Afghanistan country brief
For the latest Australian Government travel advice for Afghanistan, please visit the Smartraveller website.
Afghanistan is a landlocked and mountainous country on the border of South and Central Asia. It shares a border with six countries – Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north and China to the extreme northeast. Most of Afghanistan is arid to semi-arid with hot summers and cold winters. Afghanistan's total population is about 38 million, with 42% of the population aged under 15 years (World Bank, 2019). Kabul is Afghanistan's capital and largest city with around 4.4 million people.
Afghanistan's main ethnic groups are Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara. The official languages are Pashtu and Dari, however there are more than 30 distinct languages spoken across Afghanistan, and multilingualism is common. Most Afghans practice Sunni Islam, with the majority of the remainder practicing Shiism (Afghan Embassy in Australia, 2015).
System of Government
Afghanistan is a constitutional democracy with the President as the Head of State and the Government. The National Assembly has two chambers comprising the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) and Meshrano Jirga (upper house). Under the 2004 constitution, elections for the country's President and for the Wolesi Jirga are each held every five years.
All of Afghanistan acts as a single electorate to elect the President of Afghanistan. The last election was in 2019. The cabinet is made up of the President, two Vice-Presidents (not directly elected, but part of the presidential candidate's ticket), and 25 ministers. Ministers are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Wolesi Jirga.
The Wolesi Jirga has 250 representatives directly elected by provinces. The last election was in 2018. This house is responsible for drafting legislation and voting on presidential decrees and appointments.
The Meshrano Jirga is the house of review. It is made up of three representatives from each of the 34 provinces – one appointed by district councils for a three-year term, another appointed by provincial councils for a four-year term, and the last appointed by the president for a five-year term. It has quotas for women, ethnic minorities and people with a disability.
Legally mandated quotas and targets are used to increase women's participation in Afghanistan's legislative bodies. The 2004 Constitution introduced a quota system to ensure at least one-third representation in the national parliament. Subsequent electoral legislation has introduced quotas for women in provincial councils.
Afghanistan's 34 provinces are the primary administrative divisions. Each province is divided into districts, which total 398. Each province has a provincial government under a governor, appointed by the president (United States Institute of Peace, 2015).
In 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected President in the in first poll of the post-Taliban era. He was re-elected in August 2009. The first post-Taliban era elections for the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils were held in September 2005. Following selection of Meshrano Jirga members, the new National Assembly sat for the first time in December 2005. Elections for the second and third Wolesi Jirga took place in 2010 and 2018.
Following closely contested elections in mid-2014, the two final presidential candidates, Dr Ghani was inaugurated as President of Afghanistan and Dr Abdullah assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer. After the 2019 Presidential Elections, Dr Ghani retained the presidency, and Dr Abdullah became the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation.
Resolute Support Mission
NATO led the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from August 2003 to December 2014. ISAF was tasked with assisting the Government of Afghanistan to establish security and stability across the country following the overthrow of the Taliban.
In January 2015, ISAF handed over security responsibility to the Government of Afghanistan. ISAF was replaced with the NATO-led Resolute Support mission (RSM). The RSM is a non-combat train, advise, and assist mission focused on building the capacity of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and Afghan security ministries. Australia has contributed to RSM through Operation HIGHROAD, with Australian and international forces working alongside ANDSF as they built their own defence, security and counter-terrorism force.
Australia currently deploys about 80 Defence personnel under the RSM. These personnel will withdraw by 11 September 2021 as part of the broader international military withdrawal.
More information on Australia's military contribution to Afghanistan and the RSM is on the Department of Defence website.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is a political mission established by the UNSC in 2002 at the request of the Government of Afghanistan. UNAMA and its Special Representative lead and coordinate international civilian efforts in assisting Afghanistan, guided by the principle of reinforcing Afghan sovereignty, leadership and ownership. UNAMA works with the Afghan Government and supports the process of peace and reconciliation; monitors and promotes human rights and the protection of civilians in armed conflict; promotes good governance; and encourages regional coordination.
Australia and Afghanistan share a friendly and long-standing relationship. 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 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. The Afghan-born Australian population is about 46,800.
The first diplomatic link between Australia and Afghanistan was established in March 1969, when a non-resident Australian Ambassador was accredited to Afghanistan. The first resident Australian Ambassador to Afghanistan was appointed in 2006.
The Australian Government has continuing engagement with Afghanistan in the areas of security and development cooperation, and economic reform through bilateral, regional and multilateral dialogues.
High level visits
In April 2017, President Ashraf Ghani visited Australia. During this visit, our Governments signed a memorandum of understanding for an Afghanistan-Australia Development Partnership 2017-2020, and a new agreement between Geoscience Australia and the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women Senator Marise Payne visited Afghanistan in May 2021, when she met with President Ghani, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and the Acting Minister of Women’s Affairs, Hasina Safi. She had previously visited Afghanistan in February 2018 as the Defence Minister, meeting key Defence stakeholders.
The Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd), visited Afghanistan in December 2019, meeting with President Ghani and deployed forces.
Our program in Afghanistan is set out in Partnerships for Recovery and includes three priority areas:
- Pillar 1 – health security: supporting the international effort to reduce the effects of COVID-19 amongst Afghanistan’s most vulnerable.
- Pillar 2 – stability: contribute to peace and stability in Afghanistan focussing on participation of women.
- Pillar 3 – economic recovery: support recovery from COVID-19 through Afghanistan’s strategy for self-reliance
Australia has provided over $1.5 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001.
