Afghanistan, a landlocked "crossroads" country, is home to 30 million people, about 80 percent of whom are Shiite Muslim and 19 percent are Shi'a Muslim. At different points in history, Afghanistan was conquered by the Persian, Greek, Turkish and Indian empires. In the 19th century, Afghanistan defended its independence in two wars with Britain, and in 1919, the country gained independence after the British relinquished control. Afghanistan was a monarchy until 1973, when it became a republic after a coup d'etat.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan was peaceful, cities were liberal, and Western fashion was popular among the younger generation.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support a pro-Communist regime. Muslim guerrilla fighters known as Mujahidin, or "holy fighters," fought the Soviet forces and government until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
After nearly a decade of fighting among factional forces representing different tribes and warlords, the Taliban, a militia of fundamentalist Islamic students, emerged as a popular force. By 2000, the Taliban controlled almost 90 percent of Afghanistan and enforced Islamic law.
Under the Taliban, many things were restricted or banned, including weather forecasting, cinema and television, music, employment for women, noisy and revealing shoes for women, white shoes for men and women, clean-shaven faces for men and kite flying. Boxing was not technically banned by the Taliban, but Afghan boxers could not compete internationally because international boxing rules require contestants to be clean-shaven.
The United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001 and established a provisional government, headed by President Hamid Karzai. In June 2002, a traditional Afghan loya jirga, or "grand council," headed by former king Zahir Shah, reaffirmed Karzai's leadership by electing him for another two-year term, and in 2004, Karzai was elected to serve a five-year term in the country's first direct presidential elections.
Despite the apparent shift toward democracy, factional and tribal warlords remain powerful. Remnants of the Taliban are still active in parts of the country and they periodically conduct guerrilla attacks against Western and government forces.
Parliamentary and provincial elections are scheduled for September 18, 2005.
Source: CIA Factbook, BBC, Wikipedia
"A House for Haji Baba"
This FRONTLINE/World story from October 2003 covers NPR reporter Sarah Chayes's work in helping to rebuild a village in Afghanistan. The Web site includes a reporter's slideshow with images of a country destroyed by war and "Invisible Women," an interactive feature on life for women in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan: Without Warlords"
FRONTLINE/World fellow Roya Aziz, an Afghan American, reported on Afghanistan's historic 2004 presidential elections.
"The First-Ever Mr. Afghanistan"
CNN reported on Khosraw Basheri's being named Afghanistan's first top bodybuilder in August 2005.
"Afghan Tough Guys Swap Guns for Gym"
In November 2004, the Guardian (U.K.) reported on the increasing number of men in Afghanistan with "waxed chests, cheesy grins and bulging biceps."
This in-depth coverage from BBC News includes political analysis and articles on Afghanistan's opium industry and aspiring female politicians.
Country Profile: Afghanistan
Afghanistan has been a battleground for centuries, as explained in this BBC country profile.