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Hisorical political overview

The rule of the monarchy

Afghanistan was at the centre of commerce, religion and notable intellectual developments. Throughout its long history, the country has often been referred to as Sarzameen-e-Bay, 'the lawless land'. In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani took steps to change this perception by establishing a confederacy under the unifying name of Afghanistan - the 'land of the Afghan'. In 1923, the first Afghan Constitution was introduced marking a move away from autocratic rule.

In 1931, King Muhammad Nadir Shah (1929-1933), introduced the second Afghan Constitution which introduced further additions in systems of law, although, the country continued to be run as an oligarchy. The loya jirga, or grand council of tribal leaders, continued to enjoy great influence, although popular participation in political affairs was discouraged. During the King's reign, a national army was formed, and investments were made in transportation and communication networks. Nadir Shah's rule ended in 1933 when he was assassinated.

Nadir Shah's son, Mohammad Zahir Shah, succeeded him and his rule lasted a remarkable 50 years. During his reign, Afghanistan enjoyed relative peace within the country, reasonably good relations with its neighbours, and the country became a recognized member of the international community when it joined the League of Nations in 1934. This period was characterized by greater political tolerance and liberalisation, but reverted back to oligarchic rule when it appeared that the King's power was in jeopardy. From 1963-73, during the last decade of the King's rule, Zahir Shah sought greater stability through limited democratic reform with the introduction of the Third Afghan Constitution of 1964. Under the 1964 Constitution, the rights of the individual were championed, and although sharia law (Islamic law) was referred to, the constitution introduced an independent judiciary, thereby establishing the supremacy of secular law. The new constitution created a constitutional monarchy, with a legislature. However, most of the power remained with the king.

In 1965, the first elections were held resulting in a relatively broad-based representation within the lower house of parliament, the wolesi jirga, including anti-royalists and people from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Prior to the election, the king allowed the establishment of a community party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Despite the elections, the Afghan political system remained caught between that of a democracy and a monarchy. A form of democracy continued to exist in the lower house of parliament in the form of jirgas which were attended by the tribal leaders.

According to the 1964 Constitution, a second election was to be held four years later to elect members to parliament, but the next four years brought increased political instability and public discontent. In 1973, Daoud, the cousin of King Zahir Shah took advantage of the instability and carried out a coup d'etat - seizing power and marking the end of the rule of Pashtun monarchs which had existed since 1747. In 1977, the Fourth Afghan Constitution was approved through the loya jirga - replacing the monarch's rule with a presidential, one-party system of government. At the beginning of Daoud's rule, the Soviets had considerable influence in Afghanistan as technical advisors and through development assistance. By 1976, Daoud had broken ties with the Afghan PDPA and was re-establishing ties with nations such as Iran, India, and the USA. Daoud's rule ended in a coup d'etat in 1978 which resulted in the death of both himself and most of his family. Daoud was succeeded by the internally divided PDPA with the support of the Soviet Union.

US Department of State
Public Broadcasting Service
Afghanan dot Net

Previous attempts at nation-building

Attempts at political reform in Afghanistan in the twentieth century did not have significant impact on broadening loyalties from the family and the tribe to that of the nation (Shahrani, 1940). This was due in part to the lack of progress in expanding communication and transportation networks, and limited success in increasing literacy rates. While ethnic and tribal differences always existed, the legitimisation of state power was hampered on two fronts. First, a lack of reliable sources of state revenue plagued the central state since its inception in the eighteenth century. The British were the main source of revenue throughout the nation-building exercise in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This was followed by massive financial investment from the USSR during its occupation and later, during the mujahudeen era, contributions from the US and other Western nations.

Second, the state attempted to legitimise power by playing off one group against another through political and financial incentives, which turned religious and ethnic pluralism into social fragmentation. Tribal structures were further entrenched as the central government relied on local leaders for financial and military assistance (Shahrani, 1990). As a result, prior to the war and ensuing refugee crisis in Afghanistan which began in 1978, little progress had been made towards the formation of the nation-state (Janata, 1990). More recently, the international community is once again propping up the state in the reconstruction effort by paying government salaries and funding development projects. Such obstacles must be once again addressed in this current period of nation-building.

