Depending on where you live in the world, reading or watching the news about Afghanistan can conjure up graphic images of the very real conflict there, spurred by recent increases in violence. There is a larger picture that encompasses a broader view, however, and a deeper history than modern news stories convey.
This substantial country of almost 29 million is populated by distinct peoples, the largest group of which is the Pashtun. Tajiks form the next largest ethnic population. Hazaris and Uzbeks, roughly equal in numbers, comprise the smallest of the four main groups. Other tribes and ethnic groups are also represented, including the Turkmen and the Baluchis.
Its strategic location between Asia and the Middle East affords Afghanistan an importance that can be either beneficial or destructive. Outside forces have influenced Afghanistan throughout its history. They include Alexander the Great, Persians, Genghis Khan and, in a more recent millennium, Britain and the Soviet Union, whose invasion in 1979 launched a 10-year war that left much damage in its wake. Civil wars then plagued the country, Taliban emerging to eventually take the capital city of Kabul in the mid-1990s. Heavy-handed rule ensued, with violent tactics practiced in lieu of predictable rule. Driven out of power after September 11, 2001, Taliban rule gave way to a new constitution and an elected president, Hamid Karzai, in 2004.
Currently there are foreigners working on reconstruction projects in the country, as well as those from humanitarian aid organizations. Strict security procedures do not always guarantee safety for newcomers, as terrorist forces seek to derail the goals of peace and stability and the Taliban flexes its muscles again. Newcomers should be cautious, and stay in contact with their employers and home-country embassy or consulates for the latest security news and procedures.
There have been some positive developments in both municipal and commercial infrastructure in Kabul since 2001. There are well-run, comfortable 5-star hotels available, Western restaurants, gymnasiums, and coffeehouses all suited to, and frequented by, the international community. Kabul has a very large international community, and expatriates will generally find that expanding their social and professional networks will happen quickly and with minimal effort.
Afghanistan's government is an Islamic republic, with a president elected via direct vote for a five-year term, with a two-term limit.
Legislature is handled by the National Assembly, made up of the Mashrano Jirga (House of Elders) and the Wolesi Jirga (House of People). The Mashrano Jirga has 102 seats, with one-third elected for four years, one-third elected for three years, and one-third elected for five years. Members of the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga are directly elected for five years.
As the country's second presidential election drew near in August of 2009, the Taliban once again cast its shadow, threatening violence to those who voted and generally attempting strong-arm tactics to instill fear and curtail voter turnout.
Due to claims of fraudulent procedures associated with balloting, the UN launched an inquiry and a run-off election was rescheduled for November. Karzai's challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, ultimately withdrew his bid for office and the run-off election was never held. Karzai's re-election was confirmed.
Afghanistan's years of war have placed a heavy burden on its economy. Major sectors are services (43%) and agriculture (31%), although the climate is semi-arid and just over 12% of the land is arable. Nevertheless, 80% of the workforce is engaged in agrarian pursuits. Unemployment was around 40% in 2008.
Insurgency and an unstable government plagued by corruption have posed challenges to an already struggling economy. The billions of dollars of international aid pledged to the country have yet to bring much improvement to the lives of most Afghans. Another issue is the very lucrative opium trade, which generates an estimated US$3 billion from local poppy fields.
International aid has been critical to the country's reconstruction efforts, which so far include restoration of about 2,350 km/1,460 mi of circular roads. But many challenges lie ahead as the country struggles to achieve reliability of basic life- and health-sustaining staples for its people, upon which a stronger and more promising future can be built.