Afghanistan: Facts and History

Blue Mosque In Mazar-I Sharif
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Afghanistan has the misfortune of sitting in a strategic position at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East. Despite its mountainous terrain and fiercely independent inhabitants, the country has been invaded time after time throughout its history.

Today, Afghanistan is once more embroiled in war, pitting NATO troops and the current government against the ousted Taliban and its allies. Afghanistan is a fascinating but violence-wracked country, where East meets West.

Capital and Major Cities

Capital: Kabul, population 3,475,000 (2013 estimate)

  • Kandahar, population 491,500
  • Herat, 436,300
  • Mazar-e-Sharif, 375,000
  • Kunduz, 304,600
  • Jalalabad, 205,000

Afghanistan Government

Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, headed by the President. Afghan presidents may serve a maximum of two 5-year terms. Ashraf Ghani was elected in 2014.  Hamid Karzai served two terms as president before him.

The National Assembly is a bicameral legislature, with a 249-member House of the People (Wolesi Jirga), and a 102-member House of the Elders (Meshrano Jirga).

The nine justices of the Supreme Court (Stera Mahkama) are appointed to terms of 10 years by the President. These appointments are subject to approval by the Wolesi Jirga.

Afghanistan Population

The population of Afghanistan is estimated at 32.6 million.

Afghanistan is home to a number of ethnic groups. The largest is the Pashtun, 42 percent of the population. Tajiks make up 27 percent, Hazaras 8 percent, and Uzbeks 9 percent, Aimaks 4 percent, Turkmen 3 percent and Baluchi 2 percent. The remaining 13 percent are tiny populations of Nuristanis, Kizibashis, and other groups.

Life expectancy for both men and women within Afghanistan is 60 years. The infant mortality rate is 115 per 1,000 live births, the worst in the world. It also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates.

Official Languages

Afghanistan's official languages are Dari and Pashto, both of which are Indo-European languages in the Iranian sub-family. Written Dari and Pashto both use a modified Arabic script.Other Afghan languages include Hazaragi, Uzbek, and Turkmen.

Dari is the Afghan dialect of the Persian language. It is quite similar to Iranian Dari, with slight differences in pronunciation and accent. The two are mutually intelligible. Around 33 percent of Afghanis speak Dari as their first language.

About 40 percent of the people of Afghanistan speak Pashto, the language of the Pashtun tribe. It is also spoken in the Pashtun areas of western Pakistan.


The overwhelming majority of Afghanistan's people are Muslim, around 99 percent. About 80 percent are Sunni, and 19 percent Shia.

The final one percent includes about 20,000 Baha'is, 3,000-5,000 Christians. Only one Bukharan Jewish man, Zablon Simintov, remained by 2005. All of the other members of the Jewish community fled when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Until the mid-1980s, Afghanistan also had a population of 30,000 to 150,000 Hindus and Sikhs. During the Taliban regime, the Hindu minority was forced to wear yellow badges when they went out in public, and Hindu women had to wear the Islamic-style hijab. Today, only a few Hindus remain.


Afghanistan is a land-locked country bordering on Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, a tiny border with China at the northeast, and Pakistan to the east and south.

Its total area is 647,500 square kilometers (almost 250,000 square miles).

Most of Afghanistan is in the Hindu Kush Mountains, with some lower-lying desert areas. The highest point is Nowshak, at 7,486 meters (24,560 feet). The lowest is the Amu Darya River Basin, at 258 meters (846 feet).

An arid and mountainous country, Afghanistan has little cropland; a scant 12 percent is arable, and only 0.2 percent is under permanent crop-cover.


The climate of Afghanistan is very dry and seasonal, with temperatures varying by altitude. Kabul's average January temperature is 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit), while noon temperatures in July often reach 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit). Jalalabad can hit 46 Celsius (115 Fahrenheit) in the summer.

Most of the precipitation that falls in Afghanistan comes in the form of winter snow. The nation-wide annual average is only 25-30 centimeters (10 to 12 inches), but snow drifts in the mountain valleys can reach depths of over 2 meters.

The desert experiences sandstorms carried on winds moving at up to 177 kph (110 mph).


Afghanistan is among the poorest countries on Earth. The per capita GDP is $1,900 US, and about 36 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.

The economy of Afghanistan receives large infusions of foreign aid, totaling billions of U.S. dollars annually. It has been undergoing a recovery, in part by the return of over five million expatriates and new construction projects.

The country's most valuable export is opium; eradication efforts have had mixed success. Other export goods include wheat, cotton, wool, handwoven rugs, and precious stones. Afghanistan imports much of its food and energy.

Agriculture employs 80 percent of the labor force, industry, and services 10 percent each. The unemployment rate is 35 percent.

The currency is the afghani. As of 2016, $1 US = 69 afghani.

History of Afghanistan

Afghanistan was settled at least 50,000 years ago. Early cities such as Mundigak and Balkh sprang up around 5,000 years ago; they likely were affiliated with the Aryan culture of India.

Around 700 B.C., the Median Empire expanded its rule to Afghanistan. The Medes were an Iranian people, rivals of the Persians. By 550 B.C., the Persians had displaced the Medians, establishing the Achaemenid Dynasty.

Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded Afghanistan in 328 B.C., founding a Hellenistic empire with its capital at Bactria (Balkh). The Greeks were displaced around 150 B.C. by the Kushans and later the Parthians, nomadic Iranians. The Parthians ruled until about 300 A.D. when the Sassanians took control.

Most Afghans were Hindu, Buddhist or Zoroastrian at that time, but an Arab invasion in 642 A.D. introduced Islam. The Arabs defeated the Sassanians and ruled until 870, at which time they were driven out again by the Persians.

In 1220, Mongol warriors under Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan, and descendants of the Mongols would rule much of the region until 1747.

In 1747, the Durrani Dynasty was founded by Ahmad Shah Durrani, an ethnic Pashtun. This marked the origin of modern Afghanistan.

The nineteenth century witnessed increasing Russian and British competition for influence in Central Asia, in "The Great Game." Britain fought two wars with the Afghans, in 1839-1842 and 1878-1880. The British were routed in the first Anglo-Afghan War but took control of Afghanistan's foreign relations after the second.

Afghanistan was neutral in World War I, but Crown Prince Habibullah was assassinated for purported pro-British ideas in 1919. Later that year, Afghanistan attacked India, prompting the British to relinquish control over Afghan foreign affairs.

Habibullah's younger brother Amanullah reigned from 1919 until his abdication in 1929. His cousin, Nadir Khan, became king but lasted only four years before he was assassinated.

Nadir Khan's son, Mohammad Zahir Shah, then took the throne, ruling from 1933 to 1973. He was ousted in a coup by his cousin Sardar Daoud, who declared the country a republic. Daoud was ousted in turn in 1978 by the Soviet-backed PDPA, which instituted Marxist rule. The Soviets took advantage of the political instability to invade in 1979; they would remain for ten years.

Warlords ruled from 1989 until the extremist Taliban took power in 1996. The Taliban regime was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001 for its support of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. A new Afghan government was formed, supported by the International Security Force of the United Nations Security Council. The new government continued to receive help from US-led NATO troops to battle Taliban insurgencies and shadow governments. The US war in Afghanistan was officially ended December 28, 2014.