About Afghanistan

AfghanistanAfghanistan, (which literally means Land of the Afghan) is a mountainous land-locked country located in Central Asia. It has a history and culture that goes back over 5000 years. Throughout its long, splendid, and sometimes chaotic history, this area of the world has been known by various names. In ancient times, its inhabitants called the land Aryana. In the medieval era, it was called Khorasan, and in modern times, its people have decided to call it Afghanistan. The exact population of Afghanistan is unknown, however, it is estimated to be somewhere around 21-26 million.

Afghanistan is a heterogeneous nation, in which there are four major ethnic groups: Pashtoons, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Numerous other minor ethnic groups (Nuristanis, Baluchis, Turkmens, etc.) also call Afghanistan their home. While the majority of Afghans (99%) belong to the Islamic faith, there are also small pockets of Sikhs, Hindus and even some Jews. The official languages of the country are Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian).

The capital of Afghanistan is Kabul, which throughout history, was admired by many great figures, such as the great Central Asian conqueror, Zahirudeen Babur. Unfortunately, due to many years of war, this great city has been shattered and nearly destroyed.

Today, Afghanistan is on a road to recovery, however, after decades of war, the economy is still in ruin; its environment is in a state of crises. The country is riddled with landmines left from the war, which are still injuring and killing people on a daily basis.

Kabul

Kabul is a city on the move. Once Afghanistan's cosmopolitan centre and a stop on the old hippy trail to India, the city was ruined in the civil war. The Soviets left the city reasonably intact in 1989, but since then Kabul has been virtually destroyed by bombardments and street battles, with an estimated loss of some 30,000 lives.

The Kabul Museum, which used to have one of the finest collections of antiquities in Asia, has had nearly three-quarters of its finest collections looted. It's still possible to see the remaining artifacts - those without any significant monetary value - but museum hours are erratic.

It was also once possible to walk the five-hour length of the crumbling walls around the ancient citadel, Bala Hissar, but they are now off limits and extremely dangerous due to unexploded bombs and landmines. The pleasant Gardens of Babur are a cool retreat near the city walls and one of the most peaceful and beautiful spots in the city.

Ghazni

The modern town of Ghazni is just a pale shadow of its former glory. The city is only 150km (93mi) southwest of Kabul on the road to Kandahar, but poor roads mean the trip still takes most of the day. Ghazni today is known mainly for its fine bazaar, featuring goods from Afghanistan and surrounding countries.

The carefully restored tomb of Abdul Razzak and the museum within are of interest. There are also some very fine minarets, the excavations of the Palace of Masud and, most surprisingly, a recently discovered Buddhist stupa that has survived from long before the Arab invasion of the 7th century.

Herat

Herat was once a small, provincial, relatively green, laze-about place that everyone seemed to like, an easy-going oasis after a lot of hassle and dry desert. In the 15th century, Herat was the Timurid centre of art, poetry, miniature painting and music, blending Persian, Central Asian and Afghan cultures to create one of Central Asia's cultural highlights.

The Friday Mosque (Masjid-i-Jami), is Herat's number one attraction and among the finest Islamic buildings in the world, certainly the finest in Afghanistan. It has some exquisite Timurid tilework to complement its graceful architecture. Herat's ancient citadel, or qala (1305), was once a Taliban base. The covered bazaar in Charar Su is a complex of all sorts of shops and artisans' workshops.

A short walk from the city centre, in the Musalla Complex, are the remains of an old medressa (1417), built by Queen Gowhar Shad. The wife of Timurid ruler Shah Rukh, Gowhar Shad was Timur's daughter-in-law and a remarkable woman in her own right, who kept the empire intact for many years. Her mausoleum still stands near the medressa, a carbon copy of the Gur Emir in Samarkand.

The shrine complex of Gazar Gah (1425) is about 5km (3mi) northwest of Herat. The tomb of Abdullah Ansari, a famous Sufi mystic and poet who died in Herat in 1088, is the main attraction. The Afghan King Dost Mohammed and the famous Persian poet Jami are also buried here.

The 65m-high (123ft) Minaret of Jam, in the valleys of the Koh-e Saba, 313km (194mi) from Herat and around 550km (341mi) from Kabul, is the second highest in the world, as well as one of the oldest, dating back some 800 years.

