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Afghanistan country brief

For the latest Australian Government travel advice for Afghanistan, please visit the Smartraveller website.

Overview

Afghanistan is a land-locked and mountainous country in central Asia, with plains in the north and southwest. The country is bordered by Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. In the extreme northeast, Afghanistan has a common border with China.

Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, lies in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range which splits the country along a north-south divide. Ringed by mountains, Kabul has been the capital since 1776 and is Afghanistan's largest city. At an altitude of 1800m, Kabul is hottest in July and coldest in January. The climate is dry all year. The average annual rainfall is 240mm.

Afghanistan's history has resulted in a complex ethnic, cultural and religious mix. The two main ethnic groups are the Pashtuns and the Tajiks whose languages, Pashtu and Dari, are Afghanistan's two official languages. Other ethnic groups include the Turki-speaking Uzbeks, Turkomens and Kyrgyz of northern Afghanistan, the Hazara of the central highlands (who were converted to Shiism by the Persians) and the Baloch-speaking Balochis in the south-west.  There are a myriad of diverse ethnic groups who also live in the high, snow-bound valleys of the Pamir mountain region in the north-east.

Current situation: transition

The International Assistance Force (ISAF) was created in December 2001 under UN Security Council Resolution 1386.  It was tasked with assisting the Afghan Government establish security and stability across the country. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assumed leadership of ISAF in August 2003, with some 50 NATO and non-NATO countries contributing troops to support the ISAF mission at different times.

Together with other ISAF nations, the Australian Government welcomed President Karzai’s objective, outlined and agreed at the NATO/ISAF Summit in Lisbon on 20 November 2010, to begin a process of transition to Afghan leadership on security in Afghanistan. This will be achieved at the end of 2014 when the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) takes full responsibility for security across Afghanistan.

The ISAF mission will also come to an end in December 2014.  It will be replaced by a NATO-led non-combat train, advise and assist (Resolute Support) mission.  Australia is committed to supporting the new mission and will contribute US$100 million per year (for three years from 2015) toward sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces.  Australia will also continue to provide ongoing development assistance to Afghanistan to the amount of $134.2 million in 2014-15. 

Information on Australia’s continuing military contribution to Afghanistan can be found on the Department of Defence website.

Political overview

Under the 2004 Afghanistan constitution, elections for the country's President and Wolesi Jirga (Lower House in the National Assembly) are held every five years. Members of the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders, equivalent to a Senate) are not directly elected but are selected by district councils, provincial councils and the President.

Provincial council elections are held every four years. The first Presidential poll in the post-Taliban era, in October 2004, saw the election of Hamid Karzai, who had acted as President of the Transitional Administration since June 2002. The first elections for the Wolesi Jirga and Provincial Councils were held in September 2005 and, following the selection of upper house members, the new National Assembly sat for the first time on 19 December 2005. President Karzai was returned to office following elections in August 2009, and elections for the second Wolesi Jirga took place in September 2010.

Following democratic elections in mid-2014, Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah agreed to form a National Unity Government in Afghanistan on 21 September 2014.  Dr Ghani was inaugurated as president on 29 September 2014.  Dr Abdullah accepted the role of Chief Executive Officer.

Bilateral Relations

Afghanistan-Australia relations can be traced back to the 1860s when Afghan cameleers came to Australia. For half a century, the cameleers played a crucial role in the exploration and development of the Australian outback, ferrying supplies across the continent.  The Adelaide to Alice Springs train (now extended to Darwin), the Ghan, is named in their honour.  The next wave of Afghan migration to Australia followed the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan when thousands fled their homeland.  According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Afghan-born population in Australia in 2006 was 16,751.  There are now Afghan communities in all of Australia's major cities.

Australia and Afghanistan re-established diplomatic representation in 2002.  Between April 2002 and September 2006, Australia's High Commissioner to Pakistan was accredited as non-resident Ambassador to Afghanistan. Australia appointed a resident Ambassador to Afghanistan in August 2006 and now has a full-time diplomatic presence in Kabul.

