Afghanistan (Pashtu/Dari-Persian: Afğānistān افغانستان) is a country in Central Asia. It is bordered by Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south and east, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, and China in the easternmost part of the country. It is among the poorest countries in the world.
Between the fall of the Taliban after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 Loya jirga, Afghanistan was referred to by the West as the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan. Under its new constitution the country is now officially named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Origin and history of the name
The name Afghanistan derives from the alternative name for the Pashtuns: Afghan, being the founders of modern Afghanistan. The remainder of the name originates from the Persian word stān (country).
Main article: History of Afghanistan
Afghanistan, often called the crossroads of Central Asia, has had a very turbulent history. Through the ages, the region today known as Afghanistan has been occupied by many forces including the Persian Empire, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.
The Afghanistan nation-state as it is known today came into existence in 1746 under the Durrani Empire, but control was ceded to the United Kingdom until King Amanullah acceded to the throne in 1919 (see "The Great Game").
The historical rulers of Afghanistan belonged to the Abdali tribe of the ethnic Afghans, whose name was changed to Durrani upon the accession of Ahmad Shah. They belonged to the Saddozay segment of the Popalzay clan or to the Mohammadzay segment of the Barakzay clan of the ethnic Afghans. The Mohammadzay furnished the Saddozay kings frequently with top counsellors, who served occasionally as regents, identified with the epithet Mohammadzay.
Since 1900, eleven rulers were unseated through undemocratic means: 1919 (assassination), 1929 (abdication), 1929 (execution), 1933 (assassination), 1973 (deposition), 1978 (execution), 1979 (execution), 1979 (execution), 1987 (removal), 1992 (overthrow), 1996 (overthrow) and 2001 (overthrow).
The last period of stability in Afghanistan lay between 1933 and 1973, when the country was under the rule of King Zahir Shah. However, in 1973, Zahir's brother-in-law, Sardar Mohammed Daoud launched a bloodless coup. Daoud and his entire family were murdered in 1978 when the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan launched a coup and took over the government.
Opposition against, and conflict within, the series of leftist governments that followed was considerable. In August 1978 the American government commenced funding anti-government mujahideen forces with the intention of drawing the Soviets into intervention; with the government in danger of collapse, the Soviet Union intervened on December 24, 1979. Faced with mounting international pressure and losses of approximately 15,000 Soviet soldiers as a result of mujahideen opposition trained by the United States, Pakistan, and other foreign governments, the Soviets withdrew ten years later in 1989. For more details, see Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Fighting subsequently continued among the various mujahidin factions. This eventually gave rise to a state of warlordism that eventually spawned the Taliban. The most serious of this fighting occurred in 1994, when 10,000 people were killed from factions fighting in the Kabul area. Backed by Pakistan and her strategic allies, the Taliban developed as a political/religious force and eventually seized power in 1996. The Taliban were able to capture 90% of the country, aside from Northern Alliance strongholds primarily in the northeast. The Taliban sought to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. The Taliban gave safe haven and assistance to individuals and organizations that engaged in terrorism, especially Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda).
The United States and allied military action in support of the opposition following the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks forced the group's downfall. In late 2001, major leaders from the Afghan opposition groups and diaspora met in Bonn and agreed on a plan for the formulation of a new government structure that resulted in the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) on December 2001. After a nationwide Loya Jirga in 2002, Karzai was elected President.
In addition to occasionally violent political jockeying and ongoing military action to root out remaining al-Qaida and Taliban elements, the country suffers from enormous poverty, rampant warlordism, a crumbling infrastructure, and widespread land mines.
On March 3 and March 25 2002, a series of earthquakes struck Afghanistan, with a loss of thousands of homes and over 1800 lives. Over 4000 more people were injured. The earthquakes occurred at Samangan Province (March 3) and Baghlan Province (March 25). The latter was the worse of the two, and incurred most of the casualties. International authorities assisted the Afghan government in dealing with the situation.
See also: Afghanistan timeline, Invasions of Afghanistan
Main article: Politics of Afghanistan
Currently, Afghanistan is led by president Hamid Karzai, who was hand-picked by the Bush Administration to lead an interim government after the fall of the Taliban. He recently won a national election. His current cabinet includes members of the Northern Alliance, and a mix from other regional and ethnic groups formed from the transitional government by the Loya jirga. Former monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah returned to the country, but was not reinstated as king and only exercises limited ceremonial powers.
Under the Bonn Agreement the Afghan Constitution Commission was established to consult with the public and formulate a draft constitution. Scheduled to release a draft on September 1, 2003, the commission has asked for a delay in order to undertake further consultations. The meeting of a constitutional loya jirga (grand council) was held in December 2003 when a new constitution was adopted creating a presidential form of government with a bicameral legislature.
Troops and intelligence agencies from the United States and a number of other countries are present, some to keep the peace, others assigned to hunt for remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda. A United Nations peacekeeping force called the International Security Assistance Force has been operating in Kabul since December 2001. NATO took control of this Force on August 11, 2003. Most of the country remains under the control of warlords.
On March 27, 2003, Afghan deputy defense minister and powerful warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum created an office for the North Zone of Afghanistan and appointed officials to it, defying interim president Hamid Karzai's orders that there be no zones in Afghanistan.
Eurocorps took over the responsibility for the NATO-led ISAF in Kabul August 9, 2004.
