(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Afghanistan is a country situated between the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Although it has no access to the sea, its location was central to the wars, migrations, and trade that dominated inner Asia until early modern times. It is bordered by Pakistan on the east and south; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan on the north; Iran on the west; and China in the extreme northeast.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 on behalf of its Marxist government; this occupation contributed to the USSR's 1991 collapse. The former resistance fighters, allied with defecting government militias, took power from the crumbling government and formed an Islamic state in 1992. They fought among themselves and were ousted from Kabul, the capital, in September 1996 by a newer group known as the Taliban. In late 2001 the repressive Taliban regime was itself defeated as a result of U.S.-led strikes against the regime and the international terrorists it harbored. The country held democratic presidential and legislative elections in 2004 and 2005, although unrest continued.

Land and Resources

Afghanistan is dominated by rugged mountains and arid plains. Its central and eastern regions are covered by high mountain ranges centering on the Hindu Kush. The system spurs off from the Himalayas; many peaks in the extreme northeast reach more than 6,100 m (20,000 ft). Barren plains flank the mountain core to the north, west, and south. In the southwest the plains become deserts.


Afghanistan's dry, continental climate produces sharp contrasts in temperatures by day, by season, and by elevation. Winters bring snow that is followed by early spring rains. Summers are hot and dry. Falls are moderate and also dry. Average annual rainfall is about 180 mm (7 in). It is rarely more than 380 mm (15 in) anywhere in the country.


Afghanistan's major internal rivers rise in the central mountain core and flow outward generally in the four cardinal directions. Only the Kabul River, flowing east to join the Indus in Pakistan, reaches the sea. The largest is the Helmand, which runs south-southwest past Kandahar to the swamps of Sistan on the Iranian border. The Hari Rud flows west past Herat. The Kunduz flows north to meet the Amu Darya (Oxus), which forms the northern border. After spring high waters, the runoff of the rivers is irregular and low.

Vegetable and Animal Life

Thin soil and a harsh climate limit natural life to the sturdiest strains. Tree cover is concentrated in the east, where pine forests are common. Pistachio grows wild on the slopes of the hills of the north and northwest. Thin grasses briefly provide mountain grazing for nomadic herds in the spring and summer. Wildlife includes wolves, hyenas, foxes, leopards, gazelles, bears, and ibex.


Incompletely surveyed and only marginally exploited, Afghanistan's mineral resources offer considerable potential for development. There are major deposits of iron, chrome, copper, natural gas, and possibly uranium. Soft coal is available at numerous sites. The country also has talc, sulfur, gold, lead, zinc, salt, and precious and semiprecious stones. There is considerable hydroelectric potential.


Afghan society is a composite of primary family, village, and tribal units scattered within a mosaic of ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, and regional communities. Millennia of conquests and folk movements have left remnants of all the peoples who have roamed inner Asia.

The Pashtun (Pathan) people have traditionally been the dominant ethnic and linguistic community. Tribally organized, the Pashtun are concentrated in the east and the south. As they gained control over the rest of the country, many of them settled in other areas. The Dari- (Persian-) speaking Tajik have been the second most influential community. They are strongly identified with sedentary farming and town life. The Tajik are concentrated chiefly in the fertile eastern valleys north and south of the Hindu Kush. Turkic peoples, mainly Uzbek and Turkmen, live in the northern plains as farmers and herders. The central mountains yield a meager living to the Hazara, a Mongoloid people who mostly speak Persian. Although they are Afghanistan's third-largest ethnic group, the Hazara have often been persecuted for their ethnic origins and religious beliefs. There are many smaller communities; most important are the Nuristanis of the high mountains of the east and the Baloch (Baluch) of the desert south.

Virtually all Afghans are Muslim. More than 80% of them are Sunnites. The Hazara constitute the largest Shiite community. A few thousand Hindus and Sikhs live as traders in the cities.


Afghanistan has never conducted a definitive census. Population data are therefore imprecise and incomplete. The pre-1980 population was at least 90% rural. Most farmers lived in settled villages in the best-watered valleys where the principal rivers intersect the plains. Various forms of nomadic herding were practiced by as much as 20% of the population. During the Soviet occupation, some 6.2 million Afghans fled the country; as many as 1 million were killed. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Afghanistan had the world's highest number of refugees every year from 1980 to 1998.

