Topics: MIDDLE EAST - Afghanistan



U.S. Department of State - Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

November, 2008

OFFICIAL NAME: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan


Area: 647,500 sq. km. (249,935 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Texas.

Cities: Capital--Kabul (1,780,000; 1999/2000 UN est.). Other cities (1988 UN est.; current figures are probably significantly higher)--Kandahar (226,000); Herat (177,000); Mazar-e-Sharif (131,000); Jalalabad (58,000); Konduz (57,000).

Terrain: Landlocked; mostly mountains and desert.

Climate: Dry, with cold winters and hot summers.


Nationality: Noun and adjective--Afghan(s).

Population: 31,056,997 (June 2006 est.). More than 3 million Afghans live outside the country, mainly in Pakistan and Iran, although over 5 million have returned since the removal of the Taliban.

Annual population growth rate (2006 est.): 2.67%. Main ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Aimaq, Baluch, Nuristani, Kizilbash.

Religions: Sunni Muslim 80%, Shi'a Muslim 19%, other 1%.

Main languages: Dari (Afghan Persian), Pashto.

Education: Approximately 6 million children, of whom some 35% are girls. Literacy (2008 est.) 28.1% (male 43%, female 12%), but real figures may be lower given breakdown of education system and flight of educated Afghans during three decades of war and instability.

Health: Infant mortality rate (2008 est.)--154.67 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy (2008 est.)--44.04 yrs. (male); 44.39 yrs. (female).


Type: Islamic Republic.

Independence: August 19, 1919.

Constitution: January 4, 2004.

Branches: Executive--president (chief of state). Legislative--bicameral National Assembly (Wolesi Jirga (lower house)--249 seats, Meshrano Jirga (upper house)--102 seats). Judicial--Supreme Court, High Courts, and Appeals Courts.

Political subdivisions: 34 provinces.

Suffrage: Universal at 18 years.


GDP (2007 est.): $8.8 billion.

GDP growth (2008 est.): 11.5%.

GDP per capita (2007 est.): $1,000.

Natural resources: Natural gas, oil, coal, petroleum, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semiprecious stones.

Agriculture (estimated 38% of GDP): Products--wheat, opium, sheepskins, lambskins, corn, barley, rice, cotton, fruit, nuts, karakul pelts, wool, and mutton.

Industry (estimated 24% of GDP): Types--small-scale production of textiles, soap, furniture, shoes, fertilizer, cement; hand-woven carpets; natural gas, coal, and copper.

Services (estimated 38% of GDP): Transport, retail, and telecommunications.

Trade (2006-2007 est.): Exports--$274 million (does not include opium): fruits and nuts, hand-woven carpets, wool, cotton, hides and pelts, precious and semiprecious gems. Major markets--Central Asian republics, United States, Russia, Pakistan, India. Imports--$3.8 billion: food, petroleum products, textiles, machinery, and consumer goods. Major suppliers--Central Asian republics, Pakistan, United States, India, Germany.

Currency: The currency is the afghani, which was reintroduced as Afghanistan's new currency in January 2003. At present, $1 U.S. equals approximately 49 afghanis.


Afghanistan's ethnically and linguistically mixed population reflects its location astride historic trade and invasion routes leading from Central Asia into South and Southwest Asia. While population data is somewhat unreliable for Afghanistan, Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic group at 38-44% of the population, followed by Tajiks (25%), Hazaras (10%), Uzbek (6-8%), Aimaq, Turkmen, Baluch, and other small groups. Dari (Afghan Farsi) and Pashto are official languages. Dari is spoken by more than one-third of the population as a first language and serves as a lingua franca for most Afghans, though Pashto is spoken throughout the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan. Tajik and Turkic languages are spoken widely in the north. Smaller groups throughout the country also speak more than 70 other languages and numerous dialects.

Afghanistan is an Islamic country. An estimated 80% of the population is Sunni, following the Hanafi school of jurisprudence; the remainder of the population--and primarily the Hazara ethnic group--is predominantly Shi'a. Despite attempts during the years of communist rule to secularize Afghan society, Islamic practices pervade all aspects of life. In fact, Islam served as a principal basis for expressing opposition to communism and the Soviet invasion. Islamic religious tradition and codes, together with traditional tribal and ethnic practices, have an important role in personal conduct and dispute settlement. Afghan society is largely based on kinship groups, which follow traditional customs and religious practices, though somewhat less so in urban areas.


Afghanistan, often called the crossroads of Central Asia, has had a turbulent history. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great entered the territory of present-day Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire, and established a Hellenistic state in Bactria (present-day Balkh). Invasions by the Scythians, White Huns, and Turks followed in succeeding centuries. In AD 642, Arabs invaded the entire region and introduced Islam.

