Afghans vote in landmark presidential and provincial council elections on Thursday, but rampant insecurity and Taliban threats could affect the credibility of the polls.
These are some key facts about the country:
GEOGRAPHY: In the heart of central Asia, Afghanistan is bordered by the Islamic republics of Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and by China. It is an arid, landlocked country of 652,225 square kilometres (251,825 square miles), about 85 percent of which is mountainous.
POPULATION: Between 26 and 32 million inhabitants.
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDICATORS: Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world, with 42 percent of the population living on less than 14 dollars a month.
More than one out of four children dies before the age of five, the third highest rate in the world after Sierra Leone and Angola, according to the UN.
About 1,600 of every 100,000 mothers die in childbirth or because of related complications, second only to Sierra Leone (UN).
Afghans have a life expectancy of 43 (UN).
Only 23 per cent of the adult population can read or write.
LANGUAGES: Pashtu and Dari -- both Persian dialects. At least 30 other languages and dialects are spoken.
RELIGION: Overwhelmingly Muslim with about 80 percent Sunni and 20 percent Shiite.
RECENT HISTORY: In 1973, King Mohammed Zahir Shah was ousted in a bloodless coup after 40 years of rule.
In April 1978, a pro-Soviet coup brought communists to power. The following year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and spent the next decade fighting mujahedeen guerrillas backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In February 1989, the Soviets withdrew and civil war ensued.
On September 27, 1996 a group known as the Taliban (students of religion), which formed partly in Pakistan with the tacit approval of Washington, took power in Kabul and enforced Sharia law.
The Taliban executed former communist president Mohammad Najibullah and allowed Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network to operate from the country.
On September 9, 2001 Ahmad Shah Masood, commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance force, was assassinated by two men posing as journalists and presumed to be members of Al-Qaeda.
On October 7, 2001 following the September 11 attacks on the United States, a US-led coalition launched a war to topple the Taliban for failing to surrender bin Laden. After six weeks, the Northern Alliance took Kabul and most of the country.
Under peace accords agreed in Bonn in December 2001, an interim administration was established under the leadership of Hamid Karzai.
On October 9, 2004 an estimated eight million Afghans voted for the first time to elect a president. Karzai was the winner.
There are currently around 95,000 Afghan soldiers fighting Taliban militants alongside more than 100,000 international soldiers, nearly two-thirds of them in the US military, in the volatile south.
ECONOMY: The destitute country is being rebuilt with international assistance.
Afghanistan produces about 93 percent of the world's opium, according to the UN, bringing in four billion dollars a year (2.82 billion euros), part of which goes to finance the Taliban.
Afghanistan has four percent of the world's reserves of coal, along with iron, copper and precious stones. Deposits of lead, zinc, tin, tungsten and caesium have yet to be tapped.