Afghanistan - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Afghanistan: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Afghanistan, a country in southwestern Asia that is situated on a landlocked plateau between Iran, Pakistan, China, and several countries in Central Asia. Afghanistan is a rugged place. Rocky mountains and deserts cover most of the land, with little vegetation anywhere except the mountain valleys and northern plains. The country has hot, dry summers and bitterly cold winters. Kābul is the capital and largest city.

Afghanistan has long been known as the crossroads of Asia, with ancient trade and invasion routes crossing its territory. Over the centuries many different people passed through Afghanistan, and some made it their homeland. Today this history is reflected in the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. The Pashtuns, who make up the largest ethnic group, were long known as Afghans, but in modern times the term Afghan denotes nationality for all citizens of the country.

Afghanistan was a monarchy from 1747 to 1973, when military officers overthrew the king and established a republic. In 1979 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) invaded Afghanistan, starting the Soviet-Afghan War. The United States supplied military aid to the guerrilla insurgents who fought the Soviet-backed Afghan government. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the country erupted in civil war. An Islamic fundamentalist movement called the Taliban seized control of Kābul in 1996. The Taliban gave refuge to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against the United States, U.S. military forces invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001. Afghanistan adopted a new constitution establishing a presidential form of government in 2004.


Afghanistan is bounded on the north by the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; on the east by China and the part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmīr controlled by Pakistan; on the south by Pakistan; and on the west by Iran.

Afghanistan is slightly smaller than the state of Texas in the United States, and it occupies a landlocked highland at about the same latitude as Texas. The country covers an area of 652,225 sq km (251,825 sq mi). Its maximum length from east to west is about 1,240 km (about 770 mi); from north to south it is about 1,015 km (about 630 mi). The northwestern, western, and southern border areas are primarily desert plains and rocky ranges, whereas in the northeast the land rises progressively higher into the glacier-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush, an extension of the western Himalayas. The northern border is formed by the Amu Darya river and its tributary, the Panj.

Natural Regions in Afghanistan

High mountains cover much of Afghanistan. About half the land area is more than 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in elevation. Small glaciers and year-round snowfields are common. The highest peak, Nowshāk (Noshaq), rises 7,485 m (24,557 ft) on the northeastern border and is a lower spur of the Tirich Mīr peak in Pakistan. It is part of the Hindu Kush mountain system, which is located primarily in northeastern Afghanistan just south of another major system, the Pamirs. From the Hindu Kush, other lower ranges radiate outward, with the main spurs extending in a southwesterly direction almost to the western border with Iran. These lower ranges include the Paropamisus Range, which crosses northern Afghanistan, and the Safed Koh range, which forms part of the eastern border with Pakistan and contains the Khyber Pass, an important route linking the two countries. Lowland areas are concentrated in the south and west. They include the Herāt-Ferah Lowlands in the extreme northwest, the Sīstān Basin and Helmand River valley in the southwest, and the Rīgestān Desert in the south.

Except for the river valleys and a few places in the lowlands where underground fresh water makes irrigation possible, agriculture is difficult. Only 12 percent of the land is suitable for farming. Forests, located primarily in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, cover about 1 percent of the country’s land area (2005). The ravages of war, the scarcity of fuel, and the need for firewood for cooking and heating have caused rapid deforestation.

Because Afghanistan has so many high mountains, the passes through them have been of profound importance in both the history of invasion of the country and in commerce. In 330 BC Alexander the Great invaded the country through the Kushan Pass (about 4,370 m/about 14,340 ft) in the west and left it to the east through the low Khyber Pass (1,072 m/3,517 ft) to invade India. These same passes were used by the Mughal emperor Babur to conquer both Afghanistan and India in the 1500s. The famous Sālang Pass (3,880 m/12,720 ft) and its Soviet-built tunnel in the central Hindu Kush was one of the main routes the Soviets used to invade Afghanistan in 1979.

Rivers and Lakes in Afghanistan

Many of Afghanistan’s major rivers are fed by mountain streams. Most rivers in the country become only trickles during the long dry season and have large flows of water only in the spring, when the winter snow in the mountains melts rapidly. Most of the rivers end in lakes, swamps, or salt flats. The Kābul River is an exception, flowing east into Pakistan to join the Indus River, which empties into the Indian Ocean. The country’s only navigable river is the Amu Darya, on the northern border, although ferry boats can cross the deeper areas of other rivers. The Amu Darya receives water from two main tributaries, the Panj and the Vakhsh, which rise in the Pamirs. The Harīrūd River rises in central Afghanistan and flows to the west and northwest to form part of the border with Iran. Water from the Harîrûd is used to irrigate the Herāt region of Afghanistan. The long Helmand River rises in the central Hindu Kush, crosses the southwest of the country, and ends in Iran. This river is used extensively for irrigation, although a buildup of mineral salts has decreased its usefulness in watering crops.

Afghanistan’s lakes are small in size and number, but include Lake Zarkol in the Wakhan Corridor along the Tajikistan border, Shīveh in Badakhshān, and the saline Lake Istādeh-ye Moqor, located south of Ghaznī. The Hamun-i-Helmand (Sīstān Lake), which straddles the border between Afghanistan and Iran, is located in a region of wetlands and salt marshes at the end of the Helmand River. A number of hydroelectric dams have created artificial reservoirs on some of the country’s rivers. These include the Sarowbī (Sarobi) and Naghlū dams on the Kābul River east of the capital city, the Kajakī Reservoir on the Helmand River, and the Arghandāb Dam on a tributary of the Helmand near the city of Kandahār.

Plant and Animal Life in Afghanistan

Plant life in Afghanistan is sparse but diverse. Common trees in the mountains are evergreens, oaks, poplars, wild hazelnuts, almonds, and pistachios. The plains of the north are largely dry, treeless steppes, and those of the southwestern corner are nearly uninhabitable deserts. Common plants in the arid regions include camel thorn, locoweed, spiny restharrow, mimosa, and wormwood, a variety of sagebrush. Animals found in the wild in Afghanistan include the Pamirs argali (also known as Marco Polo sheep), urials (a medium-sized wild sheep), ibex, bears, wolves, foxes, hyenas, jackals, and mongooses. Wild boars, hedgehogs, shrews, hares, mouse hares, bats, and various rodents are also found. Some mammals are nearing extinction. The most seriously endangered are the goitered gazelle, leopard, snow leopard, markor goat, and Bactrian deer. More than 200 kinds of birds make their breeding grounds in Afghanistan. Flamingos and other aquatic fowl breed in the lake areas south and east of Ghaznī. Ducks and partridges are also common, but all birds are hunted widely and many are becoming uncommon, including the endangered Siberian crane.

Climate in Afghanistan

Most of Afghanistan has a subarctic mountain climate with dry and cold winters, except for the lowlands, which have arid and semiarid climates. In the mountains and a few of the valleys bordering Pakistan, a fringe effect of the Indian monsoon, coming usually from the southeast, brings moist maritime tropical air in summer. Afghanistan has clearly defined seasons: Summers are hot and winters can be bitterly cold. Summer temperatures as high as 49°C (120°F) have been recorded in the northern valleys. Midwinter temperatures as low as -9°C (15°F) are common around the 2,000-m (6,600-ft) level in the Hindu Kush. The climate in the highlands varies with elevation. The coolest temperatures usually occur on the heights of the mountains.

Temperatures often range greatly within a single day. Variations in temperature during the day may range from freezing conditions at dawn to the upper 30°s C (upper 90°s F) at noon. Most of the precipitation falls between the months of October and April. The deserts receive less than 100 mm (4 in) of rain a year, whereas the mountains receive more than 1,000 mm (40 in) of precipitation, mostly as snow. Frontal winds sweeping in from the west may bring large sandstorms or dust storms, while the strong solar heating of the ground raises large local whirlwinds.

Natural Resources of Afghanistan

Despite a lengthy history of small-scale mining of gems, gold, copper, and coal, systematic exploration of Afghanistan’s mineral resources did not begin until the 1960s. In the 1970s significant reserves of natural gas were discovered in the northern part of the country. Fossil fuel resources also include petroleum and coal. The country has significant deposits of copper and iron ores, barite, chromite, lead, zinc, sulfur, salt, and talc. For many centuries Afghanistan has been an important source of precious and semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, ruby, aquamarine, and emerald.

Environmental Issues in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has long been a land of marginal environment—too dry and too cold for extensive agriculture. Thousands of years of environmental stress by the country’s people have dramatically altered the landscape and caused extensive environmental destruction. Because the Afghan people lack the financial means to purchase fuel, they must cut trees, uproot shrubs, and collect dung for burning. Domestic animals overgraze the range. The result is extensive soil erosion by water and wind. Long-term irrigation without flushing has added salt to much of the arable land and destroyed its fertility. Polluted water supplies are common, except in the high mountain regions where few people live permanently. Ancient writings and archaeological evidence show that previously rich areas of forest and grassland have been reduced to stretches of barren rock and sand. The government of Afghanistan began to recognize environmental problems in the 1970s with the help of the United Nations and other international agencies. The pressures of war, however, diverted attention from these issues and further aggravated the country’s environmental degradation.


Afghanistan is home to a variety of ethnic groups, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim. Four major cultural areas—Central Asia, China, the Indian subcontinent, and the Iranian plateau—converge at Afghanistan, resulting in an enormous linguistic and ethnic diversity in the country. The people of Afghanistan are related to many of the ethnic groups in Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with cultural and genetic influences that go farther afield to other places, including Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, China, and the Arabian Peninsula (the large peninsula south of Jordan and Iraq). Centuries of human migrations, political upheavals, invasions, conquests, and wars brought many different peoples to Afghanistan, and some settled to make it their homeland. Political institutions and the concept of nationhood were only much later superimposed on an agglomeration of diverse groups.

