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 4.114 million (2019 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. The current president is Ashraf Ghani (born 1949), who was elected in 2014. Hamid Karzai (born 1957) 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

In 2018, the population of Afghanistan was estimated at 34,940,837 million.

Afghanistan is home to a number of ethnic groups. Current statistics on ethnicity are not available. The constitution recognizes fourteen groups, Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Baloch, Turkmen, Nuristani, Pamiri, Arab, Gujar, Brahui, Qizilbash, Aimaq, and Pasha.

Life expectancy for both men and women within Afghanistan is 50.6 for males and 53.6 for females. The infant mortality rate is 108 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. Dari is the lingua franca, and around 77% of Afghanis speak Dari as their first language.

About 48% of the people of Afghanistan speak Pashto, the language of the Pashtun tribe. It is also spoken in the Pashtun areas of western Pakistan. Other spoken languages include Uzbek 11%, English 6%, Turkmen 3%, Urdu 3%, Pashayi 1%, Nuristani 1%, Arabic 1%, and Balochi 1%. Many people speak more than one language.

Religion

The overwhelming majority of Afghanistan's people are Muslim, around 99.7%, with between 85–90% Sunni and 10–15% Shia.

The final one percent includes about 20,000 Baha'is, and 3,000–5,000 Christians. Only one Bukharan Jewish man, Zablon Simintov (born 1959), remains in the country as of 2019. All of the other members of the Jewish community left when Israel was created in 1948, or 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.

Geography

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 251,826 square miles (652,230 square kilometers.

Most of Afghanistan is in the Hindu Kush Mountains, with some lower-lying desert areas. The highest point is Noshak, at 24,580 feet (7,492 meters). The lowest is the Amu Darya River Basin, at 846 ft (258 m).

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 rest in pasture.

Climate

The climate of Afghanistan is arid to semiarid with cold winters and hot summers and temperatures varying by altitude. Kabul's average January temperature is 0 degrees C (32 F), 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 10–12 inches (25–30 centimeters), but snow drifts in the mountain valleys can reach depths of over 6.5 ft (2 m).

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

Economy

Afghanistan is among the poorest countries on Earth. The per capita GDP is estimated in 2017 as $2,000 US, and about 54.5% 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 2017, $1 US = 7.87 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 BCE, the Median Empire expanded its rule to Afghanistan. The Medes were an Iranian people, rivals of the Persians. By 550 BCE, the Persians had displaced the Medians, establishing the Achaemenid Dynasty.

Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded Afghanistan in 328 BCE, founding a Hellenistic empire with its capital at Bactria (Balkh). The Greeks were displaced around 150 BCE. 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 CE 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.

The U.S. has approximately 14,000 troops in Afghanistan engaged in two missions: 1) a bilateral counter-terrorism mission in cooperation with Afghan forces; and 2) the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, a non-combat mission providing training and support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. 

Presidential elections were held in the country in September 2019, but an outcome has yet to be determined.

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