Afghanistan: Overview

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Central Asian country that has been a republic since 1973.

As of July 2003, Afghanistan had an estimated population of 28.7 million, although no census had been conducted in the country since 1979. In addition, between 1.2 and 1.8 million Afghan refugees lived in Iran, 2 million in Pakistan, and 100,000 elsewhere. After the fall of the Taliban government in the wake of the U.S. invasion in late 2001, an Afghan Interim Authority was established to administer the country. This was reconfigured as the Transitional Authority in June 2002, and it is supposed to remain in place until elections for a representative government are held by June 2004.

Afghanistan has been troubled by political conflict since April 1978, when the Afghan Communist Party came to power in a violent coup. The new government was divided into two factions, and their competition for influence and power led to a splintering of the army and a breakdown of internal security in various parts of the country. The situation prompted the Soviet Union to send troops into Afghanistan in late in December 1979, in order to support the more moderate faction of the Afghan Communist Party. The Soviet intervention, in turn, sparked a revolt that was led by religious and tribal leaders opposed to the policies that Kabul was trying to implement. These leaders and their militias became known as Mujahedin, and they engaged in guerrilla warfare against Soviet troops until the latter withdrew from the country in early 1989. Following the Soviet withdrawal, the Mujahedin fought against the communist regime in Kabul until it fell (April 1992), then fought among themselves for control of the capital and government. As the country became engulfed by civil war, a new movement, the Taliban, arose with the aim of restoring order in accordance with its particular interpretation of Islam. Between 1994 and 1996, the Taliban consolidated its control over 85 percent of the country, the area to the northwest of Kabul being the main region it could not subdue.


Afghanistan is landlocked, comprising some 251,773 square miles (647,500 sq km). It shares borders with Iran, Pakistan, the Xinjiang province of China, and the newly independent successor Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Kabul remains Afghanistan's capital and its largest city, with more than 1.5 million, including internal refugees. Cities of 50,000 to 200,000 people include Qandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Kunduz.

The Hindu Kush Mountains (rising to 24,000 feet [7,315 m]) stretch diagonally from the northeast, through the center, to the Herat region in the west, dominating the country's topography, ecology, and economy. Deep narrow valleys, many of them impenetrable, cover much of the central, northeastern, eastern, and south-central areas, surrounded by the fertile Turkistan plain and foothills in the north and northwest, the Herat-Farah lowlands, the Sistan basin and Helmand valley in the west, and the deserts of the southwest. Four major river systems drain the Hindu Kushthe Amu Darya (Oxus) drains the northern slopes and marks much of the former Afghan-Soviet border; the Hari Rud drains the northwest; the Helmand-Arghandab, the southwest; and the Kabul, the east. Communications and road systems between these valleys are poor, although a few difficult passes connect them with Central Asia and the subcontinent of India. Temperatures and the amount and form of precipitation are directly dependent on altitude. Summers are very hot and dry, the temperatures reaching 120° F (49° C) in the desert south and southwest. Winters are bitterly cold, the temperatures falling to -15° F (-26° C), with heavy snow cover in the mountains. Precipitation is low, two to six inches (50150 mm) in the south and southwest, and twelve to fourteen inches (300350 mm) in the north.


Afghanistan has thirty provinces (wilayat), divided into districts (woluswali) and subdistricts (alaqadari). According to government figures, the per-capita income in 1986/87 was US$160. Although rich in natural resources, mineral extractions benefit investors or remain undeveloped. For example, in 1985/86, of the annual production of natural gas (estimated reserves of over 100,000 million cubic meters), 97 percent was exported to the Soviet Union at a rate of 2.6 billion cubic meters a year. Deposits of petroleum, coal, copper, high-grade iron ore, talc,
barite, sulphur, lead, zinc, salt, lapis lazuli, and other semiprecious and precious gemstones exist; some are extracted.

