Friendly, beautiful Afghanistan was once well known on the backpacking circuit as the place to stop for unparalleled hospitality, fantastic food, great hiking and legendary hashish. Things, sadly, have changed.
Landlocked and mountainous, Afghanistan has suffered from such chronic instability and conflict during its modern history that its economy and infrastructure are in ruins, and many of its people are refugees. It is also afflicted by natural calamities such as earthquakes and drought.
More than 20 years of war and Taliban rule left the dramatic countryside peppered with landmines and reduced many of the finest monuments and minarets to rubble. The poverty left in war's wake has taken an impossible human toll and encouraged the theft and sale of priceless national treasures.
In 328 BC, Alexander the Great entered the territory of present-day Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire, to capture Bactria (present-day Balkh).
Invasions by the Scythians, White Huns, and Turks followed in succeeding centuries. In AD 642, Arabs invaded the entire region and introduced Islam.
Arab rule quickly gave way to the Persians, who controlled the area until conquered by the Turkic Ghaznavids in 998.
Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030) consolidated the conquests of his predecessors and turned Ghazni into a great cultural center as well as a base for frequent forays into India.
Following Mahmud's short-lived dynasty, various princes attempted to rule sections of the country until the Mongol invasion of 1219.
The Mongol invasion, led by Genghis Khan, resulted in the destruction of many cities, including Herat, Ghazni, and Balkh, and the despoliation of fertile agricultural areas.
Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, a succession of petty chieftains and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of his descendants, Tamerlane, incorporated Afghanistan into his own vast Asian empire.
Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane and the founder of India's Moghul dynasty at the beginning of the 16th century, made Kabul the capital of an Afghan principality.
In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of what is known today as Afghanistan, established his rule.
A Pashtun, