Afghanistan News & Current Events
The U.S. Responds to the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks
On Oct. 7, after the Taliban repeatedly and defiantly refused to turn over Bin Laden, the U.S. and its allies began daily air strikes against Afghan military installations and terrorist training camps. Five weeks later, with the help of U.S. air support, the Northern Alliance managed with breathtaking speed to take the key cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, the capital. On Dec. 7, the Taliban regime collapsed entirely when its troops fled their last stronghold, Kandahar. However, al-Qaeda members and other mujahideen from various parts of the Islamic world who had earlier fought alongside the Taliban persisted in pockets of fierce resistance, forcing U.S. and allied troops to maintain a presence in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar remained at large.
In Dec. 2001, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun (the dominant ethnic group in the country) and the leader of the powerful 500,000-strong Populzai clan, was named head of Afghanistan's interim government; in June 2002, he formally became president. The U.S. maintained about 12,000 troops to combat the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and about 31 nations also contributed NATO-led peacekeeping forces. In 2003, after the United States shifted its military efforts to fighting the war in Iraq, attacks on American-led forces intensified as the Taliban and al-Qaeda began to regroup.
President Hamid Karzai's hold on power remained tenuous, as entrenched warlords continued to exert regional control. Remarkably, however, Afghanistan's first democratic presidential elections in Oct. 2004 were a success. Ten million Afghans, more than a third of the country, registered to vote, including more than 40% of eligible women. Karzai was declared the winner in November, taking 55% of the vote, and was inaugurated in December.
In May 2005, 17 people were killed during anti-American protests prompted by a report in Newsweek that American guards at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran. In September 2005, Afghanistan held its first democratic parliamentary elections in more than 25 years.
Afghanistan Holds Second Direct Presidential Elections
Provincial and presidential elections were held on August 20, 2009, despite calls by the Taliban to boycott the elections and the militia's attendant threats to harm those who cast votes. Violence spiked in the days leading up to the elections. More than 30 candidates challenged incumbent Karzai, with Abdullah Abdullah as the most formidable contender. Abdullah, who served under Karzai as minister of foreign affairs until 2006, ran as head of the United National Front opposition alliance. Early results put Karzai well ahead of Abdullah, but allegations of widespread and blatant fraud surfaced immediately. In September, the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission announced it had "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" and called for a partial recount. Complaints of fraud were particularly egregious in southern regions of Afghanistan, where Karzai drew most of his support.
Election results released in October indicated that Karzai came up short in garnering 50% of the vote and a second-round election was necessary. Karzai agreed to participate in a runoff against his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. About a week before the Nov. 7 second-round election, Abdullah withdrew from the race in protest of the Karzai administration's refusal to dismiss election officials accused of taking part in the widespread fraud that marred the first round of the election. Karzai was declared the winner on Nov. 5 and began his second five-year term as president. He faced difficulties from the onset of his second term when parliament rejected about two-thirds of his cabinet picks in January 2010.
A smooth election was seen as vital for continued support of the U.S.-backed war in Afghanistan. During the election turmoil, President Obama's plan to send additional troops to Afghanistan began drawing opposition from critics who said the operation was veering away from the original mission to fight terrorism and toward nation building and who questioned Afghanistan's ability and commitment to improve security and stabilize its government.
Reemergence of the Taliban
The Taliban continued to attack U.S. troops throughout 2005 and 2006—the latter becoming the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the war ended in 2001. In 2004 and 2005, American troop levels in Afghanistan gradually increased to nearly 18,000 from a low of 10,000. Throughout the spring of 2006, Taliban militants—by then a force of several thousand—infiltrated southern Afghanistan, terrorizing local villagers and attacking Afghan and U.S. troops. In May and June, Operation Mount Thrust was launched, deploying more than 10,000 Afghan and coalition forces in the south. About 700 people, most of whom were Taliban, were killed. In Aug. 2006, NATO troops took over military operations in southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition. NATO's Afghanistan mission is considered the most dangerous undertaken in its 57-year history.
Attacks by the Taliban intensified and increased in late 2006 and into 2007, with militants crossing into eastern Afghanistan from Pakistan's tribal areas. The Pakistani government denied that its intelligence agency supported the Islamic militants, despite contradictory reports from Western diplomats and the media.
An August 2007 report by the United Nations implicated the Taliban in Afghanistan's opium production, which has doubled in two years. The report further stated that the country supplies 93% of the world's heroin. Southern Afghanistan, particularly Helmand Province, saw the largest spike.
The Taliban continued to launch attacks and gain strength throughout 2007 and into 2008. In February 2008, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Gates warned NATO members that the threat of an al-Qaeda attack on their soil is real and that they must commit more troops to stabilize Afghanistan and counter the growing power of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Taliban Attacks Become More Deadly
The U.S. had 34,000 troops in Afghanistan during the summer of 2008, the highest level since 2005, but that was not enough to stem growing violence in the country or the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Indeed, June 2008 was the deadliest month for U.S. and coalition troops since the American-led invasion began in 2001. Forty-six soldiers were killed; there were 31 U.S troop deaths in Iraq during the same period. In addition, a Pentagon report indicated that the U.S. is facing two separate insurgencies in Afghanistan: the Taliban in the south and a collection of militant bands in the east, which borders Pakistan. These adversaries seek the expulsion of "all foreign military forces from Afghanistan, the elimination of external government influence in their respective areas, and the imposition of a religiously conservative, Pashtun-led government." Some U.S. officials began to question the effectiveness of President Karzai and his ability to rein in the mounting insurgency. Those doubts were further justified in June, when the Taliban brazenly orchestrated a jailbreak in Kandahar, which freed about 900 prisoners, 350 of them were Taliban.
In August, as many as 90 Afghan civilians, 60 of them children, were killed in a U.S.-launched airstrike in the western village of Azizabad. It was one of the deadliest airstrikes since the war began in 2001, and the deadliest on civilians. The U.S. military refuted the figures, however, which were confirmed by the UN, claiming that the airstrike, in response to an attack by militants, killed less than 10 civilians and about 30 members of the Taliban. An investigation by the U.S. military, released in October, found that more than 30 civilians and less than 20 militants were killed in the raid.
The Pakistani military launched a three-week-long cross-border air assault into Afghanistan's Bajaur region throughout August, which resulted in more than 400 Taliban casualties. The continuous airstrikes forced many al-Qaeda and Taliban militants to retreat from towns formally under their control. However, the Pakistani government declared a cease-fire in the Bajaur region for the month of September in observance of Ramadan, raising fears that the Taliban will use the opportunity to regroup.
Allied deaths in Afghanistan reached 267 in 2008, the highest number since the war began in 2003. U.S. president-elect Barack Obama said defeating the Taliban would be a top priority of his administration. The Pentagon, seeming to share Obama's sense of urgency, said it would comply with a request by Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, and send an additional 20,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2009. In May 2009, Gen. David McKiernan was replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a veteran Special Operations commander.