The country’s modern borders were drawn in the late 1800s to establish a buffer state between the Russian and British empires. These borders divided the traditional homelands of various ethnic groups in the region, including the Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. Years of war heightened ethnic divisions within Afghanistan. For many, ethnic and kinship ties tended to remain stronger than national ones.

Population and Settlement in Afghanistan

In the country’s first and most recent official census, conducted in 1979, a population of 15,551,358 was recorded. The population was estimated to be 31,889,923 in 2007. After two decades of war—with its casualties and refugees—any estimate is highly speculative. Demographic uncertainty will prevail until a new reliable census is taken.

Beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979, the number of Afghan refugees outside the country escalated dramatically. As many as 3 million refugees went to Pakistan and 1.5 million to Iran. About 150,000 Afghans were able to migrate permanently to other countries, including the United States, Australia, and various European countries. Many refugees began returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Their numbers surpassed expectations, with more than 1.5 million refugees returning from Pakistan and more than 400,000 from Iran by the end of 2002. The rapid return of refugees led to a national humanitarian crisis as the government and international aid agencies struggled to provide adequate food and medical supplies. Many refugees had returned to farms and fields studded with land mines or devastated by air strikes, as well as chronic water shortages following several years of drought.

Before the Soviet-Afghan War, Afghanistan had an estimated annual population growth rate of 3.5 percent. Urban areas had a growth rate of 4.8 percent, reflecting migration to places of greater employment. In 2007 the growth rate was estimated at 2.62 percent. Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, with 157 deaths for every 1,000 live births. The average life expectancy is 44 years.

The population of Afghanistan is overwhelmingly rural, with about 77 percent living in rural areas in 2003. Of urban dwellers, probably about half reside in Kābul, the country’s capital and largest city.

Principal Cities of Afghanistan

Kābul, the capital, is situated in east central Afghanistan. Other important cities include Kandahār (Qandahār) in the south, Herāt in the west, and Mazār-e Sharīf in the north. Smaller cities include Jalālābād in the east, Chārīkār just north of Kābul, and the northern centers of Kondoz and Feyẕābād (Faizabad).

During the Soviet-Afghan War and immediately after it ended in 1989, the populations of the largest cities increased as internally displaced people sought the anonymity and perceived security of more densely populated areas. The population of Kābul, for example, swelled to more than 2 million in the late 1980s. However, many people fled from Kābul during the ensuing civil war, as rocket attacks and other combat destroyed much of the city. Only about 700,000 inhabitants remained there in 1993, although the population again grew to more than 2 million after 2001. Many other cities, including Herāt and Kandahār, also suffered extensive war damage. Reconstruction has been slow and investment in infrastructure minimal. Most cities lack sewer systems, water treatment plants, and public transportation.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Afghanistan

The population of Afghanistan includes many different ethnic groups, some of which also live in neighboring countries. Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, long dominated the central government. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, a coalition government that included Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other minority groups came to power. In 1996, however, the Taliban seized control and reasserted Pashtun dominance over other groups.

After the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the country’s major ethnic groups agreed to share power in government. The 2004 constitution contains provisions to protect the rights of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups. For example, it gives significant language rights to minorities, allowing local languages such as Uzbek and Turkmen to be considered official languages in areas in which they are primarily spoken. The country’s two most widely spoken languages, Pashto and Dari, are recognized as the official national languages.

The Pashtuns (also Pushtuns or Pakhtuns) make up about two-fifths of Afghanistan’s population. Their traditional homeland lies south of the Hindu Kush. Although Pashtuns live in many areas of Afghanistan, their power base is centered in the south, especially in the region around Kandahār. Many Pashtuns also live in the northwestern border regions of Pakistan. Male Pashtuns live by ancient tribal code called Pashtunwali, which stresses courage, personal honor, resolution, self-reliance, and hospitality. The mother tongue of the Pashtuns is an Indo-Iranian language called Pashto (also Pashtu or Pushto).

The Tajiks (Tadzhiks), a people of Iranian origin, are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. They make up about one-quarter of the population. The Tajiks are closely related to the people of Tajikistan. They live in the valleys north of Kābul and in the northeastern province of Badakhshān. The mother tongue of the Tajiks is Dari (also known as Afghan Persian), which is an Indo-Iranian language closely related to Persian. Dari is more widely spoken than Pashto in Afghanistan. Although Pashto is the language of the country’s largest ethnic group, Dari is commonly used by the country’s linguistically diverse ethnic groups to communicate with one another.

The central mountain ranges are the traditional homeland of the Hazaras. The region is known as Hazarajat. The Hazaras suffered extreme persecution under the Taliban, in part because they make up most of the country’s minority Shia Muslim population. Many Hazaras fled to Iran, which had long provided political backing and military support for Shia groups in Afghanistan. Although their ancestors may have come from northwestern China or Mongolia, the Hazaras speak an archaic dialect of Persian.

In the east, north of the Kābul River, is an isolated wooded mountainous region known as Nuristan. The Nuristani people who live there speak a wide variety of Indo-Iranian dialects. In the far south live the Baluch (Baloch), whose Indo-Iranian language is also spoken in southwestern Pakistan and southeastern Iran. Their traditional homeland, a region known as Baluchistan, crosses national borders.

To the north of the Hindu Kush, on the steppes (grassy plains) near the Amu Darya, live several groups who speak Turkic languages. The Uzbeks are the largest of these groups, which also include Turkmen and, in the extreme northeastern Wakhan Corridor, the Kyrgyz people. The Kyrgyz were mostly driven out by the Soviet invasion and largely emigrated to Turkey.

In addition to the country’s major ethnic groups there are many smaller groups, both ethnic and tribal, scattered throughout Afghanistan. Together, these groups speak more than 70 languages and a great variety of dialects.

In northwestern Afghanistan live a seminomadic people known as the Chahar Aimak (also Char Aimaq), meaning “four western tribes.” While the term does not denote an ethnic group in the proper sense, it has been used this way in practice, mainly to differentiate these people from the Hazaras. The Chahar Aimak formed their tribal groupings centuries ago from various ethnic origins, including Hazara. Unlike the Hazaras, the Chahar Aimak are predominantly Sunni Muslims and speak dialects similar to Dari.

The nomads of Afghanistan are popularly known as Kuchis. Following ancient migration routes, they move with the seasons to provide grazing lands for their flocks of sheep and goats. Before the Soviet invasion of 1979, there were about 2 million nomads in Afghanistan. Their lifestyle, based on thousands of years of pastoral traditions and culture, was nearly destroyed by the subsequent wars. Their traditional routes were severely disrupted, and remained so after the wars due to the dangers posed by land mines.

Religion in Afghanistan

Religion is the strongest common bond among Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups. The overwhelming majority of Afghans, or about 99 percent, are Muslims. About 84 percent are Sunni Muslims and about 15 percent are Shia Muslims. Small groups of Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and Jews are scattered in the towns. Since the 1960s many Afghan Jews have migrated to Israel. Mazār-e Sharīf, where the tomb of the Muslim leader Ali is said to be located in a 15th-century mosque, is a leading place of Muslim pilgrimage.

An important figure in Muslim life is the mullah (a male religious leader or teacher). Any man who can recite the Qur’an (Koran), the sacred scripture of Islam, from memory can be a mullah. In Afghanistan, however, the mullah may not understand either the words or the meaning because the book was written and is memorized in Arabic, which is not a local language. The mullah conducts the Friday sermon and prayers, marriages, and funerals. Mullahs also teach the laws and doctrines of Islam to both adults and children. Mullahs arbitrate local disputes, based upon Islamic legal principles, and they are also called upon to provide advice and resolution of many other physical, social, and personal problems, including such things as medicines, local water disputes, or a family feud. In some of the more remote rural areas, the local mullah and the local khan (landlord) dictate what their followers may or may not do.

Education in Afghanistan

Two separate systems of education exist in Afghanistan. The older system is a religious one, taught by the mullahs, who conduct classes in the madrassas (mosque schools). They teach the religious precepts of the Qur’an, reading, writing, and arithmetic. The other system was introduced in Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution, which provided for free and compulsory education at all levels, although this was rarely achieved. This system was based on Western models. Special emphasis was placed on primary education. Secondary schools existed in Kābul and the larger towns. Five years of primary school and five years of secondary school were expected, although many Afghans could not attend because they lived in areas where there were no schools.

Decades of war effectively eliminated most education, and an entire generation grew up without any formal schooling. The civil war resulted in the closing or dismantling of most lower, middle, and higher educational facilities in the country. Many teachers quit their posts and left Afghanistan. The subsequent Taliban regime suppressed all schooling except in the madrassas, and forbade it for girls and women. Only rote memorization of the Qur’an in Arabic was officially allowed. Opposition groups in a few places in the country tried to maintain some education, but under very difficult circumstances.

With the removal of the Taliban from power in late 2001, people in Afghanistan began to rebuild a national education system. Schools such as Kābul University reopened, and student enrollments soared. However, the country was sorely lacking the educational facilities and resources it needed to meet the burgeoning demand. A mobile school system was set up to bring education to rural areas, and foreign universities and nongovernmental organizations donated books and teaching materials. By the 2003-04 academic year 4.2 million boys and girls attended about 7,000 schools around the country. The male-female ratio had returned to pre-Taliban levels, although boys still outnumbered girls. A major project to improve literacy rates throughout Afghanistan was launched in January 2003 with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The average literacy rate was estimated to be 36 percent for all Afghans aged 15 and older in 2000, with 51 percent literacy among males and 21 percent among females.

