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Afghanistan: Country Profile


Afghanistan: Country Profile




Official country name: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Area: 250,001 sq miles (647,500 sq km)
Population: 31.9 million (2007 est.)
Median age: 17.6
Ethnic Groups: Pashtun 42 percent, Tajik 27 percent, Hazara 9 percent, Uzbek 9 percent, Aimak 4 percent, Turkmen 3 percent, Baloch 2 percent, other 4 percent
GDP and GDP per capita: $8.8 billion and $800 (2006 estimates)

Government and Politics:

The president, who’s also the head of state, is popularly elected to a five-year term (Afghanistan’s first election was held in 2004). A 25-minister cabinet is appointed by the president. The National Assembly consists of a 249-seat lower House, the Wolesi Jirga (its members are directly elected to five-year terms) and an upper chamber, the 102-seat Meshrano Jirga, or House of Elders; one-third of the members are elected to four-year terms by provincial councils, one-third are elected from local district councils to three-year terms, and one-third are nominated by the president to five-year terms.


Islam is the official religion. Sunni Muslims make up 80 percent of the population, Shiite Muslims 19 percent. Freedom of religion is built into the Constitution. However, religion is freely practiced only in proportion to each province’s level of freedom. Freedom of religion is non-existent in provinces under the control of the Taliban, where the Taliban’s puritan form of Sunni Islam is imposed.


Afghanistan’s economy has never been vibrant. The Soviet invasion in 1979 followed by two decades of war and civil war and five years of repressive rule by the Taliban ensured that the economy stayed primitive. There’s been uneven progress since 2001, much of it the result of foreign-aid infusions and reconstruction projects. The country’s underground opium economy dominates some provinces. Agriculture is otherwise the mainstay in most of the country. Despite some oil and gas deposits, the country’s poor infrastructure, poor educational institutions and continuing strife are major obstacles to development.


In February 2007, President Bush in a speech on Afghanistan said that the Afghan army numbered 32,000 soldiers, “not enough to do the job in this vast country.” He said troop strength would increase to 70,000 by the end of 2008. It’s not clear whether the country is on pace to reach that goal. The Afghan government still relies mostly on NATO and U.S. troops for security.

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

Since 2006, the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating enough that old human rights abuses—against women and girls, by bandits, criminals and militant extremists—are again a problem. Bombings, assassinations, kidnappings for ransom and attacks on religious figures are increasing. In 2006 alone, more than 3,000 Afghans were killed in various acts of violence throughout the country, and the toll in 2007 was expected to be no less grim. Press freedom has fared better, but according to Reporters Without Borders, remains fragile.

Early History:

Long the plaything of empires to its east, west and north, Afghanistan as such developed its own identity beginning in the 18th century when a local chieftain, Ahmad Shah Durrani, profited from the disintegration of the Iranian-based Safavid empire and the India-based Mugal empire to take control of the region. Durrani, a Pushtun, imposed his rule over a variety of ethnic groups. Britain invaded in 1839-1842 and again in 1878-80 but could not keep control of the country. A succession of monarchies and tribal overlords kept the country from modernizing past a model of authoritarian mosaics.

History Since the 1950s:

An era of political liberalization ushered in by the Constitution of 1964 and parliamentary democracy didn’t last. The famine of 1972, which killed 100,000 people, discredited the regime. Coups and instability followed, leading up to a Soviet invasion in 1979 and a decade of war and repression. When the Soviets left, civil war dissected the country. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996 until it was driven from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. A more democratic government and a new constitution have struggled to maintain authority since despite elections and the presence of western troops.

Current Issues:

Resurgent since 2006, the Taliban controls vast swaths of the country and violence is endemic. More coalition troops have been killed in 2007 (229 as of mid-December 2007) than in any other year since their presence in Afghanistan began in 2001. The government of Hamid Karzai is corrupt and has little legitimacy among the people. Many members of the coalition are uneasy about an open-ended military commitment. Afghanistan’s future is uncertain.
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