Support for the War on the Wane
The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan continued its downward spiral in 2010. Popular support for the nine-year campaign waned in the U.S. as casualties mounted and the Afghan government and military showed few signs of being able to assume control of the country, never mind the Taliban strongholds. About six thousand American, Afghan, and British troops stormed the southern city of Marja in February in an attempt to destroy the Taliban haven. The attack, the largest since the beginning of the invasion, was an example of a new anti-insurgency strategy that would have allied and Afghan troops clear the area of militants and Afghan troops eventually assuming control with the continued support of allied forces. By May, the Taliban returned to Marja and resumed their fight against troops and residents. The failure in Marja forced the U.S. to rethink a similar effort in Kandahar. However, U.S. and Afghan troops launched an offensive in September to dislodge the Taliban from Kandahar.
The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks released 92,000 classified U.S. military documents in July 2010 that portrayed a much less optimistic picture of the war than has been reported by the U.S. government. The documents revealed that the insurgency has continued to increase in strength and resiliency while allied forces lacked many resources necessary for success in the war. The documents also reinforced the widely held perception that the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, has been playing both sides in the war against the Taliban and militant groups, clandestinely supporting the insurgents in their fight against allied troops in Afghanistan while also cooperating with the U.S. WikiLeaks released about 250,000 diplomatic cables in November that highlighted the endemic corruption that has plagued Afghanistan. For example, Ahmed Zia Massoud, a former vice president, was found with $52 million in cash. The cables also reveal deep skepticism among world leaders about Karzai's leadership and describe him as increasingly unpredictable and unreliable.
Parliamentary elections were held in September 2010. Voter turnout was low, with about one-third of eligible voters casting ballots. As in previous elections, allegations of ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation were widespread. About 20% or 1.3 million of the votes were rejected as fraudulent. As a result, the government was held in limbo for several months as election officials reviewed the results of the election. In August 2011—nearly a year after the election, the Independent Election Commission changed the results, stripping nine members of Parliament of their seats and reinstating another nine who had been disqualified. The ruling should pave the way for Karzai to appoint a cabinet and nominate justices to the Supreme Court.
Leading members of the Taliban, President Karzai, and his advisors met in October to negotiate an end to the 9-year war. The Taliban leaders, whose identities were kept secret in order to prevent rival Taliban leaders from harming or killing them, were led to the meetings from their safe havens in Pakistan by NATO troops. One of the Taliban leaders was believed to have been Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the group's second in command. However, it was revealed in November that the person posing as Mansour was an imposter who duped Karzai and NATO officials.
By the end of 2010, with Karzai's mercurial leadership and the Taliban's stubborn resistance, the Obama administration began to make clear that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, far longer than he had predicted in 2009, when he suggested combat troops would begin to be withdrawn in July 2011.
Osama bin Laden Is Killed
On May 2, 2011, U.S. troops and CIA operatives shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city of 500,000 people that houses a military base and a military academy. A gun battle broke out when the troops descended upon the building in which bin Laden was located, and bin Laden was shot in the head. News of bin Laden's death brought cheers and a sense of relief worldwide.
"For over two decades, Bin Laden has been Al Qaeda's leader and symbol," said President Barack Obama in a televised speech. "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat Al-Qaeda. But his death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that Al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad."
While Bin Laden's demise was greeted with triumph in the United States and around the world, analysts expressed concern that Al-Qaeda may seek retaliation. U.S. embassies throughout the world were put on high alert, and the U.S. State Department issued a warning for travelers visiting dangerous countries, instructing them "to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations." Some Afghan officials expressed concern that bin Laden's death might prompt the U.S. to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and said the U.S. should maintain a presence there because terrorism continues to plague the country and the region.
"The killing of Osama should not be seen as mission accomplished," former interior minister Hanif Atmar told the New York Times . "Al Qaeda is much more than just Osama bin Laden." Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is al-Qaeda's theological leader, will likely succeed bin Laden.
The fact that bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan in a compound located in close proximity to a military base will likely strain the already distrustful relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan has long denied that bin Laden was hiding within its borders, and the U.S. has provided Pakistan with about $1 billion each year to fight terrorism and to track down bin Laden.
Violence and Assassinations Diminish Confidence in Afghanistan's Security Forces
In June 2011, President Obama announced that the U.S. had largely achieved its goals in Afghanistan and that time had come to start withdrawing troops and begin "to focus on nation-building here at home." He said about 10,000 of the 30,000 troops deployed in 2009 as part of the surge will leave the country by the end of 2011 and the remaining 20,000 will be out by the summer of 2012. The remaining U.S. troops—some 70,000—will be gradually withdrawn through the end of 2014, when security will be transferred to Afghan authorities. Some military officials expressed concern that the drawdown would compromise advances made against the Taliban.
President Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, arguably the most powerful—and feared— man in southern Afghanistan, was assassinated by his security chief in July. Karzai served as provincial council chief in Kandahar, a strategically important city in the south, and was a figurehead of the Pashtun tribe. Despite widespread allegations of corruption and accusations that he ran a heroin ring, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) worked closely with Karzai, relying on his status as a feared power broker to help bring stability to the volatile region by uniting several tribes with the common goal of defeating the Taliban.
On Aug. 6, 2011, the Taliban shot down a transport helicopter, killing 30 American troops, seven Afghans, and a translator. It was the highest death toll in a single day for U.S. troops. Twenty-two elite Navy SEALs were killed, some members of the unit that killed Osama bin Laden. In September, members of the Haqqani network, a group allied with the Taliban, launched a brazen attack in Kabul, firing on the U.S. embassy, the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and other diplomatic outposts. Nearly 30 people were killed, including 11 militants. The U.S. later accused Pakistan's spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, of helping the Haqqani network plan the attack. In fact, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the ISI "acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency."
The peace process in Afghanistan was dealt another blow in late September when Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated in Kabul. A Tajik, Rabbani joined the fight against the Soviets, becoming leader of one of the five major factions of the mujahideen. After the fall of the communist regime in 1992, Rabbani became president of the interim government that lasted until 1996, when it was overthrown by the Taliban. Recently he was the chief negotiator in peace talks between the government and insurgents. He was considered one of the few politicians who could bring the Taliban and former members of the Northern Alliance to the bargaining table.
U.S. Begins to Reduce Its Role in Afghanistan as Relationship Deteriorates
Shortly after U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta announced in early February 2012 that the military would end its combat role in Afghanistan by the middle of 2013 and shift toward an "advise and assist" capacity, a series of missteps and tragedies that intensified anti-U.S. sentiment forced officials to consider accelerating the withdrawal of troops even further. First, U.S. troops were caught on video urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters. This incident was followed in February with another in which U.S. troops unintentionally burned several copies of the Koran. Two U.S. officials working in Afghanistan's interior ministry were shot and killed in retaliation. In March, a U.S. soldier went on a door-to-door rampage, brutally killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children. The events sparked nationwide anti-U.S. protests in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials feared a resurgence of the Taliban–and renewed support of the Taliban by Afghan citizens. In addition, the Taliban said it was withdrawing from talks with the Karzai government and U.S. officials.