Arab rule gave way to the Persians, who controlled the area until conquered by the Turkic Ghaznavids in 998. Following Mahmud's short-lived dynasty, various princes attempted to rule sections of the country until the destructive Mongol invasion of 1219 led by Genghis Khan.

Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, a succession of petty chiefs and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of his descendants, Tamerlane, incorporated Afghanistan into his own vast Asian empire.

In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of what is known today as Afghanistan, established his rule. A Pashtun, Durrani was elected king by a tribal council after the assassination of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah at Khabushan in the same year. Throughout his reign, Durrani consolidated chieftainships, petty principalities, and fragmented provinces into one country. His rule extended from Mashad in the west to Kashmir and Delhi in the east, and from the Amu Darya (Oxus) River in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.

European Influence

During the 19th century, collision between the expanding British Empire in the subcontinent and czarist Russia significantly influenced Afghanistan in what was termed "The Great Game." British concern over Russian advances in Central Asia and growing influence in Persia precipitated two Anglo-Afghan wars in 1839 and again in 1878. The first resulted in the destruction of a British army. The latter conflict brought Amir Abdur Rahman to the Afghan throne. During his reign (1880-1901), the British and Russians officially established the boundaries of what would become modern Afghanistan through the demarcation of the Durand Line. The British retained effective control over Kabul's foreign affairs.

Habibullah, Abdur Rahman's son and successor, was assassinated in 1919. His third son, Amanullah, regained control of Afghanistan's foreign policy after launching the third Anglo-Afghan war with an attack on India in the same year. During the ensuing conflict, the war-weary British relinquished their control over Afghan foreign affairs by signing the Treaty of Rawalpindi in August 1919. In commemoration of this event, Afghans celebrate August 19 as their Independence Day.

Reform and Reaction

King Amanullah (1919-29) moved to end his country's traditional isolation. He established diplomatic relations with most major countries and introduced several reforms intended to modernize Afghanistan. Some of these, such as the abolition of the traditional Muslim veil for women and the opening of a number of co-educational schools, quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders. Faced with overwhelming armed opposition, Amanullah was forced to abdicate in January 1929 after Kabul fell to forces led by Bacha-i-Saqao, a Tajik brigand. Prince Nadir Khan, a cousin of Amanullah's, in turn defeated Bacha-i-Saqao in October of the same year and, with considerable Pashtun tribal support, was declared King Nadir Shah. Four years later, however, he was assassinated in a revenge killing by a Kabul student.

Mohammad Zahir Shah, Nadir Khan's 19-year-old son, succeeded to the throne and reigned from 1933 to 1973. In 1964, King Zahir Shah promulgated a liberal constitution providing for a two-chamber legislature to which the king appointed one-third of the deputies. Although Zahir's "experiment in democracy" produced few lasting reforms, it permitted the growth of unofficial extremist parties on both the left and the right. These included the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had close ideological ties to the Soviet Union. In 1967, the PDPA split into two major rival factions: the Khalq (Masses) faction headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin and supported by elements within the military, and the Parcham (Banner) faction led by Babrak Karmal. The split reflected ethnic, class, and ideological divisions within Afghan society.

Zahir's cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud, served as his Prime Minister from 1953 to 1963. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Daoud solicited military and economic assistance from both Washington and Moscow and introduced controversial social policies of a reformist nature. Daoud's alleged support for the creation of a Pashtun state in the Pakistan-Afghan border area heightened tensions with Pakistan and eventually resulted in Daoud's dismissal in March 1963.

Daoud's Republic (1973-78) and the April 1978 Coup

Amid charges of corruption and malfeasance against the royal family and poor economic conditions, former Prime Minister Daoud seized power in a military coup on July 17, 1973. Zahir Shah fled the country, eventually finding refuge in Italy. Daoud abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1964 constitution, and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first President and Prime Minister. His attempts to carry out badly needed economic and social reforms met with little success, and the new constitution promulgated in February 1977 failed to quell chronic political instability.

Seeking to exploit more effectively mounting popular disaffection, the PDPA reunified with Moscow's support. On April 27, 1978, the PDPA initiated a bloody coup, which resulted in the overthrow and murder of Daoud and most of his family. Nur Muhammad Taraki, Secretary General of the PDPA, became President of the Revolutionary Council and Prime Minister of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Opposition to the Marxist government emerged almost immediately. During its first 18 months of rule, the PDPA brutally imposed a Marxist-style "reform" program, which ran counter to deeply rooted Afghan traditions. In addition, thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment, and the intelligentsia were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Conflicts within the PDPA also surfaced early and resulted in exiles, purges, imprisonments, and executions.

By the summer of 1978, a revolt began in the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan and quickly spread into a countrywide insurgency. In September 1979, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier been Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, seized power from Taraki. Over the next 2 months, instability plagued Amin's regime as he moved against perceived enemies in the PDPA. By December, party morale was crumbling, and the insurgency was growing.

The Soviet Invasion

The Soviet Union moved quickly to take advantage of the April 1978 coup. In December 1978, Moscow signed a new bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan, and the Soviet military assistance program increased significantly. The regime's survival increasingly was dependent upon Soviet assistance as the insurgency spread and the Afghan army began to collapse.

By October 1979, however, relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were tense as Hafizullah Amin refused to take Soviet advice on how to stabilize and consolidate his government. Faced with a deteriorating security situation, on December 24, 1979, large numbers of Soviet airborne forces began to land in Kabul. They killed Hafizullah Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction, as Prime Minister.

Following the invasion, the Karmal regime, although backed by 120,000 Soviet troops, was unable to establish authority outside Kabul. As much as 80% of the countryside, including parts of Herat and Kandahar, eluded effective government control. An overwhelming majority of Afghans opposed the communist regime, either actively or passively. Afghan freedom fighters (mujahideen) made it almost impossible for the regime to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers. Poorly armed at first, in 1984 the mujahideen began receiving substantial assistance in the form of weapons and training from the U.S. and other outside powers.

In May 1985, the seven principal Peshawar-based guerrilla organizations formed an alliance to coordinate their political and military operations against the Soviet occupation. Late in 1985, the mujahideen were active in and around Kabul. The failure of the Soviet Union to win over a significant number of Afghan collaborators or to rebuild a viable Afghan army forced it to bear an increasing responsibility for fighting the resistance and for civilian administration.

Soviet and popular displeasure with the Karmal regime led to its demise in May 1986. Karmal was replaced by Muhammad Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police (KHAD). As Prime Minister, Najibullah was ineffective and highly dependent on Soviet support. Undercut by deep-seated divisions within the PDPA, regime efforts to broaden its base of support proved futile.

The Geneva Accords and Their Aftermath

By the mid-1980s, the tenacious Afghan resistance movement--aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others--was exacting a high price from the Soviets, both militarily within Afghanistan and by souring the U.S.S.R.'s relations with much of the Western and Islamic world. Informal negotiations for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had been underway since 1982. In 1988 the Geneva accords were signed, which included a timetable that ensured full Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan by February 15, 1989. About 14,500 Soviet and an estimated one million Afghan lives were lost between 1979 and the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Significantly, the mujahideen were party neither to the negotiations nor to the 1988 agreement and, consequently, refused to accept the terms of the accords. As a result, the civil war continued after the Soviet withdrawal, which was completed in February 1989. Najibullah's regime was able to remain in power until 1992 but collapsed after the defection of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam and his Uzbek militia in March. However, when the victorious mujahideen entered Kabul to assume control over the city and the central government, a new round of internecine fighting began between the various militias. With the demise of their common enemy, the militias' ethnic, clan, religious, and personality differences surfaced, and the civil war continued.

Seeking to resolve these differences, the leaders of the Peshawar-based mujahideen groups established an interim Islamic Jihad Council in mid-April 1992 to assume power in Kabul. Moderate leader Prof. Sibghatullah Mojaddedi was to chair the council for 2 months, after which a 10-member leadership council composed of mujahideen leaders and presided over by the head of the Jamiat-i-Islami, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani, was to be set up for 4 months. During this 6-month period, a Loya Jirga, or grand council of Afghan elders and notables, would convene and designate an interim administration which would hold power up to a year, pending elections.

But in May 1992, Rabbani prematurely formed the leadership council, undermining Mojaddedi's fragile authority. In June, Mojaddedi surrendered power to the Leadership Council, which then elected Rabbani as President. Nonetheless, heavy fighting broke out in August 1992 in Kabul between forces loyal to President Rabbani and rival factions, particularly those who supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami. After Rabbani extended his tenure in December 1992, fighting in the capital flared up in January and February 1993. The Islamabad Accord, signed in March 1993, which appointed Hekmatyar as Prime Minister, failed to have a lasting effect. A follow-up agreement, the Jalalabad Accord, called for the militias to be disarmed but was never fully implemented. Through 1993, Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami forces, allied with the Shi'a Hezb-i-Wahdat militia, clashed intermittently with Rabbani and Masood's Jamiat forces. Cooperating with Jamiat were militants of Sayyaf's Ittehad-i-Islami and, periodically, troops loyal to ethnic Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostam. On January 1, 1994, Dostam switched sides, precipitating large-scale fighting in Kabul and in northern provinces, which caused thousands of civilian casualties in Kabul and elsewhere and created a new wave of displaced persons and refugees. The country sank even further into anarchy, forces loyal to Rabbani and Masood, both ethnic Tajiks, controlled Kabul and much of the northeast, while local warlords exerted power over the rest of the country.