According to the 2004 constitution, Afghans are free to choose the language in which they receive their education. Primary and secondary educations are available in both Dari and Pashto, as well as in Afghanistan’s other languages, such as Uzbek. University courses are mostly taught in Dari. Kābul University, founded in 1932, is the country’s largest and most prestigious academic institution. Nine other colleges were established within it from 1938 through 1967. The University of Nangarhār in Jalālābād was established in 1962 to teach medicine and other disciplines. Important but small universities are also located in Kandahār, Herāt, Balkh, and Bāmiān. Before 1961 only men could receive a higher education; that year the government opened all public institutions of higher learning to women.

Way of Life in Afghanistan

Although the Afghan population is composed of many distinct ethnic groups, certain elements of their way of life are much the same. Characteristically, the family is the mainstay of Afghan society. Extremely close bonds exist within the family, which consists of the members of several generations. The family is headed by the oldest man, or patriarch, whose word is law for the whole family. Family honor, pride, and respect toward other members are highly prized qualities. Among both villagers and nomads the family lives together and forms a self-sufficient group. In the villages each family generally occupies either one mud-brick house or a walled compound containing mud-brick or stonewalled houses. The same pattern prevails among the nomads, except they live in round, felt-covered tents called yurts, which are portable yet extremely sturdy.

Each village has three sources of authority within it: the malik (village headman), the mirab (master of the water distribution), and the mullah (teacher of Islamic laws). Commonly, a khan (landlord) will control the whole village by assuming the role of both malik and mirab. The village mosque is the center of religious life and is often used as the village guest house.

Baggy cotton trousers are standard dress for both men and women. Afghan men wear long cotton shirts, which hang over their trousers, and wide sashes around their waists. They also wear a skullcap, and over that, a turban. Afghan women wear a long loose shirt or a high-bodice dress with a swirling skirt over their trousers; they drape a wide shawl around their heads. Many women wear jewelry, which is collected as a form of family wealth. Some Afghan women wear a tentlike garment called a burka (also known as a chador or shadri), which covers them from head to foot and hides their faces behind mesh screens. Wearing the burka is part of the ancient custom of purdah, which requires women to be concealed from men outside the home. Purdah is prevalent in some Islamic societies. Educated urban Afghan women had discarded the custom as backward, but the Taliban enforced a strict dress code that required all Muslim women to wear a burka in public. After the fall of the repressive Taliban regime, women continued to wear the burka in some places, usually not of their own choosing but as a requirement imposed by local maliks and mullahs.

Twice a year groups of nomads may pass through villages on their routes from summer highland grazing grounds to the lowlands where they camp during the winter. The villagers traditionally permit the nomads to graze their animals over the harvested fields, which the flocks fertilize by depositing manure. The nomads buy supplies such as tea, wheat, and kerosene from the villagers; the villagers buy wool and milk products from the nomads. For food and clothing, the nomads depend on the milk products, meat, wool, and skins of their flocks; for transportation they depend on their camels. Nomadic women are freer and less secluded than village women.

A favorite sport in northern Afghanistan is a game called buzkashi, in which teams of horsemen compete to deposit a calf carcass in a goal circle. Afghans also play polo and ghosai, a team sport similar to wrestling. The most important holiday in Afghanistan is Nowruz, or New Year’s Day, which is celebrated on the first day of spring in March.

Social Issues in Afghanistan

A variety of social ills are common in Afghanistan, such as poverty, interethnic strife, inequality of women, and widespread thievery, kidnapping, and banditry. Blood feuds handed down through generations are legendary, and revenge is regarded as a necessary redress of wrongs. The civil war strengthened these tendencies to the point where little travel was safe in the country without an adequate supply of money to buy safe passage. The civil war killed, wounded, and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Water and telephone systems and sewage ditches were destroyed. Years of war separated and impoverished extended families that traditionally cared for widows and fatherless children. Some provinces began experiencing famine in the 1990s, and diseases of malnutrition began to be reported for the first time in decades.

Traditional Afghan custom, which was revived by the Taliban and other fundamentalist rebel groups, imposes limits on women’s activities outside the home. In 1996, after the Taliban came to power, the United Nations reported a series of 21 new ordinances governing the behavior of women in Afghanistan. Women were prohibited from working outside the home, attending school, wearing perfume, participating in sports, and walking outside the home without the escort of a male relative. Women were reportedly stoned to death for infractions, a practice that had been suppressed for decades.


Since ancient times Afghanistan has been a cultural crossroads for many different peoples and their traditions. Although the people of Afghanistan may have been sorely stressed by centuries of warfare and a difficult environment, their arts have prospered nonetheless. The Islamic traditions of calligraphy and graphic arts are evoked in the fine filigreed flourishes that decorate many buildings. Poetry and poets are revered. Afghans take pride in their handicrafts; even common grain bags to carry produce to market are often embroidered to make them beautiful. A caravan of nomads often looks like a colorful parade, with the animals decked out in woven finery.

Literature in Afghanistan

The ancient art of storytelling continues to flourish in Afghanistan, partly in response to widespread illiteracy. This age-old practice of telling folktales, through music and the spoken word, is a highly developed and much appreciated art form. The use of folklore has become the thread that links the past with the present in Afghan society. Folktales concern all parts of Afghan life and often teach traditional values, beliefs, and behaviors. They are also a major form of entertainment in Afghanistan.

Literature in both the Dari and Pashto languages originated in the Islamic era of Persian literature, when the Arabic script became widely used. Shah nameh (Book of Kings), the great epic poem completed in 1010 by the Persian poet Firdawsi, consists of 60,000 rhyming couplets in Dari. Many other poems and tales were written in Dari and Turkic languages as well. In the 13th century Jalal al-Din Rumi, a Sufi mystic and poet originally from Balkh, composed the epic poem Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), which had an enormous influence on Islamic literature and thought. Khushhal Kattak, a famous 17th-century Pashtun warrior and poet, used verse to express the tribal code.

Modern writings have attempted to bring Afghans closer to understanding the changes associated with the modern world, and especially to comprehend the destruction of their country by war. In 1972 Sayyed Burhanuddin Majruh wrote several volumes in classical, rhythmic Dari prose about a traveler who joins his countrymen in exile, where they exchange ideas and narratives from ancient times in the light of modern concepts of reason, logic, science, and psychoanalysis. During the war with the Soviets, writings focused on the twin concerns of Islam and freedom. Resistance to the Soviets was especially pronounced in the Pashto province of Paktīā; in 1983 Gulzarak Zadran published “Afghanistan the Land of Jihad: Paktīāin Uprising Waves” in the Pashto language. The Afghanistan Historical Society and the Pashto Academy published literary magazines and encouraged new writers in recent years, although much of their effort was stopped by the civil war.

Art and Architecture of Afghanistan

Afghanistan contains striking architectural remnants of all ages, including Greek and Buddhist stupas (shrines or reliquaries) and monasteries, arches, monuments, intricate Islamic minarets (the tall, slender towers on mosques), temples, and forts. Among the most famous sites are the great mosques of Herāt and Mazār-e Sharīf; the minaret of a mosque at Jām in the west central highlands; the 1,000-year-old Great Arch of Qal‘eh-ye Bost; the Chel Zina (Forty Steps) and rock inscriptions made by Mughal emperor Babur in Kandahār; the Great Buddha of Bāmīān, destroyed by Taliban militants in March 2001; the “Towers of Victory” in Ghaznī; and Emperor Babur’s tomb and the great Bala Hissar fort in Kābul.

In the smaller arts, magnificent light blue-green fired tile work is famous in Herāt, along with other fine work in book illumination (colored or gilded calligraphy), illustration, bronze, stone, and wood. Afghan cultural life is characterized by traditional arts and pastimes; gold and silver jewelry, marvelous decorative embroidery, and various leather goods are still made in homes. By far the greatest art forms known widely from Afghanistan are the Persian-style woven carpets.

Music in Afghanistan

Music is represented chiefly by traditional folk songs, ballads, and dances. Among the stringed instruments, the six-stringed rohab is thought to be the ancestor to the Western violin and cello. Other instruments include the santur (a kind of zither), a hand-pumped harmonium, the chang (a plucked mouth harp), and a variety of drums beaten with the palm and fingers. The attan dance derived from Pashtun areas is the national dance. It is performed in a large circle with the dancers clapping their hands and quickening the movements of their feet to the beat of the music. On vacation holidays or weekends Afghans often gather to play music and sing at a picnic on a river bank or in a woodland. The Taliban government forbade singing, clapping, playing musical instruments and recorded music, and all forms of dance. Many of these activities continued illicitly during Taliban rule, and once the regime fell in late 2001 many Afghans publicly rejoiced by singing and dancing.