In April, the U.S. took a significant step toward transferring military control to Afghanistan when it gave Afghan troops control over special operations missions, which include the controversial night-time attacks on suspected insurgents that have claimed scores of civilian casualties. A week later, the the Haqqani network, a militant group allied with the Taliban, launched seven synchronized attacks on Parliament and the Green Zone in Kabul and in three provinces (Nangarhar, Paktia, and Logar). The assaults tested the Afghan military's defensive abilities and highlighted the network's increasing sophistication and threat. Casualties were minimal—only six fatalities—but the raid on Parliament lasted 18 hours.
On May 1—the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and signed an agreement with President Karzai that said the U.S. will provide Afghanistan development assistance for 10 years after troops withdraw in 2013.
In September 2012, the U.S. withdrew the last of the remaining combat troops who were deployed to Afghanistan during the surge of 2009. The U.S. still plans to withdraw all remaining combat troops by the end of 2014, when Afghan officials will assume security over the country. However, the U.S. announced in November that a counterterrorism force would stay in Afghanistan after 2014 in an advisory and training role. The Taliban launched series of suicide bombings and attacks on coalition and government targets throughout 2012, illustrating that the group remains a threat to government officials and civilians alike, raising questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to maintain order once allied combat troops leave. Those fears were reinforced in early December when the Pentagon released a report that said only one of the 23 Afghan National Army brigades is capable of functioning without assistance from U.S. forcers. In addition, the report said, "The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of I.E.D.s and to conduct isolated high-profile attacks."
The New York Times reported in April 2013 that the CIA has been delivering bags full of cash to Karzai for more than ten years. The "ghost money," which has totaled millions, was initially used to enlist warlords in the war against the Taliban, but over time Karzai used the money to win the loyalty of the warlords, thereby fueling the drug trade and only fostering an environment of corruption.
On June 18, 2013, the Afghan National Security Force assumed complete responsibility for the security of the country, taking over the last areas under NATO control. The 352,000-troop force has shown steady improvement over the past few years and has assumed control over most urban areas. The transition was an important milestone in the country's fight against the Taliban and its move away from dependence on outside forces for stability.
Karzai Rejects Security Deal with U.S.
In June 2013, the Taliban opened an office in Doha, Qatar, and its representatives held a press conference with an international media contingent. The U.S. said it would begin long-delayed peace talks with the group. Afghanistan was expected to do the same, but instead said it would not engage in any dialogue with the Taliban, saying such discussions lent the militants credibility. Karzai also seemed to want to control the terms of the talks, saying they must be "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led," implying they could not be held in Qatar. In addition, Karzai pulled out of talks with the U.S. on the bilateral security agreement, which will govern the status of remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws in 2014. Talks on the bilateral security agreement resumed in the fall, and after a series of negotiations, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and Karzai reached a deal in late November that has a residual force of some 8,000 to 12,000 troops staying in Afghanistan through 2024 to train and advise Afghan troops. The soldiers would not engage in combat. In addition, Afghanistan will continue to receive about $4 billion each year in international aid. Karzai reluctantly agreed that the remaining U.S. troops would have immunity from persecution under Afghan law and that special forces could "complement and support" Afghan raids on private homes. Before Karzai would sign it, he sought approval from a loya jirga (a council of Afghan elders), which deliberated for four days before endorsing the deal. Karzai, however, balked and said he would not sign unless the deal was renegotiated and the U.S. agreed that troops would not participate in raids on Afghan homes. He also indicated he would not sign the agreement until after elections in April 2014. U.S. officials told Karzai that they will begin planning for a full withdrawal by the end of 2014 if he did not sign the agreement by the end of 2013.
Afghanistan released 65 inmates held at the high-security Bagram prison in February 2014, angering the U.S., which said the prisoners were hardened terrorists with U.S. "blood on their hands." The move further deteriorated the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan, diminishing hopes that Karzai would sign the bilateral security agreement before April's elections. In light of the developments, the Obama administration began making plans for a full withdrawal. In May 2014, Obama announced that about one-third of the 30,000 troops still stationed in Afghanistan would leave at the end of 2014, half of those troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2015, and by the end of 2016 only a skeleton crew would remain to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul and help Afghans with security issues.
Presidential Election Marred by Allegations of Fraud; Unity Government Formed
April's elections were successful for the high voter turnout and the lack of violence or attempts to disrupt the vote. About 60% of registered voters turned out to vote for president and provincial councils. The Taliban had threatened to interfere with the election and warned Afghanis not to vote, but citizens seemed to have ignored the threats. In the weeks leading up to the elections, the Taliban attacked a voter registration center and the election commission headquarters, but there were few reports of violence on election day. Eight candidates ran for president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, took about 45%, followed by Ashraf Ghani, a former minister of finance and World Bank official, who garnered 31.5%, necessitating a runoff election.
The runoff was held on June 14, and there were widespread allegations of fraud. Abdullah claimed the race was rigged, saying the election commission and Karzai conspired against him. Ghani and Karzai are both Pashtuns, while Abdullah Abdullah's ethnicity is Tajik-Pashtun. Abdullah refused to accept any decision reached by the country's election commission, and threatened to form a parallel government. Preliminary results put Ghani ahead, 56.4% to 43.6%. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Kabul to try to work out a compromise between Ghani and Abdullah. After an intense 12-hour negotiation session, the parties agreed that each of the 8.1 million votes cast would be audited. The winner would form a unity government, with the second-place finisher serving as chief executive of the government. For the moment, the compromise seemed to save the country from falling into a civil war.
The 2014 election controversy echoed that of the 2009 runoff between Karzai and Abdullah, which was also marred by allegations of fraud. Abdullah withdrew from the race in protest of the Karzai administration's refusal to dismiss election officials accused of taking part in the widespread fraud.
Three months after the controversial runoff election, Ghani and Abdullah agreed in September to form a unity government with Ghani as president and Abdullah in the newly formed position of chief executive, a role similar to that of prime minister. The agreement followed a month of negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Abdullah will report to Ghani but will oversee daily government operations. It is not entirely clear who will ultimately wield more power, which may prove problematic. The new government must deal with a resurgent Taliban that stepped up its attacks during the electio turmoil and an economy in tatters. Ghani was inaugurated on September 29, and the next day signed the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which will govern the status of the U.S. troops who remain in the country after the U.S. formally ends the combat mission at the end of 2014. The troops will train Afghan security forces and participate in counterterrorism missions.
