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(Download “Afghanistan Overview” as a PDF)

The Basics

  • Country name: Afghanistan (Afghanestan).
    • Convention long form: Islamic State of Afghanistan (Dowlat-e Eslami-ye Afghanestan).
    • Taliban refers to it as: Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
  • Nationality: Afghan(s) as a noun and Afghan for adjective.


  • Location: Southwest Asia, northwest of the Indian subcontinent.
  • Borders: Pakistan to the south and east; Iran to the west; Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan to the north; and China at the northeast tip.
  • Area: 647,500 sq km and 250,000 square miles.
  • Climate: Dry arid to semiarid with extreme temperatures that vary from the cold of the mountain highlands to extreme heat of the vast desert areas.
  • Topography: Mountainous region with large plains to the north and southwest. In the large desert regions, the mountain rivers produce intermittent fertile valleys.
  • Capital and population: Kabul-2,590,000.30 Provinces (velayat, singular-velayat): Badakhshan, Badghis, Baghlan, Balkh, Bamian, Farah, Faryab, Ghazni, Ghowr, Helmand, Herat, Jowzjan, Kabol, Kandahar, Kapisa, Konar, Kondoz, Laghman, Lowgar, Nangarhar, Nimruz, Oruzgan, Paktia, Paktika, Parvan, Samangan, Sar-e Pol, Takhar, Vardak, Zabol; note-there may be two new provinces of Nurestan (Nuristan) and Khowst.


  • Total population: 28,396,000 (July 2009 est.).
  • Population density: 104 per square mile.
  • Median Age: 17.6.
  • Children 0-14: 44.5% (male 7,664,670/female 7,300,446)
  • 15-64 years: 53% (male 9,147,846/female 8,679,800)
  • Seniors Over 65: 2.4% (male 394,572/female 422,603)
  • Male to female ratio: 105 male(s) per 100 females.
  • Birth rate: 45.46 births/1,000 population
  • Life expectancy at birth: 44.47 years for males and 44.81 years for females (2009 est.).
  • Infant mortality rate: 151.95 deaths/1,000 live births (2009 est.).
  • Official languages: 35% Pashtu, 50% Afghan Persian (Dari or Farsi), 11% Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen), and 4% are speak a variety of about 30 minor languages (primarily Balochi and Pashai). Many are bilingual.
  • Ethnic groups: 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 13% are comprised by similar minorities including the Aimaks, Turkmen, Baloch, and others, and 9% Uzbek.
  • Religious affiliations: Sunni Muslim 80%, Shi’ite Muslim 19%, other 1%.
  • Christian denominations: N/A.
  • Education: Compulsory from 7-13.
  • Literacy rate: 28.1% among the total population, which breaks down as 43.1% for males and 12.6% for females. (2000 est.)


  • Currency: Afghani (AFA)
  • GDP per capita: Purchasing power parity$: 700 (2008 est.).
  • National GDP: Purchasing power parity: $22.27 billion (2009 est.).
  • Major Industries: Small-scale production of textiles, soap, furniture, shoes, fertilizer, and cement; hand-woven carpets; natural gas, oil, coal, copper.
  • Chief crops: Opium poppies, wheat, fruits, nuts; wool, mutton, karakul pelts.
  • Natural resources: Natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semiprecious stones.
  • Electricity production: 839 million kWh (2007 est. ).
  • TV Sets (illegal under Taliban rule): 100,000 (1999).
  • Radios: 167,000 (1999).
  • Telephones: 29,000 (1998) In 1998, there were 21,000 main lines in service in Kabul.
  • Daily newspaper circulation: 11 per 1,000 people.
  • Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 1 (2000).


  • Government type: Islamic Republic
  • Head of state and government: Hamid Karzai has been the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan since December 7, 2004. He is both the chief of state and the head of government.
  • Cabinet: Consists of 25 ministers appointed by the president and approved by the National Assembly.
  • Elections: President and to vice presidents are elected for a five-year term, and are eligible for a second term. The last election was held on November 7, 2009.
  • The National Assembly includes a House of Elders, or Meshrano Jirga (102 seats, one-third elected from provincial councils for four-year terms, one-third elected from local district councils for three-year terms, and one-third nominated by the president for five-year terms) and a House of People, or Wolesi Jirga, consisting of now more than 249 seats.
  • In addition, there is a nine-member Stera Mahkama or Supreme Court and subordinate High Scouts and Appeals Courts.
  • Legal system: A uniform system is not in place at this time, however, all factions loosely agree to follow Shari’a (Islamic Law).
  • International organization memberships: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank); International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); International Criminal Court (ICCt); United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and others.