Libraries and Museums in Afghanistan

The few major libraries are located in Kābul. However, most of the materials in the Kābul University Library (founded in 1931) were dispersed during the war with the Soviets and the subsequent civil war; the National Archives was also looted and its collections removed. Taliban militants burned many thousands of library and museum books in their zealous mission to enforce their strict interpretation of Islam. The Kābul National Museum (1922), the largest in the country, was once known for its collection of early Buddhist relics. Some of the more valuable of these were reported to have been removed to the USSR during the years of the Soviet occupation; their present location is unknown. Ancient gold coins and jewelry were reported to have been taken as well. In 1993 the National Museum was blown open by rockets and subsequently looted by soldiers. The majority of the enormously rich collection was taken out through Pakistan and sold to wealthy collectors in other countries. The trade in Afghan antiquities was reported to be one of the largest producers of illicit revenues after illegal drugs. More than 2,700 works of art in the museum’s remaining collection, including many ancient cultural treasures, were destroyed in 2000 by Taliban religious police. In the regime’s interpretation of Islam, the works were considered to be idolatrous renderings of living things. After the fall of the Taliban widespread looting of Afghanistan’s archaeological sites was reported.


A decade of Soviet occupation, war, and economic manipulation followed by years of civil war left the economy of Afghanistan in shambles. Even in the 1970s, prior to the wars, Afghanistan had one of the lowest standards of living in the world. As the Soviet-Afghan War and its effects spread throughout the country in the early 1980s, two separate economies emerged: the urban financial and industrial facilities, tied especially to the Soviet Union, and the largely independent rural subsistence economy. The production, trafficking, and movement of drugs and weapons became a major hidden part of the economy.

Over the centuries, Afghans have developed a number of different strategies to earn a living from their difficult environment. Most Afghans are settled farmers, herders, or both, depending upon ecological, economic, and political factors. They are usually self-sufficient in foodstuffs and other necessities. Industry and mining developed considerably in the 20th century, but local handicrafts remained important.

In 1956 the government launched the first of several five-year plans. Irrigation efforts and development of a better road and telecommunications network had top priority, with later efforts toward production of textiles, cement, electricity, fertilizer, and grain storage facilities. Progress was made to develop better trade with the outside world, especially with Europe, the United States, and Japan. Major nations aided Afghanistan in building roads, dams, hydroelectric facilities, airports, factories, and irrigation networks. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, development aid from the West ceased, and until 1991 Afghanistan was economically dependent on the USSR. Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghanistan began the reconstruction of its war-ravaged economy with assistance from international financial institutions and individual countries.

Labor in Afghanistan

In 2003 the total labor force was estimated to be 11.7 million. Some 70 percent of the working population is engaged in agriculture or the raising of livestock. Many other kinds of employment were eliminated because of war. Widespread unemployment and a lack of skilled workers and administrators are among the most pressing labor problems.

Agriculture of Afghanistan

Only a very small share of Afghanistan’s land, mostly in scattered valleys, is suitable for farming, and a majority of this farmland requires irrigation. Water is drawn from springs and rivers and is distributed through surface ditches and through underground channels, or tunnels, which are excavated and maintained by a series of vertical shafts. Such a tunnel is known as a karez or qanat.

Wheat is the most important crop, followed by barley, corn, and rice. Cotton is another important and widely cultivated crop. Fruit and nuts are among Afghanistan’s most important exports. Afghanistan is noted for its unusually sweet grapes and melons, grown mostly in the southwest, north of the Hindu Kush, and in the fertile regions around Herāt. Raisins are also an important export. Other important fruits are apricots, cherries, figs, mulberries, and pomegranates.

Livestock is nearly as important as crops to Afghanistan’s economy. Karakul sheep are raised in large numbers in the north. The tight curly fleece of Karakul lambs is used to make Persian lamb coats. Other breeds of sheep, such as the fat-tailed sheep, and goats are also raised.

Afghanistan has long been a major supplier in the international drug trade. In the late 1990s Afghanistan replaced Myanmar (Burma) as the world’s biggest producer of opium, producing about 4,600 metric tons in 1999. Significant quantities of hashish were also produced in Afghanistan. In July 2000 the Taliban regime banned the cultivation of opium poppies, declaring that drug use was contrary to Islam. However, the ban ultimately raised opium prices on the international drug market, and the Taliban were widely suspected of profiting from the drug trade. With the collapse of law and order in 2001, many fields were sown with opium poppies, and Afghanistan again became the world’s largest supplier. Although the interim government of Afghanistan decreed the cultivation and processing of opium poppies illegal in early 2002, many impoverished local farmers remained financially dependent on the crop.

Handicrafts in Afghanistan

Distinctive carpets are made by Turkmen and some Uzbeks; characteristically these have parallel rows of geometric figures on a dark red ground, although many other patterns also exist. The Baluch, well-known producers of prayer rugs, also make carpets mainly of wool, using a blend of dark colors. Camel hair and cotton are also used in some of these carpets. A variety of beautiful embroideries are also made for bridal trousseaus (the cloth in which the bride wraps her clothes and other personal possessions) and for sale.

Mining in Afghanistan

Large natural gas deposits in northern Afghanistan were exploited jointly with the USSR starting in 1967. In the 1980s large quantities of natural gas were exported to the USSR, but that was terminated after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. In the early 2000s the extraction of natural gas resumed at the primary fields located near the city of Sheberghān. Afghanistan is one of the world’s only sources of high-grade lapis lazuli, a blue rock used since ancient times for ornamental purposes. The country also has significant deposits of gemstones, including emeralds, and of copper and iron ores.

Decades of warfare severely impeded the exploitation of Afghanistan’s natural resources. Reconstruction efforts in the early 2000s included an extensive project to assess the country’s mineral resources—oil, gas, and coal—as well as its water resources.

Manufacturing in Afghanistan

Industrial development increased substantially in the decades following World War II (1939-1945). With the opening in 1965 of a large West German-built wool mill, woolen-textile production more than doubled. Prior to the Soviet-Afghan War, more than 200 state-owned factories were operating in Afghanistan. These plants produced cotton textiles, food (especially dried fruit and nuts), chemical fertilizers, cement, leather goods, and coal briquettes. As with other aspects of the economy, the decades of war were a major obstacle to industrial production and expansion.

Energy in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s principal energy sources are petroleum, coal, natural gas, and hydroelectricity. Petroleum is imported from Iran and from former Soviet republics in Central Asia, notably Turkmenistan. Afghanistan’s own modest reserves of oil are located in the north near the Amu Darya. The country relies heavily on its large reserves of coal and natural gas. Firewood is an important source of fuel in many homes, but it is increasingly difficult to find due to deforestation. Major dams on the Kondoz, Kābul, Arghandāb, and Helmand rivers provide hydroelectricity, mainly to the cities, while also storing water for crop irrigation. Prior to the civil war, less than 10 percent of the country’s hydroelectric potential had been developed. After the war began, hydroelectric production dropped off severely as turbines were destroyed, floodgates were blown open, and transmission lines were brought down. Private diesel-fired generators were about all that remained to supply electricity. Reconstruction of the country’s power supply network began in 2002.

Foreign Trade in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s chief exports are dried fruits and nuts, hand-woven carpets, wool, cotton, animal hides and pelts, and precious and semiprecious gems. Afghanistan imports food, motor vehicles, petroleum products, and textiles. The USSR was Afghanistan’s chief trading partner even before the 1979 Soviet invasion, and this relationship intensified in the 1980s. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the leading purchasers of Afghan products were the former Soviet republics, Pakistan, Britain, Germany, and India. The United States suspended normal trade relations with Afghanistan from 1986 to 2002. India, Japan, and Pakistan were the principal trading partners in 2003. Meanwhile, Afghanistan improved trade relations with the Central Asian republics, the United States, and the European Union (EU). In 2000 the total value of exports amounted to $125 million, while imports cost $524 million.

Currency and Banking of Afghanistan

The unit of currency in Afghanistan is the afghani, which is divided into 100 puls. The exchange rate of the afghani has fluctuated widely over time. High inflation rates of up to 57 percent contributed to a drastic decrease in the purchasing power of the afghani from 1981 to 1994, a trend that continued during the Taliban regime. The afghani was so devalued by two decades of wartime inflation that the government issued a new afghani, with a higher value per note, in late 2002. The exchange rate subsequently stabilized, and in 2005 one U.S. dollar was worth about 49.50 afghanis.

Afghanistan’s central bank, founded in 1938, is the largest bank in the country. The central bank issues all notes, executes government loans, and lends money to cities and to other banks. All private banks in Afghanistan were nationalized in 1975, mostly because a lack of clear terms for borrowers and lenders had made it difficult for people to use the country’s credit resources. No stock market or other modern form of economic development exists in Afghanistan. Instead, traditional “money bazaars” exist to provide money-lending and foreign exchange dealings. This informal and largely undocumented money transfer system, called hawala, is common throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and is considered to be one of the means by which terrorism from this part of the world has been funded.

Transportation in Afghanistan

Travel within Afghanistan is severely limited by the rugged terrain and by the general lack of infrastructure. About 24 percent of the country’s roads are unpaved. The most important road is a circular route connecting the major cities. Beginning at Kābul, this highway leads north through the Salang Tunnel to Kholm (Tāshkurghān) and west to Mazār-e Sharīf, continues west to Meymaneh and Herāt, then swings southeast to Kandahār, and finally goes northeast to return to Kābul. Afghanistan’s road system links the country with Pakistan; in the north the cities of Jalālābād and Peshāwar are connected, and in the south the cities of Kandahār and Chaman are connected. Another major road leads from Herāt to Iran. Damaged and neglected roads were being rebuilt and resurfaced as part of the country’s postwar reconstruction. The Salang Tunnel, which is the main route between Kābul and the north, reopened in early 2002 for the first time in ten years.
Long-distance travel by road usually involves hazardous journeys on potholed dirt roads. Some roads are temporarily impassable in winter and spring due to snowfall. Small three-wheeled vehicles, a type of gas-powered rickshaw, are a common mode of transport in cities. Horse-drawn carts are still used in many areas. In the countryside most Afghans travel by foot, donkey, horseback, and occasionally by camel. Pack animals are commonly used for transporting goods to local markets. Because Afghanistan is a landlocked country without any seaports, it depends on neighboring countries for the shipment of goods to and from its borders. Once inside Afghanistan, goods are usually transported by road due to the very limited reach of railroads in the country.