National elections were held on October 9, 2004. Over 10 million Afghans were registered to vote. Most of the 17 candidates opposing Karzai boycotted the election, charging fraud; an independent commission found evidence of fraud, but ruled that it did not affect the outcome of the poll. Karzai won 55.4% of the vote.  He was inaugurated as president on December 7. It was the country's first national election since 1969, when parliamentary elections were last held.
see also: List of leaders of Afghanistan
Main article: Provinces of Afghanistan
Afghanistan consists of 34 provinces, or velayat:
Main article: Geography of Afghanistan
Afghanistan is a mountainous country with plains in the north and southwest. The highest point, at 7485m above sea level, is Nowshak. Large parts of the country are dry, and fresh water supplies are limited. Afghanistan has a land climate, with hot summers and cold winters. The country is frequently subject to earthquakes.
The major cities of Afghanistan are its capital Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar.
See also List of cities in Afghanistan, Places in Afghanistan.
Main article: Economy of Afghanistan
Afghanistan is an extremely poor country, highly dependent on farming and livestock raising. The economy has suffered greatly from the recent political and military unrest, while severe drought has added to the nation's difficulties in 1998-2001. The majority of the population continues to suffer from insufficient food, clothing, housing, medical care, and other problems exacerbated by military operations and political uncertainties. Inflation remains a serious problem. Following the US-led coalition war that led to the defeat of the Taliban in November 2001, many of the country's farmers have resorted to growing cash crops for export instead of food for the sustenance of their people. A notable example of such a crop is poppies, ultimately synthesized into opium, the production of which has increased by 20 times since the war in 2001.
International efforts to rebuild Afghanistan lead to the formulation of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA), as a result of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, and later addressed at the Tokyo Donors Conference for Afghan Reconstruction in January 2002, where $4.5 billion was collected for a trust fund to be administered by the World Bank. Priority areas for reconstruction include the construction of education, health, and sanitation facilities, enhancement of administrative capacity, the development of the agricultural sector, and the rebuilding of road, energy, and telecommunication links. Two-thirds of the population live on less than US$2 a day. The infant mortality rate is 166 per 1000 births.
Main article: Demographics of Afghanistan
The population of Afghanistan is divided into a large number of ethnic groups. Because a systematic census has not been held in the country recently, exact figures about the size and composition of the various ethnic groups are not available. Therefore the following figures are approximations only. Persian-speakers form the largest group estimated to account for more than 50% of the population, comprising of Tajik (25%) and Hazara (20%) and tribes such as the Aimak and others. Second largest group are Pashtuns with 30% followed by Uzbeks (9%) and Turkmen, and Baloch make up 8%. The remaining 4% is made up of over 30 minor languages, primarily Balochi and Pashai. Bilingualism is common in Afghanistan. Also a small number of ethnic minorities, primarily Sikhs and Hindus, speak Punjabi.
Religiously, Afghans are predominantly Muslim (approximately 84% Sunni and 15% Shi'a). There are also Hindu and Sikh minorities. A many centuries old Jewish minority of several thousand only a few years ago has now dwindled away to only one remaining individual. Many of these fled during the civil war in 90's to the neighboring countries and to Europe and America. With the fall of the Taliban a number of Sikhs have returned to the Ghazni Province of Afghanistan.
Main article: Culture of Afghanistan
Many of the country's historic monuments have been damaged in the wars in recent years. The two famous statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Province were destroyed by the Taliban because they were regarded as being symbols of another religion.
Other famous sites include the cities of Herat, Ghazni and Balkh. The Minaret of Jam, in the Hari Rud valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The people of Afghanistan being renowned horsemen, the sport known as Buzkashi is popular there. Afghan hounds, running dogs, originate from Afghanistan.
Before the Taliban gained power, the city of Kabul was home to many musicians who were masters of both traditional and modern Afghan music, especially during the Nauroz-celebration. Kabul in the middle part of the 20th century has been likened to Vienna during the 18th and 19th centuries.
See also: Radio Kabul, music of Afghanistan, Islam in Afghanistan
Main article: Education in Afghanistan
In the spring of 2003, it was estimated that 30% of Afghanistan's 7,000 schools had been seriously damaged during more than two decades of Soviet occupation and civil war. Only half of the schools were reported to have clean water, while less than an estimated 40% had adequate sanitation. Education for boys was not a priority during the Taliban regime, and girls were banished from schools outright.
In regards to the poverty and violence of their surroundings, a study in 2002 by the Save the Children aid group said Afghan children were resilient and courageous. The study credited the strong institutions of family and community.
Up to four million Afghan children, possibly the largest number ever, are believed to have enrolled for class for the school year which began in March of 2003. Education is available for both girls and boys.
Literacy of the entire population is estimated at 36%.
- Griffiths, John C. 1981. Afghanistan: A History of Conflict. André Deutsch, London. Updated edition, 2001.
- Levi, Peter. 1972. The Light Garden of the Angel King: Journeys in Afghanistan. Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis / New York.
- Moorcroft, William and Trebeck, George. 1841. Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab; in Ladakh and Kashmir, in Peshawar, Kabul, Kunduz, and Bokhara... from 1819 to 1825, Vol. II. Reprint: New Delhi, Sagar Publications, 1971.
- Toynbee, Arnold J. 1961. Between Oxus and Jumna. Oxford University Press, London.
- Wood, John. 1872. A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus. New Edition, edited by his son, with an essay on the "Geography of the Valley of the Oxus" by Henry Yule. John Murray, London.