Taliban Detainees Released in Prisoner Swap With U.S.; U.S. General Killed
After several years of negotiations, the U.S. and Taliban completed a prisoner swap on May 31, 2014. The Taliban surrendered Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, who had been held prisoner since June 30, 2009, and the U.S. released five high-level members of the Taliban from the Guantánamo Bay prison. The detainees were handed over to Qatar officials and must remain in that country for one year. Qatari officials agreed to monitor the detainees to make sure they do not engage in militant activity. The Taliban released Bergdahl to American Special Operations troops in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, and they transported him to Germany for medical attention. President Hamid Karzai was not made aware of the deal until after the prisoners were released.
Shortly after the prisoners were transferred, there were numerous reports that Bergdahl had deserted his post before being captured by the Taliban. An intense search began when Bergdahl's platoon discovered he had gone missing. Several members of Bergdahl's unit said at least two soldiers had been killed while searching for Bergdahl.
Opponents of President Barack Obama were quick to suggest he compromised national security by releasing high-ranking militants and the move would encourage other militant groups to take American hostages. "If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before," said Repl Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
In addition, Obama was criticized for not consulting with Congress 30 days before making the prisoner exchange, as required by law. Obama defended his decision, saying, "We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health."
Maj. Gen. Harold Greene was gunned down by an Afghan soldier in early August 2014 while touring a military training academy near Kabul. He was the first general killed in battle since Vietnam. Hours later, an Afghan policeman opened fire on a group of American soldiers in Paktia Province. No American troops were killed in the attack. The shootings highlighted the instability in the military and attendant obstacles the Afghan government faces as the U.S. prepares to withdraw from the country.
U.S. and NATO End Combat Operation in Afghanistan
On Dec. 8, 2014, the U.S. and NATO officially shut down the joint combat operation in Afghanistan. The mission lasted 13 years, cost nearly $720 billion, and resulted in more than 2,200 American fatalities. About 9,800 U.S. combat troops will remain in the country to train Afghani security forces and rout Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants. One-half of those troops will be withdrawn in the middle of 2015; the remainder will leave at the end of 2016.
President Ghani Announces Cabinet Months After Taking Office; Visit With Obama Results in Additional U.S. Support
For months after September 2014's election, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah struggled to form a 25-member cabinet that satisfied the country's regional and ethnic groups. By the end of April 2015, Parliament had approved all but the post of defense minister. The cabinet is dominated by young, educated figures, in contrast to previous ones that consisted mostly of former fighters.
President Ghani traveled to the U.S. in March 2015 and met with President Obama. The visit resulted in a commitment from Obama to keep all 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016 to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Half of the U.S. troops had been scheduled to leave in mid-2015. The cordial tone of the meeting suggested the relationship between Ghani and Obama would be markedly better than that of Obama and former President Hamid Karzai.
Taliban Founder Reportedly Dead
In late July 2015, Afghanistan's intelligence agency announced that it believed that Mullah Muhammad Omar , the founder and reclusive leader of the Taliban, died in 2013 in Pakistan. Rumors of his death have been frequent, and he has not been seen for several years. The Taliban confirmed Omar's death and on July 31 announced that Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour had taken over as the group's supreme leader. Omar's family members reportedly rejected the elevation of Mansour, revealing divisions within the group.
Officials from the Afghan government met with Taliban officials in Pakistan in July 2015 to discuss reconvening peace talks. Little about the substance of the meeting was made public, but both sides agreed to resume talks. Representatives from the Taliban's main political office in Qatar claimed that the members at the meeting were not authorized to attend. However, Pakistani and Afghan officials said Mansour approved the meeting. The controversy was further indication of how fractious the insurgent group has become.
Taliban Captures Kunduz, Doctors Without Borders Hospital Hit in Airstrike
On Sept. 28, 2015, the Taliban seized control over Kunduz, a northern Afghanistan city. It was the first major city that the Taliban had captured in over a decade. The following day Afghan forces launched a counterattack to retake Kunduz. The U.S. supported the counterattack by launching airstrikes against the Taliban militants.
An airstrike hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz on Oct. 3. Twenty-two people were killed, including 12 hospital staff members and seven patients. Soon after the incident, the U.S. military released a statement confirming an airstrike aimed at Taliban militants in Kunduz, but that "there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility." The United Nations and other international organizations condemned the incident. Multiple investigations began. Two days later, with the hospital badly damaged, Doctors Without Borders announced it was leaving Kunduz, a city in great need of medical assistance.
According to a report released by the United Nations (UN), at least 3,545 civilians were killed and 7,457 others were injured in Afghanistan during 2015. Those numbers made 2015 the worse year for Afghan civilian casualties since the UN began keeping track of civilian deaths in 2009. The report stated that suicide attacks by the Taliban and fighting in Kunduz, a northern city, were the primary reasons for the rise in numbers. The report singled out Aug. 7, 2015, when two suicide attacks killed 42 civilians and injured 313 others in Kabul, as the single worst day for civilian casualties on record.
U.S. Department of State Background Note
Afghanistan, often called the crossroads of Central Asia, has had a turbulent history. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great entered the territory of present-day Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire, to capture Bactria (present-day Balkh). Invasions by the Scythians, White Huns, and Turks followed in succeeding centuries. In AD 642, Arabs invaded the entire region and introduced Islam.
Arab rule gave way to the Persians, who controlled the area until conquered by the Turkic Ghaznavids in 998. Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030) consolidated the conquests of his predecessors and turned Ghazni into a great cultural center as well as a base for frequent forays into India. Following Mahmud's short-lived dynasty, various princes attempted to rule sections of the country until the destructive Mongol invasion of 1219 led by Genghis Khan.
Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, a succession of petty chiefs and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of his descendants, Tamerlane, incorporated Afghanistan into his own vast Asian empire. Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane and the founder of India's Moghul dynasty at the beginning of the 16th century, made Kabul the capital of an Afghan principality.
In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of what is known today as Afghanistan, established his rule. A Pashtun, Durrani was elected king by a tribal council after the assassination of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah at Khabushan in the same year. Throughout his reign, Durrani consolidated chieftainships, petty principalities, and fragmented provinces into one country. His rule extended from Mashad in the west to Kashmir and Delhi in the east, and from the Amu Darya (Oxus) River in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.
During the 19th century, collision between the expanding British Empire in the subcontinent and czarist Russia significantly influenced Afghanistan in what was termed "The Great Game." British concern over Russian advances in Central Asia and growing influence in Persia culminated in two Anglo-Afghan wars. The first (1839-42) resulted not only in the destruction of a British army, but is remembered today as an example of the ferocity of Afghan resistance to foreign rule. The second Anglo-Afghan war (1878-80) was sparked by Amir Sher Ali's refusal to accept a British mission in Kabul. This conflict brought Amir Abdur Rahman to the Afghan throne. During his reign (1880-1901), the British and Russians officially established the boundaries of what would become modern Afghanistan through the demarcation of the Durand Line. The British retained effective control over Kabul's foreign affairs.
