- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
Facts and Figures
Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan is the official name of the country.
Location: South central Asia.
Area: 250,000 sq mi (647,500 km2).
Population: 27,800,000 (estimate).
Capital and Largest City: Kabul.
Major Language(s): Pashto; Dari.
Major Religious Group(s): Muslim.
Government: Republic. Head of state and government--president. A Transitional Authority, established by a loya jirga (grand council), will rule Afghanistan until a new constitution is approved..
Chief Products: Agricultural--wheat, rice, and other grains; cotton; fruits; nuts; karakul pelts; wool; mutton. Manufactured--textiles, processed foods. Mineral--natural gas, petroleum, coal, iron ore, copper, chromium.
Monetary Unit: Afghani (1 afghani = 100 puls).
Afghanistan is a rugged, landlocked nation in west central Asia. Historically, the area has been a crossroads, connecting China, Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
Many centuries of regional migration, trade, and continuous invasions by outsiders produced a proud and independent society of many races, tribal groups, and languages. But years of political upheaval and war brought little but enduring hardship, starvation, and poverty for the majority of Afghan civilians. In the late 1900's, occupation by the Soviet Union (1979-89) and civil wars among various Afghan tribal groups weakened the central government. Neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, became more influential in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
In 1996, the Taliban, a radical Islamic group supported by Pakistan, gained control over most of Afghanistan. But in 2001, the United States and its allies went to war against the Taliban for harboring members of the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Afghanistan has since been ruled by a temporary interim government supported by the United Nations.
Afghanistan has more than a dozen different tribal groups. The Pashtuns, the largest group, make up nearly 40 percent of the population. Most live across southern Afghanistan. The Tajiks, the second largest group, are an Indo-Iranian people (related to the Tajiks found in Tajikistan). They live mainly in the northeast. The Hazaras, believed to be descendants of the Mongols, inhabit the central mountain region. Uzbeks, Turkomans, and others live on the northern plains.
The Pashtuns speak Pashto, an Indo-Iranian-based language. The Tajiks speak Dari, which is an Afghan form of Persian, also known as Farsi. Other Persian/Farsi dialects are spoken by the Hazaras. The Uzbeks and Turkomans speak languages related to Turkish.
Although Afghanistan is not an Arab country, most Afghans belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. About 15 percent are members of the Shi'a sect. Afghanistan also has small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews.
Under the rule of the Taliban, education was supervised by religious leaders. Boys learned to read and write the language of the Koran (Qur'an), but they did not learn mathematics, history, or science. Girls were not allowed to attend formal school past the age of 8. Some parents risked jail and other forms of punishment in order to educate their daughters in secret. When the Taliban government fell, boys and girls of all ages eagerly returned to school.
Although some Afghans still live a traditional nomadic life, most are now settled farmers, plowing their small fields with wooden plows drawn by oxen or cutting their wheat crops by hand with sickles.
In the countryside, a typical Afghan house is built of mud or mud brick and has three or four rooms, furnished with rugs and pillows. Round flat bread and rice are staple foods, together with mutton (sheep), goat meat, chicken, yogurt, and fruit. Traditional clothing for men consists of a turban wound around either a skullcap or a karakul cap (made out of lambskin), and a long shirt worn outside the trousers. Village women wear long dresses over trousers and large scarves over their hair.
Afghanistan's major sport is buz-kashi, a form of polo, in which players ride horseback. It is a hard-fought game, and the horses that take part are strong, swift, and well trained. Other popular sports are soccer and wrestling.
Afghanistan is bordered by Iran to the west; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China to the north; and Pakistan to the south and east.
The three major land regions of Afghanistan are the dry and dusty Northern Plains; the Central Highlands, which cover approximately two-thirds of the land; and the desert Southwestern Lowlands. The country's most fertile areas are in the east and southwest.
The towering, snowcapped Hindu Kush range rises in the northeast, reaching heights greater than 20,000 feet (6,100 meters). It contains Mount Nowshak, the country's highest peak, rising 24,551 feet (7,483 meters) above sea level. The twisting Khyber Pass, which cuts through the Safed Koh range in the east, links Afghanistan with Pakistan in the southeast.
Because much of Afghanistan is arid (dry), farmers depend on the rivers to provide irrigation for growing crops. Afghanistan has several rivers. But only the Amu Dar'ya (known in ancient times as the Oxus) can be used by ships. Other major rivers include the Helmand, Hari, Arghandab, and Kabul rivers.
Afghanistan's climate is generally marked by extremes--very cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers. Average temperatures are higher in the lowlands. Precipitation is slight, ranging from 2 to 9 inches (50 to 230 millimeters) per year.
Most of Afghanistan's known resources have not been developed. Minerals include natural gas, coal, iron ore, copper, chromium, petroleum, and small amounts of gold and silver. Lapis lazuli, emeralds, and rubies are also found.
At one time Afghanistan had great areas of forest. But these have long since been cut down to provide lumber and fuel, causing erosion of the soil.
