Afghanistan -- Background Information

A complete summary of facts about the country of Afghanistan and its' history.
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Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

National name: Dowlat-e Eslami-ye Afghanestan

Head of State: Mullah Mohammed Omar (1996)

Area: 251,737 sq mi (652,000 sq km)

Population (2001 est.): 26,813,057 (average annual rate of natural increase: 2.4%); birth rate: 41.4/1000; infant mortality rate: 147.0/1000; density per sq mi: 107

Capital (2000 est.): Kabul, 2,450,000

Largest cities (2000 est.): Mazare Sharif, 2,500,000; Kandahar, 225,500; Herat, 177,300

Monetary unit: Afghani

Languages: Pushtu, Dari Persian, other Turkic and minor languages

Ethnicity/race: Pashtun 38%, Tajik 25%, Uzbek 6%, Hazara 19%, minor ethnic groups (Chahar Aimaks, Turkmen, Baloch, and others)

Religion: Islam (Sunni 84%, Shi'ite 15%, other 1%)

Literacy rate: 29% (1990)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (1999 est.): $21 billion; per capita $800. Real growth rate: n.a. Inflation: n.a. Unemployment: 8% (1995 est.). Arable land: 12%. Agriculture: opium poppies, wheat, fruits, nuts, karakul pelts; wool, mutton. Labor force: 8 million (1997 est.); agriculture, 68%; industry, 16%; services, 16% (1980 est.). Natural resources: natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semi-precious stones. Industries: small-scale production of textiles, soap, furniture, shoes, fertilizer, and cement; handwoven carpets; natural gas, oil, coal, copper. Exports: $80 million (does not include opium) (1996 est.): opium, fruits and nuts, handwoven carpets, wool, cotton, hides and pelts, precious and semi-precious gems. Imports: $150 million (1996 est.): capital goods, food and petroleum products; most consumer goods. Major trading partners: Former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran, Germany, India, UK, Belgium, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Iran, Japan, Singapore, South Korea.

Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 31,200 (1983); note – there were 21,000 main lines in use in Kabul in 1998; mobile cellular: n.a. Radio broadcast stations: AM 7 (6 are inactive; the active station is in Kabul), FM 1, shortwave 1 (broadcasts in Pushtu, Dari, Urdu, and English) (1999). Radios: 167,000 (1999). Television broadcast stations: at least 10 (one government run central television station in Kabul and regional stations in nine of the 30 provinces; the regional stations operate on a reduced schedule; also, in 1997, there was a station in Mazar-e Sharif reaching four northern Afghanistan provinces) (1998). Televisions: 100,000 (1999). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): n.a.

Transportation: Railways: total: 24.6 km. Highways: total: 21,000 km; paved: 2,793 km; unpaved: 18,207 km (1998 est.). Waterways: 1,200 km; chiefly Amu Darya, which handles vessels up to about 500 DWT. Ports and harbors: Kheyrabad, Shir Khan. Airports: 46 (1999 est.).

International disputes: Support to Islamic militants worldwide by some factions; question over which group should hold Afghanistan's seat at the UN.


Afghanistan, approximately the size of Texas, is bordered on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, on the extreme northeast by China, on the east and south by Pakistan, and by Iran on the west. The country is split east to west by the Hindu Kush mountain range, rising in the east to heights of 24,000 ft (7,315 m). With the exception of the southwest, most of the country is covered by high snow-capped mountains and is traversed by deep valleys.


On Sept. 27, 1996, the ruling members of the Afghan government were displaced by members of the Islamic Taliban movement, who have declared themselves the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The UN has deferred a decision on the question of legitimacy. Mullah Mohammed Omar, known as the Emir al-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful), has served as the de facto leader since the Taliban came to power in 1996.


Darius I and Alexander the Great were the first to use Afghanistan as the gateway to India. Islamic conquerors arrived in the 7th century, and Genghis Khan and Tamerlane followed in the 13th and 14th centuries.

In the 19th century, Afghanistan became a battleground in the rivalry of imperial Britain and czarist Russia for control of Central Asia. Three Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839 – 42, 1878 – 80, and 1919) ended inconclusively. In 1893 Britain established an unofficial border, the Durand Line, separating Afghanistan from British India, and London granted full independence in 1919. Emir Amanullah founded an Afghan monarchy in 1926.

During the cold war, King Mohammed Zahir Shah developed close ties with the Soviet Union, accepting extensive economic assistance from Moscow. He was overthrown in 1973 by his cousin Mohammed Daoud, who was himself ousted in a 1978 coup by Noor Taraki. Taraki and his successor, Babrak Karmal, attempted to create a Marxist state. However, the new leadership was criticized by armed insurgents who bitterly opposed communism and hoped to create an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Fearing his government was on the verge of collapse, Karmal called for Soviet troops. Moscow responded with a full-scale invasion of the country in Dec. 1979.

The Soviets were met with fierce resistance from groups already energized by opposition to the Karmal government. The guerrilla forces, calling themselves mujahedeen, pledged a jihad, or holy war, to expel the invaders. Initially armed with outdated weapons, the mujahedeen became a focus of U.S. cold war strategy against the Soviet Union, and with Pakistan's help, Washington began funneling sophisticated arms to the resistance. Moscow's troops were soon bogged down in a no-win conflict with determined Afghan fighters. In April 1988 the USSR, U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan signed accords calling for an end to outside aid to the warring factions. In return, a Soviet withdrawal took place in Feb. 1989, but the pro-Soviet government of President Najibullah was left in the capital, Kabul.

By mid-April 1992 Najibullah was ousted as Islamic rebels advanced on the capital. Almost immediately, the various rebel groups began fighting one another for control. Amid the chaos of competing factions, a group calling itself the Taliban – consisting of Islamic students – seized control of Kabul in Sept. 1996. It imposed harsh fundamentalist laws, including stoning for adultery and severing hands for theft. Women were prohibited from work and school, and they were required to cover themselves in public from head to toe. By fall 1998 the Taliban controlled about 90% of the country.

On Aug. 20, 1998, U.S. cruise missiles struck a terrorism training complex in Afghanistan believed to have been financed by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Islamic radical sheltered by the Taliban. The U.S. asked for the deportation of bin Laden, whom they believed was involved in the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998.

In 1999, the Taliban concentrated on defeating the forces of Ahmed Shah Masood, their last significant hurdle in gaining complete control of Afghanistan. The Taliban's scorched-earth tactics and human rights abuses have further isolated them from the international community. Only three governments – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. The country remains in dire poverty, with some 500,000 living in refugee camps.

In July 2000 Mullah Omar banned opium cultivation; Afghanistan had once been the world's largest supplier of the drug.

In March 2001, despite worldwide protests, the Taliban destroyed several enormous Buddhist statues, dating from the second and fifth centuries A.D. The Taliban said they were destroying "graven images," which were being worshiped in violation of Islam. In Sept. 2001, legendary guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Masood was killed by Taliban suicide bombers, a seeming death knell for the anti-Taliban forces.

U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell named Osama bin Laden as the primary suspect in Sept. 2001's catastrophic bombing of New York's World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar denied bin Laden's involvement, saying that the Islamic radical did not have the communication resources to mastermind such an intricate plot.


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