Afghanistan remained neutral during World War I, despite German encouragement of anti-British feelings and Afghan rebellion along the borders of British India. The Afghan king's policy of neutrality was not universally popular within the country, however.
Habibullah, Abdur Rahman's son and successor, was assassinated in 1919, possibly by family members opposed to British influence. His third son, Amanullah, regained control of Afghanistan's foreign policy after launching the third Anglo-Afghan war with an attack on India in the same year. During the ensuing conflict, the war-weary British relinquished their control over Afghan foreign affairs by signing the Treaty of Rawalpindi in August 1919. In commemoration of this event, Afghans celebrate August 19 as their Independence Day.
Reform and Reaction
King Amanullah (1919-29) moved to end his country's traditional isolation in the years following the third Anglo-Afghan war. He established diplomatic relations with most major countries and, following a 1927 tour of Europe and Turkey--during which he noted the modernization and secularization advanced by Ataturk--introduced several reforms intended to modernize Afghanistan. Some of these, such as the abolition of the traditional Muslim veil for women and the opening of a number of co-educational schools, quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders. Faced with overwhelming armed opposition, Amanullah was forced to abdicate in January 1929 after Kabul fell to forces led by Bacha-i-Saqao, a Tajik brigand. Prince Nadir Khan, a cousin of Amanullah's, in turn defeated Bacha-i-Saqao in October of the same year and, with considerable Pashtun tribal support, was declared King Nadir Shah. Four years later, however, he was assassinated in a revenge killing by a Kabul student.
Mohammad Zahir Shah, Nadir Khan's 19-year-old son, succeeded to the throne and reigned from 1933 to 1973. In 1964, King Zahir Shah promulgated a liberal constitution providing for a two-chamber legislature to which the king appointed one-third of the deputies. The people elected another third, and the remainder were selected indirectly by provincial assemblies. Although Zahir's "experiment in democracy" produced few lasting reforms, it permitted the growth of unofficial extremist parties on both the left and the right. These included the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had close ideological ties to the Soviet Union. In 1967, the PDPA split into two major rival factions: the Khalq (Masses) faction headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin and supported by elements within the military, and the Parcham (Banner) faction led by Babrak Karmal. The split reflected ethnic, class, and ideological divisions within Afghan society.
Zahir's cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud, served as his Prime Minister from 1953 to 1963. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Daoud solicited military and economic assistance from both Washington and Moscow and introduced controversial social policies of a reformist nature. Daoud's alleged support for the creation of a Pashtun state in the Pakistan-Afghan border area heightened tensions with Pakistan and eventually resulted in Daoud's dismissal in March 1963.
Daoud's Republic (1973-78) and the April 1978 Coup
Amid charges of corruption and malfeasance against the royal family and poor economic conditions created by the severe 1971-72 drought, former Prime Minister Daoud seized power in a military coup on July 17, 1973. Zahir Shah fled the country, eventually finding refuge in Italy. Daoud abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1964 constitution, and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first President and Prime Minister. His attempts to carry out badly needed economic and social reforms met with little success, and the new constitution promulgated in February 1977 failed to quell chronic political instability.
Seeking to exploit more effectively mounting popular disaffection, the PDPA reunified with Moscow's support. On April 27, 1978, the PDPA initiated a bloody coup, which resulted in the overthrow and murder of Daoud and most of his family. Nur Muhammad Taraki, Secretary General of the PDPA, became President of the Revolutionary Council and Prime Minister of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
Opposition to the Marxist government emerged almost immediately. During its first 18 months of rule, the PDPA brutally imposed a Marxist-style "reform" program, which ran counter to deeply rooted Afghan traditions. Decrees forcing changes in marriage customs and pushing through an ill-conceived land reform were particularly misunderstood by virtually all Afghans. In addition, thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment, and the intelligentsia were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Conflicts within the PDPA also surfaced early and resulted in exiles, purges, imprisonments, and executions.
By the summer of 1978, a revolt began in the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan and quickly spread into a countrywide insurgency. In September 1979, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier been Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, seized power from Taraki after a palace shootout. Over the next 2 months, instability plagued Amin's regime as he moved against perceived enemies in the PDPA. By December, party morale was crumbling, and the insurgency was growing.
The Soviet Invasion
The Soviet Union moved quickly to take advantage of the April 1978 coup. In December 1978, Moscow signed a new bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan, and the Soviet military assistance program increased significantly. The regime's survival increasingly was dependent upon Soviet military equipment and advisers as the insurgency spread and the Afghan army began to collapse.
By October 1979, however, relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were tense as Hafizullah Amin refused to take Soviet advice on how to stabilize and consolidate his government. Faced with a deteriorating security situation, on December 24, 1979, large numbers of Soviet airborne forces, joining thousands of Soviet troops already on the ground, began to land in Kabul under the pretext of a field exercise. On December 26, these invasion forces killed Hafizullah Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction, bringing him back from Czechoslovakia and making him Prime Minister. Massive Soviet ground forces invaded from the north on December 27.
Following the invasion, the Karmal regime, although backed by an expeditionary force that grew as large as 120,000 Soviet troops, was unable to establish authority outside Kabul. As much as 80% of the countryside, including parts of Herat and Kandahar, eluded effective government control. An overwhelming majority of Afghans opposed the communist regime, either actively or passively. Afghan freedom fighters (mujahidin) made it almost impossible for the regime to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers. Poorly armed at first, in 1984 the mujahidin began receiving substantial assistance in the form of weapons and training from the U.S. and other outside powers.
In May 1985, the seven principal Peshawar-based guerrilla organizations formed an alliance to coordinate their political and military operations against the Soviet occupation. Late in 1985, the mujahidin were active in and around Kabul, launching rocket attacks and conducting operations against the communist government. The failure of the Soviet Union to win over a significant number of Afghan collaborators or to rebuild a viable Afghan army forced it to bear an increasing responsibility for fighting the resistance and for civilian administration.
Soviet and popular displeasure with the Karmal regime led to its demise in May 1986. Karmal was replaced by Muhammad Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police (KHAD). Najibullah had established a reputation for brutal efficiency during his tenure as KHAD chief. As Prime Minister, Najibullah was ineffective and highly dependent on Soviet support. Undercut by deep-seated divisions within the PDPA, regime efforts to broaden its base of support proved futile.