The Soviet occupation and the rise of the mujahudeen

The Soviet influence, which had increased over the years, culminated in a full-scale Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and the drafting of the 1980 Interim Constitution. In response to the occupation, groups outside the country established political parties as a way of gathering support - both financial and human - to oust the Soviets. The most prominent parties included Rabbani's Jamiat-i-Islami, Hizb-e-Islami led by Hikmatyar, and a second group of the same name led by Yunus Khales. Sayyaf headed up a fourth fundamentalist group, Ittehad-i-Islami. Other groups were formed to represent minority groups such as the Shia Muslims of Hazarajat. Despite their label as 'freedom fighters', ( mujahudeen), their aim was not to bring democratic rule but to redefine Islam in Afghan society. At the same time, 'traditionalist' groups emerged - some of which were interested in restoring the exiled monarch as the head of state. Within the country, fighting between the communists and the mujahudeen groups broke out, triggering the world's largest refugee crisis at the time. While many millions fled, others remained in Afghanistan to support the mujahudeen in guerrilla warfare against the Soviets and their communist Afghan supporters. Throughout this period, the west provided aid and military arms to these groups. At the same time, the drug trade flourished. In 1988, an agreement was reached for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the repatriation of refugees. The last troops left in February of 1989. With civil society in tatters, and the rise of an economy based on the drugs and the country awash with weapons, the mujahudeen groups that had worked towards a common goal turned on each other in an effort to take control of the country. (See Conflict-induced displacement ).

Law Library of Congress
Afghanistan Online
U.S. Department of State

Rise of the Taliban

Between April 1992 and September 1996, the various mujahudeen factions battled for control of Kabul and other parts of the country. Throughout the fighting, ethnic divisions were as important as personal rivalries. Diplomatic solutions (Islamabad and Jalalabad Accords) were doomed to fail due to a lack of trust between the main players and outside interference -making it impossible to form a representative political body. At the same time, following the fall of Najib's government and the disintegration of the USSR, the US administration pulled out of the region. Refugees entering Pakistan found a network of Islamist Afghan parties under the protection of the military and the Pakistani religious parties (mainly Jamiat-i Islami Pakistan and Jamiat-i Ulama-yi Islami Pakistan). Based on the leverage Pakistan had gained over the mujahudeen since the beginning of the civil war, it became a force for shaping events in the region. In time, the Peshawar parties became unwieldy, prompting the Pakistani leadership to form an alternative - the Taliban. A 'talib' is a student of Islam who attends a madrassa or religious school. Saudi Arabia and other individuals from the Arab world, most notably Osama bin Laden, soon lent their financial and political support in an effort to create a pure Islamic model state.

Afghanistan had been carved up into fiefdoms controlled by commanders and warlords - many of whom had been armed during the mujahudeen era. The rule of law had completely broken down, and tribal or customary law was applied at will by those in power. Afghans lived in constant fear of sexual and physical assault. Out of this chaos, the Taliban emerged onto the scene and quickly gained support of the populace - particularly amongst the tribes - as a movement that would reinstate order and respect for the principles of Islam. Like Durrani had done with the tribes 200 years before, the Taliban unified the warlords and brought a measure of security to the southern region which had not existed since the beginning of the Soviet occupation. Once the Taliban had taken Kandahar, Herat fell in a bloodless take over and in September 1996, the Taliban pushed all commanders from Kabul. Over the next two years, front lines moved on a regular basis, but the most difficult battle came in 1998 with the take-over of Mazar-e-Sharif. From the outset, Taliban control of Mazar was viewed by its inhabitants as an 'occupation' - a reflection of the ethnic tensions which had been stirred up over years of war, and cultural and religious differences. To fight the Taliban, a number of the mujahudeen commanders loosely banded together under the banner of the Northern Alliance or the United Front (UF).

While military campaigns continued, the Taliban cobbled together some semblance of a administration in the areas it controlled. All policies originated from those at the core of the movement - most notably Mullah Omar who was their 'anointed' leader. By 1997, a number of events contributed to a growing lack of acceptance within the international community of the Taliban - primarily due to repressive policies towards women and girls, the strict implementation of Shar'ia law, and a general disregard for international law. In 1998, following the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Taliban were requested to stop harbouring Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be the mastermind behind the bombings. They refused, and the UN responded by imposing sanctions against the regime in 1999. A second set of sanctions aimed at stopping the supply of arms and financial support to the Taliban were implemented in 2000 in an effort to bring down the regime. Despite the sanctions, the regime was unrelenting in its stance on bin Laden and remained convinced that it would win the territory controlled by the Northern Alliance.

U.S. Department of State
UN - Islamabad: Situation in and around Afghanistan
UN Press Releases

Post '9/11'

The tragic events which took place on 11 September 2001 in the USA marked the beginning of a new era in international security. It also marked the beginning of the demise of the Taliban. Within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Centre's twin towers, Osama bin Laden was linked to the attack which was made possible by the support provided to him by the Taliban. After several weeks of unsuccessful negotiations with the Taliban to give up bin Laden, the USA invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and launched a military campaign to find bin Laden and overthrow the regime which had played host to him and the terrorist network, al-Qaeda. The United Front (UF), with local knowledge and soldiers at the ready, were an effective ally in this effort. Within a matter of weeks, the UF once again had control of Kabul. (See Conflict-induced displacement ).