River transport is largely limited to the Amu Darya, which has 1,400 km (900 mi) of navigable waters deep enough for large vessels. Ports on the Amu Darya include Keleft, Kheyrābād, and Shīr Khān.

Kābul and Kandahār have international airports. The Kābul airport was severely damaged by U.S. bombing raids in 2001, but it was one of the country’s first reconstruction projects. The airport is now Afghanistan’s lifeline to the outside world. Smaller airports are scattered around the country. The national carrier is Ariana Afghan Airlines, which makes international flights. The country’s first private airline, Kam Air, began domestic flights in 2003.

Mass Media in Afghanistan

The first Afghan television station, built with Japanese aid, went on the air in Kābul in 1978. After the Taliban took control of the capital, they closed the country’s television stations and outlawed television and movies. Television stations began broadcasting again soon after the Taliban were driven from the capital by Northern Alliance forces in November 2001.

The history of newspapers, magazines, and other publications in Afghanistan has varied, depending upon the level of censorship in the ruling government. The first printed newspaper was distributed in 1875, and two other small newspapers were printed just after 1900. With the beginning of the reign of King Amanullah in 1919, the press flourished with the publication of more than 15 newspapers and magazines. By the 1950s, 95 percent of the nation’s printed materials came from the government. The small remainder was produced by provincial hand-operated presses.

In 1962 the Kābul Times appeared as the first English-language paper. Bakhtar News Agency subscribed to a variety of international press services and its news bulletin was available as well. Following the 1978 coup the Kābul Times was renamed the Kābul New Times and began publishing communist rhetoric that was reminiscent of the worst days of the Cold War. The newspaper was highly confrontational and hostile to the West. In reaction to the suppression of the free press, antiregime shabnamah (night letters) were secretly printed (primarily in Kābul) with uncensored news and opinions. In 1996 Afghanistan had 12 daily newspapers, but most ceased publication after the Taliban came to power. The Taliban officially revived two newspapers in 1998 to serve as organs of their regime.

In early 2002 the country’s new interim government passed a law declaring freedom of the press. Subsequently, more than 100 newspapers began to be published and distributed in Afghanistan. Kābul Weekly is the largest newspaper in circulation.


Afghanistan is governed under a constitution that went into effect in 2004. The constitution provides for a strong presidency, a two-chamber legislature, and an independent judiciary. It guarantees freedom of religion while recognizing Islam as the country’s official religion. It also recognizes that men and women are equal before the law, and it guarantees language rights of minorities.

Historical Overview in Afghanistan

Until the 1960s Afghanistan’s king and the king’s relatives dominated the central government, although conservative ethnic and religious leaders exerted considerable influence. In 1963, for the first time, a prime minister was appointed from outside the royal family in order to distance the monarchy from policymaking. In 1964 a new constitution introduced a more democratic system of government, establishing a constitutional (rather than absolute) monarchy with an elected parliament. However, the king refused to allow the legalization of political parties, primarily to keep ethnic and leftist parties from emerging.

In 1973 a military coup overthrew the monarchy and established Afghanistan as a republic. Another coup in 1978 brought a formerly banned leftist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), to power. Its communist regime strengthened Afghanistan’s already close relations with the Soviet Union. However, traditionalist Islamist rebels known as mujahideen led an armed insurrection against the new regime.

To bolster the PDPA government, the Soviet Union mounted a full-scale invasion of the country in December 1979. The invasion imposed a moderate PDPA member as prime minister in an effort to conciliate the mujahideen and form a more broadly based government. However, the Soviet-installed government failed to attract the support of the mujahideen, who fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation. While the PDPA government depended entirely on Soviet military and financial backing, the mujahideen received aid from the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim countries.

After Soviet troops finally withdrew in early 1989, Afghanistan was torn by civil war as mujahideen groups stepped up their offensive against the PDPA government. That government fell in 1992, but the civil war continued among the various mujahideen factions, which failed to agree on sharing power. One mujahideen faction established an Islamic fundamentalist movement known as the Taliban, which captured the capital, Kābul, in 1996 and established a brutal regime. It was toppled in November 2001 by a coalition of opposition Afghan forces known as the Northern Alliance, with the help of United States and British forces.

After the fall of the Taliban regime, the United Nations (UN) began pursuing efforts to establish a multiethnic government in Afghanistan. Afghan delegates from the country’s major ethnic, religious, and political factions—except the Taliban—met in Bonn, Germany, for UN-sponsored negotiations on the country’s political future. The resulting UN-brokered agreement established a temporary, interim government in December 2001 to run the country for six months, at which time a transitional government took over. A new constitution, adopted in January 2004, established a presidential form of government. General elections were held in October 2004 to choose Afghanistan’s first directly elected president.

Executive of Afghanistan

The president is head of state and head of government, as well as commander in chief of the armed forces. The president is directly elected to a term of five years and may serve no more than two terms. The 2004 constitution established a strong presidency, but it imposes some restrictions on presidential power. For example, some of the president’s appointments and policy decisions are subject to parliamentary approval, including those of government ministers and Supreme Court justices.

Legislature of Afghanistan

Under the 2004 constitution, the parliament of Afghanistan is the bicameral (two-chamber) Meli Shura (National Assembly). The lower chamber is the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) and the upper chamber is the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders). The members of the Wolesi Jirga are directly elected to serve five-year terms. The Wolesi Jirga is made up of no more than 250 members, with each province accorded a number of representatives in proportion to its population. One-quarter of the seats are reserved for women. The Meshrano Jirga is composed of one representative from each provincial council, one representative from each district council, and a number of presidential appointees (half of which are required to be women).

Judiciary in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s status as an Islamic state was first codified in the 1931 constitution, which established the Hanafi school of Islam as the basis of law. The Hanafi school, one of four orthodox systems of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, is an interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law). The 1964 constitution established the supremacy of secular law. It stated that while no laws could contradict the basic principles of Islam, the actual laws were to be resolutions passed by the parliament. This was reversed under the Taliban regime, which enforced its own fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia by imposing extreme punishments such as stonings, amputations, hangings, and beheadings for certain offenses.

The 2004 constitution states that no laws may be passed that are contrary to the laws of Islam. It also contains human rights provisions and articulates the equal rights of men and women before the law. The constitution established an independent judiciary with a Stera Mahkama (Supreme Court) as the highest court. The nine members of the Stera Mahkama are appointed by the president with approval of the Wolesi Jirga. Subordinate courts include high courts and appeals courts.

Local Government of Afghanistan

For administrative purposes, Afghanistan is divided into 34 velayat (provinces): Badakhshān, Bādghīs, Baghlān, Balkh, Bamian, Dāykondī, Farāh, Faryab, Ghaznī, Ghowr, Helmand, Herāt, Jowzjān, Kābul, Kandahār, Kāpīsā, Konar, Kondoz, Khowst, Laghmān, Lowgar, Nangarhār, Nīmrozī, Norestān, Paktīkā, Paktīā, Panj Shīr, Parvān, Samangān, Sar-e Pol, Takhār, Orūzgān, Vardak, and Zābol. The provinces are divided into districts and subdistricts.

Each province is officially administered by a governor who is appointed by the president. However, a number of locally based commanders and leaders—often called warlords because they control private militias—wield considerable power at the regional level. Many of these individuals are former mujahideen commanders who rose to power during the civil war, when the central government lost control over all or parts of the provinces in some areas. These individuals developed strong power bases through alliances with various ethnic, religious, and tribal groups. These alliances heightened the long-held rivalries and differences between these groups. The warlords’ resistance to giving up power—specifically, disarming their militias or integrating them into the national army—posed the most formidable challenge to government efforts to reestablish central control outside Kābul after the fall of the Taliban.

Political Parties and Movements in Afghanistan

The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a communist party that was unofficially founded in 1965, came to power in 1978 and remained the dominant political party through the 1980s. In 1967 it had split into two rival factions, known as Khalq (Masses), a more radical group, and Parcham (Flag), a moderate, pro-Soviet group. The Khalq faction was strongest among Pashto speakers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Parcham faction was strongest among Dari-speaking urban intellectuals. After the PDPA came to power, the Khalqis began a purge of Parchamis. However, the Soviet invasion in 1979 brought Parchami leaders to power in the central government.

During the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation, the Jamiat-i Islami (Islamic Society) became the largest political wing within the mujahideen movement. It had been formed as a relatively moderate Islamist party in the 1970s by Burhanuddin Rabbani, who served as president of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996. After the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, the Jamiat-i Islami remained the most prominent of several active Islamic parties. These included the Jonbesh-i Melli-i Islami (National Islamic Movement), led by former mujahideen leader Abdul Rashjid Dostum. In addition, the Taliban remained an active Islamic fundamentalist movement in some areas of the country.

