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Formal Name
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

Local Name

Local Formal Name
Dowlat-e Eslami-ye Afghanestan

Location: Asia

Status: UN Country

Capital City: Kabul

Main Cities: Kandahar, Herat

Population: 21,968,000    Area []: 652,090

Currency: 1 Afghani = 100 puls

Languages: Pushtu, Dari (Persian)

Religions: Sunni Muslim, Shiá Muslim

Afghanistan (Persian Afghánistán), republic in southwestern Asia, bounded on the north by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; on the east by China, the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistan; on the south by Pakistan; and on the west by Iran. The country's official name is Republic of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is roughly elliptical in shape and has a maximum length, from northeast to southwest, of about 1450 km (about 900 mi) and a width of about 725 km (about 450 mi). It has an area of about 647,500 sq km (about 250,000 sq mi). Kabul is the capital and largest city.

Land and Resources

Afghanistan is a predominantly mountainous country; about three-fourths of its surface consists of uplands. The main lowlands are a series of river valleys in the north and various desert regions in the south and southwest. The principal mountain system of the country is the Hindu Kush, which, with its various offshoots, extends for about 965 km (about 600 mi) from the Pamirs, a range in the northeast, to the borders of Iran in the west. The average altitude of the Hindu Kush is about 4270 m (about 14,000 ft); some peaks are about 7620 m (about 25,000 ft) high. Natural passes penetrate the mountains of Afghanistan at various points, facilitating travel within the nation as well as communication with neighboring countries. In the Hindu Kush the only pass lower than 3050 m (10,000 ft) is the Shibar (2987 m/9800 ft), which connects the Kabul region with the northern part of the country. Probably the best known of the mountain passes is the Khyber Pass on the northeastern border, which traverses the Sulaiman Range and affords relatively easy access to Pakistan.


The chief rivers of Afghanistan are the Amu Darya, known in ancient times as the Oxus, on the border of Tajikistan; the Kabul, which flows into the Indus River; the Helmand, the longest river in the country, in the south; and the Haŕrud, in the west. All these rivers except the Kabul empty into lakes or swamps.


Climatic conditions in Afghanistan exhibit great daily and seasonal variations, largely because of the extremes in elevation that characterize the country. During the day, variations in temperature may range from freezing conditions at dawn to almost 38° C (100° F) at noon. Summer temperatures as high as 49° C (120° F) have been recorded in the northern valleys. Midwinter temperatures as low as -9.4° C (15° F) are common at the 1980-m (6500-ft) level in the Hindu Kush. The city of Kabul, situated at an elevation of about 1830 m (about 6000 ft), has cold winters and pleasant summers. Jalalabad (about 550 m/about 1800 ft high) is subtropical, and the climate of Kandahar (about 1070 m/about 3500 ft high) is mild. Afghanistan is a relatively dry country, the annual rainfall averaging about 305 mm (about 12 in). Most of the rainfall occurs between October and April. Sandstorms occur frequently in the deserts and arid plains.

Natural Resources

Despite the arid climate and mountainous terrain, the natural resources of Afghanistan are mainly agricultural. A variety of mineral deposits exists, but transportation difficulties, war, and lack of native technical skills and equipment have hindered full exploitation of such resources. Much natural gas is located in the north, and the country also has major deposits of iron ore.

Arid climate and mountainous terrain are mainly responsible for the relative lack of soil development. The larger tracts of arable land in the fertile valleys are the only well-developed natural resource in Afghanistan.


The plant life of Afghanistan resembles that of the Himalayas, as well as that of the plains and deserts of the Middle East. Forests of cedar, pine, and other conifers are found at elevations of about 1830 to 3660 m (about 6000 to 12,000 ft). As the result of overcutting, forests now occupy only about 3 percent of the land area. At lower elevations are found such shrubs and trees as hazel, pistachio, ash, juniper, and tragacanth. Below the 914-m (3000-ft) level, vegetation, consisting largely of herbs and some shrubs, is quite sparse. Many varieties of wildflowers bloom in the spring, both in the mountains and on the grassy steppes. Forest products include resin, asafetida, and piñon (pine nuts), as well as timber and firewood. Among the various fruit trees are the apricot, peach, pear, apple, almond, and walnut. Date palms flourish in the extreme south, and pomegranates and citrus fruit grow in the vicinity of Kandahar and Jalalabad. Grapes and melons of excellent quality and unusual variety are common.