U.S. Department of State

Current political overview

The Bonn Agreement (2001-2005)

In December 2001, an interim administration was established under the UN-brokered Bonn Agreement. The agreement encompassed an interim power sharing arrangement, the creation of a new constitution, and elections in 2004. The agreement aimed to form a multi-ethnic broad-based government with the establishment of a thirty-member executive council, led by the Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai. The agreement acknowledges 'the right of the people of Afghanistan to freely determine their own political future, in accordance with the principles of Islam, democracy, pluralism, and social justice.' The transitional government was given a mandate of six months.

Key ministerial positions were filled by members of the United Front (UF) who were active during the mujahudeen era - some of which were responsible for countless human rights violations. Following the agreement, some commanders, such as Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, threatened to boycott the interim government. The exiled king Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan as a figure head and a unifying force in the country. Despite the appointment of Karzai as the head of the interim government, many Pashtuns felt marginalized by the process, and remain unsatisfied with the high representation of UF commanders in the administration. The 'Interim Authority' was given a seat at the UN. The Bonn Agreement also established the mandate for a UN international peace-keeping force - the International Security Force for Afghanistan (ISAF).

A critical component of the Bonn Accord, was the emergency loya jirga which was convened in June 2002, with a participation of up to 1,500 Afghans from all over the country. The aim of the jirga was to give political legitimacy to the peace process and approve the broad-based Afghan Transitional Authority (ATA), which would run the country through to 2004. This was followed by a 'Constitutional loya jirga' which was convened in December 2003 and finalised in January 2004. Upon transfer of power, all mujahedeen and Afghan armed forces and groups were meant to come under the control of the ATA. Democratic elections for the Presidency were to be held in mid-2004 and in September/October 2005, parliamentary elections and provincial elections were held. This marked the end of the Bonn process which was formalised at the London Conference in 2006 with the signing of the Afghanistan Compact.

Human Rights Watch
Q & A on Afghanistan's Loya Jirga Process
Afghanistan's Bonn Agreement One Year Later
Afghan Government
International Crisis Group
George Washington University
International Constitutional Law
Country Profile: Afghanistan, BBC News

The Afghanistan Compact (2006-2010)

The following broadly outlines the factors and conditions which currently characterize the development and political landscape in Afghanistan. From 2006 onwards, there is an actual and perceived spread of insecurity and growing pockets of insurgency - particularly in the south but also in city centres such as Kabul. The Taliban has been effective in rebuilding the organisation from bases within Pakistan and a support base in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004, and re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with in 2006.

Many Afghans complain of a deepening disappointment in the government - particularly in Karzai's administration - and its ability to ensure security, meet expectations, address corruption which is pervasive, and create meaningful and equitable economic opportunities. Five years on from the fall of the Taliban, there is, in many locations, limited visible impact or substantial change to people's lives. This is the result of flagging security, poor governance/public administration, and slow progress towards development. There is a general perception that the government lacks capacity to deliver meaningful programmes/projects.

To redress these concerns, the London Conference held in January 2006 brought the international community together in order to focus efforts post-Bonn. The Compact identifies three pillars of action which are interdependent and are to be implemented over a five year horizon (2006-2010). These pillars are: security, governance, the rule of law and human rights; economic and social development; and the cross-cutting issue of counter-narcotics. The government, donors and assistance organisations are measuring success against the Afghanistan Compact and its objectives. A Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board has also been established to monitor progress on a regular basis. The declining insecurity in parts of the country - particularly the south -however is in the short-term at least an obstacle to achieving the goals defined in the Compact. Many also believe that even if the security climate had not declined, the timelines and benchmarks were overly ambitious and not well defined in terms of priorities.

International Crisis Group
Afghanistan country page
Countering Afghanistan's Insurgency: No Quick Fixes'
Afghanistan's Endangered Compact'
Provincial Governance Structures in Afghanistan: From Confusion to Vision'

Security and the role of ISAF

Following the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, a US-led coalition force continued to undertake military operations throughout the country to root out terrorist elements such as al Qaeda. In addition, the Bonn Agreement authorised the deployment of a UN-mandated North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) led multi-national force, called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The ISAF was initially comprised of 2,500 troops which were stationed in Kabul with a mandate to extend law and order, provide protection to political leaders, prevent violence, distribute supplies, and contribute to nation-building. At that time, an agreement was established for the creation of a three-way partnership between the Afghan Transitional Authority, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and ISAF. ISAF is not a UN force but 'a coalition of the willing' acting under UN Security Council Resolutions (1386, 1413 1444, 1510, 1563, 1623, 1659 and 1717), all of which are related to the establishment and mandate of ISAF.