Afghanistan was once one of the few developing nations that was self-sufficient, with its own food supply. But after the wars began in the 1970's, trade was interrupted. Nearly one-third of the population eventually fled the country, causing severe labor shortages. Farmlands were bombarded and laced with landmines. Agriculture was further damaged by several years of drought.
Kabul, Afghanistan's capital and largest city, has a population of more than 1 million. For the past 200 years, Kabul has been the commercial, cultural, political, and educational center of the country. But in recent years the city was almost completely destroyed. A priority of the transitional government was to restore Kabul to its previous stature.
Kandahar, situated in a fertile valley in the southeast, has long been a trading center for Pakistan and Iran. With a population of about 190,000, it is Afghanistan's second largest city. Kandahar once served as the capital before it was moved to Kabul in 1776. It formerly served as headquarters for the Taliban regime.
Because Afghanistan is situated at the crossroads of many different lands, many cultural similarities can be found with Iranians, Pakistanis, and other peoples of Central Asia. The national dance is called the attan. Intense and warlike, the attan reminds Afghans of their long and hard fight for freedom and independence.
Afghanistan has known many conquerors and many rulers. With each invasion came new peoples and new influences. Great cities were built, and a prosperous agricultural economy based on irrigation was developed. But these achievements were destroyed by invading Mongols in the 1200's and 1300's.
In 1747 the Pashtun tribes made Afghanistan an independent kingdom. But the Afghans, situated between the expanding superpowers of the region, Russia and Great Britain, struggled hard to keep their independence. They fought two wars against the British before Great Britain took control of Afghanistan's foreign affairs in the late 1800's. In 1919, after World War I (1914-18), Afghanistan successfully asserted its full independence again.
After World War II (1939-45), Afghanistan and Pakistan disagreed over their border. Pakistan sometimes refused to allow imported goods to reach Afghanistan. This forced Afghanistan to approach the Soviet Union, which sent imports through its country.
Afghanistan remained a kingdom until 1973, when a military coup toppled the monarchy. The leader of the coup, General Mohammed Daoud Khan, was named president and prime minister. Daoud was killed during another coup in 1978, and the government was taken over by a leftist group, which signed a treaty of peace and friendship with the Soviet Union. But most Afghans opposed the new government, and a revolt, led in part by tribal, civilian, and religious leaders, erupted. By the middle of 1979, opposition forces controlled the countryside. In December 1979, thousands of Soviet troops were airlifted into Afghanistan in an attempt to stop the spreading Afghan resistance to the Soviet-supported government.
Between 1979 and 1989, more than 100,000 Soviet troops were engaged in Afghanistan, battling Afghan resistance forces called mujahideen, who were fighting for independence. The economy was devastated, and more than 5 million Afghans fled the country, most settling in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.
After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, a struggle for control began between the mujahideen and the Communists, led by President Najibullah. In 1992, Kabul was occupied by mujahideen forces, and Afghanistan was declared an Islamic state. A struggle for power then broke out among mujahideen factions, and in 1996 a new force, the Taliban (supported by Pakistan), captured Kabul. Najibullah was executed, and strict laws in the name of Islam were imposed throughout much of the country. These laws offended most mainstream Muslim people. Most international governments refused to recognize the Taliban's government, citing its harsh treatment of women, its destruction of non-Muslim art treasures, and its harboring of international terrorists.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States, killing thousands of people. The attackers were linked to Osama bin Laden, a Muslim militant living in Afghanistan under the Taliban's protection. After the crisis, U.S. president George W. Bush declared war on terrorists and warned the Taliban that if they did not turn over bin Laden to the proper international authorities, they would risk the same fate as the terrorists themselves.
When the Taliban failed to respond by October 7, U.S. and British forces initiated air strikes against them and bin Laden. The regime finally collapsed on December 7, although bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar had not yet been captured. Various anti-Taliban Afghan leaders, including the exiled king, agreed to share power until a loya jirga (grand council) could be assembled to elect a transitional leader who would rule until a new constitution was written.
In June 2002, Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai was elected president of the Transitional Authority. His first priorities were to settle internal differences, distribute humanitarian aid, accommodate returning refugees, and rebuild Afghanistan's devastated economy. Security for the new government was tightened after an attempt was made on President Karzai's life and three other top government officials, including the vice president, were assassinated. In early 2003, Taliban loyalists re-emerged in the south, and the United States encouraged Pakistan to intensify its efforts to catch outlaws trying to escape over the border.
To help speed reconstruction of the war-torn country, the United States formally announced an end to major combat operations on May 1, 2003. Karzai later persuaded provincial governors to stop fighting among themselves and to transfer some of their tax revenues to the central government. In 2004, Karzai signed a new constitution that provided for a president and vice president and the creation of two houses of congress, paving the way for elections later in the year.
Reviewed by Alam Payind
Middle East Studies Center
The Ohio State University
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