Historical Background

Afghanistan’s history is long and peppered with turmoil. By examining it, one begins to understand the conflicts of modern Afghanistan and the diversity of the organizations that lay claim to this part of the world. Around 2000 BC, the area was populated by peoples from Central Asia and was called Aryana, the Land of the Aryans. By the 6th century BC, the Persian Empire controlled the region, until Alexander the Great took control around 330 BC. After Alexander the Great, the region became divided into kingdoms. In the 1st century AD, the Kushans, a central Asian people, won control of the area, and Buddhism became the dominant religion from the 3rd century until the 8th century AD. In the 7th century AD, Arab armies brought Islam to the area and by 998 AD, Islam was the established religion under the Ghaznavid king, Muhmud. As the Ghaznavid state grew weaker, the Ghurid kingdom rose to power in the central west. The early 13th century brought another central Asian dynasty, the Khwarizm Shahs, to power, which in turn was devastated by the Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan, around 1220 AD. Then in the 14th century, the Asian military leader, known to the West as Tamerlane, conquered Afghanistan and pressed on into India. Under Tamerlane’s descendents, the Timurids, the empire became fragmented until October of 1504, when the Mughal Empire was established. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Afghanistan was torn between the Mughal Empire, centered in India, and the Safavid dynasty, in Persia. The Mughals generally controlled Kabul and the Persians hailed from Herat. The Mughals and Persians fought for Kandahar and control of if vacillated between them. During this time, the Pashtun people gained momentum but were not to gain power.

After the assassination of the Persian king, Nadir Shah, in the 18th century, the Pashtun, Ahmad Shah, rose to power with the support of an assembly of tribal chiefs. His rule stretched from Kashmir and Delhi in the east, to Amu Darya in the north, and to Persia in the west. By the 19th century, however, the Afghan borders shrank to roughly the land area of modern Afghanistan. During this time, the British and the Russians began to compete for control of the area, and this resulted in the First Anglo-Afghan War from 1838-1842 and the Second Anglo-Afghan War from 1878-1880. By the century’s end, the Brits had gained control of Afghanistan’s foreign relations. Afghanistan became a buffer between the Russian and British Empires. In the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, the Afghans achieved complete independence.

From 1880 until 1929, the line of Abd-ar-Rahman Khan led the Afghan people in educational reforms, modernization, and independence. In 1926, King Amanullah began to force reforms, encouraging women to give up wearing the burka and men to wear Western clothing. This sparked internal revolts that forced Amanullah to flee the country. Four brothers, who were relatives of Amanullah, restored order. One of these became King, and his son Muhammad Zahir Shah established his family as heir to the throne. In 1946, Afghanistan joined the United Nations.

In 1953, Muhammad Daud, nephew of Nadir Shah, became prime minister and began a program of rapid modernization with economic and military aid from the USSR. These actions began to alienate Afghanistan from its neighbor Pakistan. 10 years later, Zahir Shah removed Daud from office, hoping to improve relations with Pakistan and limit Soviet influence. In 1964, Afghanistan restructured their government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. The 1970s brought a severe drought, economic hardship, and the end of the regime. Daud exiled the king in 1973 and declared himself president. By April of 1978, Daud was overthrown by Noor Muhammad Taraki, a leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Taraki announced a revolutionary campaign including land reform, emancipation of women, and education literacy. Later in that same year, Islamic traditionalists objected, led an armed revolt, and killed Taraki.

On December 25, 1979, Soviet forces invaded and installed Babrak Karmal as president. Karmal promised to combine social and economic reform with respect for Islam, but rebellion intensified against the Soviet dependent government. Millions fled to Pakistan and Iran. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China sustained anti-Soviet rebels with weapons and money. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. supported the rebels with hundreds of millions of dollars each year and Stinger missiles for shooting down Soviet helicopters. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev resolved to remove Soviet troops from the devastating and hopeless war. In 1988, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR, and the United States signed an agreement to end foreign intervention and Soviet occupation.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, Afghanistan continued to face the horrors of civil war. Rebels, who had not signed the peace treaty, refused to participate with a central government that included Communists. The rebels were still supported by the United States and Pakistan, while Najibullah’s government continued to receive support from the Soviets. In 1991, the U.S.S.R. and U.S. signed an agreement to end military aid to those in Afghanistan. In 1992, Najibullah’s government fell to Peshawar groups. Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, became president and the government sought to keep Pashtun leaders from important government positions. Various factions and eventually the Pashtun-dominated Taliban besieged Kabul. Identifying themselves as religious students, the Taliban emerged in 1994 as a strong guerrilla faction. The Taliban stated their purpose to disarm the warring factions and to impose strict Islamic law. Though Rabbani’s government ceased to exist in 1994, he still held office until the Taliban took Kabul in September of 1996. Rabbani and his prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fled north to join the alliance against the Taliban. In 1997, the alliance became known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, known to the West as the Northern Alliance, and appointed Dostum as chief military commander. By the year 2000, only Pakistan and Iraq recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban, though it controlled most of Afghanistan territory.