Since its inception, numerous requests were made to expand the force outside of Kabul to assist in stabilizing the country and to meet the security needs for undertaking humanitarian operations. While the expansion of the force might indicate that the central government did not have control of the country, others argued that an international presence was essential to bring regional warlords and armed gangs under control. In September 2002, the U.S. policy on peacekeeping in Afghanistan shifted to accept an expansion of international peacekeeping operations outside of Kabul.

On 11 August 2003, NATO assumed authority for the ISAF mission with the aim of creating a common command structure to enable better planning and coordination. In October 2003, the United Nations extended ISAF's mandate to the whole of Afghanistan (UNSCR 1510) which created the legal conditions for the expansion of the mission. As of January 2007, there are currently 37 Troop Contributing Nations (TCNs) with a total of approximately 32,800 troops. In addition, the American led 'Enduring Freedom' has approximately 8,000 troops which continue to focus on hunting down Al Queda. Around the country there are five Regional Commands (RCs). Each of the Regional Commands has a varying number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams - each led by various contributing nations, which report to them.

Recent events indicate that NATO/ISAF's engagement in Afghanistan will continue for the long term. On 6 September 2006, President Karzai and the Secretary General of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer signed the 'Declaration by NATO and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan' which is a framework for long term cooperation and partnership. This declaration, as well as the fact that the NATO presence in the region is an important element on the 'war on terror', indicates that NATO and the ISAF mission will have an enduring presence in Afghanistan for a number of years. ISAF will remain in Afghanistan until 'the people of Afghanistan have developed government structures and security forces that are sustainable and capable of ensuring the security of all Afghans without outside support.'

ISAF's primary role is to support the Government of Afghanistan in providing and maintaining a secure environment that will be conducive to establishing democratic structures, to facilitate the reconstruction of the country and to assist in expanding the influence of the central government. ISAF's key military tasks include:

assisting the Afghan government in extending its authority across the country, conducting stability and security operations in coordination with the Afghan national security forces: mentoring and supporting the Afghan national army; and supporting Afghan government programmes to disarm illegally armed groups.

ISAF's mandate does not enable them to participate in poppy eradication or the destruction of processing facilities or interdiction of drug trafficking, although it can support Afghan security forces in their efforts. ISAF forces conduct regular patrols from the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) located throughout Afghanistan in order to extend the arm of the government and improve security. The PRTs also carry out reconstruction activities in an effort to win hearts and minds and bring improvements to locations which are remote and in some cases insecure. ISAF has also been involved in the training of the Afghan National Army and National Police as well as the cantonment of heavy weapons, which is critical in reducing the influence and power of local commanders and extending the rule of law.

The Brookings Institution
Human Rights Watch
World Reports
Afghanistan country page
Relief Web - Afghanistan country page
Afghanistan Information Management Service

Protection and Human Rights

The record of human rights abuses in Afghanistan is long and grave. Throughout the years of conflict, violent acts of torture, rape and summary executions were commonplace. Under the Taliban, punitive justice was meted out as an instrument for strengthening control over populations and based on the justification of the implementation of a puritanical form of Shar’ia Law. The most notable violations include those which occurred during the Taliban’s take-over of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, and executions of civilians in Hazarajat in 2001.

Immediately following the ousting of the Taliban, Afghanistan continued to be fraught with insecurity and outbreaks of violence - with no promise of justice for victims of war crimes. Investigation into abuses were not taken up immediately following the installation of the ATA for political reasons but also practical ones, such as the need to completely overhaul the justice system. The period 2001-02 continued to be characterized by ethnic, political and territorial divisions which led to conflict and tension in pockets throughout the country. In 2002 and early 2003, areas in the north of the country continued to be insecure, leaving many refugees and IDPs reluctant to return home. However, overall there was a general improvement in human rights. Issues pertaining to land and property restoration made return of displaced persons particularly difficult and assistance agencies were over stretched and in many ways, unprepared to address the problems. This was due in part to the sheer numbers of returnees and also a shortfall in budgets for both reconstruction and rehabilitation which was vital for facilitating return. Women and girls experienced relaxed restrictions on mobility, dress and employment. However, in some parts of the country they continued to experience discrimination and harassment.