After the Soviet occupation ended, more than 4 million Afghan refugees returned home. The capital city of Kabul had been a haven for more than 1 million refugees during the occupation. In 1992, however, it was largely destroyed by warring Afghan factions. So were Jalalabad and other prominent cities. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the cities to become internal refugees.

Pakistan cut back on post-occupation aid to Afghan refugees. It feared that the availability of food, shelter, and medical care in Pakistan would only encourage more Afghans to cross the border. This cutback intensified when the tide of refugees swelled after a U.S.-led alliance launched air strikes on Taliban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Following the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, many refugees returned to their homes. Land routes for a massive international relief effort were opened. By 2008 an estimated 5 million people had returned to Afghanistan, mostly from Pakistan and Iran. Many of them lacked money, jobs, or land. This made it difficult for them to rebuild their lives. Iran deported tens of thousands of illegal Afghan refugees in the spring of 2007. By this time, some 1.5 million illegal Afghan workers and nearly 1 million registered refugees were still in Iran. In 2008, camps in Pakistan housed more than 2 million registered Afghan refugees; 80 of these camps were slated to close by year's end. Pakistan was also home to large numbers of illegal refugees.


Afghanistan's rudimentary health-care system was devastated by years of war. Despite a high birthrate there was little population growth because so many children failed to survive to their fifth birthday. Control was lost over such endemic diseases as malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, measles, and dysentery. By late 2001 less than one-fourth of the population had access to safe water. Only 12% had adequate sanitation. The most sophisticated hospitals are in Kabul.

By 2006, however, the infant mortality rate began to decline significantly due to an increase in access to basic health care. This decline marked one of the first real signs of post-Taliban recovery.


After 30 years of rapid growth and increasing sophistication, war and civil war seriously restricted Afghan education. Most Western-educated Afghans fled or died. Rural and small-town schools were destroyed or closed during the Soviet occupation. Meanwhile, enrollment at city schools, especially in Kabul, swelled. After the establishment of the Islamic state in 1992, education was almost completely disrupted. It later suffered further dislocations. Under the Taliban, curriculum was closely supervised by religious leaders. By late 2001 it was reported that as few as 3% of all girls and 39% of all boys of school age were enrolled in school. The Taliban banned girls from attending formal schools and women from teaching. Schooling for large numbers of children, including girls, resumed after the ouster of the Taliban.

Teacher-training programs and school construction were among the priorities of post-Taliban international assistance. Kabul University (1932) reopened in 2002; universities in at least five other provinces were being rehabilitated. Reconstruction work proceeded much more slowly than had been anticipated, however. Perhaps a quarter of teachers in Afghanistan are illiterate; most are barely educated beyond the grade level they teach. Nevertheless, it is estimated that more than 6 million Afghan children were educated between 2001 and 2008. The ratio of boys to girls in primary school is about 2 to 1; by secondary school it rises to about 4 to 1. Only 10% of girls enrolled in school actually graduate. In part this is due to a shortage of female teachers; cultural taboos prohibit the mixing of the sexes, particularly in rural areas. Schools for girls near the Pakistan border are a priority target for insurgents.

The Arts

Afghanistan has been a center of Persian, Indo-Greek, Buddhist, and Islamic cultures. Numerous archaeological sites of great potential significance await excavation. Among the architectural remains that have been excavated are Balkh,; the Buddhist monasteries at Bamian and Hadda; the Ghaznavid palace complexes at Ghazni; and the Greek city at ai-Khanum. Herat was a major center of Persian culture from the 11th to the 16th century. It was renowned especially for the exquisite miniature-painting patronized by the Timurids in the late 15th century. Carpet making remains the primary folk art. The Taliban destruction of all statues throughout the country in 2001, including the famous ones at Bamian, on the grounds that they conflicted with the teachings of Islam, had a severe impact on Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage. This heritage had already been damaged by many years of war. One of the priorities of the post-Taliban government was the reconstruction of the national museum in Kabul and its damaged artifacts.