The Australian Government is committed to international efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and to ensure international terrorist groups are denied safe haven there.  Further information on Australia’s military contribution to Afghanistan can be found on the Department of Defence website.

Development Cooperation

Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, ranking 175th out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.1 Governance issues and institutional capacity have constrained Afghanistan’s development.  Afghanistan is also often faced with humanitarian emergencies, with almost a third of Afghans not having sufficient food and with more than four million Afghans being displaced at any one time.  A quarter of a million Afghans are likely to be affected by a natural disaster each year.

At the 2012 Tokyo Conference the international community pledged to provide US$16 billion in aid through 2015, and sustained support through 2017.  This followed international donor pledges of $4.1 billion to support Afghanistan’s security sector, at the 2012 Chicago Conference (including Australia’s US$300 million Afghan National Security Forces sustainment contribution).

Australia’s continuing aid program to Afghanistan is part of an integrated whole-of-government effort with security, diplomatic and development objectives.  In July 2012, Australia and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding: Development Framework Agreement between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Government of Australia 2012-17 (the MOU) under the broader Cooperation Agreement.  The MOU underlines both parties’ commitment to reducing poverty and building stability in Afghanistan, including by building the Afghan Government’s capacity to deliver basic services and provide economic opportunities to its people.

In line with its Tokyo Mutual Assistance Framework commitments, Australia channels 50 per cent of its development assistance to Afghanistan through Afghan Government systems, provided that necessary management and reforms are in place. Australia is also assisting the Afghan Government to strengthen its capacity to deliver services and increase its accountability.  Australia has provided over $1 billion to Afghanistan since 2001.

History

The Afghan state was founded in 1747 after a revolt against Nadir Shah, a Persian who ruled much of Afghanistan and Persia. Ahmed Shah Durrani, a Pashtun chief, led the revolt and, on assuming power, took the title of Shah or King.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Afghanistan saw much of its territory and autonomy ceded to the United Kingdom until 1919 when King Amanullah Khan acceded to the throne and Afghanistan regained control of its foreign policy. Afghanistan's last King, Mohammad Zahir Shah, ruled from 1933 until he was deposed by his cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud, in a military coup on 17 July 1973. Daoud ruled as President until April 1978 when he in turn was overthrown by the Soviet-backed People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). PDPA Secretary-General Nur Muhammad Taraki became President and imposed a Marxist-style reform program. Throughout 1978, resistance to the PDPA grew and in December 1979, citing the December 1978 bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, the Soviet Union invaded and installed Babrak Karmal as the Head of Government.

The Soviet Union’s invasion led to a decade of war, during which time it is estimated around 14,500 Soviet and one million Afghan lives were lost. With external backing, Afghan resistance fighters, or mujahidin, controlled as much as 80 per cent of the country side. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, but civil war continued. The mujahidin had not been party to the 1988 Geneva Accord that preceded the Soviet withdrawal and did not accept the regime of the former Chief of the Afghan Secret Police, Muhammad Najibullah, which had been installed by the Soviets.

Najibullah's regime failed to win popular support and collapsed after the defection of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Uzbek militia in March 1992. However, when the mujahidin entered Kabul to assume control of the city and the central government, a new round of internecine fighting began between the constituent militias.

Seeking to resolve the conflict, mujahidin leaders sought to establish a six-month interim leadership council which was to rule until a Loya Jirga (Grand Council of Afghans representing tribal and ethnic groups) could convene to designate an interim administration to hold power pending elections. However, in May 1992 one of the designated council members, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, prematurely convened the council and had himself elected President. Rabbani extended his tenure in December and controlled Kabul and the northeast while other powerful mujahidin leaders exerted power over the rest of the country.

In reaction to the anarchy and warlordism prevalent in the country, another movement of former mujahidin, the Taliban, gained strength. Many Talibs had been educated in madrassas in Pakistan and were largely from rural Pashtun backgrounds. The Taliban captured Kandahar in 1994 and over the following two years expanded their control in Afghanistan, occupying Kabul in September 1996. By 1998 they controlled most of Afghanistan, limiting the opposition mainly to a small corner in the northeast and the Panjshir valley, which was controlled by the anti-Taliban United Front (also known as the Northern Alliance). Efforts by the international community to bring about a peaceful solution to the continuing conflict were unsuccessful, largely because of Taliban intransigence.