Under the Bonn Agreement, the Interim Administration, with the assistance of the United Nations, an independent Human Rights Commission was established to document human rights violations committed over the last 20 years. The Commission was meant to monitor and investigate violations of human rights, and oversee the development of domestic human rights institutions. Human rights groups also called for the creation of an international commission of experts to investigate crimes against humanity and violations of international law – although no war crimes tribunal was established. Amnesty International called for the establishment of a mechanism which would allow for the investigation of human rights violations while helping to secure the protection of basic human rights. Amnesty International also argued that long-lasting peace in Afghanistan could only be realised if respect for human rights was widely promoted and violators – both past and future – were held accountable. In 2002, Karzai stated that he will bring those who have committed human rights violations to justice. The politics of the country have made this task difficult.

Throughout 2003 and 2004, the human rights situation did not see marked improvements, despite successes on the political front such as the drafting of the new Constitution. Once again, warlords dominated the scene in areas outside of Kabul, making it difficult to ensure freedom of speech or political participation. Many groups have documented the abuses carried out by warlords which dominated each of Afghanistan’s regional provinces. These include rape, forced displacement, human trafficking in women and children, and the seizure of property. Importantly, there was also a resurgence of Taliban in conservative Pashtun areas in the east and south of the country, which impacted the willingness of many to send girls to school or women to work. The rise of such groups has been attributed to the fact that legitimate political representation was not achieved throughout the Bonn process but rather served to further entrench existing factions. The monitoring of human rights by international agencies such as the UN has also fallen short. In 2005, the lack of adequate troops and resources meant that human rights remained poor in many parts. The rise of the drug economy has contributed to the problem and poverty remains widespread. Leaders and militias from Afghan warring parties and the resurgence of the Taliban are together contributing to insecurity and human rights abuses. This situation worsened still in 2006.

Groups such as Human Rights Watch continue to call for the government to undertake a programme to provide truth, reconciliation and accountability for war crimes and major human rights abuses which have taken place over the past 30 years of conflict. In 2007, legislation was introduced to the national assembly which would grant amnesty to all representatives of the mujahudeen. This created a considerable backlash amongst the international community which eventually led to a watered down text which would prevent blanket immunity of those who have committed war crimes. Indeed, progress in the reform of the justice sector has been slow and hampered the establishment of a functioning and effective system of law and order.

More than a year after the launching of the Afghanistan Compact, there are few signs of improvement in security and human rights. Insurgency is on the rise which has led to more direct contact between international forces and populations. Insurgency fighters often locate themselves within the civilian population leading to civilians deaths (frequently referred to as ‘collateral damage’), displacement, loss of property, and destruction of livelihoods.

Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:
Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and on the achievements of technical assistance in the field of human rights
Human Rights Watch
Letter to Security Council Regarding the Bonn Agreement
Afghanistan: Poor Rights Record of Opposition Commanders
Afghanistan: Slow Progress on Security and Rights
Afghanistan: US Should Investigate Civilian Deaths
Afghanistan: Justice for War Criminals Essential to Peace
Amnesty International

Treaties and International Agreements

The following Conventions and Covenants have been ratified:

Geneva Conventions of 1949

Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Convention on the Political Rights of Women

International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

On the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict

Afghanistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol

World LII
Foreign Commonwealth Office, UK

Reconstruction and Development

Twenty three years of war has left Afghanistan one of the poorest countries in the world, with an economy based largely on the trade of drugs and guns, and an almost complete breakdown in systems. The reconstruction effort requires not only the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure but also the rebuilding of its institutions, including the military, police and the judiciary. Years of conflict and shifting front lines have left the country riddled with land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) that must be removed before arable land can be returned to productive use. The task is enormous and requires a sustained effort on behalf of the international community.

At the end of January 2002, a donors’ conference was held in Tokyo resulting in pledges of more than USD 4.5 billion. Such pledges were made by the following countries: United States (USD 297 million for 2007); Japan (up to USD 500 million over 3 years); the United Kingdom (USD 288 million over 5 years); the European Commission (USD 500 million for the current year); Germany (USD 362 million over 4 years); the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (USD 500 million each over the next 2.5 years); and Saudi Arabia (USD 220 million over 3 years).

In March 2004, Berlin hosted the Afghanistan Conference which produced the Berlin Declaration – outlining the way ahead. In December 2005 the Conference on Regional Economic Cooperation was also held in Kabul which focused participants on issues of trade, investment and regional cooperation.

In January 2006, at the London Conference on Afghanistan, the international community pledged approximately 10.5 billion USD towards reconstruction and development initiatives over the following five years. In early 2007, USD 11.6 billion were committed from the US focus on building the legal economy and alternative livelihoods, health care, education, sanitation, building administrative capacity, roads, energy and telecoms.