Afghanistan was thrust on to the world stage after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Since 1996, the Taliban has provided a safe harbor for the primary suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden, and his Al Quaeda network of terrorist cells. The U.S. interpreted these attacks as an act of war and then issued an ultimatum to the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused and portrays the United States as Islam’s enemy, threatening Holy War. Beginning September 30, 2001, the U.S. and its allies began military attacks on Taliban strongholds and Al Quaeda installations in Afghanistan.

In November of 2001, Opposition forces seized Taliban leader Mazar-e Sharif and marched on Kabul and other key Taliban cities. By December, the Taliban had fallen, and by January of 2002 the the first group of foreign peacekeepers were in place.

In June of 2002, the grand council elected Hamid Karzai as its interim head of state, and in October and November of 2004 Karzai is declared the winner of presidential elections, receiving three times more votes than any other candidate. However, accusations of fraud surfaced and all opposing candidates declared their intentions to boycott the ballot. After the United Nations set up a panel to investigate these accusations, the boycott was dissolved and Karzai remained the winner. He was sworn in amidst tight security in December of 2004.

In September of 2005, parliamentary and provincial elections were held; the first in more than 30 years.

The years following these elections were marked with ongoing battles between Taliban fighters and coalition forces, and in 2006 Nato troops took over leadership of the military in Southern Afghanistan, and in October of that year Nato took command of security forces across Afghanistan.

Elections were held again in August of 2009 amid widespread Taliban attacks, again with allegations of fraud. A second round of elections was scheduled to be held on November 7th, pitting Karzai against rival Abdullah Abdullah. Yet fearing more corruption, Abdullah withdrew from the elections on November 1st, 2009. Heavy fighting between US and coalition troops and Taliban fighters remains high, and casualties remain high.

Trends and Social Issues

Understanding the trends and social issues of a particular country should always take into consideration the opinions of persons within the country. The Center for Youth Studies is looking for contributors from each country to add to our appreciation and understanding of the Afghan culture, potential, trends, and critical issues. From our perspective, here are some of the issues facing the Afghan public.

Afghanistan has a long history of violence, distrust, and political corruption. The war on drugs (Afghanistan is currently the worlds largest producer of Opium), continued battles with the Taliban as well as Pakistan remain just a few of the issues Afghanistan faces. If history shows us anything it’s that the book on Afghanistan is far from finished, and there is still much work to be done to ensure the safety and freedom of all Afghani citizens.

What is next for Afghanistan? Ethnic and religious alliances have defined themselves in opposition to others. Many years of bloodshed and civil war have deepened the wounds of betrayal, hate, and fear. As mentioned above, a variety of leaders have some interest in the future of Afghanistan. Can the West have a positive influence in the development of a new Afghanistan? If so, how much can the West force the country to adopt democratic ideals and policies? Should the West force the Afghan people to adopt policies of religious freedom or equality for women?


Turner, B. (2000). The World Today, 2000: Essential Facts in an Ever Changing World. New York, NY: St. Marten’s Press.

McGeveran, Jr., W. (Ed.). (2001). The World Almanac and Book of Facts. Mahwah, NJ: World Almanac Books.

(2009, May 6). Afghanistan and the War on Terror: A Historical Timeline of Afghanistan. PBS.

(2001, January 19). A Tale of Betrayal and Revenge. British Broadcasting, BBC.

(2001, September 24). Fighting Escalates Between Taliban Troops and Afghan Opposition. Fox News Channel, Associated Press.

(2009, November 2). Karzai declared elected president of Afghanistan. CNN.

Afghanistan. Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001. ©1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Timeline: Afghanistan

US Census Bureau, International Database

US Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook

(2001, October 16). Washington Says UN Should Direct Afghan Rebuilding. Boston Globe, (260)108.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Afghanistan has been involved in war for the past 3 decades. Boys are recruited to fight at an early age. What are the implications for the youth in Afghanistan?
  2. What is the outlook for Afghanistan’s female population? Is there anything the United Nations can do to help Afghan women? Develop a United Nations program that would help these women. As you do, be sure to think through the range of religious sensibilities and morality in the area.
  3. The country seems to be torn between secularism, Islam, and militant Islam. How could a young person returning home after studying abroad help reconcile these issues?
  4. Describe some possible future scenarios for Afghanistan. What role does your country have in helping this country to establish itself?
  5. The Taliban uses the Koran and Islam to support its brutally imposed law and the protection of Osama Bin Laden. Others leaders of Islam have denounced the terrorist actions as anti-Islam. What do you know about Islam? How do you know whom to believe?
Tammy Smith, Chris Lloyd
© 2018 CYS

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