in 1994, possibly by a Pashtun mujahideen group with whom they frequently fought.

Died: 1994


Women's rights activist
Born: 1957
Birthplace: Kabul, Afghanistan

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

Died: 1987

Sibghatullah Mujadidi

Religious leader, warlord, leader of the Afghan National Liberation Front
Born: 1929

A graduate of al-Azhar University in Cairo, Mujadidi served three years in jail in the 1960s for protesting the pro-Soviet policies of the last Shah. In 1979 he founded the Afghan National Liberation Front. In 1992, after the mujahideen captured Kabul, he served as acting president of a unity government for three months. In 2003, he served as the chairman of the grand assembly that approved Afghanistan's new constitution. In 2005 and 2011, he was elected as the leader of the legislature's upper house, the Meshrano Jirga (the House of Elders), and as chairman of National Commission for Peace in Afghanistan.

Muhammad Najibullah

President of Afghanistan, 1987–1992
Born: 1947
Birthplace: Kabul, Afghanistan

Grandson of a Pashtun tribal chief, Najibullah joined the Communist Party when he was a student. After he earned a medical degree in 1975, he became a member of the party's central committee. The Soviet Union installed Najibullah as secretary general of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1986. He became president the following year. After the Soviets withdrew from the Afghanistan in 1989, Najibullah continued to lead a weak, discredited government. When the mujahideen captured Kabul in 1992, they deposed Najibullah and organized an unstable interim coalition government. The Taliban defeated the interim government and took Kabul in 1996. They executed Najibullah, hanging him from a goalpost in the main soccer stadium.

Died: 1996

Muhammad Omar

Founder of the Taliban
Born: 1962
Birthplace: Uruzgan province, south Afghanistan

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.

Died: 2013

Burhanuddin Rabbani

Afghan president in exile
Born: 1940
Birthplace: Faizabad, north Afghanistan

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.

Died: 2011

Muhammad Rabbani

Spiritual leader and deputy commander of the Taliban, 1994–2001
Born: 1956
Birthplace: Pashmol, Afghanistan

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.

Died: 2001

Nur Muhammad Taraki

President and prime minister of Afghanistan, 1978–1979
Born: 1917
Birthplace: Ghazni Province

Born into a nomad family, Taraki took college courses in Kabul and in Bombay, India, where he worked as a clerk for a shipping company. Because he spoke English, Taraki worked in various government agencies and at an Afghan news service, eventually becoming a journalist. In 1953 he served for a few months as the press attaché at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, DC. Taraki became a communist in the 1960s, helping found the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1965. After the communist coup, known as the Saour Revolt, in 1978, Taraki became "Great Leader," serving as president and prime minister. In 1979, he was deposed by a rival communist faction and secretly executed.

Died: 1979

Muhammad Zahir Shah

King of Afghanistan
Born: 1914
Birthplace: Kabul, Afghanistan

Educated in Kabul and in France, Zahir Shah became king in 1933 after the assassination of his father, Nadir Shah. The young king's two uncles held the powerful position of prime minister. In 1953, Zahir Shah's cousin, Muhammad Daoud, became prime minister. In 1963, the king forced Daoud's resignation and embarked on a reform campaign that included creation of an elected parliament and freedom of the press. He also allied the country with the Soviets. When Zahir Shah was out of the country in 1973, Daoud staged a coup, establishing a republican government. Zahir Shah abdicated in August 1973, and has since lived in Italy. An ethnic Pashtun, Zahir Shah still commands considerable loyalty among the Afghan people. In an effort to end the continuous fighting, in the late 1990s Zahir Shah offered to return to Afghanistan and convene a loya jirga, or "grand council" whereby the tribal chiefs would assemble to choose a new government. The Taliban have opposed his efforts.

Died: 2007

Osama bin Laden

Founded al-Qaeda, mastermind of September 11, 2001 attacks
Born: 1957
Birthplace: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Osama bin Laden was considered by the U.S. government to be the most dangerous terrorist in the world. Bin Laden joined the Afghanistani resistance in 1979. He became a commander in the guerilla wars against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After that war ended, bin Laden created an organization of pro-Islamic terrorists known as al-Qaeda. He then joined with the Egyptian militants led by Ayman al-Zawahiri to form an international group whose goals included driving the United States out of the Middle East and overthrowing the government of Saudi Arabia. Attacks which bin Laden was believed to have plotted or inspired include the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1995 truck bombing of a Saudi National Guard training center, and the 1998 explosions at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Along with captured suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was considered responsible for the September 2001 attacks that destroyed New York's World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon. On Sunday, May 1, 2011, U.S. troops and CIA operatives shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a medium-sized city that houses a military base and a military academy. A gun battle broke out when the troops descended upon the building in which bin Laden was located, and bin Laden was shot in the head. News of bin Laden's death brought cheers worldwide.

Died: 2011

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Osama bin Laden's partner in al-Qaeda
Born: 1951
Birthplace: Maadi, Egypt

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was also the partner of Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda, a violent militant group that targets Americans, Jews and other "enemies of Islam." He grew up in the suburbs of Cairo and studied medicine at Cairo University, while secretly involved with radical groups whose hope was to overthrow the Egyptian government and establish an Islamist theocracy. By 1979 he had earned a medical degree with a specialty in surgery, and had become a leader in the clandestine group of militants that formed Egyptian Islamic Jihad. In 1981 Zawahiri was arrested -- along with hundreds of others -- in the wake of Anwar Sadat's assassination. Although it was determined he had no involvement in Sadat's killing, Zawahiri spent three years in jail on an illegal weapons charge. In 1986 he went to Afghanistan to help Afghan Arabs resist Soviet forces and to establish a base of operations for his militant group. By the time he returned to Egypt in 1990, he had become friend and physician to bin Laden. By the late 1990s bin Laden and Zawhiri had merged groups and expanded their operations to target Israel and its allies, especially the United States, for attacks on civilians. Since the death of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri is considered the primary target and sole figurehead of al-Qaeda.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour

Leader of the Taliban
Born: 1963
Birthplace: Kandahar Province

After the Taliban confirmed Muhammad Omar's death, it announced that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had taken over as the group's supreme leader. Omar's family members reportedly rejected the elevation of Mansour, revealing divisions within the group.

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