The Bonn Accord places emphasis on the role of the Afghan government and its institutions to take the lead in the country’s reconstruction and development. Progress towards the re-establishment of state institutions however has been patchy and slow. Since 2001, the focus of aid and assistance has been on Kabul ministries, while less assistance has been directed at the strengthening of local government structures in the provinces. The need to redress this imbalance has become clear during 2006 and 2007, as security has declined in some of the regions and where the development has hampered due to lack of systems and functioning institutions. There is still no cohesive agreement on governance structures and lack of human capacity is a chronic problem which will take years to overcome.

ISAF also aims to assist in reconstruction and development activities as part of the process of stabilization through Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The concept for the PRT arose out of the recognition that the central government was weak and did not have a presence in all provinces/districts. Originally, it was recognized that it would be beneficial to have teams with a small presence in the provinces to extend the reach of the government and create conducive conditions for development under the label Provincial Stability Teams. But this was later retagged as Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). These PRTs assist local authorities in the reconstruction and maintenance of security in the regions. The presence of the PRTs is meant to be temporary with a view to creating the civilian government presence which will then enable them to roll back.

The PRTs are an interface for government, coalition and international organizations. The PRTs are meant to provide security for aid workers and help reconstruction work. They are a key component of a three-part strategy for Afghanistan – security, governance and development – in order to spread stability across the country. To this end, Area Development Zones (ADZs) were established in the south at the end of 2006 with the aim of focusing efforts on the PRT remit of security/governance/development to bring about a visible difference to counter the spread of insurgency. The assumption is that the problems experienced in these areas is borne out of a ‘governance gap’ which needs to be addressed. The identification of priority development projects has been ongoing through the Reconstruction and Development Working Group. The government is meant to lead or coordinate activities in each of the ADZs, identifying Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) and then also looking towards longer term capacity building initiatives.

Aside from funds, the reconstruction of the country will only take place if major armed conflicts are avoided and main trade routes are secured. Regional economic development was supposed to be promoted through the simultaneous undertaking of the following three endeavours: demilitarizing Afghan society; eradicating poppy cultivation (an activity which has grown exponentially over the last three years and one which remains a substantial source of income); and supporting the legal economy through the promotion of market-oriented reforms and the establishment of the manufacturing and service sectors in Afghanistan.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Relief Web
The Brookings Institution


Ethnic groups

The country is ethnically, linguistically and physically diverse. Afghanistan is comprised of four main ethnic groups including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The actual number of each group is disputed. The dominant ethnic groups include the Pashtuns (38 per cent), Takjiks (25 per cent), Hazara (6 per cent) and a number of other groups including Uzbeks, Turkmens, Aimaks, Baloch and others making up the remainder. Over the centuries there has been considerable racial mixing creating ‘ethnic grey areas’ - particularly between Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks but also, to a lesser extent, between Hazaras and other ethnic groups. As is often the case, ethnic groups do not conform to national boundaries, and national culture varies from region to region with the greatest differences existing between rural and urban communities.

Tribal customs

The Pashtuns are the largest tribal group. The Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan share a common descent and they speak the same language, and they both recognise the moral and legal code of social order and responsibility known as Pashtunwali. The concept of ethnic identity has played a major role in the development of Afghanistan’s national politics and also in the country’s protracted refugee crisis. In the Afghan refugee camps in Paksitan, like in rural areas in Afghanistan, the tribal system remained intact and male elders of the tribes made decisions and elected leaders through a tribal assembly ( jirga) (Janata, 1990). As soon as refugees had established camps in Pakistan, jirgas were immediately held to deal with problems which arose in the camps. To a large extent, other ethnic groups were marginalised, and were not allowed to participate in the jirga. The initial hospitality extended to the Afghan refugees on behalf of the Paksistanis is due in part to historical and ethnic ties and adherence to Pashtunwali. Importantly, it lays out values which guide the behaviour of a Pashtun, including, honour ( namuz), solidarity ( nang), mutual support and revenge. All of these should be defended to the death.

While the tribal code of the Pashtuns is the most articulated, cultural practice varies between tribes and between rural and urban areas. Material culture plays a prominent role in all ethnic groups, each with a distinctive way of dress - particularly in the form of head dress. Embroidery on the dress – for both men and women – varies from group to group. Each region also has its own traditions of carpet and gilim (rug) design. The handicraft is done exclusively by women or young girls.