Indian, European, and Middle Eastern fauna inhabit Afghanistan. Dromedaries and Bactrian camels abound. Indigenous wild animals include mountain sheep, bears, ibex, gazelles, wolves, jackals, wildcats, hedgehogs, and foxes. The principal domesticated animals are sheep, cattle, and goats; others include donkeys, horses, mules, and the Afghan hound, a breed of hunting dog. The Karakul sheep of Afghanistan are famous for their pelts. Waterfowl, pheasants, quail, and many varieties of smaller land and shore birds are also found.


The population, predominantly rural, can be divided into four main ethnic groups. The Pashtuns make up about 38 percent of the total population. The Tajiks, of Iranian stock, make up about 25 percent, and most of the remainder consists of Uzbeks (6 percent) and Hazaras (19 percent).

Social mobility has become greater since the 1950s. The power of family patriarchs has been lessened, and women have been largely emancipated.

Population Characteristics

A 1979 census placed the population at 15,551,358, including 2.5 million nomads. The overall population density was 24 persons per sq km (62 per sq mi). The resident population was estimated at 16,560,000 in 1990; another 5.6 million Afghans were refugees living in Pakistan and Iran. In 1993 the United Nations High Commission on Refugees reported that in 1992 the largest refugee population was from Afghanistan, numbering about 4.5 million, of which 2.9 million were in Iran. By the end of that year, 1.5 million had returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan. More than 80 percent of the people live and work in rural areas, and approximately 2.6 million still lead a nomadic life.

Political Divisions


For administrative purposes, Afghanistan is divided into 31 provinces: Badakhshan, Badghis, Baghlan, Balkh, Bamian, Farah, Faryab, Ghazń, Ghor, Helmand, Herat, Jouzjan, Kabul, Kandahar, Kapisa, Kunar, Kondoz, Laghman, Logar, Nangarhar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktika, Parwan, Patya, Samangan, Sar-i-Pul, Takhar, Uruzgan, Wardak, and Zabul.

The capital of Afghanistan is Kabul (population, 1988 estimate, 1,424,400), which, from its eastern location, commands vital routes through the mountain passes. Other major cities are the trading centers of Kandahar (225,500) and Herat (177,300), known for its many ancient mosques, palaces, and other architectural relics.


More than 99 percent of the people of Afghanistan are Muslims, mainly of the Sunni sect. Most of the remainder, notably the Hazara, belong to the Shiite sect. Small colonies of Jews, Hindus, and Parsis are scattered in the towns. Mazar-e Shaŕf is the leading place of pilgrimage.


Pashto and Persian (Dari), divisions of the Iranian linguistic group, are the official languages of Afghanistan. Although Pashto has quite an extensive literature, Persian is used for cultural expression and business and government transactions. Of the many dialects spoken, the Turkish Uzbek, Turkoman, and Kirgiz are most prevalent in the border regions.


Although elementary schooling is free and compulsory for children aged 7 through 15, only about 25 percent of the people aged 15 or more years are literate. In the late 1980s, elementary and secondary schools had an annual enrollment of more than 700,000 students. Institutions of higher education had an enrollment of some 10,000 students. Kabul University (1932) was the country's main institute of higher education until civil war forced the school to close in 1992. The smaller University of Nangarhar (1962) is in Jalalabad.

Libraries and Museums

The few major libraries are located in Kabul. The Kabul Museum, largest in the country, is best known for its collection of early Buddhist relics.


The ancient art of storytelling continues to flourish in Afghanistan largely as a result of widespread illiteracy. The Afghanistan Historical Society and the Pashto Academy, however, publish literary magazines and encourage new writers.

Art, Music, and Sports

Afghan cultural life is characterized by traditional arts and pastimes. Gold and silver jewelry, rugs in the Persian style, and various leather goods are still made at home. Music is represented chiefly by traditional folk songs, ballads, and dances. The attan is the national dance. It is performed in a large circle with the dancers clapping their hands and quickening the movements of their feet to the beat of the music. Popular sports include polo; ghosai, a team sport similar to wrestling; and buzkashi, a goal game that uses an animal carcass in place of a ball or puck.


Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, with annual income per capita estimated at only $220. The economy is based on private ownership, modified by a limited form of socialism. A series of five-year plans for the development of industry, agriculture, mining, transportation, and social services was initiated in 1962. All mineral resources are owned by the state. In the late 1970s and the 1980s the economy was disrupted by occupation of the country by military forces of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and by Afghan guerrilla resistance to the occupying forces. In the mid-1980s annual government expenditures were estimated at about $650 million, including $370 million in capital spending.

About 68 percent of the population is engaged in animal husbandry or the cultivation of crops. The most pressing labor problems are violence and political instability, widespread unemployment, and a lack of skilled workers and administrators.


Agriculture is the main source of income in Afghanistan; the country usually produces enough food products for its own needs and a surplus for export. The leading crops are wheat, corn, rice, barley, garden vegetables, various fruits, and nuts. The major industrial crops are castor beans, madder (used for red dyes), asafetida (a medicinal resin), tobacco, cotton, and sugar beets. Sheep raising, the most important pastoral industry, usually provides large quantities of meat, fats, and wool for domestic consumption and wool and hides for export; there were an estimated 14 million sheep in the early 1990s. The skin of the Karakul, a breed of broadtail sheep raised in large numbers in northern Afghanistan, is highly valued. Livestock also includes substantial numbers of camels, horses, donkeys, cattle, goats, and poultry.


Since ancient times, deposits of gold, silver, copper, beryl, and lapis lazuli have been mined in small quantities in the mountainous areas. Salt has been mined in increasing quantities, and production now meets the needs of the country. Coal deposits have been exploited, and production rose to an estimated 167,000 metric tons per year in 1987. Large natural-gas deposits in northern Afghanistan were developed with Soviet financing. Gas began flowing to the USSR in the mid-1970s. Other deposits, such as iron ore, sulfur, chrome, zinc, and uranium, are still largely unexploited.


During the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturing greatly increased. With the opening in 1965 of a large West German-built wool mill, woolen-textile production more than doubled. Among the other factories, located primarily in Kabul, are plants manufacturing textiles (the most important manufactured export product) and footwear; government-operated cement plants; a fruit-processing plant; a coal-briquetting plant; and several cotton gins. The chief cottage industry (work done at home) is the weaving of rugs.


About 60 percent of Afghanistan's electricity is produced in hydroelectric facilities, and most of the rest is generated by thermal plants using coal or petroleum products. Major hydroelectric projects are situated on the Helmand and Kabul rivers. In 1989, Afghanistan annually produced about 1.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Currency and Banking

The unit of currency is the afghani, which is divided into 100 puls (1826.48 afghanis equal U.S.$1; 1994). The Central Bank of Afghanistan issues all notes, executes government loans, and lends money to cities and to other banks. All private banks in Afghanistan were nationalized in 1975.


Most of the foreign trade of Afghanistan is controlled by the government or by government-controlled monopolies. For the year ending March 20, 1991, annual exports earned about $235.1 million, and yearly imports cost $884 million. The USSR was the leading trading partner in that year. Principal exports are natural gas (42 percent), dried fruits and nuts (26 percent), cotton, rugs, and Karakul skins. The leading purchasers of Afghan products, in addition to the USSR, have been Pakistan, Great Britain, Germany, and India. Imports include textiles, building materials, petroleum, machinery, hardware, tea, and sugar.


Travel within Afghanistan is severely limited by the rugged terrain. The country has less than 25 km (less than 16 mi) of railroad track, and its narrow, fast-flowing rivers are unnavigable and are used chiefly for transporting timber. Camels and other pack animals are extensively employed for conveying goods. The country has about 21,000 km (about 13,050 mi) of roads, mostly unpaved. Main highways link Kabul with the provincial capitals. Access to Pakistan is afforded by roads that traverse the Khyber Pass. Road maintenance is a constant problem in Afghanistan, mainly because of violent spring floods. Bakhtar Afghan Airlines is the nation's international and domestic air carrier.


The state-controlled telephone and telegraph lines serve all principal cities and smaller towns as well. Telegraphic communications exist among the major cities and between Kabul and Peshawar. In the early 1990s about 31,200 telephones were in use.