Rise and Fall of the Taliban

The Taliban had risen to power in the mid-1990s in reaction to the anarchy and warlordism that arose after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. Many Taliban had been educated in madrassas in Pakistan and were largely from rural southern Pashtun backgrounds. In 1994, the Taliban developed enough strength to capture the city of Kandahar from a local warlord and proceeded to expand its control throughout Afghanistan, occupying Kabul in September 1996. By the end of 1998, the Taliban occupied about 90% of the country, limiting the opposition largely to a small mostly Tajik corner in the northeast and the Panjshir valley.

The Taliban sought to impose an extreme interpretation of Islam--based upon the rural Pashtun tribal code--on the entire country and committed massive human rights violations, particularly directed against women and girls. The Taliban also committed serious atrocities against minority populations, particularly the Shi'a Hazara ethnic group, and killed noncombatants in several well-documented instances. In 2001, as part of a drive against relics of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past, the Taliban destroyed two huge Buddha statues carved into a cliff face outside of the city of Bamiyan.

From the mid-1990s the Taliban provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national who had fought with the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets, and provided a base for his and other terrorist organizations. Bin Laden provided both financial and political support to the Taliban. Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida group were charged with the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998, and in August 1998 the United States launched a cruise missile attack against bin Laden's terrorist camp in southeastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden and Al-Qaida have acknowledged their responsibility for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Following the Taliban's repeated refusal to expel bin Laden and his group and end its support for international terrorism, the U.S. and its partners in the anti-terrorist coalition began a military campaign on October 7, 2001, targeting terrorist facilities and various Taliban military and political assets within Afghanistan. Under pressure from U.S. military and anti-Taliban forces, the Taliban disintegrated rapidly, and Kabul fell on November 13, 2001.

Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban met at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn, Germany in December 2001 and agreed to restore stability and governance to Afghanistan--creating an interim government and establishing a process to move toward a permanent government. Under the "Bonn Agreement," an Afghan Interim Authority was formed and took office in Kabul on December 22, 2001 with Hamid Karzai as Chairman. The Interim Authority held power for approximately 6 months while preparing for a nationwide "Loya Jirga" (Grand Council) in mid-June 2002 that decided on the structure of a Transitional Authority. The Transitional Authority, headed by President Hamid Karzai, renamed the government as the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan (TISA). One of the TISA's primary achievements was the drafting of a constitution that was ratified by a Constitutional Loya Jirga on January 4, 2004. On December 7, 2004, the country was renamed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.


On October 9, 2004, Afghanistan held its first national democratic presidential election. More than 8 million Afghans voted, 41% of whom were women. Hamid Karzai was announced as the official winner on November 3 and inaugurated on December 7 for a five-year term as Afghanistan's first democratically elected president.

An election was held on September 18, 2005 for the "Wolesi Jirga" (lower house) of Afghanistan's new bicameral National Assembly and for the country's 34 provincial councils. Turnout for the election was about 53% of the 12.5 million registered voters. The Afghan constitution provides for indirect election of the National Assembly's "Meshrano Jirga" (upper house) by the provincial councils and by reserved presidential appointments. The first democratically elected National Assembly since 1969 was inaugurated on December 19, 2005. Younus Qanooni and Sigbatullah Mojadeddi were elected Speakers of the Wolesi Jirga and Meshrano Jirga, respectively.

Afghanistan will hold a series of elections in 2009-2010. Presidential and provincial council elections are scheduled for fall 2009. National Assembly elections are scheduled for summer 2010. Elections for district and village councils may be held in 2010 as well. Unlike previous election cycles, the elections will be coordinated by the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC), with assistance from the UN.

The government's authority is growing, although its ability to deliver necessary social services remains largely dependent on funds from the international donor community. U.S. assistance for Afghanistan's reconstruction from fiscal year 2001 to the present totals over $32 billion. Donors pledged continued assistance for the rebuilding of the country at the June 2008 international Afghanistan support conference in Paris. Overall, the international community has made multi-year reconstruction and security assistance pledges to Afghanistan totaling over $42 billion.

With international community support, including more than 40 countries participating in Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the government's capacity to secure Afghanistan's borders to maintain internal order is increasing. Responsibility for security for all of Afghanistan was transferred to ISAF in October 2006. As of November 2008, approximately 70,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and nearly 76,000 police, including border and civil order police, had received training. In September 2008, the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board, made up of key donors and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), approved the Afghan Government's request to increase the size of the ANA from 86,000 to 134,000 soldiers. Reform of the army and police, to include training, is an extensive and ongoing process, and the U.S. is working with NATO and international partners to further develop Afghanistan's National Security Forces.

Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) has also helped to further establish the authority of the Afghan central government. The DDR program, after receiving 63,000 military personnel, stopped accepting additional candidates in June 2005. Disarmament and demobilization of all of these candidates were completed at the end of June 2006. A follow-on program targeting illegal militias, the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG), was begun in 2005, under the joint auspices of Japan and the United Nations. The DIAG program is still ongoing.