Library of Congress: Country Study


In Afghanistan, three or possibly four major language families are spoken extensively: Indo-European, Uralic-Altaic, Dravidian, and possibly Semitic. A modified Arabic script is used, which is written right to left. The most common languages spoken in Afghanistan are Persian (Dari) and Pashto – both of which are official languages under the 1964 Afghan Constitution. Dari, the ‘language of the court’, is the lingua franca despite the fact that the Constitution refers to Pashto as the national language. (Most rural Afghans refer to the language as Farsi rather than Dari.) Traces of Baluchi, Kafiri, Punjabi, Urdu and Dardic also exist in certain regions of Afghanistan, but are spoken only in the home.

Regional dialects can also be found in the Hazarajat amongst the Hazara who speak Hazaragi, the Aimaq who speak Dari but with a Turkic vocabulary, and the Tajiki who speak Tajiki. The Farsiwan farmers in the west of Afghanistan speak Iranian Farsi and urban dwellers such as Heratis and Kabulis can also boast of a dialect specific to each location. Pashto is further divided into Pashto and Paktu. Pashtu is softer and spoken in and around the district of Kandahar while Paktu is found in the border areas with Pakistan’s Northwestern Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal areas of Pakistan. Most Afghans speak both national languages as well as Urdu gained through exposure to the language through Indian films or as refugees in Pakistan.


Islam gained prominence in the region in the 7th Century, and has continued to be a major force in shaping cultural and political patterns. An estimated 84 per cent of the population is Sunni Muslim, and 15 per cent are Shi’a. There is no organised clergy in Sunni Islam, yet each village or neighbourhood mosque has a mullah who in most cases has been trained locally. His role is to perform Friday prayers and oversee Muslim festivals and other important functions in the life cycle. During peace time, their role resembles that of a civil servant. During war time, these religious functionaries influence local and national politics. The remaining religious minorities include Ismaelis, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Bahais. Most Hindus and Sikhs live in urban centres and are shopkeepers and moneylenders, many of whom remained throughout the war. In 2001, the Taliban implemented a law requiring religious minorities to wear a distinguishing yellow badge, at which time many left for Pakistan or India. Most of the Jewish community have left the country with only one family reported to be remaining in Kabul.

Islam, as the dominant religion, has had a pervasive impact on issues of social justice. The religion is practiced predominantly by the non-literate. In many cases, ideals and practices are based more on localized, pre-Muslim customs or tribal codes which may even conflict with Islamic principles. This is particularly prominent in Pashtun society which emphasizes the importance of honour and loyalty and revenge above other religious principles.

Country profile


Afghanistan is a land-locked country of 647,500 square kilometres which shares common borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north, Iran to the west, and Pakistan to the east and south. The Wakhan corridor in the north east of the country protrudes into the Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The British and Russians drew the boundaries of Afghanistan, and the Durrand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan is an ongoing issue of political concern between the two countries – owing primarily to the fact that Pashtun tribal populations span both sides of the border.

The country is characterised by rugged mountains, reaching elevations of more than 7,000 metres, rolling deserts and semi-deserts. The Hindu Kush mountain range, which is the western extension of the Karakorum Mountains and the Himalayas, runs through the central region of the country and flattens out into deserts of the southwestern plateau. Throughout the country, climate varies greatly but is generally characterised by hot dry summers and cold winters. There are eleven distinctive geographic zones within the country.


Human settlements throughout the country tend to be homogenous in nature, except for urban areas which are a mixing pot for all ethnic groups. Throughout the 20th Century, urban centres have attracted migrants – forced and voluntary – in pursuit of economic opportunities and services. Nonetheless, the proportion of urban population is estimated at only 22 per cent. Yet, the latest round of returns has meant that the population of Kabul has grown from an estimated 1.8 million in 1999 to 4 million in 2005. Indeed, like its Asian counterparts, Afghanistan is becoming increasingly urbanised. The recent wave of repatriation has led to rapid rates of urbanisation with over 50 per cent of all returnees choosing to return to urban areas. This is not surprising given the shortage of arable land and the lack of services in rural areas. In fact, the rate of urbanisation is the highest in Asia, owing to the high number of urban returns.

As a result of poverty, war, and lack of access to services, life expectancy at birth is only 47 years (2005), a small improvement from 2002 when life expectancy was 43 years. Infant mortality rates are high at 165 per 1,000 live births. Under-five mortality rates are even higher at 257 per 1,000 live births. Much of this is attributable to the limited access to water and sanitation. In 2002, only 13 per cent of the total population had access to safe water. This figure has risen to 39 per cent in 2004. In urban areas, there is a marked improvement in access to safe water with only 19 per cent having access in 2002 and 63 per cent in 2004. Likewise, in 2002, only 12 per cent of the total population (25 per cent of the urban population) had access to adequate sanitation. In 2004, some 34 per cent of the total population have access to adequate sanitation (49 per cent of the urban population). In 2004, the adult literacy rate was 43 per cent among men and 13 per cent among women. The population is at risk of contracting a number of diseases including TB, polio and leishmaniasis. Much of the population suffer from diarrhoea on a regular basis.