Economic Activity

The development of modern industry and commerce began in Afghanistan early in the 20th century. Substantial commercial development took place in the 1930s. Exports of traditional fruits, fur, and carpet were promoted in return for manufactured imports, mostly from India. Unprecedented aid for development was received beginning in the 1950s from the United States, the USSR, other advanced industrial nations, and neighboring Muslim states. Since 1979, warfare has severely disrupted the progress that had been made.

After the fall of the Taliban, international aid was solicited to fund reconstruction. Aid was disbursed according to guidelines drawn up by the United Nations Development Program. Among the goals were rehabilitation of municipal infrastructure; restoration of agricultural self-sufficiency; removal of land mines; provision of safe water, sewage systems, health care, and schools; reconstruction of small-scale and heavy industrial facilities, most of which had been destroyed or damaged; rebuilding of roads, unreliable electrical systems, and other essential infrastructure; and establishment of basic communications networks, including postal services. By late 2002, however, Afghanistan was receiving just $75 per person a year in foreign assistance, much less than the $250 per person received by post-conflict Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, and Rwanda. At three donor conferences since, more than $24 billion in assistance was pledged. Nevertheless, Afghanistan still has one of the lowest standards of living in the world. Aid has often been used for short-term humanitarian assistance rather than for long-term development.

By 2008 the Afghan economy remained in disarray. Critics charged that much of the foreign aid was being wasted and contributed to rising inflation. The country had by that time become the world's largest supplier of poppy-derived opium. Drug trafficking was undermining the recovery and worsening the security situation.


Afghanistan's economy is essentially agrarian. Wheat is the primary food grain, although it fails to meet domestic needs. Cotton is a leading cash crop. Grapes and melons are important seasonally. Fruits, nuts, skins, hides, cotton, and the fur of the karakul lamb are exported. Agricultural output declined sharply throughout the Soviet occupation and has yet to be fully rehabilitated; security is still a problem in some areas, and farmers often cannot afford seed and other basics.

Among the chief priorities of the post-Taliban reconstruction effort was the rehabilitation of the agricultural sector. This included the provision of alternatives to opium-poppy cultivation and the clearing of land mines. A large dam under construction in northwestern Afghanistan will provide irrigation for about 600,000 people. Nevertheless, political uncertainty, the costly repatriation effort, the disruption of transportation, massive loss of livestock, and the presence of millions of land mines still hamper agricultural recovery. The situation has been further complicated by nearly a decade of drought that ended with heavy rain and flooding in the spring of 2007.

Industry and Transportation

Industrial development remains rudimentary. It is largely restricted to agricultural processing and the small-scale production of consumer goods such as textiles, soap, furniture, and shoes. Industrial parks are being built in Kabul, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif in an effort to attract private investment.

Although passable, the main highways are extensively damaged, as are most of the nation's regional and provincial airports. The vital Kabul-Kandahar highway, part of a yet-to-be-completed ring road connecting Afghanistan's largest cities, was reconstructed and opened in December 2003. A bridge across the Panj River, a headstream of the Amu Darya, was completed in 2007; connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan, it offered a much-needed link to the outside world.

Afghanistan's electrical power system remains unreliable. Only 6% of the population had access to electricity in 2005. A major new power plant was under construction at Sheberghan, in north central Afghanistan. The Kajaki power plant on the Helmand River, built in 1975, is being modernized; it is the only major power plant in southern Afghanistan and is a frequent target of sabotage. Efforts by an international consortium to build a pipeline through Afghan territory from a natural-gas field in Turkmenistan to Pakistan ended in 1998 due to Afghanistan's political instability. The governments of the three countries signed a framework accord in December 2002 to build such a pipeline. The project was to create an estimated 12,000 jobs and provide hundreds of millions of dollars for the devastated Afghan economy. Construction has not yet started, however. The country's natural-gas reserves have great economic potential. Exports of natural gas to the republics of Central Asia were expected to be restored to full capacity quickly. Nevertheless, they have not resumed either.

There are also plans to expand the exploitation of Afghanistan's nonenergy mineral wealth. Lapis lazuli and emeralds continue to be taken from ancient mines in the northeast. In late 2007 a Chinese company was awarded a contract to develop one of the world's largest copper mines, south of Kabul.