In 2020, Afghanistan was ranked amongst the top five countries globally with the highest risk of humanitarian crisis and disaster, for the fifth year in a row. Decades of war have devastated human, physical, social and institutional infrastructure. The UN has assessed the conflict in Afghanistan as one of the deadliest in the world for civilians, and in the first nine months of 2020, women and children accounted for 43 per cent of all civilian casualties.
The spread and intensity of the current conflict and repeated sudden onset crises are increasing humanitarian needs, challenging development gains and forcing new and repeated displacement. The COVID-19 pandemic has also escalated existing humanitarian challenges, with negative impacts on health systems, livelihoods and food security in Afghanistan, particularly for women and girls and people with disabilities. The UN estimates that in 2021, 15.7 million people (of a total 18.4 million people in need) are acutely vulnerable and will be targeted with humanitarian assistance. This represents an almost six-fold increase in the number of acutely vulnerable people compared to 2018.
Around three million Afghans (both documented and undocumented) remain displaced in Iran, and at least 2.6 million more in Pakistan. The economic downturn in the region in 2020 due to COVID-19 triggered record numbers of migrant returns from Iran back to Afghanistan. Returnees add to the increasing numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Afghanistan, with an estimated 4.9 million IDPs from both conflict and disasters. Over 400,000 new IDPs were recorded in 2020 alone, 80 per cent of whom were women and children. Increased instability and a deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan as foreign troops withdraw by September 2021 is expected to increase people movement in the region.
Australia has provided $134.1 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan since 2014. Under the revised Regional Humanitarian Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2021-2024), Australia's humanitarian assistance focuses on supporting affected people, particularly women and girls and people with disabilities, to gain improved access to essential food, basic health services and protection through government and humanitarian programs. It also aims to increase the resilience of households particularly in displaced, returnee and host communities in border areas with Pakistan. In 2020-21, Australia will provide $8 million to support the World Food Programme (WFP), $2 million through the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to support the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, and $1.5 million through the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
Empowering Afghan Women and Girls
Empowering women and girls has been a focus of Australia’s work in Afghanistan since 2001, in recognition of the disproportionate impact of conflict, food insecurity, and economic inequality on Afghan women.
We have invested $22.5 million to help End Violence Against Women (EVAW) by supporting national efforts to eliminate violence against women and includes support for women’s shelters and other support services; increased access to justice for women; helping change community attitudes towards violence; and advocating for the protection of women’s rights. In 2019:
- 2,500 women and children accessed Women’s Protection and Family Guidance Centres;
- over 1700 police and judicial officials were trained on gender-based violence case management and women’s rights under Afghan law; and
- 240 teachers were trained on EVAW Law and Women's Rights in Islam.
We have invested $21.3 million in our decade-long community based education program which has supported over 45,000 students (80 per cent girls) in some of the country’s most remote regions. Through this program, we have trained over 3,000 school teachers (60 per cent female) and helped change attitudes towards girls education through the creation of 230 Village Education Committees.
We have also invested $37.8 million in the Australia-Afghanistan Community Resilience Scheme where we have improved the economic wellbeing of 20,000 women and girls living in rural areas through improvements in agriculture, and supported a successful women only marketplace to sell their products and services in a safe environment.
We will continue to promote women’s full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership in peace, security and stability decision-making through our political advocacy and support in multilateral fora. Our Ambassador in Afghanistan co-chairs the Friends of Afghan Women Ambassadors’ Group in Kabul, to enhance our joint advocacy for the active and meaningful participation of Afghan women and the protection of women’s rights in the peace process. We are also progressing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda through our security sector engagement and broader development and humanitarian activities.
Australia’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security sets out our long-term strategy to realise gender equality and human rights of women and girls in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Australia’s efforts will focus on our region —the Indo-Pacific — while also strengthening and supporting conflict prevention and peace globally. Through our Ending Violence Against Women program in Afghanistan, we are working with religious leaders to raise awareness on women’s rights in Islam and Afghanistan’s Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Afghanistan has made significant progress in human rights over the past 20 years, and it is critical these gains are sustained to enduring peace. Human rights have been a key consideration in ongoing peace negotiations, and international advocacy has focused on need for stronger protection of civilians in conflict, maintaining an operating space for civil society, and preserving women’s rights and girls’ access to education.
Afghanistan's constitution enshrines many fundamental human rights, including the right to life, liberty and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention. Afghanistan has also ratified a number of international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the International Convention on Torture.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) is accredited with an 'A' rating from the International Coordinating Committee for National Human Rights Institutions. The Commission noted in 2015 that decades of conflict, a lack of respect for the rule of law, and a culture of impunity and corruption have had a severe impact on the government's ability to implement human rights guarantees..
At the 2020 International Conference on Afghanistan, development partners called for continued progress on the gains that have been made in human rights, including those of minorities and women and girls as pre-conditions for long-term security and economic recovery.
For more information see the UN OHCHR website.
Trade and investment
Afghanistan's economy faces a slow economic recovery from COVID-19 amid challenging political and security conditions and uncertainties regarding future international support. The economy remains dependent on foreign aid which aims at supporting longer-term economic development in Afghanistan.
Agriculture is one of the largest sources of income in Afghanistan. In 2020, approximately 40 per cent of the workforce was employed in the agriculture sector, which accounted for a quarter of GDP (IMF Country Report 20/300, November 2020)
Australia has limited trade with Afghanistan. In 2019-2020, total merchandise trade between Australia and Afghanistan was valued at AUD 3.6 million. In 2018, Australia was the 23rd largest destination for Afghan exports, and the 22nd largest origin of imports.
Cooperation opportunities in Afghanistan
See the AusTender website for opportunities in Afghanistan.