Immediately after the Taliban regime was ousted, the United Nations worked with Afghan leaders from across the political spectrum to build a broad-based transitional government in Afghanistan. In September 2003 the transitional government approved a law that, for the first time in the country’s history, officially allowed political parties to form. By that time a number of new political parties had already emerged. As many as 45 new parties united under a loose coalition called the National Front for Democracy in Afghanistan, which primarily sought to counteract divisive faction politics. Numerous other new political groups and parties subsequently began forming ahead of the country’s general elections. Many parties represented various ethnic groups in the country, while others were aligned according to political and religious ideologies. Meanwhile, former members of the defunct PDPA founded a new communist party, the Hizb-i Muttahid-i Melli (United National Party), but in 2003 it was deemed “anti-Islamic” and banned by the Supreme Court.

Social Services in Afghanistan

Near the end of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, more than 100 national government organizations and private volunteer relief agencies from more than 20 countries were bringing relief and assistance to Afghans, both inside the country and outside to the refugee population. The government maintained hospitals to raise the level of public health. Mass vaccinations eliminated smallpox and greatly reduced typhoid fever. Government campaigns also greatly reduced the incidence of malaria. In the 1990s, however, civil war and extreme poverty prohibited improvements in the country’s welfare system.

After the Soviets departed in 1989, life in Afghanistan became desperate. In 1993 there was on average only 1 physician for every 7,000 Afghans. In the mid-1990s there was only 1 functioning hospital for every 500,000 people in some areas. Medical supplies were in short supply because of frequent hijacking of relief convoys. Trachoma (a contagious eye disease that can result in blindness) and dysentery remained widespread, and skin diseases were rampant. Tuberculosis reached epidemic levels with surveys showing 80 percent of families with at least one member sick. Large numbers of people sustained injuries, especially lost limbs, during the war. By the mid-1990s the Red Crescent Society (the equivalent of Red Cross in Muslim countries) had opened a clinic in Kandahār. Other humanitarian relief agencies, including the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP), subsequently began efforts to help feed Afghanistan’s starving population. Immediately after the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, the UNWFP stepped up its efforts to deliver food to the population, particularly in remote areas that the relief agencies had been denied access to by the Taliban. Such humanitarian assistance remained crucial through the country’s postwar reconstruction because so many Afghan people had been without enough food, adequate shelter, or medical care for so long.

Defense of Afghanistan

Prior to the Soviet-Afghan War, the government of Afghanistan had long relied on the USSR for military equipment and advisers. In 1978 the Afghan army numbered 110,000 men, but desertions reduced it to 50,000 by 1986. Many deserters joined the mujahideen in fighting a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation until 1989. During the subsequent civil war, elements of the former army, national guard, border guard, national police, and ethnic militias were broken up among the various mujahideen factions. Thereafter, mujahideen commanders maintained control over their own private militias, which enabled them to hold power over most of the country outside Kābul.

In early 2002 Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, and Hamid Karzai, then the interim leader of Afghanistan, discussed the urgent need to form a well-trained and disciplined Afghan police force and army. In 2003 U.S. and French forces began training recruits for a new multiethnic Afghan National Army (ANA). Karzai ordered all private militias to disarm and merge into the ANA to help bring a goal of 70,000 soldiers into the national army. Many regional commanders resisted disbanding their private militias, however, and the disarmament and army-building process progressed slowly.


Excavation of prehistoric sites suggests that early humans lived in northern Afghanistan at least 50,000 years ago and that farming communities in Afghanistan were among the earliest in the world. After 2000 BC successive waves of people from Central Asia moved into the area. Since many of these settlers were Aryans (speakers of the parent language of the Indo-European languages), a people who also migrated to Persia (now Iran) and India in prehistoric times, the area was called Aryana, or Land of the Aryans.

By the middle of the 6th century BC the Persian Empire of the Achaemenid dynasty controlled the region of Aryana. About 330 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the last Achaemenid ruler and made his way to the eastern limits of Aryana and beyond. After his death in 323 BC several kingdoms fought for control of his Asian empire. These kingdoms included Seleucids, Bactria, and the Indian Mauryan Empire.

Buddhist Period

About the 1st century AD the Kushans, a central Asian people, won control of Aryana. Buddhism was the dominant religion from the 3rd century to the 8th century AD. Ruins of many monasteries and stupas, or reliquary mounds (structures where sacred relics are kept or displayed), from that period still remain. They line what was once a great Buddhist pilgrimage road from India to Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, and on into Central Asia.

Kushan power was destroyed at the end of the 4th century AD by a Turkic people of central Asian origin called the White Huns or Ephthalites. After the Ephthalites, the area was divided among several kingdoms, some Buddhist, some Hindu.

Islamic Period

In the 7th century AD Arab armies carried the new religion of Islam to Afghanistan. The western provinces of Herāt and Sistan came under Arab rule, but the people of these provinces revolted and returned to their old beliefs as soon as the Arab armies passed. In the 10th century Muslim rulers called Samanids, from Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan, extended their influence into the Afghan area. A Samanid established a dynasty in Ghaznī called the Ghaznavids. The greatest Ghaznavid king, Mahmud, who ruled from 998 to 1030, established Islam throughout the area of Afghanistan. He led many military expeditions into India. Ghaznī became a center of literature and the arts.

The Ghaznavid state grew weaker under Mahmud’s descendants and gave way in the middle of the 12th century to the Ghurid kingdom, which arose in Ghur, in the west central region of present-day Afghanistan. The Ghurids in turn were routed early in the 13th century by the Khwarizm Shahs, another central Asian dynasty. They were swept away in about 1220 by the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, who devastated the land.

Near the end of the 14th century the central Asian military leader Tamerlane (Timur Lang) conquered the region of Afghanistan and moved on into India. His sons and grandsons, the Timurids, could not hold Tamerlane’s empire together. However, they ruled most of present-day Afghanistan from Herāt.

The period from the Ghurid through the Timurid dynasty produced fine Islamic architectural monuments. Many of these mosques, shrines, and minarets still stand in Herāt, Qal‘eh-ye Bost, Ghaznī, and Mazār-e Sharīf. An important school of miniature painting flourished at Herāt in the 15th century.

A descendant of Tamerlane on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s side, Babur (Zahiruddin Muhammad) took Kābul in October 1504 and then moved on to India, where he established the Mughal Empire.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Afghanistan was fought over by the rulers of the Mughal Empire, centered in India, and those of the Safavid dynasty, in Persia. Usually the Mughals held Kābul and the Persians held Herāt, with Kandahār frequently changing hands. The Pashtun tribes increased their power, but they failed to win independence.

An Afghan Empire

In the 18th century, Nadir Shah, the king of Persia, employed the Abdali tribe of Pashtuns in his wars in India. Ahmad Shah, an Abdali chief who had gained a high post in Nadir Shah’s army, established himself in Kandahār after Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1747. An assembly of tribal chiefs proclaimed him shah, and the Afghans extended their rule as far east as Kashmīr and Delhi, north to the Amu Darya, and west into northern Persia.

Ahmad retired from the throne in 1772 and died in Kandahār, whereupon his son Timur Shah assumed control. The Afghan empire survived largely intact through the next 20 years. He established his capital in Kābul to draw power away from his rivals in Kandahār, as well as to be closer to his richest province, the Punjab of India. Following Timur’s death in 1793, palace rivalries and internal conflicts led to the disintegration of the empire. Two sons of Timur, Shah Shuja and Shah Mahmud, fought over the remnants of the Afghan empire, with Shuja finally going into exile in India and Mahmud withdrawing to Herāt, as a number of other small principalities emerged throughout Afghanistan.

Dost Muhammad Khan emerged as the new ruler, or emir, in Kābul by 1826. Among the most pressing problems he faced was repelling the westward encroachment of the Sikhs, who gained control of the Punjab and the region up to the Khyber Pass, including the important trading post of Peshāwar. In 1837 Dost Muhammad’s forces defeated the Sikhs at Jamrūd, but failed to recover Peshāwar. This conflict and the arrival of a new Russian envoy in Kābul made the British, who were allies of the Sikhs, extremely nervous about the security of the western frontier of their growing empire in India. These events played out during the so-called Great Game between the Russian “bear” and the British “lion,” with both empires vying for regional dominance and Afghanistan becoming caught between them. In 1838 Lord Auckland, the British governor-general of India, ordered military intervention in Afghanistan to protect British interests, thereby setting off the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842). With British and Sikh manipulation and support, Shah Shuja returned to Afghanistan to overthrow Dost Muhammad, as a British garrison was established in Kābul and elsewhere south of the Hindu Kush mountains.

A revolt by Dost Muhammad’s son Muhammad Akbar Khan led to the forced withdrawal of the British garrison from Kābul in the winter of 1842. Ambushed during the retreat, nearly all of the some 4,500 British troops and their 12,000 camp followers were killed. Dost Muhammad was able to return to Kābul, from where he spent the next 20 years reunifying parts of Afghanistan until his death in 1863.

Dost Muhammad designated his third son, Sher Ali, as his successor, but civil war erupted as rivals to Sher Ali vied for control. Sher Ali defeated his rivals, notably his brother Afzul Khan, by 1868. At the same time he tried to maintain good relations with the British Raj (British-ruled India). However, the Russian conquests in Central Asia had brought that empire to the Amu Darya river on the northern border of Afghanistan by 1847. The negotiations of a Russian envoy in Kābul renewed the unease of the British, who consequently invaded Afghanistan, instigating the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). Sher Ali was deposed in 1879, but the British, realizing the difficulties of ruling from within Afghanistan, in 1880 invited a nephew of Sher Ali, Abdur Rahman Khan (Afzul Khan’s son), to rule at their behest. However, the British limited his power beyond the borders of Afghanistan by securing control of Afghan foreign relations.

