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Country Profile


Country profile: Afghanistan.

Where is Afghanistan? Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, is now little more than a pile of rubble. Gunshots and explosions are almost as regular as the call of the muezzin to prayer. There are still over four million refugees inside and outside the country, up to ten million landmines on its soil, and around 100,000 amputees to be cared for. Yet the violent disintegration of this country – a staple of the TV news in the years when it could be dramatized as a Cold War battleground – is now ignored by the West.

Afghanistan is a rugged, landlocked country with the proud distinction of being one of the few countries that successfully resisted colonization by the European empires. Its borders were, however, still defined by the two Great Powers in the region – Russia and Britain – to provide a buffer zone during the ‘Great Game’, their struggle for power in Central Asia. Their geopolitical design left entire nationalities divided by borders, sowing the seeds of future conflict. Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic group, the Pushtuns, for example, straddle the border with Pakistan while the Tajiks, who dominate the north, have close links with the people of Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic. Ethnic identity is vital here – you rarely hear anyone refer to themselves as ‘Afghan’.

The superpowers continued the Great Game during the Cold War. Afghanistan’s constitutional monarchy was overthrown in 1973 by a combination of Communists and Liberals, and in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, fearing an Islamic resurgence throughout Central Asia. The Red Army soon became embroiled in its own Vietnam, as US arms poured into the hand of the Mujahedin (‘holy warriors’). But the Mujahedin were far from united. Ethnic, political and religious differences plagued the resistance and in-fighting was as common as battles against the Soviet Army.

The Soviet Union cut its losses and withdrew in 1989. By 1992 the Mujahedin had taken Kabul – but within hours street battles between the various factions had erupted. These have escalated to the point where in 1994 over 15,000 civilians were killed by the fighting.

In October last year a new force emerged in the civil war. The Talibaan, a group of religious students, swept through the south of the country, promising to end the cycle of violence and to rid the country of arms and drugs. They have been stopped short of Kabul but stories of their religious zeal have fostered fears about the reactionary clerical state they might create. In the city of Qandahar, for example, the Talibaan attempted to ban soccer for being Western.

The northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, meanwhile, is controlled by Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum, an ex-communist well known for switching sides. The ‘government’ of President Rabbani holds sway over the capital and parts of the north. The central highlands belong to the mainly Shi’ite Hazara ethnic group. All these factions have so far failed to compromise – and no progress towards reconstruction can be made without that.

Stefan A Smith


LEADER: President Burhanuddin Rabbani – but he controls only part of the country.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $280 (US $23,240)
Monetary unit: Afghani
Main exports: Natural gas, fruit and nuts, narcotics (cannabis and opium)
Main imports: Food, petroleum, fertilizers, arms and ammunition
The economy is now survival-orientated, a far cry from the days of large-scale agricultural production and export. The presence of up to ten million landmines has ruined the lives of millions of farmers, as well as creating some 100,000 amputees. Drugs have become the crop of the warlords, particularly on the border with Pakistan.

PEOPLE: 20.6 million, of whom about a quarter are refugees.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 165 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000). Only 23% of people have access to safe water.

CULTURE: Pushtun (Pathan) 45%, Tajik 30%, Hazara 10%, Uzbek 5%.
Religion: Muslim – 85% Sunni, 15% Shi’ite
Languages: Pushtu is the national language. Dari (Persian) is used for business. The many ethnic languages include Uzbek, Turkoman and Kirgiz.

Sources: State of the World’s Children 1995; Third World Guide 93/94; Human Develop-ment Report 1994; Asia & Pacific Review 1993/94; information supplied by the author.

Previously profiled February 1986


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
Money is now in the hands of the warlords who have looted the country.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown]
29%. The education system has been destroyed by the fighting and a generation of refugees have had little or no schooling.
1986 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The dependence of millions of refugees continues but Afghans have proved resourceful in avoiding complete catastrophe.
1986 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown]
No elections have been held since before the Soviet invasion. Civilian possessions are routinely seized by Mujahedin.
1986 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown]
The status of women has fallen since the Mujahedin takeover. Amnesty reports the frequent rape of women by Mujahedin.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
At 44 years, the lowest in Asia. Compares with a regional average of 56 and a rich-world average of 76.
1986 [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown]
Afghanistan is ruled by the Kalashnikov and rival factions have split the country on ethnic lines. Countless UN peace plans have failed in the last three years and will continue to do so as long as the warlords refuse to compromise.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

New Internationalist issue 269 magazine cover This article is from the July 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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