History and Government

Afghanistan's crossroads position in Central Asia has subjected it to constant invasion and conquest throughout its long recorded history. The parade of conquerors in historic times includes Darius I of Persia in the 6th century B.C.; Alexander the Great in 328 B.C.; the Sakas (Scythians) and Parthians in the 2d and 1st centuries B.C., followed by the Buddhist Kushans until the 4th century A.D.; and the Hephthalites, or White Huns, in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. The Arabs introduced Islam in the 7th century. The Turks under Mahmud of Ghazni briefly made Afghanistan the center of Islamic power and civilization at the beginning of the 11th century (see Ghaznavids). The Minaret of Jam, which dates back to Ghaznaid times, was declared Afghanistan's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.

The Mongols invaded Afghanistan early in the 13th century. Timur added it to his empire at the end of the 14th century. In the early 16th century, Timur's descendant Babur, first of the Moguls, founded an empire in India from his base at Kabul. During the 16th and 17th centuries the eastern parts of the country owed allegiance to the Moguls, and the western parts to the Safavids of Persia.

In 1747 the Pashtun, having thrown off the Persian yoke, established a dynasty of their own under Ahmad Shah Durrani, the leader of the Durrani tribal confederation. Durrani strength was consolidated by Dost Muhammad Khan, who pronounced himself ruler of Afghanistan in 1834 and founded a second dynasty. Effective physical control over all of the country, however, was first achieved by Dost Muhammad's grandson, Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880-1901). His astute diplomacy prevented either the British or the Russian Empire from gaining control of Afghanistan. Frustrated by their failure to subdue the country in the Anglo-Afghan Wars of 1839-42 and 1878-80, the British agreed to subsidize Abdur Rahman so that he would be strong enough to serve as a buffer between the empires.

Abdur Rahman's grandson, Amanullah Shah (r. 1919-29), ended British involvement in Afghan affairs. He also initiated a series of ambitious efforts at social and political modernization, but tribal opposition forced him to flee the country. Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973. In 1964 he sponsored a serious attempt at liberal Islamic constitutionalism. It included free elections and partial parliamentary democracy. When the experiment foundered, the king's cousin Sardar Muhammad Daud seized power in a nearly bloodless coup. Daud ruled as a republican president from 1973 to 1978. Zahir Shah went into exile in Europe.

Daud was killed in a Marxist coup in April 1978. This brought the semiclandestine People's Democratic party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to sudden power under Nur Mohammad Taraki. The PDPA's brutal methods and impractically radical reforms in education and land and family law fomented a popular backlash, especially in rural areas. Despite growing Soviet support, the regime was increasingly threatened by general revolt. Its link with Moscow was weakened in September 1979 when Taraki was removed (and later killed) by his lieutenant, Hafizullah Amin.

Soviet Occupation, Warlords, and Taliban Rule

The USSR intervened militarily in December 1979. Amin was executed and replaced by Babrak Karmal, a longtime Marxist rival of Taraki and Amin. Karmal's government attempted to establish control over the country with the help of Soviet air and land forces and civilian advisors.

In the wake of the Soviet intervention, a national resistance movement spread throughout the country. The poorly equipped mujahideen (Islamic warriors) were aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. They gradually gained control of most of the countryside. In 1986 the Soviet government decided to withdraw from the unpopular war. Karmal was replaced with Najibullah, a Soviet favorite who had headed the Afghan secret police. Najibullah tried to win over the resistance through a policy of "national reconciliation." After minor concessions failed, he appeared to abandon Marxism by enacting a constitution with liberal features. Although legislative elections were held in April 1988, Najibullah remained in control.

With the cooperation of the United Nations, the United States, and Pakistan, an accord was reached in Geneva, Switzerland, in April 1988. It set a timetable for Soviet withdrawal, which was completed by Feb. 15, 1989. No political settlement among the Afghans was reached, and Najibullah dropped his democratic facade and consolidated his authority. Civil war between his government and the mujahideen continued. The mujahideen and defecting regime militias from non-Pashtun ethnic groups occupied Kabul in April 1992. They formed a government that they called an Islamic state. The new government soon splintered into rival factions led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Rabbani was elected president in December 1992 by a constituent assembly that chose a parliament from among its members. Hekmatyar became prime minister under a March 1993 peace accord. Power struggles between the two leaders and various other ethnic, military, and religious factions continued. Another 25,000 Afghans died between 1992 and 1995.