Principal Government Officials

President--Hamid Karzai

First Vice President--Ahmad Zia Masood

Second Vice President--Abdul Karim Khalili

Minister of Foreign Affairs--Rangin Dadfar Spanta

Minister of Defense--General Abdul Raheem Wardak

Minister of Interior--Haneef Atmar

Ambassador to the United States--Said Tayib Jawad

Afghanistan maintains an embassy in the United States at 2341 Wyoming Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel: 202-483-6410; email: [email protected]).


In the 1930s, Afghanistan embarked on a modest economic development program. The government founded banks; introduced paper money; established a university; expanded primary, secondary, and technical schools; and sent students abroad for education.

Historically, there has been a dearth of information and reliable statistics about Afghanistan's economy. The 1979 Soviet invasion and ensuing civil war destroyed much of the country's limited infrastructure and disrupted normal patterns of economic activity. Gross domestic product fell substantially because of loss of labor and capital and disruption of trade and transport. Continuing internal strife hampered both domestic efforts at reconstruction as well as international aid efforts. However, Afghanistan's economy has grown at a fast pace since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, albeit from a low base. In 2007, GDP growth exceeded 7%. In 2008, 11.5% GDP growth is expected.

In June 2006, Afghanistan and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility program for 2006-2009 that focuses on maintaining macroeconomic stability, boosting growth, and reducing poverty. Afghanistan is also rebuilding its banking infrastructure through the Da Afghanistan National Central Bank. The central bank manages $2.8 billion in reserves. Sixteen banks have been established and more than 171 branches in over twenty provinces with $1.5 billion of total assets, a fourfold increase in three years.


The main source of income in the country is agriculture, and in the past, Afghanistan produced enough food and food products to provide for the people, as well as to create a surplus for export. The major food crops produced are: corn, rice, barley, wheat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. In Afghanistan, industry is also based on agriculture, and pastoral raw materials. The major industrial crops are: cotton, tobacco, madder, castor beans, and sugar beets. The Afghan economy continues to be overwhelmingly agricultural, despite the fact that only 12% of its total land area is arable and less than 6% currently is cultivated. Agricultural production is constrained by an almost total dependence on erratic winter snows and spring rains for water; irrigation is primitive. Relatively little use is made of machines, chemical fertilizer, or pesticides.

Overall agricultural production dramatically declined following severe drought as well as sustained fighting, instability in rural areas, and deteriorated infrastructure. The easing of the drought and the end of civil war produced the largest wheat harvest in 25 years during 2003. Wheat production was an estimated 58% higher than in 2002. However, the country still needs to import an estimated one million tons of wheat to meet its requirements. Millions of Afghans, particularly in rural areas, remain dependent on food aid.

Opium has become a ready source of cash for many Afghans, especially following the breakdown in central authority after the Soviet withdrawal, and opium-derived revenues probably constituted a major source of income for the two main factions during the civil war in the 1990s. Opium is easy to cultivate and transport. Afghanistan produced a record opium poppy crop in 2007, supplying 93% of the world's opium. Much of Afghanistan's opium production is refined into heroin and is either consumed by a growing regional addict population or exported, primarily to Western Europe.

Afghanistan has begun counter-narcotics programs, including the promotion of alternative development, public information campaigns, targeted eradication policies, interdiction of drug shipments, as well as law enforcement and justice reform programs. These programs were first implemented in late 2005. In August 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that 157,000 hectares of opium poppy were cultivated, representing a 19% decrease from 2007 and 2% of Afghanistan's agricultural land.

Trade and Industry

Afghanistan is endowed with natural resources, including extensive deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, and precious and semiprecious stones. Unfortunately, ongoing instability in certain areas of the country, remote and rugged terrain, and an inadequate infrastructure and transportation network have made mining these resources difficult, and there have been few serious attempts to further explore or exploit them. The first significant investment in the mining sector is expected to commence in 2008, with the development of the Aynak copper deposit in east-central Afghanistan. This project tender, awarded to a Chinese firm and valued at over $2.5 billion, is the largest international investment in Afghanistan to date. The Ministry of Mines also plans to move forward with oil, gas, and possibly iron ore tenders in 2009.

The most important resource has been natural gas, first tapped in 1967. At their peak during the 1980s, natural gas sales accounted for $300 million a year in export revenues (56% of the total). Ninety percent of these exports went to the Soviet Union to pay for imports and debts. However, during the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan's natural gas fields were capped to prevent sabotage by the mujahidin. Restoration of gas production has been hampered by internal strife and the disruption of traditional trading relationships following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The government expects to pass a hydrocarbons law, developed with donor assistance, to regulate future exploration and development of Afghanistan's oil and gas fields. With the law in place, Afghanistan hopes to begin using natural gas to produce electricity. Trade in smuggled goods into Pakistan once constituted a major source of revenue for Afghan regimes, including the Taliban, and still figures as an important element in the Afghan economy, although efforts are underway to formalize this trade and remove non-tariff barriers limiting its expansion.