Before 1978, 85 percent of the population lived in 22,000 villages; they farmed or were Nomads. Their major subsistence crops are wheat, maize, barley, and rice; major cash crops are cotton, sugar beet, oilseeds, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Sheep (including Karakul/Persian lamb), goats, and cattle are the main sources of milk, meat, wool, hides, and pelts, while camels, horses, and donkeys serve as means of transportation in the difficult terrain. Livestock become the vital buffer during poor harvests. Since 1978, the civil war has seriously damaged more than half the villages and much of the agriculture infrastructure. Reports show that 1987 wheat production was reduced by 50 percent, sheep and goats to 30 percent, and cattle to 52 percent of 1978 levels.

Industries include rugs, carpets, and textiles, chemical fertilizers, sugar, plastics, leather goods, soap, cement, natural gas, oil, coal, and hydroelectric power. Government figures for 1986/87 show industrial production accounted for 23.87 percent of gross domestic product. Exports, primarily to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, India, and Pakistan, included natural gas, cotton, livestock products, rugs, medicinal herbs, fruits, and nuts, with reported earnings in 1988 of US$512 million. Imports of wheat, foods, textiles, vehicles, machinery, and petroleum products, at a cost of US$996 million in 1988, came mostly from the Soviet Union and Japan.

Language and Ethnic Groups

Two major ethnolinguistic communities, Indo-Iranian and Turko-Mongol, live in Afghanistan. The Indo-Iranians include the dominant Pushtu-speaking Pushtun (usually estimated at 45%); the Afghan-Persian or Dari-speaking Tajik (2530%); and minority Nuristani, Gujar, Baluch, Wakhi, Sheghni, and Zebaki. The Hazara, who have a Mongol appearance, speak Hazaragi, a Persian dialect, and are estimated at 12 to 15 percent of the population. The Turkic speakers include the Uzbeks (about 10%), Turkmen, Kazakh, and Kirghiz. Persian (most widely spoken) and Pushtu are the official government languages. Islam is the religion of more than 99 percent of Afghansabout 80 percent are Hanafi Sunni and about 20 percent Shiʿite (mostly Imami and some Ismaʿili). Also present are very small numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Christians.


Primary education, grades one through eight, is compulsory for ages seven to fifteen. Secondary school continues for an additional four years (voluntary). Most schools in rural areas were destroyed during the early years of the civil war. International aid agencies since 2002 have been trying to reestablish schools throughout the country. Some poorly equipped and poorly run schools for Afghan refugee children in host countries also exist. Between 1979 and 2001, the execution, imprisonment, and departure of many teachers badly disrupted institutions of higher education. In 1987, an estimated fifteen thousand Afghans received training and education in the Soviet Union, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1990 led to a sharp decline in the number of Afghan students studying in what became Soviet successor states. In 1988, the Kabul government claimed eight vocational colleges, fifteen technical colleges, and five universities in operation. Losses of previously trained manpower, along with the damage to educational, health-care, and cultural facilities and the lack of training opportunities for the new generation of Afghans during the 1980s and 1990s left a challenging legacy for post-2001 reconstruction efforts.


The Afghan political leaders who met in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, agreed to the creation of an Afghan Interim Authority to manage the country's day-to-day affairs. A special assembly, the Loya Jirga, subsequently met in Kabul in June 2002, and created a government, the Transitional Authority, headed by a president and a cabinet of ministers. The Transitional Authority organized a Loya Jirga for December 2003, and it was charged with drafting and approving a new constitution.


The emergence of Afghanistan in 1747 as a separate political entity is credited to Ahmad Shah Durrani,
who made the city of Qandahar his capital and created a great empire stretching from Khurasan to Kashmir and Punjab; and from the Oxus River (Amu Darya) to the Indian Ocean. His son Timur Shah (17731793) shifted the capital to Kabul and held his patrimony together. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Durrani empire had declined because of fraternal feuds over royal succession. Between 1800 and 1880, Afghanistan became a battleground during the rivalry between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. Afghanistan emerged as a buffer state, with its present boundaries demarcated entirely by Britain and Russiaand with Britain in control of Afghanistan's foreign affairs. The Afghan wars fought against the British by Dost Mohammad Barakzai, his son, and his grandson (18381842; 18781880) had ended in defeat.