Rabbani's forces, led by mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, captured most of Kabul, although Hekmatyar and his allies besieged the capital until February 1995. The situation suddenly changed early in 1995 with the rise of the Taliban in the southern, Pashtun region. Claiming to be an army of religious students committed to ending the disastrous war between the mujahideen, the Taliban forces scattered Hekmatyar's army and confronted Rabbani's "Islamic state" in March 1995. Despite a new alliance between Rabbani and Hekmatyar in June 1996, the Taliban captured Kabul on Sept. 24, 1996, after an 11-month siege. They executed former president Najibullah and proclaimed a strict Islamic state.

The Taliban's restoration of some security was popular. Their harsh restrictions were not, and they failed to establish a functioning government. By late 1997 they controlled more than half of Afghanistan, but civil war continued. Two devastating 1998 earthquakes in northeastern Afghanistan added to the nation's problems. In April 1998 the Taliban (who were receiving aid from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) and their main opponents (backed by Russia and Iran) agreed to a cease-fire. They then held their first-ever direct peace talks, in Pakistan. The talks broke down in May, and the fighting resumed. Later that year, most Western aid groups were expelled from Taliban-controlled areas.

In August 1998 the Taliban captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the last major rebel stronghold. That same month, in retaliation for bombing attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya linked to the Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda (al-Qaida) network of Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden, the United States launched cruise-missile attacks on suspected terrorist training camps in southern Afghanistan. Subsequently, citing Taliban threats to Iranian national security and fears that the fundamentalist Sunnite Muslim Taliban would launch an "ethnic cleansing" of Afghanistan's Shiite Muslim minority, Iran massed troops on the Afghan border. Uzbekistan also sealed off its border with Afghanistan.

Rabbani's opposition government continued to hold Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations; only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates officially recognized the Taliban government. In July 1999 the U.S. government imposed sanctions on the Taliban.

By August 1999 the Taliban controlled about 90% of Afghanistan, but a major military offensive against the northern opposition stronghold north of Kabul was repulsed. The new military government of Pakistan tightened controls along its border with Afghanistan to halt smuggling. The United Nations also imposed economic sanctions against the Taliban for its refusal to turn over bin Laden. This created an economic crisis that eased somewhat after Iran reopened its border with Afghanistan in November.

In the fall of 2000 the Taliban launched a new offensive in the north. This drove up to 150,000 people from their homes toward the border with Tajikistan, which had been closed by the Tajikistan government. The opposition continued to fight on, although their northern base was further weakened by severe drought and a 2001 earthquake that created a new flood of refugees. Massoud's assassination in September was a severe blow to the anti-Taliban alliance. After the Taliban

Bin Laden's organization was quickly identified as the source of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The United States therefore demanded that the Taliban surrender the Saudi dissident. As the Taliban continued to shelter him, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their diplomatic recognition of the regime. Pakistan (the only country still recognizing it) cooperated with the antiterrorism effort. On Oct. 7, 2001, U.S. and British forces launched military strikes on targets in Afghanistan linked to either the terrorists or the Taliban. The attacks were coupled with air drops of relief supplies to feed as many as 6 million Afghan civilians fleeing drought and war. The countries allied in the new fight against international terrorism asserted that this was not a fight against the people of Afghanistan. Rather, it was an effort to destroy bin Laden's terrorist network and the Taliban regime that harbored it.

The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was already aided by Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, India, and Uzbekistan. All of these nations feared the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism in the region. It received new support. Efforts to create a broad post-Taliban coalition government that would include former king Zahir Shah also began. The first significant military victory in the battle against the Taliban took place on Nov. 9, 2001. Northern Alliance forces, with air support from the U.S.-led antiterrorism alliance, recaptured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif; this strategic city was located on the principal supply route between Uzbekistan and Kabul. On November 13, Taliban fighters abandoned Kabul and fled to their southern stronghold of Kandahar. Northern Alliance forces entered the capital.