In the 1960s, the United States helped build a highway connecting Afghanistan's two largest cities. It began in Kabul and wound its way through five of the country's core provinces--skirting scores of isolated and otherwise inaccessible villages; passing through the ancient market city of Ghazni; descending through Qalat; and eventually reaching Kandahar, founded by Alexander the Great. More than 35% of the country's population lives within 50 kilometers of this highway, called, appropriately, modern Afghanistan's lifeline. In 1978, the Soviet Union invaded and, after more than two decades of war, the Kabul-Kandahar highway was devastated, like much of the country's infrastructure. Little could move along the lifeline that had provided so many Afghans with their means of livelihood and their access to healthcare, education, markets, and places of worship.

Reviving the Ring Road: Restoration of the highway has been an overriding priority of President Hamid Karzai. It is crucial to extending the influence of the new government. Without the highway link, Afghanistan's civil society and economy would remain moribund and prey to divisive forces. The economic development that the highway makes possible will help guarantee the unity and long-term security of the Afghan people. The restored highway is a visually impressive achievement whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated. It marks a palpable transition from the recent past and represents an important building block for the future. An official in Herat likened the ring road to veins and arteries that nourish and bring life to the "heart" of Kabul and the body of the country. The highway will not end in Kandahar: there are plans to complete the circuit, extending it to Herat and then arcing it back through Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul. The route is sometimes referred to as the Ring Road. As of December 2006, 100% of the Ring Road had been funded, with plans for completion in 2009.

Landlocked Afghanistan has no functioning railways, but the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, which forms part of Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, has barge traffic. During their occupation of the country, the Soviets completed a bridge across the Amu Darya. The Shirkan Bandar bridge, reconstructed with U.S. assistance, reopened in 2007 and has opened vital trade routes between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Afghanistan's national airline, Ariana, operates domestic and international routes, including flights to New Delhi, Islamabad, Dubai, Moscow, Istanbul, and Tehran. Civil aviation has been expanding rapidly and several private airlines now offer an alternative to Ariana and operate a domestic and international route network. The first, Kam Air, commenced domestic operations in November 2003. Many sections of Afghanistan's highway and regional road system are undergoing significant reconstruction, many with substantial U.S. assistance. The Asian Development Bank is also active in road development projects, mainly in the border areas with Pakistan.


In 2001, Afghanistan produced 430 megawatts of electricity. Today the country produces 754 megawatts. International statistics maintained by the World Bank indicate the ratio of gross domestic product (GDP) growth to electrical production is approximately $1,000 to 300 kwh. The Afghan Government's current power plan sets a goal to deliver sufficient electricity to meet the needs of an economic growth rate of 9% per year. Additionally, the Afghan Government anticipates approximately 90% of urban businesses will have access to electrical power by the end of 2010. Finally, the plan's objective is to provide access to electricity to 65% of urban and 25% of rural households by the end of 2010.

Electricity distribution, rehabilitation, and infrastructure projects in all major urban centers are underway. Access of rural households to electricity has been increased by 7% and a renewable energy master plan has been approved. However, the lack of electrical power significantly affects the pace of development in Afghanistan. There is some potential for private funding of power-generation initiatives and business ventures. An example is the Aynak Copper Mine, where the Chinese developers are expected to build a power plant to provide energy for mining and processing needs.

Afghanistan is envisioned as the corridor for the Central Asian-South Asian (CASA) Regional Energy Market, intended to bring electric power from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan. Under CASA-1000, the first phase of the project, 1,000 megawatts will reach Peshawar in Pakistan and 300 megawatts will reach Kabul. The North East Power System (NEPS) is used to import power to Kabul from three Central Asian neighbors. Other energy projects include: efforts to rehabilitate hydropower plants at Kajaki, Naghlu, and Darunta; the transmission line from Pul-e Khumri to Kabul to be built by India; the transmission lines from Naghlu to Jalalabad/Methar Lam; and the transmission lines from Kabul to Gardez (including a substation for Gardez) to be funded by the Asian Development Bank. The required 33% increase per year in electrical connections to meet 2010 goals will likely not be realized due to a $1.2 billion gap in funding the national energy sector plan.


Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world; an estimated 200,000 Afghans have been disabled by the explosive remnants of war (ERW). Between March 2006 and March 2007 an average 62 civilians were injured each month. As of March 2007 the United Nations Mine Action Program for Afghanistan (MAPA), responsible for demining in Afghanistan, employed approximately 8,500 Afghan personnel through funding and oversight of several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) deployed throughout the country. With Afghanistan Government support, and in line with its Ottawa Convention commitments, MAPA has destroyed Afghanistan's known stockpile of landmines and strives to make Afghanistan mine-free by 2013. Since 1989, MAPA has cleared about 1.2 billion square meters of land and destroyed millions of ERW, including over 300,000 anti-personnel landmines. Training programs are also provided to educate the public about the threat and dangers of ERW. These combined efforts have reduced ERW victims by over 50% in the past six years. The United States remains the leading single donor for Afghanistan's humanitarian demining efforts.

Refugees and Internally Displaced People

Afghanistan has had the largest refugee repatriation in the world in the last 30 years. Over 5 million Afghan refugees have returned to the country since 2002. The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MORR) leads the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in assisting its citizens in returning from exile. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) leads the international community's response, in coordination with the International Organization of Migration (IOM), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Program (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and a number of other national and international NGOs and donors. As of November 2008, approximately 3 million Afghans remained in neighboring countries. The U.S. provided more than $500 million in support to Afghan refugees, returnees, and other conflict victims between September 2001 and November 2008.


In response to a strategy outlined by the Ministry of Health, the international community is supporting the government in rebuilding the primary health-care system. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the health sector has seen significant progress in development, with reductions in morbidity (disease) and mortality (death). In 2001, 8% of the Afghan population had access to basic health care; today, 79% have access to basic health services. In 2001, Afghanistan was ranked the world's worst in infant mortality; in 2007 Afghanistan's infant mortality rates were falling due to the efforts of the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) and its international partners. Since 2006, Afghanistan has reduced child mortality (five years and under) by 25%, saving 89,000 children in 2007. In 2006, 23,000 Afghans died from tuberculosis. In 2007, due to improved access to basic health care, only 12,000 Afghans died from this disease.

Immunization coverage has reached 83% of children under one year of age and additional progress has been made in updating routine immunizations for older children, adolescents, and adults. Finally, recent data showed that 70% of health facilities have at least one female provider on staff, compared to 45% during the Taliban era.

The MoPH developed the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS), a program which includes maternal and newborn health, child health and immunization, public nutrition, communicable diseases, mental health, disability, and supply of essential drugs. The program has recently increased its coverage of the population from 77% to 82%.

There has been a marked increase in health infrastructure; the number of health facilities providing the BPHS has increased to 897 (from 746), the number of health facilities providing comprehensive emergency obstetric care has also increased to 89 (from 79), and the number of health facilities within the government's program of Integrated Management of Childhood Illnesses stands at 309 facilities located in eight provinces and 39 districts. Thirteen therapeutic feeding units have been established, and two additional midwifery schools were opened. Twelve mobile health facilities were established to provide basic health services to the nomadic Kuchi population. The number of health facilities providing direct observed treatment short courses (in the treatment of tuberculosis) increased to 55% (from 45%).

Approximately 40,000 insecticide bed nets were distributed to control the spread of malaria. Provincial teams in eight provinces were established to track the prevalence of avian flu. In total, 670 health facilities have been renovated or constructed.


Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan pursued a policy of neutrality and nonalignment in its foreign relations. After the December 1979 invasion, Afghanistan's foreign policy mirrored that of the Soviet Union. Most Western countries, including the United States, maintained small diplomatic missions in Kabul during the Soviet occupation. Repeated Taliban efforts to occupy Afghanistan's seat at the UN and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) were unsuccessful.

The fall of the Taliban in October 2001 opened a new chapter in Afghanistan's foreign relations. Afghanistan is now an active member of the international community, and has diplomatic relations with countries from around the world. In December 2002, the six nations that border Afghanistan signed a 'Good Neighbor' Declaration, in which they pledged to respect Afghanistan's independence and territorial integrity. In 2005 Afghanistan and its South Asia neighbors held the first annual Regional Economic Cooperation Conference (RECC) promoting intra-regional relations and economic cooperation.


The 1978 Marxist coup strained relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan took the lead diplomatically in the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in opposing the Soviet occupation. During the war against the Soviet occupation, Pakistan served as the primary logistical conduit for the Afghan resistance. Pakistan initially developed close ties to the Taliban regime, and extended recognition in 1997. Pakistan dramatically altered its policy in support of coalition efforts to remove the Taliban after September 11, 2001. Afghanistan and Pakistan are engaged in dialogue to resolve bilateral friction. Pakistan is also seeking to repatriate its Afghan refugee population, which is concentrated mostly in the Northwestern Frontier Province.