Afghanistan had about 14 newspapers in the early 1990s. The government broadcasting network serves about 1,890,000 radios and 147,000 television sets.


Afghanistan was a monarchy until 1973, when the king was overthrown and a republic proclaimed. A constitution promulgated in February 1977 vested broad powers in the president, made Afghanistan a one-party state, and installed Islam as the state religion. Legislative power was vested in a parliament (Shura), consisting of an upper house (House of the Elders) and a lower house (House of the People). This constitution was suspended in April 1978 following a coup d'état, and the Revolutionary Council became the country's chief governing body.

In 1987 the Soviet-backed Communist government issued a new constitution providing for a president to be indirectly elected to a seven-year term. The bicameral National Assembly (Meli Shura) consisted of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The People's Democratic party controlled the government, but 50 of the 234 seats in the House of Representatives were reserved for opposition parties.

Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 and the ouster of the Communist regime in April 1992, an interim council took power. An indirect election for president took place in December 1992.

Local Government

Each province is administered by a governor appointed by the central government. The provinces are divided into districts and subdistricts.

Health and Welfare

Violence in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s has prohibited improvements in the country's welfare system. Health conditions remain poor, the infant mortality rate is high, and average life expectancy is only about 45 years.


Afghanistan first appeared in recorded history in the 6th century BC, when it was included in the Persian empire of the Achaemenids. Along with the rest of the Persian Empire, the region was subjugated, about 330 BC, by Alexander the Great. After his death in 323 BC, most of the region fell under the domination of Alexander's general, Seleucus I and later under that of the Indian king Chandragupta. Later another Greek dynasty established itself in Bactria (northern Afghanistan) and founded a state that lasted from 256 BC until about 130 BC. The Greco-Bactrian state yielded in turn to Iranian nomads called the Sakas and then to the Kushans, who adopted Buddhism. In the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the Sassanid Persians invaded the country from the west. The Ephthalites, or White Huns, were largely in control of Afghanistan when the conquering Arabs swept the region in the middle of the 7th century.

Early Muslim Dynasties

Arab penetration affected Afghanistan probably more decisively than any previous foreign influence. Centuries passed, however, before Islam became the dominant religion. Arab political control was superseded meanwhile by Iranian and Turkish rule. Complete Turkish ascendancy in the area was established late in the 10th century and early in the 11th century by the Muslim sultan Mahmud of Ghazń. Islamic culture subsequently took hold under the Afghan or Iranian Ghuri dynasty (1148-1215). The Ghurids gradually extended their rule into northern India, but were overwhelmed by the hordes of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, who came down from the north about 1220. Most of the country remained under Mongol control until the close of the 14th century, when another Mongol invader, Tamerlane, seized northern Afghanistan. Among Tamerlane's most prominent successors was Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty of India, who conquered Kabul about 1504. Later in the 16th century, Safavids from Iran and Uzbeks from the north made inroads into the region. The Iranians and the Mughal successors of Babur faced continuous Afghan revolts.

The Foundation of the Afghan State

During the 17th century, the native Afghans began to grow in power. The Ghilzai tribe conquered the Iranian capital of Esfahan (Isfahan) in 1722. Subsequently, a vigorous Iranian counteroffensive was launched by Nadir Shah, who in 1738 reestablished Iranian authority over virtually all of Afghanistan. Nadir was assassinated in 1747, whereupon the Afghan chiefs selected one of his generals, a member of the Abdali tribe named Ahmad Shah, as their ruler. Ahmad Shah became known as Durri-i-Dauran ("Pearl of the Age"). The Abdali were thus designated thereafter as the Durani. Ahmad Shah substantially enlarged his realm, acquiring eastern Iran, Balochistan, Kashmir, and part of the Punjab. The emirate disintegrated, however, under the succeeding rulers of his dynasty, falling in 1818. Anarchy prevailed in Afghanistan during the ensuing period. In 1826 Dost Muhammad Khan, a member of a prominent Afghan family, seized control of eastern Afghanistan, assuming the title of emir in 1835.

Conflicts with Britain

Meanwhile, Dost Muhammad had appealed to British colonial authorities in India for support of Afghan territorial claims in the Punjab. When the British rejected his appeal, he turned to Russia for help.