The stunningly swift collapse of the Taliban increased the urgent need to form a new government representing all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. The Taliban withdrew from Kandahar, its last major stronghold, on Dec. 7, 2001. By this time, representatives of four main groups—the Northern Alliance, the Pakistani-based Peshawar Front, the Iranian-backed Cyprus Group, and the Rome Process (which represented former king Zahir Shah)—were meeting in Bonn, Germany. They had reached agreement on a two-stage process leading to an eventual elected Afghan government under a new constitution. On December 22 an interim 30-member power-sharing council led by Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai (an ally of the former monarch) took office in Kabul. The interim council had a six-month mandate; it was under protection of a British-led international peacekeeping force established by the UN Security Council. The interim Afghanistan council was composed of 11 Pashtuns, 8 Tajiks, 5 Hazara, 3 Uzbeks, and 3 members representing other minorities. On June 11, 2002, the king opened an emergency Loya Jirga (grand council). It was to select a head of state and a broad-based Transitional Authority that would rule Afghanistan until a fully representative government could be elected. Within 18 months after the Transitional Authority assumed power, a constitutional Loya Jirga was to be convened. It was to adopt a new constitution for Afghanistan.

One of the chief tasks of the new post-Taliban government was to disarm the various Afghan combatants. This action would ensure that the country would not again descend into chaos in which various warlords fought for power on the ground. Karzai visited the United States in late January 2002. During his visit, he asked for an enlargement of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. He argued that this was needed to assist the central government in wresting control of cities other than Kabul from their occupying warlords. It was estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 foreigners who had supported the Taliban and Al Qaeda remained inside Afghanistan.

Zahir Shah returned to his native land on Apr. 18, 2002. Districts across the country began to elect local assemblies. These assemblies selected many of the delegates to the emergency Loya Jirga that was convened by the former king on June 11. Karzai's interim regime still had not been able to restore law and order throughout the nation. The UN Security Council therefore voted to extend the mandate of ISAF in Afghanistan beyond its scheduled termination on June 20, 2002. The former king refused to be a candidate to head the new government selected by the Loya Jirga. Karzai was chosen as Afghanistan's new president. He had the backing of Zahir Shah, many former Northern Alliance commanders, and the United States.

The fragility of the domestic political situation was vividly demonstrated on Sept. 5, 2002, when Karzai survived an assassination attempt while visiting Kandahar. Concerns increased after an alliance of Islamist parties won control of the governments of the two Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan in provincial elections later that year. This development hampered operations against the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Plans to establish a new 70,000-member national army and ban all private militias made little progress. Without the means to cement control outside of Kabul, it was unclear whether any Afghan leader would be able to overcome the poverty and ethnic and religious divisions exacerbated by decades of war.

In 2003, fears mounted that the Taliban had started to regroup while the United States was distracted by another conflict, the Iraq War. Afghanistan was one of the countries joining the U.S.-led coalition in that war. On May 1, to encourage more countries and aid organizations to participate in the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, the U.S. government declared that major combat operations there were over. Nevertheless, an estimated 8,000 U.S. soldiers remained in the country. Pakistan's subsequent decision to send troops to the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters inflamed ancient border disputes in an area that had never been well mapped.

The United Nations was to supervise the electoral registration process. It authorized the NATO-led international peacekeeping force to expand its mission beyond Kabul in October 2003 in support of Karzai's government. ISAF, made up primarily of German and Canadian troops, operated independently of the U.S. forces; the latter were working to wipe out the last remnants of the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Afghan warlords in the north agreed to a government-brokered cease-fire. The government then embarked on an ambitious program to disarm 100,000 fighters serving in private militias and integrate them into the economy. But a campaign of attacks on foreign aid workers led to the withdrawal of aid groups from some troubled regions.