Kandahar

Kandahar is situated in the far south of the country, about midway between Kabul and Herat. It's the second-largest city in Afghanistan and lies at an important crossroads, where the main thoroughfare from Kabul branches northwest to Herat and southeast to Quetta in Pakistan.

Kandahar lies very much in the Pashtun heartland and gained modern significance as the power base of the Taliban militia. Kandahar's great treasure, a cloak that once belonged to the Prophet, is safely locked away from infidel eyes in the Mosque of the Sacred Cloak and known locally as Da Kherqa Sharif Ziarat.

A few kilometers from the centre of Kandahar towards Herat are the Chihil Zina (Forty Steps). They lead up to a niche carved in the rock by Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, which is guarded by two stone lions.

Nuristan

Northeast of Kabul, Nuristan (Land of Light) is mountainous, remote, little-visited and of great ethnological interest - and memorably described in Eric Newby's hilarious A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.

Shahr-i-Zohak (The Red City) enshrines the remains of an ancient citadel which guarded Bamiyan, and is about 17km (11mi) before Bamiyan itself and 180km (112mi) northwest of Kabul. This was once the centre of the Ghorid kingdom.

Bamiyan was once home to the Great Buddhas, which stood 38m (114ft) and 55m (174ft) high, and were enclosed within dramatic shrines carved from the cliff walls. Built around the 6th century, these ancient giants were destroyed by Taliban officials in 2001. Clerics interpreted Islamic law to mean that such artifacts were disrespectful to Allah, though the world begged them to reconsider. You can still visit the shrines, though little remains.

Shahr-e Gholghola is the most important ruined city in the valley. The name means 'city of screams', and climbing to the top of a dramatic nearby cliff to look across the valley at the Buddhas used to be a popular activity.

The incredible lakes of Band-e Amir (Dam of the King) boast clear, cold blue water dammed by sulphur deposits and surrounded by towering pink cliffs. Its located 75km (47mi) beyond Bamiyan.

Geography

Afghanistan is a mountainous country with plains in the north and southwest. The highest point, at 7485m above sea level, is Nowshak. Large parts of the country are dry, and fresh water supplies are limited. Afghanistan has a land climate, with hot summers and cold winters. The country is frequently subject to earthquakes.

The major cities of Afghanistan are its capital Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar.

Economy

In the 1930s, Afghanistan embarked on a modest economic development program. The government founded banks; introduced paper money; established a university; expanded primary, secondary, and technical schools; and sent students abroad for education. Historically, there has been a dearth of information and reliable statistics about Afghanistan's economy. The 1979 Soviet invasion and ensuing civil war destroyed much of the country's limited infrastructure and disrupted normal patterns of economic activity. Gross domestic product fell substantially because of loss of labor and capital and disruption of trade and transport. Continuing internal strife hampered both domestic efforts at reconstruction as well as international aid efforts. However, Afghanistan's economy has grown at a fast pace since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, albeit from a low base. GDP growth exceeded 12% in 2007 and 3.4% in 2008; growth for 2009-2010 was 22.5%. Despite these increases, unemployment remains around 40% and factors such as corruption, security, and shortage of skilled workers constrains development and the conduct of business. In June 2006, Afghanistan and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility program for 2006-2009 that focused on maintaining macroeconomic stability, boosting growth, and reducing poverty. Afghanistan is also rebuilding its banking infrastructure through the Da Afghanistan National Central Bank.

Culture

Many of the country's historic monuments have been damaged in the wars in recent years. The two famous statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan province were destroyed by the Taliban because they were regarded as being symbols of another religion.

The people of Afghanistan being renowned horsemen, the sport known as Buzkashi is popular there. Afghan hounds, running dogs, originate from Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban gained power, the city of Kabul was home to many musicians who were masters of both traditional and modern Afghan music. Kabul in the middle part of the 20th century has been likened to Vienna during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Trade & Industry

Afghanistan is endowed with natural resources, including extensive deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, and precious and semiprecious stones. Unfortunately, ongoing instability in certain areas of the country, remote and rugged terrain, and an inadequate infrastructure and transportation network have made mining these resources difficult, and there have been few serious attempts to further explore or exploit them. The first significant investment in the mining sector is expected to commence soon, with the development of the Aynak copper deposit in east-central Afghanistan. This project tender, awarded to a Chinese firm and valued at over $2.5 billion, is the largest international investment in Afghanistan to date. The Ministry of Mines also plans to move forward with oil, gas, and possibly iron ore tenders in 2010.

