Frontline World

Afghanistan - A House for Haji Baba, Ocotber 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "A House for Haji Baba"

Behind the Lens

Danger, Determination and Destiny

Politics, Security, Health, Education

Government, Population, Economy

Background, Reconstruction Efforts, Warlordism




Images of Afghani landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• Government and History
• The Road to Reconstruction

General Background

Afghanistan is mountainous, semiarid and landlocked. Located in southwestern Asia, it's bordered by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. The country's area is 647,500 square kilometers, slightly smaller than Texas.

Afghanistan's population is just under 28 million. Pashtuns make up 44 percent of the total population, Tajiks 25 percent and dozens of other ethnic groups the remainder. More than 50 different languages are spoken. Afghanistan is predominantly Sunni Muslim, with a Shiite Muslim minority.

The average life expectancy at birth for Afghans is just 47 years. An estimated 15,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related causes.

Fifty percent of Afghan men and 79 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. Only 39 percent of school-aged boys and 3 percent of school-aged girls are enrolled in primary school.

Afghanistan is desperately poor, devastated by decades of war complicated by severe drought from 1998 to 2002.

There are fewer than 30,000 telephones in the country.

Only 12 percent of Afghanistan's mountainous and barren land is arable.

Afghanistan's legal economy centers largely on livestock and agriculture (fruit, nuts, sheep and goats). Its illegal economy revolves around opium poppies: It produces 70 percent of the world's opium and is the source of as much as 90 percent of the heroin in Europe.

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Government and History

Torn by war for millennia, the lands comprising today's Afghanistan have, at varying points in history, been conquered by the Persian, Greek, Turkish and Indian empires.

In the 19th century, Afghanistan fought two wars with Britain to defend its independence.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. 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.

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.

Factional and tribal warlords remain powerful and have already resumed fighting among themselves. Remnants of the Taliban are still active in parts of the country and periodically conduct guerrilla attacks against Western and government forces.

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The Road to Reconstruction

In 2000, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan estimated that the reconstruction of Afghanistan would require $10 billion over a 10-year period. Donors have pledged $4.5 billion in aid. The Kabul government says approximately 88 percent of the pledged money has been delivered.

Priority areas for reconstruction include upgrading health, education, potable water and sanitation facilities; providing jobs; rebuilding local governments; establishing security; developing agriculture; rebuilding transportation, energy and telecommunication infrastructures; reconstructing homes; and absorbing almost 2 million returning refugees.

Food shortages still affect the country: Afghanistan expects a bumper harvest of 5.37 million tons of grain in 2003, but will need an additional 400,000 tons of imported grain for 2003-2004.

Some 700 square kilometers of land is contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). In 1999 alone, there were about 3,000 injuries from land mines and UXO.

Afghans are the largest refugee population in the world. A third of the population left the country during the Soviet occupation. There are 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and 1.5 million in Iran. And 1.2 million Afghans are displaced internally.

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Sources: CIA World Factbook; Encyclopedia: Afghan history; United Nations Development Programme data; AFP Worldwide News Agency/Afghanistan Ministry of Finance report; United Nations World Food Programme news release (August 14, 2003); U.S.-Afghanistan Reconstruction Council.