Known as the Iron Emir, Abdur Rahman recognized the threat from the expansionistic Russians and the defensive British. As a result he allowed the foreign delineation of his borders to encompass a smaller territory than he actually considered to be Afghanistan. The emergence of the present-day configuration of the country, with its narrow panhandle of the Wakhan Corridor projecting to China on the northeast, is an example of the establishment of a classic buffer state, in which, to avoid inadvertent conflict, the borders of the Russian and British empires were to have no contact points in common. Similarly, the establishment of the Durand Line, the southeastern border of Afghanistan, divided the territory of the militant Pashtun tribe into two halves, with one half under the control of the British Raj, and the other inside Afghanistan. This divide-and-rule policy allowed some nominal control of a difficult region, but problems related to the tribally unpopular (and for them, unrecognized) border have continued to the present day.

Modern Afghanistan

Abdur Rahman Khan extended his control throughout the territory within the new boundaries of Afghanistan. His son, Habibullah, who reigned from 1901 until 1919, took the first steps toward the introduction of modern education and industry. Habibullah’s son and successor, Amanullah, initiated a brief war, the Third Anglo-Afghan War, in 1919 to end British control over Afghan foreign affairs. The resulting peace treaty recognized the independence of Afghanistan.

Amanullah was determined to modernize his country. In 1926 he took the title of king. His reforms, including efforts to induce women to give up the burka, or full-length veil, and to make men wear Western clothing in certain public areas, offended religious and ethnic group leaders. Revolts broke out, and in 1929 Amanullah fled the country.

Order was restored in 1930 by four brothers who were relatives of Amanullah. One of them, Muhammad Nadir Shah, became king, but he was assassinated in 1933. His son, Muhammad Zahir Shah, succeeded him. Power remained concentrated in the hands of Zahir and the royal family for the next four decades. In 1946 Afghanistan joined the United Nations (UN).

In 1953 Muhammad Daud, a nephew of Nadir Shah, became prime minister. Daud began to modernize Afghanistan rapidly with the help of economic and especially military aid from the USSR; the modern Afghan army was largely created with Soviet equipment and technical training. The United States declined to assist in this process. Social reform proceeded slowly because the government was afraid to antagonize conservative ethnic group leaders and devout Muslims. Relations with Pakistan deteriorated after Daud called for self-determination for the Pashtun tribes of northwestern Pakistan.

In 1963, hoping to halt the growth of Soviet influence and to improve relations with Pakistan, Zahir Shah removed Daud as prime minister. In 1964 Afghanistan adopted a new constitution, changing the country from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The armed forces still depended on the Soviet Union for equipment and training. A severe drought in the early 1970s caused economic hardship, and the popularity of the regime declined.

End of Monarchy

In 1973 Muhammad Daud overthrew the king in a coup. He declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as president. Daud announced ambitious plans for economic development and tried to play the USSR against Western donors, but his dictatorial government was opposed both by radical left-wing intellectuals and soldiers and by traditionalist ethnic leaders. The leading leftist organization was the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had been founded in 1965 and in 1967 split into a pro-Soviet Parcham faction and a much more radical Khalq faction. The two groups joined forces in 1976 to oppose Daud.

Leftist Coup and Soviet Invasion

In April 1978, after Daud launched a crackdown against the PDPA, leftist military officers overthrew him. PDPA leader Noor Muhammad Taraki became prime minister, subsequently assuming the title of president as well. Taraki and his deputy prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, both members of the Khalq faction, purged many Parcham leaders. Taraki announced a sweeping revolutionary program, including land reform, the emancipation of women, and a campaign against illiteracy. In late 1978 Islamic traditionalists and ethnic leaders who objected to rapid social change began an armed revolt against the government. By the summer of 1979 the rebels controlled much of the Afghan countryside. In September Taraki was deposed and later killed. Amin, his successor, tried vigorously to suppress the rebellion and resisted Soviet efforts to make him moderate his policies. The government’s position deteriorated, however, and on December 25, 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. They quickly won control of Kābul and other important centers. The Soviets executed Amin on December 27 and installed Babrak Karmal, leader of PDPA’s Parcham faction, as president. Karmal, whom the Soviets considered to be more susceptible to their control, denounced Amin’s repressive policies, which reportedly included mass arrests and torture of prisoners, and promised to combine social and economic reform with respect for Islam and for Afghan traditions. But the government, dependent on Soviet military forces to bolster it, was widely unpopular.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan played out in the waning days of the Cold War, as the leaden economy and political repressions of the Soviet Union were just beginning to show signs of strain. Despite the Soviet Union’s own domestic difficulties and high-level internal advice against such a move, the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan’s government and eventual full military invasion was a long-considered and reasonably well-thought-out plan. From its earliest foreign aid in construction of military-quality bridges and highways, to its progressive planting of special agents within the Afghanistan bureaucracy and military, the Soviet Union displayed an unremitting interest in expanding its influence in the country and moving farther south toward the warm-water ports and hydrocarbon riches of the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan’s location along part of the Soviet Union’s southern border made the installation of a Soviet-friendly government there all the more desirable. The leftist coup of 1978 in Kābul seemingly assured that the Soviets would not lose the strategic position that they had patiently established through expensive and pervasive efforts over the prior quarter-century. Elsewhere in the country, however, there was only minimal support for the emerging Communist government in Kābul; opposition to it mounted nationwide, eventually even including significant portions of the Afghan military. The Soviet Union’s large-scale military intervention aimed to protect its interests in the region by helping the Soviet-installed government to put down this widespread opposition.

Nevertheless, resistance to the Communist government and the Soviet invaders grew spontaneously throughout Afghanistan so that by the mid-1980s there were about 90 areas in the country commanded by guerrilla leaders. The guerrillas called themselves mujahideen (Muslim holy warriors). They had gained prominence by their fighting prowess rather than through the customary routes within traditional social structures. The resistance was roughly organized into seven major mujahideen parties, largely of Sunni background, based in Peshāwar, Pakistan, in the 1980s. Other mujahideen parties were based in Iran. The mujahideen were sustained by weapons and money from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. By the mid-1980s the United States was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to aid Afghan rebels based in Pakistan.

During the 1980s Soviet forces increasingly bore the brunt of the fighting. By 1986 about 118,000 Soviet troops and 50,000 Afghan government troops were facing perhaps 130,000 mujahideen guerrillas. Although the Soviet troops used modern equipment, including tanks and bombers, the mujahideen were also well armed, and they had local support and operated more effectively in familiar mountainous terrain. In 1986 the United States began supplying the mujahideen with Stinger missiles able to shoot down Soviet armored helicopters.

The effects of the war on Afghanistan were devastating. Half of the population was displaced inside the country, forced to migrate outside the country, wounded, or killed. About 3 million war refugees fled to Pakistan and about 1.5 million fled to Iran. Estimates of combat fatalities range between 700,000 and 1.3 million people. With the school system largely destroyed, industrialization severely restricted, and large irrigation projects badly damaged, the economy of the country was crippled. Despite some negative reaction, the presence of so many refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran actually improved Afghan relations with those countries. In addition, many of the refugees improved their lives considerably by leaving Afghanistan and the dangers of war therein. Because the majority of the refugees were religious, their fellow Muslims in Iran and Pakistan accepted them, even while the Iranian and Pakistani governments were striving to bring about the fall of the Communist regime in Kābul.

In May 1986 Karmal was replaced as PDPA leader by Mohammad Najibullah, a member of the Parcham faction who had headed the Afghan secret police. In November 1987 Najibullah was elected president.

Soviet Withdrawal

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, he gave high priority to getting Soviet troops out of the costly, unpopular, and apparently unwinnable war in Afghanistan. In May 1988 Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR, and the United States signed agreements providing for an end to foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and the USSR began withdrawing its forces. The Soviet withdrawal was completed in February 1989. See also Soviet-Afghan War.

Civil War

The mujahideen, who did not sign the agreement concerning the Soviet withdrawal, maintained their fight against the Afghanistan central government with weapons that they continued to get from the United States via Pakistan. They rejected offers from Najibullah to make peace and share power, and refused to consider participating in any national government that included Communists. Thus the civil war continued. The United States and Pakistani sponsors prompted the Peshāwar-based rebels to besiege Jalālābād, a strong point for Najibullah in southern Afghanistan. After months of fighting, however, the Afghan government scored a clear victory. A March 1990 coup attempt also failed to bring down Najibullah. He continued to receive Soviet food, fuel, and weapons to help maintain his control. However, rebels persisted in terrorizing the civilian population by rocket bombardment of Kābul and other cities. Finally in late 1991 the USSR and the United States signed an agreement to end military aid to the Kābul government and to the mujahideen rebels.

In 1992 as the resistance closed in on Kābul, the Najibullah government fell, in part because of the defection of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek from northern Afghanistan whose militia had served the PDPA government. Two mujahideen parties from Peshāwar, both considered fundamentalist, joined forces with Dostum and Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik military commander, in the north and central mountains of Afghanistan. They won control of Kābul, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, became interim president from July through December 1992, taking office as full president in January 1993. A strong attempt was made to keep the Pashtun leaders, who traditionally held the power in Afghanistan, out of the most important government positions. Kābul was besieged beginning in 1992, first by various mujahideen groups and then by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban, which sought to reestablish Pashtun dominance in the capital.

