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Terrorism Havens: Afghanistan

Updated: December 1, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Where is Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a mountainous, landlocked country in central Asia. It’s about the size of Texas and has a population between twenty-two million and twenty-seven million. The lower figure is a recent U.N. estimate, the higher a U.S. government figure; chaos in Afghanistan in recent years has made taking a census impossible.

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What countries are Afghanistan's neighbors?

There are six. Iran is to its west. Pakistan is to the southeast. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—three former Soviet republics—are to the north. A northeastern panhandle of Afghanistan borders on China.

How did Afghanistan become such a dangerous, lawless place?

Modern Afghanistan has been in turmoil since the late 1970s. After infighting among ministers who deposed the long-ruling royal family, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and installed a sympathetic regime in the capital, Kabul. Anticommunist Muslim rebels—known as mujahadeen, or holy warriors—received support from the United States and from many Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Joining the Afghan mujahadeen were several thousand Muslim volunteers from abroad. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, rival Afghan factions fought a fierce civil war that led to the rise of the Taliban, who ruled until the U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime in 2001.

Has Afghanistan always been a trouble spot?

Yes. Although it enjoyed relative stability during the reign of Zahir Shah (1933-73), over the centuries Afghanistan has often faced internal strife and been overrun by foreign invaders. The population of Afghanistan is made up of many ethnic groups—the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks are the largest—and tribal and factional rivalries run deep. Ethnic groups straddle Afghanistan's borders; many ethnic Pashtuns live in Pakistan, as do Hazaras in Turkmenistan, and so on.

Afghanistan's geographical location also rendered it prize territory for outsiders. Ancient trade routes connecting Europe and the Middle East with India and the Far East pass through Afghanistan. Moreover, it has been the site of conflicting imperial ambitions: between Persia and India in the 16th and 17th centuries, and as the setting of the "Great Game" of the 19th century.

What was the Great Game?

A geopolitical struggle between the British and Russian empires. The British controlled the Indian subcontinent, the Russians held the Central Asian lands to the north, and their spheres of influence overlapped in Afghanistan. In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan, launching the first of three bloody wars and decades of machinations between the British and the Russians. In 1919, after the third Anglo-Afghan war, Afghanistan won its independence.

What was Afghanistan’s role in the September 11 attacks?

Thanks to the ruling Taliban—Muslim fundamentalists who imposed radical Islamic rule on the country—Afghanistan had become a base for terrorists, namely Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda training camps. Because Afghanistan was such a chaotic place, and because the Taliban were deeply influenced by bin Laden’s philosophy, the Taliban welcomed him and his network into the country. There they could plan their attacks with less fear of reprisal because other countries were wary of entering Afghanistan.

What has happened since the U.S. declared war on Afghanistan in 2001?

Just two months after the October 2001 invasion, the Taliban fell and was followed by an interim government led by Hamid Karzai. Since that time Afghans voted for a new constitution, elected Karzai president, and voted in the first parliamentary and provincial elections in more than thirty years.

U.S. and coalition forces still have a strong presence in the country, where they continue to put down scattered insurgent attacks against the coalition and the government. The coalition continues building and training the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The Afghan Army, in joint operation with the Coalition forces, continues to seek and root out al-Qaeda and Taliban elements still active in Afghanistan. Both Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin laden still remain at large.

When did the United States get involved in Afghanistan?

The United States first recognized Afghanistan in 1934, the year it joined the League of Nations, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited in 1959. During the Cold War, Afghanistan had closer ties with the Soviet Union , its neighbor to the north, than the United States. American involvement really began after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

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