On Jan. 4, 2004, a constitutional Loya Jirga ratified the final version of the controversial new constitution in preparation for democratic national elections. The constitution concentrated power in the hands of a president, who would also serve as commander in chief of the military. Afghanistan was to become an Islamic republic. Its civil legal system would be based on Islamic principles, although the constitution did not impose Islamic law (Sharia) as conservatives had wished. The draft further guaranteed basic human rights, including freedom of religion and equal rights and the vote for women. It provided for minority languages such as Uzbek and Tajik to become third official languages (along with Pushtu and Dari) in areas where they were spoken by a majority of the inhabitants. Voter registration proceeded slowly. In addition, attacks on election and aid workers by militants opposed to the administration in Kabul increased. Ultimately, UN officials decided that it would be logistically impossible to hold simultaneous presidential and legislative elections.

A presidential election was finally held on Oct. 9, 2004, after two postponements, with 17 candidates challenging Karzai. The fact that the polls proceeded relatively peacefully was considered a great triumph for the nascent Afghan democracy. Voter turnout was large and included many women. Karzai was officially proclaimed the victor on November 3, with 55.4% of the total vote.

During the six-month run-up to the delayed legislative elections, more than 1,200 people were killed. The heightened violence was fueled partly by the fact that Afghan expectations for a better life were not being met. Tensions were also inflamed by allegations that Afghan prisoners had been abused by American interrogators. By the fall of 2005, when U.S. casualties in Afghanistan reached 200, U.S. troop strength there stood at 18,000, supplemented by 2,000 coalition forces. An additional 11,000 NATO-led ISAF peacekeepers were concentrated in Kabul and northern and western Afghanistan, where security was less of a problem than in the south and east. Some of the heaviest fighting took place in the southern mountains around Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. A government amnesty program for Taliban fighters was in effect, but both Taliban leader Mullah Omar and bin Laden still eluded capture.

Turnout for the landmark September 2005 legislative elections was about 50%, roughly 20% lower than it had been for the presidential poll, although a general enthusiasm for democracy was clear. The ballots were long and confusing for the mostly illiterate electorate. There were 2,775 candidates running for 249 seats in the lower house (House of the People, or Wolesi Jirga), 68 of which were reserved for women. Candidates had to stand as individuals, rather than as members of political parties. Final election results were not released until November 12, after numerous allegations of fraud had been investigated. Religious conservatives and mujahideen were well represented among the new legislators. Many candidates with links to armed groups were elected, provoking widespread outrage.

Provincial assemblies were also elected in September 2005; they had no control over the governors, who were appointed by the president. In November each of the 34 provincial assemblies elected 2 representatives to the 102-member upper house; the remaining 34 legislators, half of whom were women, were appointed by Karzai in early December. Elections for local district councils were not held, because district boundaries had not yet been fully demarcated. On Dec. 8, 2005, at the end of a year in which more than 1,400 people had died in political violence, NATO agreed to deploy 6,000 additional troops to southern Afghanistan. The beefed-up deployments would make the Afghanistan operation the organization's largest-ever outside of Europe. Its job would, however, remain promoting peace and stability rather than hunting down members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The latter mission remained the responsibility of U.S.-led forces.

The legislature held its inaugural session on Dec. 19, 2005. This marked the culmination of the UN plan to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Karzai's chief rival, Yunus Qanuni, was elected head of the lower house. Pro-Karzai former president Sibghatullah Mujadidi was chosen head of the upper house (Council of Elders, or Meshrano Jirga). Subsequently, the legislature decided that it would confirm cabinet members individually rather than voting on the cabinet as a whole. This delayed formal approval of Karzai's new government until April 2006.

At a January 2006 conference in London, international donors pledged nearly $2 billion in additional aid to Afghanistan. Russia also agreed to write off Afghanistan's $10 billion Soviet-era debt. Meanwhile, the United States faced mounting criticism over its detention of hundreds of terrorist suspects for extended periods without legal charges or representation at Bagram prison in Afghanistan. U.S. president George W. Bush paid a surprise visit to the country in March 2006. In May of that year, British troops replaced U.S. forces in the Taliban-dominated southern province of Helmand as part of the expansion of NATO peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. That same month, a traffic accident in Kabul involving a U.S. military vehicle triggered the most violent protests there since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. In much of southern Afghanistan, roadside bombings and suicide attacks by both Taliban forces and drug smugglers became increasingly common. This caused a spike in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan in 2006, rather than the anticipated drawdown. In June, Karzai's government announced that it would arm local tribes to combat the resurgent Taliban.

NATO assumed control of military operations across all of Afghanistan on Oct. 5, 2006. At that time, 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan came under the NATO command. This raised the total number of troops under NATO control to 32,000 soldiers from 37 nations. Another 8,000 troops tracking down members of Al Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan remained under U.S. command; this force was later expanded. Nevertheless, 2006 was the bloodiest year to date in the conflict, with a fourfold increase in deaths over the previous year. Insurgent activities by Taliban fighters in southern and eastern Afghanistan continued to rise, as did opium output and its associated corruption. This hindered reconstruction efforts, closed schools, and generally undermined public confidence in Afghanistan's democratic experiment.

NATO forces launched a new offensive against the Taliban, foreign forces, and narco-traffickers in the spring of 2007. Nevertheless, the drug trade continued. In Pakistan, political infighting hampered the development of an effective counterinsurgency program. This made it easier for the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other jihadists (see jihad) to establish safe havens and train new recruits in Pakistan. From there, the insurgents staged increasingly complex and better-coordinated cross-border attacks. Karzai narrowly survived an assassination attempt in April 2008. Casualties for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in May exceeded those in Iraq, even though there were about twice as many coalition troops in Iraq. June was the deadliest month for foreign troops in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban; most of the casualties were due to roadside bombs. The U.S. death toll in Afghanistan passed 500 in July. Despite Pakistan's intermittent and costly campaign to suppress the Taliban, the insurgents proved themselves increasingly capable of mounting sustained assaults. The civilian death toll in 2008 was the highest of any year since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban. By this time there were about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 13,000 under NATO command. In early 2009, new U.S. president Barak Obama agreed to deploy an additional 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as had been promised by his predecessor. Other NATO nations also said that they would increase their participation. At the same time, there were efforts to develop a more coherent and realistic U.S. policy on Afghanistan. Plans called for U.S. troops to live and work with ordinary Afghans and increase the number of Afghan troops from 80,000 in early 2009 to 134,000 in 2012. However, the logistics of the war became more complex as insurgents periodically shut down the main supply route through Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan voted to close a U.S. base on its soil—the only U.S. military base in Central Asia. Plans were announced to route nonmilitary supplies to Afghanistan via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and other options were being explored.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's fledgling democracy continued to struggle. Karzai's government was criticized for ineffectiveness and corruption. A new presidential election was constitutionally required by Apr. 21, 2009, but it was later postponed until August 2009. Karzai faced opposition to his plan to remain in office after his term expired in May 2009; he said that he would not step down until the poll was held and that he planned to run for another term. His opponents preferred an interim administration. Richard S. Newell
Reviewed by Barnett R. Rubin

Further Reading: American University, Afghanistan, 5th ed. (1988).

Arnold, Anthony, The Fateful Pebble: Afghanistan's Role in the Fall of the Soviet Empire (1993).

Bennett, Adam, ed., Reconstructing Afghanistan (2005).

Bonner, Arthur, Among the Afghans (1988).

Coll, Steve, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004).

Cordoves, Diego, and Harrison, Selig, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (1995).

Crile, George, Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (2003).

Dupree, Louis, Afghanistan (1973).

Elliot, Jason, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan (2001).

Friedman, Norman, Terrorism, Afghanistan, and America's New Way of War (2003).

Gregorian, Vartan, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946 (1969).

Gupta, B. S., Afghanistan (1986).

Jones, Ann, Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan (2006).

Kakar, M. H., Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response (1994).

Kaplan, Robert D., Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rev. ed. (2001).

Magnus, Ralph H., and Naby, Eden, Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahadid (1997; repr. 2002).

Maley, William, ed., Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban (1998).

Margolis, Eric S., War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet (2000).

Rashid, Ahmed, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008).

Roy, Olivier, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, 2d ed. (1990).

Rubin, Barnett R., The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, 2d ed. (2002), and The Search for Peace in Afghanistan (1995).

Schroen, Gary C., First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (2005).

Stewart, Rory, The Places in Between (2006).

Tanner, Stephen, Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban (2002).

Tapper, Nancy, Bartered Brides: Politics, Gender and Marriage in an Afghan Tribal Society (1991).

Woodward, Bob, Bush at War (2002).