The Taliban emerged in the fall of 1994 as a faction of mujahideen soldiers who identified themselves as religious students. The movement started in the south and worked its way toward Herāt in the northwest and Kābul in the east. It made outstanding military gains using armor, heavy rocket artillery, and helicopters against government forces. The Taliban’s stated mission was to disarm the country’s warring factions and to impose their strictly orthodox version of Islamic law. Some experts suspected the Pakistani government of supporting the Taliban, in order to keep the combat within Afghanistan and out of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, which is a major part of the Pashtun homeland. During the many vagaries of shifting alliances, as Afghans sought a new political equilibrium, one fundamentalist and one moderate party from the Peshāwar-based mujahideen groups contributed considerable personnel to the Taliban.

The term of Rabbani’s government expired in December 1994, but he continued to hold office amid the chaos of the civil war. Factional fighting since the beginning of January 1994 kept government officers from actually occupying ministries and discharging government responsibilities. Most cities outside of Kābul were administered by former resistance commanders and their shuras (councils). In June 1996 Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had resigned as prime minister in 1994 to launch a military offensive against forces loyal to Rabbani, again assumed the post, this time to help Rabbani’s government fight the Taliban threat. Despite their efforts, the Taliban took Kābul in September 1996. By that time, the capital had been devastated by the civil war.

Rabbani and Hekmatyar fled north to join the northern-based anti-Taliban alliance led by the military commanders Massoud and Dostum. The alliance was a coalition of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who were opposed to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. The alliance took the name United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, commonly known as the United Front or the Northern Alliance. Massoud was the military commander of its chief political wing, Jamiat-i Islami (Islamic Society). The Taliban advanced north toward the mountain strongholds of the Northern Alliance and by the late 1990s had taken control of almost all of Afghanistan. Northern Alliance forces held a small portion of the country’s territory in the north.

Taliban Regime

After taking over Kābul, the Taliban created the Ministry for Ordering What Is Right and Forbidding What Is Wrong to impose and enforce its fundamentalist rules of behavior. The Taliban’s laws particularly affected women, who were ordered to cover themselves from head to toe in burkas (long, tentlike veils), forbidden from attending school or working outside their homes, and publicly beaten if they were improperly dressed or escorted by men not related to them. The Taliban also made murder, adultery, and drug dealing punishable by death and made theft punishable by amputation of the hand. Many of the laws alarmed human-rights groups and provoked worldwide condemnation. Most countries did not recognize the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

In 1998, after terrorist bombings struck U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States launched cruise missiles at alleged terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan. The camps were reportedly connected to an international terrorist ring allegedly run by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi Arabian expatriate named by U.S. officials as the mastermind behind the embassy bombings. Bin Laden was active in the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s, and toward the end of that war he established al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the Base”), an organization based in Afghanistan that, according to U.S. officials, connects and coordinates fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups around the world. Al-Qaeda also supported the Taliban regime, with its special forces, called the Arab Brigade, fighting alongside Taliban troops in the civil war against the Northern Alliance.

On September 9, 2001, pro-Taliban suicide bombers assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance. Two days later in the United States, terrorists hijacked passenger airplanes and deliberately crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, killing thousands of people (see September 11 Attacks). The U.S. government identified bin Laden as the prime suspect behind the attacks. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, refused U.S. demands that the Taliban surrender bin Laden. The U.S. government built an international antiterrorism coalition, securing the approval of many nations for a war on terrorism. American and British forces began aerial bombings of al-Qaeda camps and Taliban military positions on October 7. The Northern Alliance, meanwhile, continued its front-line offensive north of Kābul and other strategic areas. Many Afghans fled to refugee camps in border areas of Pakistan and Iran to escape the bombings, adding to the millions of Afghans already displaced from more than two decades of war.

While the United States and Britain continued the aerial bombardment in November, Northern Alliance forces captured several strategic cities, including Kābul. In late November hundreds of U.S. marines landed near Kandahār in the first major infusion of American ground troops into Afghanistan. The Taliban surrendered Kandahār, their last remaining stronghold, by December 10. The U.S.-led offensive then focused on routing out al-Qaeda forces holed up in the rugged Tora Bora cave region of eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. In March 2002 U.S. troops undertook a mission, known as Operation Anaconda, to clear Taliban and al-Qaeda forces from the Shah-i-Kot Valley, in the vicinity of Gardēz in eastern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of bin Laden remained unknown.

Afghanistan After the Taliban

United Nations-sponsored negotiations in Bonn, Germany, resulted in agreement on December 5, 2001, among four major Afghan factions to create an interim post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, a widely respected Pashtun leader, was chosen to head the interim administration, which took power in Kābul on December 22. An international peacekeeping force maintained a measure of law and order in the capital.

J.1. Transitional Government

Karzai’s administration was given up to six months to prepare the country for the introduction of a broad-based, multiethnic transitional government. In January 2002 international donors—including more than 60 countries, major development institutions, and nongovernmental organizations—pledged more than $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan over a period of five years. In April deposed Afghan king Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan, ending nearly three decades of exile, in order to serve a symbolic role in the country. In June he formally convened the loya jirga, or grand council, which was responsible for electing a transitional government to rule the country for 18 months, until general elections scheduled for 2004. The loya jirga elected Karzai interim president of Afghanistan.

J.2. New Constitution

In January 2004 the loya jirga ratified a new constitution and Karzai signed it into law. The new constitution created a strong presidency, a two-chamber legislature, and an independent judiciary. It recognized Islam as the country’s sacred religion but guaranteed protections for other religions. It also recognized equal rights for women and language rights for minorities.

The adoption of the new constitution paved the way for elections, originally scheduled for June 2004 but then postponed due to the continued lack of security in many parts of the country. The Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies, who had regrouped as a military force despite new U.S.-led offensives to combat them, were waging a sporadic guerrilla campaign against the Karzai government and the international forces stationed in the country. In March 2004 Pakistan conducted a military operation along its border with Afghanistan in an attempt to flush out the insurgents.

About 18,000 non-Afghan troops were stationed in Afghanistan in 2004 to fight Taliban forces and offer protection for the Karzai government. Of these, about 8,500 were U.S. troops, and about 3,000 soldiers came from other coalition partners. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stationed about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan. NATO took charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in August 2003 and for the first time played a military role outside of Europe. The ISAF was authorized by the United Nations Security Council to act as peacekeepers in the Afghan capital, Kābul, and surrounding areas. By the end of 2005, about 19,000 U.S. troops and about 9,200 ISAF troops remained in Afghanistan.

In October 2006 about 12,000 of the 20,000 U.S. troops then serving in Afghanistan became part of the ISAF forces as NATO reportedly assumed primary responsibility for international military operations in Afghanistan. The remaining 8,000 U.S. troops were assigned to counterterrorism efforts and to training Afghan security forces as part of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan. The ISAF consisted of about 31,000 troops and faced an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Taliban fighters in October 2006.

J.3. Presidential Election

Afghanistan held its first-ever presidential election on October 9, 2004. Large numbers of Afghans turned out to vote in the election, which was largely free of the violence threatened by the country’s former Taliban leaders. Karzai won 55.4 percent of the vote, easily beating 15 other candidates in the first round of voting. His victory was officially announced on November 3, following an investigation into charges of electoral fraud. According to a three-member United Nations panel set up to examine the complaints—made mostly by the losing candidates—the election’s “shortcomings…could not have materially affected the overall result.”

Karzai’s top goals after forming a new government included curbing the power of regional warlords, building an effective national security force, and pursuing national redevelopment plans. Uniting the country despite its longstanding ethnic, religious, and regional rivalries remained one of Karzai’s highest priorities.

J.4. Parliamentary Elections

Elections to the lower house of the National Assembly took place in September 2005, and in December 2005 President Karzai used his constitutional powers to appoint the members of the upper house. On December 19 Afghanistan’s first democratically elected legislature in more than 30 years officially convened. The new legislature represented a wide spectrum of the country’s political groupings and factions, including former warlords and former Taliban officials.

J.5. Continued War Against a Taliban Insurgency

Despite its initial defeat following the U.S. invasion of 2001, the Taliban regrouped, using remote areas of Pakistan for refuge and staging sporadic guerrilla attacks in areas of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. By 2007 the Taliban adopted tactics that included suicide bombings and roadside bombs, while also besieging remote U.S. and NATO outposts in the countryside. In June 2007 U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates expressed cautious optimism that the military campaign was having success against the resurgent Taliban. Defense Department officials said they believed NATO operations had helped thwart a planned spring offensive by the Taliban.

However, Afghan civilian support for the U.S. and NATO military operations waned in the spring of 2007, particularly after a series of attacks that resulted in civilian casualties. In early May, following an April ground attack and air strike on a small village in western Herāt province in which about 50 civilians were reportedly killed, Afghan president Karzai told U.S. and NATO officials that civilian deaths had reached an “unacceptable level.” About a week later lawmakers in the upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire with the Taliban and for setting a date for the withdrawal of foreign troops. Many of the legislators cited an incident in March in which a U.S. Marine Special Operations force opened fire on civilians lining a highway as the marines fled the scene of a suicide bombing attack. The incident in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangarhār resulted in the deaths of 19 Afghan civilians and the wounding of about 50 others. A U.S. military commander later determined that the marines had used excessive force and he referred the incident for a possible criminal inquiry.

By June 2007 the Associated Press reported a death toll of 2,300 in insurgency-related violence in 2007 alone. The International Red Cross said that violence was occurring throughout Afghanistan. The Department of Defense reported nearly 400 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, and Great Britain reported the deaths of 60 British soldiers during that same period.

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