Afghanistan's relations with Iran have fluctuated over the years, with periodic disputes over the water rights of the Helmand River as the main issue of contention. Following the Soviet invasion, which Iran opposed, relations deteriorated. Iran supported the cause of the Afghan resistance and provided financial and military assistance to rebel leaders who pledged loyalty to the Iranian vision of Islamic revolution. Following the emergence of the Taliban and their harsh treatment of Afghanistan's Shi'a minority, Iran stepped up assistance to the Northern Alliance. Relations with the Taliban deteriorated further in 1998 after Taliban forces seized the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and executed Iranian diplomats. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan's relations with Iran have improved, but they suffered a setback in spring 2007 with the deportation of 200,000 undocumented Afghans from Iran. Iran has been active in Afghan reconstruction efforts, particularly in the western portion of the country.


During the reign of the Taliban, Russia became increasingly disenchanted over the Taliban's support for Chechen rebels and its provision of sanctuary to terrorist groups active in Central Asia and in Russia itself. Moscow provided military assistance to the Northern Alliance. Since the fall of the Taliban, the Karzai government has improved relations with Russia.


Afghanistan's relations with Tajikistan have been complicated by political upheaval and civil war in Tajikistan, which spurred some 100,000 Tajiks to seek refuge in Afghanistan in late 1992 and early 1993. Also disenchanted by the Taliban's harsh treatment of Afghanistan's Tajik minority, Tajikistan facilitated assistance to the Northern Alliance. The Karzai government has sought to establish closer ties with its northern neighbor in order to capitalize on the potential economic benefits of increased trade. The 2007 opening of a U.S.-funded bridge across the Amu Darya river has facilitated bilateral trade flows between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

UN Efforts

The UN has played an important role in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, assisting in the repatriation of Afghan refugees and providing humanitarian aid. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), launched in October 2001, was instrumental in helping restore peace and stability in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, organizing the Afghan presidential elections held in October 2004 and National Assembly elections held in 2005.

The UN Security Council has now given UNAMA a leading role in international efforts to stabilize and help develop Afghanistan. UN Security Council Resolution 1806 adopted in March 2008 added a number of crucial tasks to the UN mission's overall function to promote peace and stability. A new Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Mr. Kai Eide of Norway, was appointed. Since the June 2008 Paris International Conference in Support of Afghanistan, the UN mission is leading international efforts to help the Government of Afghanistan implement the Afghan National Development Strategy. UNAMA website:


The first extensive American contact with Afghanistan was made by Josiah Harlan, an adventurer from Pennsylvania who was an adviser in Afghan politics in the 1830s and reputedly inspired Rudyard Kipling's story "The Man Who Would be King." After the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1934, the U.S. policy of helping developing nations raise their standard of living was an important factor in maintaining and improving U.S.-Afghan ties. From 1950 to 1979, U.S. foreign assistance provided Afghanistan with more than $500 million in loans, grants, and surplus agricultural commodities to develop transportation facilities, increase agricultural production, expand the educational system, stimulate industry, and improve government administration.

In the 1950s, the U.S. declined Afghanistan's request for defense cooperation but extended an economic assistance program focused on the development of Afghanistan's physical infrastructure--roads, dams, and power plants. Later, U.S. aid shifted from infrastructure projects to technical assistance programs to help develop the skills needed to build a modern economy. The Peace Corps was active in Afghanistan between 1962 and 1979.

After the April 1978 coup, relations deteriorated. In February 1979, U.S. Ambassador Adolph "Spike" Dubs was murdered in Kabul after Afghan security forces burst in on his kidnapers. The U.S. then reduced bilateral assistance and terminated a small military training program. All remaining assistance agreements were ended after the December 1979 Soviet invasion.

Following the Soviet invasion, the United States supported diplomatic efforts to achieve a Soviet withdrawal. U.S. contributions to the refugee program in Pakistan played a major part in efforts to assist Afghans in need. This cross-border humanitarian assistance program aimed to increase Afghan self-sufficiency and help Afghans resist Soviet attempts to drive civilians out of the rebel-dominated countryside. During the period of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. provided about $3 billion in military and economic assistance to Afghans and the resistance movement.

After the fall of the Taliban, the U.S. supported the emergence of a broad-based government, representative of all Afghans, and actively encouraged a UN role in the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan. The U.S. has made a long-term commitment to help Afghanistan rebuild itself after years of war. The U.S. and others in the international community currently provide resources and expertise to Afghanistan in a variety of areas, including humanitarian relief and assistance, capacity-building, security needs, counter-narcotic programs, and infrastructure projects. The U.S. also supports the Afghan Government in its efforts to establish a framework for a vibrant civil society, one that emphasizes democratic principles through a rule of law and creates accountable and transparent forms of government. The United States and its international partners remain committed to helping Afghans realize their vision for a country that is stable, democratic, and economically successful, and to an Afghan Government committed to the protection of women's rights, human rights, and religious tolerance.


Broom sellers wait for customers in Herat, Afghanistan, June 30, 2007. [© AP Images]