With British military and financial help, a member of the Barakzai Pushtun clanAmir Abd alRahman, the so-called Iron Amirconsolidated direct central government rule by brutally suppressing tribal and rural leaders to lay the foundation of a modern state (18801901). His son, Habibollah Khan, who ruled from 1901 to 1919, relaxed some of the harsher measures of the previous rule and in 1903 established the first modern school, Habibia. Later, the first significant newspaper, Siraj al-Akhbar, was published in Kabul (19111918). When Habibullah was assassinated, his son Amanollah took the title of king (19191929) and declared Afghanistan's independence from Britain, which was granted after a brief war in 1919. King Amanullah, impressed by the secular sociopolitical experiments of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the new Republic of Turkey, launched a series of secular, liberal constitutional reforms and modernization programs, which led to a rebellionjustified as jihad (religious war) against his ruleforcing his abdication. After nine months of rule by a non-Pashtun
(Amir Habibullah II), a member of the Musahiban family of the Barakzai clan, Muhammad Nadir (r. 19291933), reclaimed the monarchy. Following Nadir's assassination, his son of nineteen, Mohammad Zahir (r. 19331973), became king.

From 1933 to 1963, Zahir reigned while two of his uncles and a cousin ruled as prime ministers. Concerned primarily with preserving their family's position, the Musahiban adopted a cautious approach toward modernization, with highly autocratic domestic and xenophobic foreign policies until about 1935. During Sardar (Prince) Muhammad Daud's term as prime minister (19531963), with substantial military and economic aid, initially from the Soviet Union and later from the West, a series of five-year modernization plans was begun, focusing on the expansion of educational and communications systems. In 1963, Daud resigned because of disagreements over his hostile policies toward Pakistan and his favoring of greater dependence on the Soviet Union. King Zahir then appointed Dr. Muhammad Yusuf, a commoner, as prime minister.

King Zahir's last decade (19631973) was a period of experimentation in democracy that failedmostly due to his reluctance to sign legislation legalizing political parties and his unwillingness to curb interference in democratic processes by his family and friends. The Afghan Communist Party and Islamist-opposition movements were formed during this period; they agitated against both the government and each other. In July 1973, Daud, the former prime minister (and king's cousin and brother-in-law), overthrew the monarchy in a military coup, with assistance from the pro-Soviet Parcham wing of the Afghan Communist Party; he became the president of the Republic of Afghanistan (19731978). Daud returned autocratic rule and persecuted his perceived enemies, especially members of the Islamist movements. He relied heavily
on his old networks and began to distance himself from the pro-Soviet Communists whom he had protected and nurtured. In an environment of growing discontent, in April 1978, a Communist coup ousted and killed Daud.

Nur Muhammad Taraki, the head of the People's Democratic party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was installed as president of the revolutionary council and prime minister (1978/79). He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), abolished the constitution, and banned all opposition movements. Less than two months later, the coalition of two rival factions of PDPAKhalq (People) and Parcham (Banner)that had joined to gain power began to fall apart. Khalq monopolized all power, offering Parcham leaders ambassadorial posts overseas, and began purging Parcham members from military and civilian posts. Supported by the Soviets, Taraki attempted to create a Marxist state, but by the spring of 1979 resistance to these efforts was widespread. Brutal retaliation by government in rural areas forced the flight of thousands of refugees to Iran and Pakistan. In September 1979, Hafizullah Amin, then deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, and an advocate of extreme Marxist policies, suspecting a plot against himself, killed President Taraki and assumed his duties. During Christmas 1979, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan with eighty thousand troops. They killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, leader of the Parcham, as the new head of state. Soviet intervention intensified factionalism between the Parcham and Khalq and also led to riots and strikes in the major cities. It turned anti-government resistance into a jihad for the cause of Islam and national liberation.