The most important resource has been natural gas, first tapped in 1967. At their peak during the 1980s, natural gas sales accounted for $300 million a year in export revenues (56% of the total). Ninety percent of these exports went to the Soviet Union to pay for imports and debts. However, during the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan's natural gas fields were capped to prevent sabotage by the mujahidin. Restoration of gas production has been hampered by internal strife and the disruption of traditional trading relationships following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, efforts are underway to create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs). ROZs stimulate badly needed jobs in underdeveloped areas where extremists lure fighting-age young men into illicit and destabilizing activities. ROZs encourage investment by allowing duty-free access to the U.S. for certain goods produced in Afghanistan.

Government & Political Conditions

On October 9, 2004, Afghanistan held its first national democratic presidential election. More than 8 million Afghans voted, 41% of whom were women. Hamid Karzai was announced as the official winner on November 3 and inaugurated on December 7 for a 5-year term as Afghanistan's first democratically elected president.

An election was held on September 18, 2005 for the "Wolesi Jirga" (lower house) of Afghanistan's new bicameral National Assembly and for the country's 34 provincial councils. Turnout for the election was about 53% of the 12.5 million registered voters. The Afghan constitution provides for indirect election of the National Assembly's "Meshrano Jirga" (upper house) by the provincial councils and by reserved presidential appointments. The first democratically elected National Assembly since 1969 was inaugurated on December 19, 2005. Younus Qanooni and Sigbatullah Mojadeddi were elected Speakers of the Wolesi Jirga and Meshrano Jirga, respectively.

The second national democratic presidential and provincial council elections were held in August 2009, and National Assembly elections were held September 2010. Hamid Karzai's main competitor, Abdullah Abdullah, forced a presidential run-off to be scheduled, but then withdrew. On November 2, 2009, officials of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared Hamid Karzai President of Afghanistan for another 5-year term. Unlike previous election cycles, the elections were coordinated by the IEC, with assistance from the UN. NATO officials announced in March 2009 that 15.6 million voters had registered to vote, roughly half of the country's population, and that 35% to 38% of registered voters were women.

The government's authority is growing, although its ability to deliver necessary social services remains largely dependent on funds from the international donor community. U.S. assistance for Afghanistan's reconstruction from fiscal year 2001 to the present totals over $40 billion. Donors pledged continued assistance for the rebuilding of the country at the June 2008 international Afghanistan support conference in Paris. Overall, the international community has made multi-year reconstruction and security assistance pledges to Afghanistan totaling over $50 billion.

With international community support, including more than 40 countries participating in Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the government's capacity to secure Afghanistan's borders and maintain internal order is increasing. As of January 2010, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had reached approximately 107,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and over 99,000 police, including border and civil order police, had received training. Reform of the army and police, to include training, is an extensive and ongoing process, and the U.S. is working with NATO and international partners to further develop Afghanistan's National Security Forces. As of March 2010, training and equipping programs for the ANSF remained at a steady pace to meet objectives of having 134,000 ANA and 109,000 Afghan National Police (ANP) by October 2010.

Education

Afghanistan has made impressive advances in increasing basic education. More than 10,000 schools are providing education services to 6.3 million children, a six-fold enrollment growth since 2001. During the Taliban regime no girls were registered in schools. Today, 36.3% of the student population is girls. Similarly, the number of teachers has increased seven-fold to 142,500, of whom nearly 40,000 are women.

Adult literacy activities increased rapidly in 2009. Learning centers grew from 1,100 to 6,865, and activities expanded from 9 to 20 provinces, bringing literacy and financial services to over 169,000 beneficiaries (62% female). From a situation of total illiteracy, these learners can now read, write, form simple sentences, and do basic mathematical calculations. Ongoing support of literacy and basic education is paramount, as well as the quality and preparation of teachers in order to close the literacy gap left by 30 years of conflict.

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