The Geneva Accords and Their Aftermath
By the mid-1980s, the tenacious Afghan resistance movement--aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others--was exacting a high price from the Soviets, both militarily within Afghanistan and by souring the U.S.S.R.'s relations with much of the Western and Islamic world. Informal negotiations for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had been underway since 1982. In 1988, the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the United States and Soviet Union serving as guarantors, signed an agreement settling the major differences between them. The agreement, known as the Geneva accords, included five major documents, which, among other things, called for U.S. and Soviet noninterference in the internal affairs of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the right of refugees to return to Afghanistan without fear of persecution or harassment, and, most importantly, a timetable that ensured full Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan by February 15, 1989. About 14,500 Soviet and an estimated one million Afghan lives were lost between 1979 and the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Significantly, the mujahidin were party neither to the negotiations nor to the 1988 agreement and, consequently, refused to accept the terms of the accords. As a result, the civil war continued after the Soviet withdrawal, which was completed in February 1989. Najibullah's regime, though failing to win popular support, territory, or international recognition, was able to remain in power until 1992 but collapsed after the defection of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam and his Uzbek militia in March. However, when the victorious mujahidin entered Kabul to assume control over the city and the central government, a new round of internecine fighting began between the various militias, which had coexisted only uneasily during the Soviet occupation. With the demise of their common enemy, the militias' ethnic, clan, religious, and personality differences surfaced, and the civil war continued.
Seeking to resolve these differences, the leaders of the Peshawar-based mujahidin groups established an interim Islamic Jihad Council in mid-April 1992 to assume power in Kabul. Moderate leader Prof. Sibghatullah Mojaddedi was to chair the council for 2 months, after which a 10-member leadership council composed of mujahidin leaders and presided over by the head of the Jamiat-i-Islami, Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani, was to be set up for 4 months. During this 6-month period, a Loya Jirga, or grand council of Afghan elders and notables, would convene and designate an interim administration which would hold power up to a year, pending elections.
But in May 1992, Rabbani prematurely formed the leadership council, undermining Mojaddedi's fragile authority. In June, Mojaddedi surrendered power to the Leadership Council, which then elected Rabbani as President. Nonetheless, heavy fighting broke out in August 1992 in Kabul between forces loyal to President Rabbani and rival factions, particularly those who supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami. After Rabbani extended his tenure in December 1992, fighting in the capital flared up in January and February 1993. The Islamabad Accord, signed in March 1993, which appointed Hekmatyar as Prime Minister, failed to have a lasting effect. A follow-up agreement, the Jalalabad Accord, called for the militias to be disarmed but was never fully implemented. Through 1993, Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami forces, allied with the Shi'a Hezb-i-Wahdat militia, clashed intermittently with Rabbani and Masood's Jamiat forces. Cooperating with Jamiat were militants of Sayyaf's Ittehad-i-Islami and, periodically, troops loyal to ethnic Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostam. On January 1, 1994, Dostam switched sides, precipitating large-scale fighting in Kabul and in northern provinces, which caused thousands of civilian casualties in Kabul and elsewhere and created a new wave of displaced persons and refugees. The country sank even further into anarchy, forces loyal to Rabbani and Masood, both ethnic Tajiks, controlled Kabul and much of the northeast, while local warlords exerted power over the rest of the country.
Rise and Fall of the Taliban
The Taliban had risen to power in the mid 90's in reaction to the anarchy and warlordism that arose after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. Many Taliban had been educated in madrassas in Pakistan and were largely from rural southern Pashtun backgrounds. In 1994, the Taliban developed enough strength to capture the city of Kandahar from a local warlord and proceeded to expand its control throughout Afghanistan, occupying Kabul in September 1996. By the end of 1998, the Taliban occupied about 90% of the country, limiting the opposition largely to a small mostly Tajik corner in the northeast and the Panjshir valley.
The Taliban sought to impose an extreme interpretation of Islam--based upon the rural Pashtun tribal code--on the entire country and committed massive human rights violations, particularly directed against women and girls. The Taliban also committed serious atrocities against minority populations, particularly the Shi'a Hazara ethnic group, and killed noncombatants in several well-documented instances. In 2001, as part of a drive against relics of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past, the Taliban destroyed two Buddha statues carved into cliff faces outside of the city of Bamiyan.
From the mid-1990s the Taliban provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national who had fought with the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets, and provide a base for his and other terrorist organizations. Bin Laden provided both financial and political support to the Taliban. Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida group were charged with the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998, and in August 1998 the United States launched a cruise missile attack against bin Laden's terrorist camp in southeastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden and Al-Qaida have acknowledged their responsibility for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.
Following the Taliban's repeated refusal to expel bin Laden and his group and end its support for international terrorism, the U.S. and its partners in the anti-terrorist coalition began a military campaign on October 7, 2001, targeting terrorist facilities and various Taliban military and political assets within Afghanistan. Under pressure from U.S. military and anti-Taliban forces, the Taliban disintegrated rapidly, and Kabul fell on November 13, 2001.
Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban met at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn, Germany in December 2001 and agreed to restore stability and governance to Afghanistan--creating an interim government and establishing a process to move toward a permanent government. Under the "Bonn Agreement," an Afghan Interim Authority was formed and took office in Kabul on December 22, 2001 with Hamid Karzai as Chairman. The Interim Authority held power for approximately 6 months while preparing for a nationwide "Loya Jirga" (Grand Council) in mid-June 2002 that decided on the structure of a Transitional Authority. The Transitional Authority, headed by President Hamid Karzai, renamed the government as the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan (TISA). One of the TISA's primary achievements was the drafting of a constitution that was ratified by a Constitutional Loya Jirga on January 4, 2004.
GOVERNMENT AND 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 five-year term as Afghanistan's first democratically elected president. On December 23, 2004, President Karzai announced new cabinet appointments, naming three women as ministers.
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 Speaker of the Wolesi Jirga and Meshrano Jirga, respectively.
The government's authority is growing, although its ability to deliver necessary social services remains largely dependent on funds from the international donor community. Between 2001-2006, the United States committed over $12 billion to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. At an international donors' conference in Berlin in April 2004, donors pledged a total of $8.2 billion for Afghan reconstruction over the three-year period 2004-2007. At the end of January 2006, the international community gathered in London and renewed its political and reconstruction support for Afghanistan in the form of the Afghanistan Compact.
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 to maintain internal order is increasing. Responsibility for security for all of Afghanistan was transferred to ISAF in October 2006. As of November 2006, some 40,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers had been trained along with some 60,000 police, including border and highway police.
Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) has also helped to further establish the authority of the Afghan central government. The DDR program, after receiving 63,000 military personnel, stopped accepting additional candidates in June 2005. Disarmament and demobilization of all of these candidates were completed at the end of June 2006. A follow-on program targeting illegal militias, the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG), was begun in 2005, under the joint auspices of Japan and the United Nations. The DIAG program is still ongoing.
Principal Government Officials
First Vice President--Ahmad Zia Masood
Second Vice President--Abdul Karim Khalili
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta
Minister of Defense--General Abdul Raheem Wardak
Minister of Interior--Zarar Ahmad Muqbal
Ambassador to the United States--Said Tayib Jawad
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 had fallen 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. In 2004, Afghanistan's GDP grew 17%, and in 2005 Afghanistan's GDP grew approximately 10%.
