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Afghanistan: A Battleground Through the Ages

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 19, 2001 – It is a country that has humbled three empires, yet Afghanistan has few natural resources and is wreathed in poverty.

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Map of Afghanistan
  

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Afghanistan is sheltering Osama bin Laden, the man at the center of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. President Bush wants him "dead or alive."

Bush also has said the United States "will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." A full range of diplomatic and economic efforts is under way to convince the Islamic Taliban movement to turn over bin Laden.

Afghanistan is a rugged country regarded as the crossroads between Central and South Asia. As such, it lies on the route that invaders and explorers have taken from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo to the British to the Soviet Union.

There is no functioning government in Afghanistan. The executive branch broke down in 1996. The legislative branch stopped functioning in 1993. The judicial branch stopped in 1995.

The Taliban get most of their support from the Pashtun ethnic group. They control the capital of Kabul and about 80 percent of the country while other factions rule the multiethnic north. The United States does not recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's government.

The Taliban said their aim was to set up the world's purest Islamic state. They initially gained favor by efforts to stamp out local warring factions and to stamp out corruption.

The Taliban has imposed Shari'a (Islamic law) in the areas it controls. The imposition means offenses are punished by public executions and amputations. The Taliban have made it illegal to educate women or for women to work outside the home. It is illegal to watch any television program not cleared by the Taliban or to own any videocassettes that are not religion-oriented. The Taliban has also outlawed the Internet.

Afghanistan has 25 million people, but many are refugees. Pakistani officials said about 2.5 million Afghans are living in their country. More are trying to reach Pakistan as tensions between the United States and Afghanistan ratchet up over bin Laden. Other counties with significant Afghan refugee populations are Iran and Turkmenistan.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. In the north of the country is the Hindu Kush, a mountain range that is part of the Himalayas.

The main "industry" is herding. Some 46 percent of the land is in permanent pastures. Only 12 percent of the land was considered arable a few years ago, and that percentage is suspect today because of a long-term drought. Afghanistan has no industry worth the name. It has less than 25 kilometers of railroads. The most recent statistics available put the per capita income at $800 per year, but people who have been in the country say that's an exaggeration -- the estimate's too high.

The country is 99 percent Muslim and 1 percent "other." The Taliban have outlawed all other religions in the area they control. In fact, the Taliban are prosecuting some American aid workers for allegedly distributing Bibles and "trying to tempt people from the 'True Faith.'" Some 84 percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslim and 15 percent are Shi'a Muslim, mostly along the border with Iran.

Afghan history has been bloody. Alexander the Great moved through the area and allegedly fought a battle near what is now Kandahar. Genghis Khan's invasion and subjugation of the area in the early 1200s marked the last time Afghanistan was conquered.

Czarist Russia and Britain vied for control of Afghanistan throughout the 19th century because its strategic location made it a key to the control of India. Both suffered defeats.

The British occupied Kabul in 1838, but worsening resistance led them to quit in January 1842. Given a pledge of safe passage, the British commander led about 700 Britons -- soldiers, wives and children -- 3,800 Indian troops, and more than 12,000 camp followers from the city. The trek through a snow-covered mountain pass to safety would become a 90-mile death march. Only one man emerged alive.

In the 20th century, Afghanistan humbled the Soviet Union. Seeking to prop up their communist satellite in the country, the Soviets invaded in 1979. In a 10-year effort, hundreds of thousands died. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others supplied and trained the anti- Soviet mujahidin forces. In 1989, the Soviets were forced to leave.

But fighting didn't end. Various mujahidin factions fought among themselves for control of the country. The Taliban rode to power on this fighting. Civil war continues in the country, but to a lesser extent than in the past. In addition to the continuing civil strife, the country suffers from enormous poverty, a crumbling infrastructure, and widespread live land mines.

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Related Sites:
CIA World Fact Book 2001: Afghanistan


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