From 1980 to 1986, Karmal tried but failed to consolidate his power, reduce factional strife, and promote national unity. In 1986, Dr. Najibullah Ahmadzai, the former head of the state security forces (KHAD) and a member of Parcham, assumed power, relieving Karmal of all party and government duties. He adopted a shrewd policy of unilateral cease-fires, offers of negotiation and power sharing with his opponents, and the formation of a coalition government of national unity. He also adopted a new constitution in 1987, allowing the formation of a multiparty political system and a bicameral legislature. He won some support from his internal leftist opponents, but the seven-party alliance of Mojahedin (Islamic Unity of Afghan Mojahedin) remained defiant, calling for unconditional Soviet withdrawal and the abolition of communist rule.

The failure to achieve a Soviet military victory and the ever-increasing outside military and financial support for the Mojahedin (from 1984 to 1988) led to the signing of the Geneva Accords on 14 April 1988, under United Nations auspices. The accords called for the withdrawal of 120,000 Soviet troops, which was completed on 15 February 1989. After Soviet troop withdrawal, the continuing civil war in Afghanistan was overshadowed by events such as the democratization of Eastern Europe (1989) and what became the former Soviet Union (1991). The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of its military and financial support to Dr. Najibullah's government, and the desertion of his militia forces to the resistance all contributed to Najibullah's ouster from power on 16 April 1992. A coalition of Islamist forces from northern Afghanistan led by Commander Ahmad Shah Masʿud surrounded Kabul. In Peshawar, a fifty-member Interim Council of the Islamist resistance groups was formed and dispatched to assume power in Kabul. Following two days of factional fighting that resulted in dislodging Golbuddin Hekmatyar's forces from Kabul, Sebghatullah Mujaddedi, the president of the Interim Councillater called Shura-i qiyadi (Leadership Council)took power on 28 April 1992, as the Head of the Islamic State of Afghanistan for a period of two months. Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani succeeded him as the interim president of the country on 28 June 1992, for four months. During his tenure Rabbani and the Leadership Council were to organize and convene the Loya Jirgah (the Council of Resolution and Settlement or the Grand National Assembly) representing all the peoples of Afghanistan, including those living in exile, to choose the next president for a term of eighteen months. The new president would then oversee the drafting of a new constitution and the first general election.

In opposition to Rabbani's government, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's forces launched a rocket attack

in late August 1992 destroying much of Kabul. Other forms of factional fighting along sectarian, ethnic, and regional lines plagued the new Islamist regime, seriously hampering repatriation of the refugees, reconstruction, and the return of law and order in the war-ravaged country. At the end of December 1992, a shura (assembly) of some 1,335 members convened and elected the sole candidate, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the interim president for two years. Five of the nine Islamist factions boycotted the assembly, disputing the validity of Rabbani's election. By 1993, all-out civil war had broken out, and much of the countryside was controlled by warlords. It was in this situation that groups of religious scholars and students in the Kandahar area and the nearby Pushtun-populated region of Pakistan began to organize with the aim of providing people with security. The new movement called itself the Taliban; by 1994, the Taliban had captured control of Kandahar and during the next two years extended its control over most of the country, including the capital, Kabul.

see also amanollah khan; amin, hafizullah; amu darya; atatÜrk, mustafa kemal; barakzai dynasty; daud, muhammad; durrani dynasty; habibollah khan; hekmatyar, golbuddin; hindu kush mountains; kabul; karmal, babrak; nadir barakzai, mohammad; parcham; rabbani, burhanuddin; zahir shah.


Arnold, Anthony. Afghanistan's Two-Party Communism: Parcham and Khalq. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

Bradsher, Henry S. Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985.

Gregorian, Vartan. The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 18801946. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Roy, Olivier. Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Rubin, Barnett. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and the Collapse of the International System, 2d edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Shahrani, M. Nazif, and Canfield, Robert L., eds. Revolutions & Rebellions in Afghanistan: Anthropological Perspectives. Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, 1984.

M. Nazif Shahrani

Updated by Eric Hooglund