In June 2006, Afghanistan and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility program for 2006-2009 that focuses on maintaining macroeconomic stability, boosting growth, and reducing poverty. Afghanistan is also rebuilding its banking infrastructure, through the Da Afghanistan National Bank. Several government-owned banks are also in the process of being privatized.
The main source of income in the country is agriculture, and during its good years, Afghanistan produces enough food and food products to provide for the people, as well as to create a surplus for export. The major food crops produced are: corn, rice, barley, wheat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. In Afghanistan, industry is also based on agriculture, and pastoral raw materials. The major industrial crops are: cotton, tobacco, madder, castor beans, and sugar beets. The Afghan economy continues to be overwhelmingly agricultural, despite the fact that only 12% of its total land area is arable and less than 6% currently is cultivated. Agricultural production is constrained by an almost total dependence on erratic winter snows and spring rains for water; irrigation is primitive. Relatively little use is made of machines, chemical fertilizer, or pesticides.
Overall agricultural production dramatically declined following severe drought as well as sustained fighting, instability in rural areas, and deteriorated infrastructure. The easing of the drought and the end of civil war produced the largest wheat harvest in 25 years during 2003. Wheat production was an estimated 58% higher than in 2002. However, the country still needed to import an estimated one million tons of wheat to meet its requirements for the 2003 year. Millions of Afghans, particularly in rural areas, remained dependent on food aid.
Opium has become a source of cash for many Afghans, especially following the breakdown in central authority after the Soviet withdrawal, and opium-derived revenues probably constituted a major source of income for the two main factions during the civil war in the 1990s. Opium is easy to cultivate and transport and offers a quick source of income for impoverished Afghans. Afghanistan produced a record opium poppy crop in 2006, supplying 91% of the world's opium. Much of Afghanistan's opium production is refined into heroin and is either consumed by a growing regional addict population or exported, primarily to Western Europe.
Afghanistan has begun counter-narcotics programs, including the promotion of alternative livelihoods, public information campaigns, targeted eradication policies, interdiction of drug shipments, as well as law enforcement and justice reform programs. These programs were first implemented in late 2005. In June 2006, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that the Afghan Government eradicated over 15,000 hectares of opium poppy.
Trade and 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 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 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. Trade in smuggled goods into Pakistan once constituted a major source of revenue for Afghan regimes, including the Taliban, and still figures as an important element in the Afghan economy, although efforts are underway to formalize this trade.
In the 1960s, the United States helped build a highway connecting Afghanistan's two largest cities. It began in Kabul and wound its way through five of the country's core provinces—skirting scores of isolated and otherwise inaccessible villages; passing through the ancient market city of Ghazni; descending through Qalat; and eventually reaching Kandahar, founded by Alexander the Great. More than 35% of the country's population lives within 50 kilometers of this highway, called, appropriately, modern Afghanistan's lifeline. In 1978, the Soviet Union invaded. By the time its forces withdrew more than a decade later, more than 1 million Afghans had been killed and 5 million had fled. Civil war followed. The Taliban emerged, controlling all but the remote, northern regions. Afghanistan was terrorized by this group, which was dogmatically opposed to progress and democracy. More than two decades of war had left the Kabul-Kandahar highway devastated, like much of the country's infrastructure. Little could move along the lifeline that had provided so many Afghans with their means of livelihood and their access to healthcare, education, markets, and places of worship.
Reviving the Road: Restoration of the highway has been an overriding priority of President Hamid Karzai. It is crucial to extending the influence of the new government. Without the highway link, Afghanistan's civil society and economy would remain moribund and prey to divisive forces. The economic development that the highway makes possible will help guarantee the unity and long-term security of the Afghan people. The restored highway is a visually impressive achievement whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated. It marks a palpable transition from the recent past and represents an important building block for the future. Recently, an official in Herat likened the ring road to veins and arteries that nourish and bring life to the "heart" of Kabul and the body of the country. The highway will not end in Kandahar: there are plans to complete the circuit, extending it to Herat and then arcing it back through Mazar-e Sharif to Kabul. The route is sometimes referred to as the Ring Road. As of December 2006, three-quarters of the Ring Road had been funded, with plans to be completed in 2007.
Landlocked Afghanistan has no functioning railways, but the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, which forms part of Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, has barge traffic. During their occupation of the country, the Soviets completed a bridge across the Amu Darya. The United States, in partnership with Norway, has agreed to reconstruct this bridge, which will stretch more than 650 meters over the Amu Darya/Pyandzh River between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, near Pyanji Poyon (Tajikistan) and Shir Khan Bandar (Afghanistan). The bridge is set for completion in 2007.
Afghanistan's national airline, Ariana, operates domestic and international routes, including flights to New Delhi, Islamabad, Dubai, Moscow, Istanbul, Tehran, and Frankfurt. A private carrier, Kam Air, commenced domestic operations in November 2003. Many sections of Afghanistan's highway and regional road system are undergoing significant reconstruction. The U.S. (with assistance from Japan) completed building a highway linking Kabul to the southern regional capital, Kandahar. Construction is soon to begin on the next phase of highway reconstruction between Kandahar and the western city of Herat. The Asian Development Bank is also active in road development projects, mainly in the border areas with Pakistan.
Many nations have assisted in a great variety of humanitarian and development projects all across Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The United Nations, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other international agencies have also given aid. Schools, clinics, water systems, agriculture, sanitation, government buildings and roads are being repaired or built.
Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world; mine-related injuries number up to 100 per month, and an estimated 200,000 Afghans have been disabled by landmine/unexploded ordinances (UXO) accidents. As of March 2005 the United Nations Mine Action Program for Afghanistan had approximately 8,000 Afghan personnel, 700 demobilized soldiers, 22 international staff, and several NGOs deployed in Afghanistan. The goal of the program is to remove the impact of mines from all high-impact areas by 2007 and to make Afghanistan mine-free by 2012. Between January 2003 and March 2005 a total of 2,354,244 mines and pieces of UXOs were destroyed. Training programs are also being used to educate the public about the threat and dangers of land mines. The number of mine victims was reduced from approximately 150 a month in 2002 to less than 100 a month in 2004.
Refugees and Internally Displaced People
Afghanistan has had the largest refugee repatriation in the world in the last 30 years. The return of refugees is guided by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MORR) and supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organization of Migration (IOM), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Program (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO) and a number of other national and international NGOs. As of December 2006, approximately 3 million Afghans remained in neighboring countries. The U.S. provided more than $350 million to support Afghan refugees, returnees, and other conflict victims between September 2001 and March 2006.
In response to a strategy outlined by the Ministry of Health, the international community is supporting the government in rebuilding the primary health-care system. Tuberculosis remains a serious public health problem in Afghanistan. Since this strategy was outlined, the Afghan Government with support from the World Health Organization (WHO) has established 162 health facilities in 141 districts across the country. The treatment success rate in 2002 was 86%. WHO is also assisting the Ministry of Health and local health authorities to combat malaria where the disease is widespread. Through this project, 600,000 individuals are receiving full treatment for malaria every year. In addition 750,000 individuals are protected from malaria by sleeping under special nets provided under the project.
