Afghanistan is a country in southwestern Asia that is situated on a landlocked plateau between Iran, Pakistan, China, and several countries in Central Asia. Afghanistan is a rugged place. Rocky Mountains and deserts cover most of the land, with little vegetation anywhere except the mountain valleys and northern plains. The country has hot, dry summers and bitterly cold winters. Kabul is the capital and largest city.
Afghanistan has long been known as the crossroads of Asia, with ancient trade and invasion routes crossing its territory. Over the centuries many different people passed through Afghanistan, and some made it their homeland. Today this history is reflected in the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. The Pashtuns, who make up the largest ethnic group, were long known as Afghans, but in modern times the term Afghan denotes nationality for all citizens of the country.
Afghanistan was a monarchy from 1747 to 1973, when military officers overthrew the king and established a republic. In 1979 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) invaded Afghanistan, starting the Soviet-Afghan War. The United States supplied military aid to the guerrilla insurgents who fought the Soviet-backed Afghan government. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the country erupted in civil war. An Islamic fundamentalist movement called the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996. The Taliban gave refuge to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against the United States, U.S. military forces invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001. Afghanistan adopted a new constitution establishing a presidential form of government in 2004.
The End of Monarchy in Afghanistan came after the 1973 overthrow. In 1973 Muhammad Daud overthrew the king in a coup. He declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as president. Daud announced ambitious plans for economic development and tried to play the USSR against Western donors, but his dictatorial government was opposed both by radical left-wing intellectuals and soldiers and by traditionalist ethnic leaders. The leading leftist organization was the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had been founded in 1965 and in 1967 split into a pro-Soviet Parcham faction and a much more radical Khalq faction. The two groups joined forces in 1976 to oppose Daud. The End of Monarchy in Afghanistan was one incidence that finally cumulated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 25, 1979 with the Soviets capitalizing on the instability in the government at the time of the invasion.
Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan began officially in 1988. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, he gave high priority to getting Soviet troops out of the costly, unpopular, and apparently unwinnable war in Afghanistan. In May 1988 Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR, and the United States signed agreements providing for an end to foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and the USSR began withdrawing its forces. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was completed in February 1989.
The Population and Settlement of Afghanistan had over the years depended heavily on the political situation at home. In the country’s first and most recent official census, conducted in 1979, a population of 15,551,358 was recorded. The population was estimated to be 32,738,376 in 2008. After two decades of war—with its casualties and refugees—any estimate is highly speculative. Demographic uncertainty will prevail until a new reliable census is taken.
Beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979, the number of Afghan refugees outside the country escalated dramatically. As many as 3 million refugees went to Pakistan and 1.5 million to Iran. About 150,000 Afghans were able to migrate permanently to other countries, including the United States, Australia, and various European countries. Many refugees began returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Their numbers surpassed expectations, with more than 1.5 million refugees returning from Pakistan and more than 400,000 from Iran by the end of 2002. The rapid return of refugees led to a national humanitarian crisis as the government and international aid agencies struggled to provide adequate food and medical supplies. Many refugees had returned to farms and fields studded with land mines or devastated by air strikes, as well as chronic water shortages following several years of drought.
Before the Soviet-Afghan War, Afghanistan had an estimated annual population growth rate of 3.5 percent. Urban areas had a growth rate of 4.8 percent, reflecting migration to places of greater employment. In 2008 the growth rate was estimated at 2.63 percent. Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, with 155 deaths for every 1,000 live births. The average life expectancy is 44 years.
The population of Afghanistan is overwhelmingly rural, with about 77 percent living in rural areas in 2003. Of urban dwellers, probably about half reside in Kabul, the country’s capital and largest city. The Population and Settlement of Afghanistan indicate the vast socio-cultural heritage of the country.