First Afghan War

Fearful that the Russian sphere of influence would be extended to the Indian frontiers, the British governor-general in India, George Eden, Earl of Auckland, presented Dost Muhammad with an ultimatum that included demands for the expulsion of a Russian representative at Kabul. These British demands were refused, and in March 1838 an Anglo-Indian army invaded Afghanistan, precipitating the First Afghan War (1838-1842). Meeting little effective opposition, the invaders captured Kandahar in April 1839 and Ghazń the following July. When Kabul fell in August, Shah Shuja, a grandson of Ahmad Shah, was installed on the Afghan throne in place of Dost Muhammad, who gave himself up to the British.

On November 2, 1841, Akbar Khan, a son of Dost Muhammad, led a successful revolt against Shah Shuja and the Anglo-Indian garrisons in the country. An Anglo-Indian punitive expedition reinforced the garrisons for a brief period, but in December 1842 the British finally left the country. Dost Muhammad was then released from custody and allowed to resume his throne.

Relations between Afghanistan and British-held India remained tense until 1855, when Dost Muhammad concluded a peace agreement with the Indian government.

Second Afghan War

Fratricidal strife among the emir's sons kept the country in turmoil for more than a decade after his death in 1863. Shere Ali Khan, his third son and successor, aroused the enmity of the British by adopting a friendly policy toward Russia in 1878. Another British ultimatum was ignored, and in November 1878 Anglo-Indian forces again invaded Afghanistan. In the course of the ensuing conflict, known as the Second Afghan War (1878-1879), the Afghans suffered a series of severe reversals. Kabul was occupied in October 1879; Yakub Khan, son of Shere Ali, who had succeeded to the throne the preceding March, was forced to abdicate; and, in 1880, Abd-ar-Rahman Khan, grandson of Dost Muhammad, was placed on the throne.

Subsequent Anglo-Afghan Relations

The new ruler confirmed the cession, previously arranged with the British by Yakub Khan, of the Khyber Pass and other Afghan territories. During his reign, which lasted until 1901, Abd-ar-Rahman Khan settled boundary disputes with India and Russia, created a standing army, and curbed the power of various tribal chieftains.

In 1907, during the reign of Habibullah Khan, the son and successor of Abd-ar-Rahman, the British and Russian governments concluded a convention pledging mutual respect for the territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Habibullah was assassinated in February 1919. His brother, Nasrullah Khan, who held the throne for only six days, was deposed by the Afghan nobility in favor of Amanullah Khan, the son of Habibullah. Determined to completely remove his country from the British sphere of influence, Amanullah declared war on Great Britain in May 1919. The British, faced at the same time with the growing Indian liberation movement, negotiated a peace treaty with Afghanistan the following August. By the terms of the agreement, concluded at Rawalpindi, Great Britain recognized Afghanistan as a sovereign and independent nation. In 1926 Amanullah Khan changed his title from emir to king.


The popularity and prestige that King Amanullah had won through his handling of the British were soon to be dissipated. Deeply impressed by the modernization programs of Iran and Turkey, he instituted a series of political, social, and religious reforms. Constitutional rule was inaugurated in 1923, the titles of the nobility were abolished, education for women was decreed, and other sweeping measures aimed at the modernization of traditional institutions were enforced. The hostility provoked by the king's reform program led to a rebellion in 1929, and Amanullah quickly abdicated and went into exile. His brother, Inayatullah, who succeeded him, was deposed by Bacha Sakau, a rebel leader, after a reign of three days. In 1929, Amanullah's uncle, Nadir Shah, supported by several thousand tribesmen, defeated the rebels and executed Bacha Sakau. The crown was given to Nadir Shah.

The new ruler gradually restored order in the kingdom. In 1932 he initiated a program of economic reforms, but he was assassinated the following year. His son and successor, Zahir Shah, who was only 19 years old at the time of his accession, was dominated for the next 30 years by his uncles and cousins, particularly by his cousin and later brother-in-law, Prince Muhammad Daud Khan. The government intensified the modernization program begun by Nadir Shah and established close commercial relations with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Zahir Shah proclaimed neutrality at the outbreak of World War II in 1939; in 1941, however, at the request of Great Britain and the Soviet Union, more than 200 German and Italian agents were expelled from the country. The United States established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in 1942. In November 1946 Afghanistan became a member of the United Nations.