There were 45,000 children enrolled in school in 1993, 19% were girls. The latest official statistics show there are now 64,000 children in school, one third are girls. In addition 29% of the teachers in the province are women, compared with 15% in 1993. Effort is being made to ensure that teachers receive salaries on time and increasing the attendance of girls in school. The total enrollment rate for Afghan children between 7 and 13 years of age has increased to 54% (67% for boys and 37% for girls). A number of factors such as distance to schools, poor facilities and lack of separate schooling for boys and girls continue to be challenges to higher enrollment.
Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan pursued a policy of neutrality and nonalignment in its foreign relations. After the December 1979 invasion, Afghanistan's foreign policy mirrored that of the Soviet Union. Most Western countries, including the United States, maintained small diplomatic missions in Kabul during the Soviet occupation. Repeated Taliban efforts to occupy Afghanistan's seat at the UN and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) were unsuccessful.
The fall of the Taliban in October 2001 opened a new chapter in Afghanistan's foreign relations. Afghanistan is now an active member of the international community, and has diplomatic relations with countries from around the world. In December 2002, the six nations that border Afghanistan signed a ‘Good Neighbor' Declaration, in which they pledged to respect Afghanistan's independence and territorial integrity. In 2005 Afghanistan and its South Asia neighbors held the first annual Regional Economic Cooperation Conference (RECC) promoting intra-regional relations and economic cooperation.
The 1978 Marxist coup strained relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan took the lead diplomatically in the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in opposing the Soviet occupation. During the war against the Soviet occupation, Pakistan served as the primary logistical conduit for the Afghan resistance. Pakistan initially developed close ties to the Taliban regime, and extended recognition in 1997. Pakistan dramatically altered its policy after September 11, 2001 by closing its border and downgrading its ties. Afghanistan and Pakistan are engaged in dialogue to resolve these bilateral issues.
Afghanistan's relations with Iran have fluctuated over the years, with periodic disputes over the water rights of the Helmand River as the main issue of contention. Following the Soviet invasion, which Iran opposed, relations deteriorated. Iran supported the cause of the Afghan resistance and provided financial and military assistance to rebel leaders who pledged loyalty to the Iranian vision of Islamic revolution. Iran still provides refuge to Afghan ex-patriots. Following the emergence of the Taliban and their harsh treatment of Afghanistan's Shi'a minority, Iran stepped up assistance to the Northern Alliance. Relations with the Taliban deteriorated further in 1998 after Taliban forces seized the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and executed Iranian diplomats. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan's relations with Iran have improved. Iran has been active in Afghan reconstruction efforts, particularly in the western portion of the country.
During the reign of the Taliban, Russia became increasingly disenchanted over Taliban support for Chechen rebels and for providing a sanctuary for terrorist groups active in Central Asia and in Russia itself, and therefore provided military assistance to the Northern Alliance. Since the fall of the Taliban, the Karzai government has improved relations with Russia, but Afghanistan's outstanding foreign debt to Russia still continues to be a source of contention.
Afghanistan's relations with Tajikistan have been complicated by political upheaval and civil war in Tajikistan, which spurred some 100,000 Tajiks to seek refuge in Afghanistan in late 1992 and early 1993. Also disenchanted by the Taliban's harsh treatment of Afghanistan's Tajik minority, Tajikistan facilitated assistance to the Northern Alliance. The Karzai government has sought to establish closer ties with its northern neighbor in order to capitalize on the potential economic benefits of increased trade.
The United Nations was instrumental in obtaining a negotiated Soviet withdrawal under the terms of the 1988 Geneva Accords. In the aftermath of the Accords, the United Nations assisted in the repatriation of refugees and provided humanitarian aid such as food, health care, educational programs, and support for mine-clearing operations. From 1990-2001, the UN worked to promote a peaceful settlement between the Afghan factions as well as provide humanitarian aid. Since October 2001, the UN has played a key role in Afghanistan through the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), including spearheading efforts to organize the Afghan presidential elections held in October 2004 and National Assembly elections held in 2005.
The first extensive American contact with Afghanistan was made by Josiah Harlan, an adventurer from Pennsylvania who was an adviser in Afghan politics in the 1830s and reputedly inspired Rudyard Kipling's story "The Man Who Would be King." After the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1934, the U.S. policy of helping developing nations raise their standard of living was an important factor in maintaining and improving U.S.-Afghan ties. From 1950 to 1979, U.S. foreign assistance provided Afghanistan with more than $500 million in loans, grants, and surplus agricultural commodities to develop transportation facilities, increase agricultural production, expand the educational system, stimulate industry, and improve government administration.
In the 1950s, the U.S. declined Afghanistan's request for defense cooperation but extended an economic assistance program focused on the development of Afghanistan's physical infrastructure--roads, dams, and power plants. Later, U.S. aid shifted from infrastructure projects to technical assistance programs to help develop the skills needed to build a modern economy. The Peace Corps was active in Afghanistan between 1962 and 1979.
After the April 1978 coup, relations deteriorated. In February 1979, U.S. Ambassador Adolph "Spike" Dubs was murdered in Kabul after Afghan security forces burst in on his kidnapers. The U.S. then reduced bilateral assistance and terminated a small military training program. All remaining assistance agreements were ended after the December 1979 Soviet invasion.
Following the Soviet invasion, the United States supported diplomatic efforts to achieve a Soviet withdrawal. U.S. contributions to the refugee program in Pakistan played a major part in efforts to assist Afghans in need. This cross-border humanitarian assistance program aimed to increase Afghan self-sufficiency and help Afghans resist Soviet attempts to drive civilians out of the rebel-dominated countryside. During the period of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. provided about $3 billion in military and economic assistance to Afghans and the resistance movement.
The U.S. supports the emergence of a broad-based government, representative of all Afghans and actively encourages a UN role in the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Today, the U.S. is assisting the Afghan people as they rebuild their country and establish a representative government that contributes to regional stability, is market friendly, and respects human rights. In May 2005, President Bush and President Karzai concluded a strategic partnership agreement committing both nations to a long-term relationship.
The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan is at the Great Masoud Road, Kabul (tel: (00 93) (20) 230-0436; fax: (00 93) (20) 230-1364).
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program advises Americans traveling and residing abroad through Consular Information Sheets, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry and exit requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, safety and security, crime, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. Public Announcements are issued to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas that pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country because the situation is dangerous or unstable.
For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.
The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at http://www.state.gov, the Department of State web site provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including Background Notes and daily press briefings along with the directory of key officers of Foreign Service posts and more. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) provides security information and regional news that impact U.S. companies working abroad through its website http://www.osac.gov
Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.
Revised: May. 2007
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