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What Should I Know About Afghanistan?

A map of the Middle East, including Afghanistan.
Since the 1970s, control of Afghanistan has been contested by various Islamist and tribal groups.
Afghanistan is a mountainous country.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 July 2014
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Afghanistan is a large, landlocked nation in the continent of Asia, often designated as a part of the Middle East. Afghanistan is approximately 250,000 square miles (647,000 sq. km), just a bit smaller than the state of Texas. It is inhabited primarily by Pashtuns, with Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups making up considerable portions of the population as well.

The area that is currently Afghanistan has been inhabited for some 50,000 years, and over that time has played an important role in different empires. The area has been ruled by Alexander the Great, the Turks, the Arabs, the Mongols, and many different Persian empires. Amazing archeological sites still dot the countryside, remnants of this diverse past.

In the mid-18th century, the actual state of Afghanistan was created. It brought together regions ruled over by different tribes of Pashtuns, making a unified front. This new state would play an important role in the struggle between Tzarist Russia and Britain for dominance in central Asia — a struggle often referred to as The Great Game. Afghanistan was looked at by Britain as a bulwark between Russian-controlled Asia and that most important of Britain’s holdings — India. So from the time the British took control of Afghanistan in 1838 to the time Afghanistan gained full independence in 1919, Afghanistan was treated as little more than a protective buffer.

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From roughly the 1930s until the 1970s, Afghanistan enjoyed a period of relative stability. Unified under one ruler, King Zahir Shah, the nation was independent and fairly prosperous. With the British gone, the Afghan people were able to sculpt their own destinies and reaffirm their unique heritage. This all changed in the 1970s. First the king was deposed by his brother-in-law in a bloodless coup. Then, in 1978, the new royal family was murdered, and a communist group seized control of the country.

Because of its strategic importance, and as part of a broader anti-Communist campaign, the United States became involved in Afghanistan’s political future in 1979. With America funding and training anti-Soviet Mujahideen, and the USSR funding and training the Communist government, Afghanistan became an active battlefield in the Cold War. This battle raged for nearly a decade, until the Soviet retreat in 1989. Having won the battle, the United States withdrew support from Afghanistan, and a power vacuum quickly formed.

In addition to this power vacuum, there was a void left by intellectuals and progressives who had fled the country during the fighting. This was quickly filled by the Taliban, a fundamentalist group, which took control of the capital in 1996 and cemented their control of the country by the turn of the century. Their rule was notoriously brutal, with political and religious dissenters executed, archeological wonders destroyed on religious grounds, and hard-line ideology generally taking the place of open discussion and free speech.

In 2001 the United States intervened, following attacks on US soil by al-Qaeda. Al-Queda was primarily based in Afghanistan, and this, along with the the Taliban’s refusal to turn over key figures for prosecution, sparked the ire of the US. The Taliban government was forcibly removed, and a new government was installed. In 2004 a free election was held, and a new president was elected. Although the Taliban government was removed, Taliban fighters continue to fight throughout the country, and a strong US presence remains.

As of 2007, the political climate in Afghanistan is such that visiting for pleasure is not considered particular safe. The United States government has a long-standing travel advisory for the country, and precautions should be taken before visiting. Landmines abound in the country, and a trusted guide should be followed when leaving the cities. Generally, the situation changes so rapidly that it is best to consult with your nation’s embassy before planning a trip to Afghanistan.

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