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Afghanistan country brief

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

Geography

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, the Baloch-speaking Balochis in the south-west and myriad diverse ethnic groups who live in the high, snow-bound valleys of the Pamir mountain region in the north-east.

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 invasion led to a decade of war, during which time it is estimated around 14,500 Soviet and one million Afghan lives were lost. Armed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, 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. Despite a US cruise missile attack on the training camps in 1998, the Taliban refused to expel Bin Laden and his followers.

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.

Current situation

The International Assistance Force (ISAF) was created in December 2001 under UN Security Council Resolution 1386 and is tasked to assist the Afghan Government establish security and stability across the country. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assumed leadership of ISAF in August 2003, and some 50 NATO and non-NATO countries (as at January 2012) are contributing troops to support the ISAF mission. The present strength of ISAF troops is around 100,000 personnel.

Transition

Together with other ISAF nations, the Australian Government has 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 to conclude by the end of 2014. In mid-2011 transition of lead security responsibilities to Afghan security forces began. Four tranches of transition have so far commenced.

On 31 December 2012, President Karzai announced the fourth tranche of Districts and Provinces to undergo transition. Once completed, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will have taken lead responsibility for security for 87 per cent of the Afghan population and for 23 of the 34 Afghan Provinces. 

A key milestone occurs in the 2013 northern spring, when the ANSF assumes the operational lead and ISAF moves into an advisor-support role.  This milestone coincides with the announcement of the fifth and final tranche of areas that will commence transition. Implementation of transition for this final tranche will occur progressively, starting in the northern summer of 2013. The precise timing for when areas start transition is subject to final Afghan and NATO/ISAF approval.

Development Assistance

In July 2012, the international community committed to providing over $US16 billion through 2015, and sustaining support, through 2017, at or near levels of the past decade to respond to the fiscal gap as estimated by the World Bank and the Afghan Government.

Sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

At the NATO/ISAF Leaders’ Summit in May 2012, the international community – including Australia – committed to providing financial assistance to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces after transition. The Australian Government has provided more than $900 million in development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001. Australian development assistance for Afghanistan in 2012–13 was $181.2 million.

More information on Australia's development assistance to Afghanistan

Politics

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. Due to difficulties related to the definition of boundaries and population estimates, district council elections have not been held. As a result, provincial council members fill seats reserved for district council representatives. 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. Mr Karzai was returned to office following elections in August 2009, and elections for the second Wolesi Jirga took place in September 2010.

The next Presidential elections are scheduled for early April 2014.

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 website.

For statistical information, see the UNHCR Statistical Online Population Database

Trade

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. The trade we do have is mainly in engines, machinery and telecommunications. In calendar year 2011, Australia was the 26th largest destination of exports from Afghanistan, and the 32nd largest origin of imports into Afghanistan.

Main Destination of Exports 2011
Main Destination of Exports 2011 %
1 Pakistan 31.4
2 India 28.8
3 Tajikistan 8.3
26 Australia 0.2
Main Origins of Imports 2009
Main Origins of Imports 2009 %
1 United States 31.4
2 Pakistan 20.8
3 Russia 8.4
32 Australia 0.2

The Economy

Afghanistan's economy is recovering from decades of conflict. The economy has improved significantly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. This has been largely because of the infusion of international assistance, the recovery of the agricultural sector, and service sector growth.

Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan is extremely poor,  and highly dependent on foreign aid. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. Afghanistan’s future economic growth will face a number of challenges through the transition period and beyond 2014. However, ongoing international assistance is aimed at supporting longer-term economic development in Afghanistan.   

In strengthening its economic growth and private sector, Afghanistan will need to overcome a number of challenges, including low revenue collection, poor job creation, corruption,  increasing government capacity, and poor public infrastructure.  A World Bank analysis determined that Afghanistan will face a fiscal gap of $4 billion per year. The World Bank analysis formed the basis of the pledge made at the July 2012 donor conference in Tokyo on Afghanistan. At that conference the international community pledged $16bn over four years through 2015.

Services and agriculture are the country’s largest sectors.  Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at purchasing power parity is $31.8 billion (2012 IMF estimate).

Further information can be found on the World Bank website.

Agriculture

Agriculture is one of the largest sources of income in Afghanistan, despite the fact that only 12 per cent of its total land area is arable, with only half of that under cultivation. The major food crops are: corn, rice, barley, wheat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The major industrial crops are: cotton, tobacco, madder (used to make dye), castor beans, and sugar beet. Agricultural practices are relatively basic, a result of the extremely poor level of development and infrastructure in the country, as well as decades of sustained armed conflict.  In 2011, approximately 78 per cent of the population were employed in the agriculture industry, which accounted for 31 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP.

Mining and Energy

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. Current proven natural gas reserves are at 49.55 billion cubic metres (est. 2010) with production of around 30 million cubic metres per year (est. 2009). The country’s mining sector is hampered by ongoing instability in many areas and inadequate infrastructure to support mining and distribution.