UNDP Human Development Report
World Health Organization (WHO)
UNICEF - State of the World's Children


The country lies at the centre of the trade route between the Far East and the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries. The region largely served as a thoroughfare for trade and marauding armies until the 15th Century when explorers sought alternative routes.

Today, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world which is reflected in the country’s indicators on poverty. Sustained economic growth over the long term is required to address the issue of poverty. While there were signs of a strengthening economy after 2001 (29% in 2002, 16% in 2003 and 8% in 2004), much of these gains have been in the construction sector which can only provide short-term growth. In the medium term, agriculture is likely to continue to drive the economy. However, Afghanistan will have to take significant steps to regain its place in the market in food exports, particularly dried fruit which was a significant component of the economy prior to the war. In the long term, exploitation of the country’s natural resources, modernization of the agricultural sector and the attraction of direct foreign investment is essential for sustained economic growth. The development of human capital is also essential.

Poor economic growth is largely attributable to political instability which has left the economy in ruins and has also led to the rise of an illegal economy based on the trade of opium. The cultivation of poppy has grown exponentially since 2000, leading some to continue to label Afghanistan as a ‘narco-state’. In 2006, 165,000 hectares were under cultivation, a 60 per cent increase from 2005. The opium trade accounted for 35-40 per cent of country’s total GDP in 2004 and this figure continues to rise. In 2007, more hectares of poppy are under cultivation than ever before as poppy continues to be the most profitable crop for farmers to grow while at the same time generating employment for thousands of poor labourers. The establishment of alternative livelihoods is proving to be challenging, making poppy eradication more difficult as it only serves to antagonize rural populations where the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is ongoing. Significantly, where eradication has occurred, the result has been a new wave of economic refugees.

Outside of the ‘narco-economy’, the economy is largely subsistence agrarian. Many eek out a living through pastoralism. Some of these groups are nomadic, while others are sedentary. Often groups practice a mix of animal husbandry and agriculture. Areas under extensive cultivation exist north of the Hindu Kush, and in the south and south-west in the Kabul Valley and Helmund-Arghandab Valley, Hari Rud Valley and the Turkestan Plains of the Amu Darya (Dupree, 1980). The crops grown include wheat, corn, barley, fruits and nuts. Industry is largely limited to the processing of fruit. Major industrial crops include cotton, wheat and tobacco. But much of this has been replaced with poppy production as it yields a higher return. Sheep farming and the production of sheep products such as wool are lucrative and are often exported to neighboring Pakistan. Many farmers migrate to Pakistan in search of employment during the winter months. Afghanistan is rich in natural resources, such as precious minerals, natural gas and untapped petroleum stores. Some of these resources have been exploited, others have not.

There are extreme disparities between regions and between rural and urban areas. During the fighting, some regions benefited from open borders and cross-border trading, either in contra-band substances or trade in ‘big ticket’ items such as electronics and tires. Before the war, the government tightly controlled the economy, setting up government monopolies in petrol, wheat and other essential commodities. State economic planning has had little impact in the rural areas, where 80 per cent of the population reside. The Afghan economy is in the initial stages of being rebuilt and the informal economy continues to represent a large part of the economy, an estimated 80-90 per cent. This makes it difficult for the government to collect taxes and raise its own revenues, which are desperately required to cover both recurrent costs and development investment. Indeed, domestic revenue is collected on perhaps only 5 per cent of GDP, which represents one of the lowest levels in the world. The economy is being restructured in an effort to revise tax structures. The country’s currency, the Afghani, has been reformed to bolster the economy and unify the country, as previously two currencies had existed. Long term planning efforts will be aimed at increasing cereal production, livestock production and exploit natural resources in a sustainable manner. Economic progress is slow due to limitations on the attraction of foreign investment, lack of a financial regulatory environment and poor security in general. Corruption and weak, or even dysfunctional, institutions also prevent economic growth and investment. Domestic revenue in 2005/06 was around USD 330 million while foreign aid was approximately USD 3 billion, an indication of the extent to which Afghanistan remains dependent on external assistance.

Afghan Online
U.S. Department of State
Department for International Development, UK
Brookings Institute
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Last updated Aug 17, 2011