The Taliban sought to impose an extreme interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan, including severely limiting the rights and activities of women and girls. From the mid-1990s, the Taliban provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida organisation ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had earlier fought with the mujahidin against the Soviets.

After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Taliban declined to comply with US demands to surrender bin Laden. In response, the United States-led coalition began an aerial campaign on 8 October 2001 against terrorist facilities, and Taliban military and political assets in Afghanistan. At the same time, Northern Alliance forces attacked the Taliban on the ground. Mazar-e-Sharif fell on 9 November 2001, followed by Kabul on 13 November, and Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in the north, on 26 November. Kandahar, the last major city under Taliban control, fell on 7 December.

On 27 November 2001, four Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban met in Bonn to agree on a process to restore stability and governance to Afghanistan. The resulting Bonn Agreement installed a new government, the Afghan Interim Authority, in Kabul under President Hamid Karzai. Following a Loya Jirga in June 2002, this was replaced by the Afghan Transitional Administration, with Hamid Karzai again as President.

Refugees

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan in the last 10 years.  This has increased the population of the country by some 25 per cent.  The UNHCR estimates that as of mid-2012 there were around 425,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Afghanistan.

Additionally, nearly 3 million Afghan registered refugees remain in neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, along with significant numbers of unregistered refugees and displaced persons. The profile of these refugees is largely different to those who have returned to Afghanistan since 2002. Many Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran have been in exile for more than 20 years. Half of the registered Afghan population in these two countries were born in exile.

For more information see the UNHCR websiteFor statistical information, see the UNHCR Statistical Online Population Database

Trade and investment

Afghanistan has been at the junction of trade routes between central, south and west Asia for over 3000 years.  Official trade during the 1990s was dominated by the re-export of products, principally electronic goods and cosmetics, to Pakistan and other neighbouring countries.  Major imports for domestic use include agricultural inputs, rice, wheat, fuel and cooking oil, while indigenous exports include fruit and nuts, primary materials and timber. 

Australia has limited trade with Afghanistan.  During the 2011 calendar year, Australia was the 26th largest destination of exports from Afghanistan, and the 32nd largest origin of imports into Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's economy is recovering from decades of conflict.  It has improved significantly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, but remains poor and dependent on foreign aid.  Ongoing international assistance is aimed at supporting longer-term economic development in Afghanistan.   

Agriculture is one of the largest sources of income in Afghanistan, despite only 12 per cent of its total land area being arable and only half of this being under cultivation.  In 2011, approximately 78 per cent of the population was employed in the agriculture industry, which accounted for 31 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP. 

Afghanistan has substantial natural resources, including deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulphur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, and precious and semiprecious stones.  The country’s mining sector is hampered by ongoing instability and inadequate infrastructure to support mining and distribution.

Further information can be found on the DFAT Economic Fact Sheet on Afghanistan and at the World Bank website.

Collaboration opportunities in Afghanistan

Tenders

See the AusTender website for opportunities in Afghanistan.

Direct Aid Program (DAP)

A small grant scheme that partners with various organisations to support projects which directly contribute to the welfare and the income-generating capacity of poor or disadvantaged groups, or enhance the long-term productivity and sustainability of the physical environment.

Get involved in the Direct Aid Program

Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP)

The Australian NGO Cooperation Program supports accredited Australian non-government organisations (NGOs) to implement their own international development programs. Under the program, the department partners with Australian professional development NGOs.

Get involved in the Australian NGO Cooperation Program

Australian Development Research Awards Scheme (ADRAS)

The Australian Development Research Awards Scheme is a key component of our Research Strategy 2012–2016, the purpose of which is to improve the quality and effectiveness of Australian aid in developing countries.

Get involved in the Australian Development Research Awards Scheme