Relations with Australia

In May 2012, Prime Minister Gillard and President Karzai signed the Australia-Afghanistan Comprehensive Long-term Partnership. This Partnership is a clear demonstration of Australia’s long-term commitment to supporting Afghanistan’s security, development and governance following transition. 

 Under the Partnership, Australia will

  • Work with Afghanistan to combat transnational threats such as terrorism, narcotics and people smuggling;
  • Support Afghanistan’s security after 2014;
  • Support Afghanistan’s development, including through an increased aid program;
  • Encourage business and investment links;
  • Cooperate on migration issues; and
  • Foster people-to-people links and help preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Through the Partnership, Australia will also work with the Government of Afghanistan to build the capacity of government and national institutions to promote and protect human rights.

The Partnership will give confidence to the people of Afghanistan that Australia will stand side by side with Afghanistan beyond the end of transition in 2014.

The nature of Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan will change after transition, but Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan’s stability and development will endure.  

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 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 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. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has representatives based in Kabul,  in the Uruzgan Provincial Reconstruction Team, and in Kandahar. In November 2011, Prime Minister Gillard opened Australia’s new chancery in Kabul. This new facility houses officials – from across the Australian Government – working in Afghanistan.   

The Australian Government is committed to international efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and to seek to ensure that international terrorist groups are denied safe haven there. As a part of the UN-mandated ISAF mission, Australia is working closely with NATO and other partners to assist the Afghan Government to create the conditions necessary for enduring stability and prosperity. Currently, Australia is the largest non-NATO troop contributor to ISAF, and the 10th largest contributor overall.
Australia’s substantial military, civilian and development assistance to Afghanistan focuses on:

  • training and mentoring the Afghan National Army (ANA) 4th Brigade in Uruzgan Province to assume responsibility for the province’s security;
  • building the capacity of the Afghan National Police to assist with civil policing functions in Uruzgan; and
  • helping improve the Afghan Government’s capacity to deliver core services and generate income-earning opportunities for its people.

Australia’s military deployment is maintained at around 1550 personnel. In April 2010, the Government announced that Australia would increase its civilian contribution to Afghanistan to around 50 personnel in 2010 to assist with reconstruction, development and diplomatic efforts. This includes an Australian Federal Police contingent for capacity-building activities in Uruzgan, which focus on training Afghan National Police officers in Tarin Kowt and helping target serious criminal activity in Uruzgan.

On 23 June 2010, the Government announced new command arrangements for military and civilian operations in Uruzgan Province following the commencement of the drawdown of Dutch forces from 1 August 2010. The NATO-led ISAF mission established Combined Team-Uruzgan (CT-U), which includes Australia, the United States, and Slovakia.

In October 2012, Australia took command of CT-U.   

Australia is playing a core role in the Uruzgan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), including by providing Australian civilian leadership of the PRT. The Australian Defence Force also provides force protection for Australia’s increased civilian activity in Uruzgan.

To support ISAF efforts to develop the ANA, in June 2010 the Australian Government provided the first US$40 million tranche of its US$200 million commitment over five years to the ANA Trust Fund – a fund that will help the ANA address many of its equipment and sustainment issues.

On 26 March 2013, the Minister for Defence announced that Multi National Base – Tarin Kowt, in Uruzgan province, would close at the end of the year. Australia will remediate the areas it has used and transfer the remaining infrastructure to Afghanistan at the end of this year as transition occurs in Uruzgan and the Australian training and advisory mission in Uruzgan is completed.

Further information about Australia’s whole-of-government commitment to Afghanistan can be found on the Department of Defence website.

Development Cooperation

The Australian Government has committed more than $900 million in development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001. The estimated Australian Official Development Assistance for Afghanistan in 2012-13 is $181.2 million. Australia’s aid supports Afghanistan’s development priorities, as articulated by the Government of Afghanistan in the Afghanistan Compact and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. Australia supports the Afghanistan Government to deliver health, education and employment opportunities to its people and bring stability to the country.

Consistent with undertakings made at the London Conference and then reaffirmed at the Kabul Conference in 2010, Australia is committed to channelling 50 per cent of our development assistance to Afghanistan through Afghan Government systems, provided the necessary management and reforms are in place. In this regard, we are assisting the Afghan Government to strengthen its capacity to deliver services and increase its accountability.

At the 8 July donor conference in Tokyo, the Afghan Government and the international community reaffirmed their partnership to promote the economic growth and development of Afghanistan through a process of mutual accountability. The goals to be achieved under this partnership are laid out in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework.

For more information about the Australian Government’s aid to Afghanistan, see Australian Aid.

Ministerial Statements on Afghanistan to Parliament

Recent International Conferences on Afghanistan

Updated January 2014