Bordered by Pakistan in the south and east, Iran in the West, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in the north, and China in the far northeast, the landlocked nation of Afghanistan is of particular geostrategic importance, connecting East, South, West, and Central Asia. Afghanistan has been home to various peoples through the ages, and has been subject to invasions since antiquity, ranging from Alexander the Great and the Mauryan Empire to the armies of Genghis Khan.
Afghanistan has seen conflict for much of its recent history. Since the late 1970s, Afghanistan has experienced a continuous state of civil war. The Soviet invasion in 1979, following a military coup in Afghanistan the previous year, led to a protracted proxy war on its soil with the US supporting local resistance fighters - collectively known as the mujahideen - with the assistance of Pakistan and its intelligence services, in what became the most expensive covert operation in the history of the CIA.
After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the communist-dominated government of President Najibullah stayed in power with aid from the Soviet Union, but could not survive once the former superpower dissolved. Najibullah's government collapsed in 1992, and various factions, supported by regional powers, fought for control of the state. The former pattern of conflict was eventually transformed into one based largely along ethnic lines. The Soviet invasion caused hundreds of thousands of deaths of Afghan civilians. As a result, many Afghans fled to neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran. To date, over 5 million Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan, and many more around the world.
In 1996, the Taliban, originally Islamic students supported by Pakistan, captured the capital, Kabul. While bringing some stability to the war-torn country, the Taliban also imposed punitive and repressive policies that drew the ire of many, especially the restrictive laws implemented against women and girls, and the hospitality they extended to Osama bin Laden. The Taliban maintained control of about 90% of Afghanistan recognized the Taliban rule as legitimate government.
Following the attacks in New York and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001, the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the U.S. and the US initiated aerial attacks in October, enabling opposition groups in the country to drive the Taliban out of power.
The 2001 Bonn Conference sponsored by the UN established a process for political reconstruction, which enabled the election of a president and national legislature. However, the Afghan government has been able to exert little control beyond Kabul. The southern and eastern regions bordering Pakistan are plagued by insurgency and terrorist violence continues to grow in the urban centers. In December 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan and the National Assembly was inaugurated the following December 2005. Despite gains toward building a stable central government, a resurgent Taliban and continuing provincial instability - particularly in the south and the east - remain serious challenges for the Afghan Government.
On August 20, 2009, in what may be recognized as a highly controversial presidential election, President Hamid Karzai was reelected with a 49.67 percent vote. Unlike 2004's election, 2009's presidential election was characterized by low-voter turnout, lack of security, and electoral fraud.
On December 1, 2009, US President Barack Obama announced a deployment of additional 30,000 soldiers over a period of six months with the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan beginning July 2011.
Meanwhile, opium production has increased exponentially; the country is now responsible for 92 percent of the world's supply, and the drug industry makes up around 60 percent of fghanistan's economy. The opium industry is said to be fuelling the insurgency, with some estimates suggesting that the Taliban receive up to $100 million a year from the trade.
Last updated: August 26, 2010
Sources: BBC, UN Data, World Bank, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook.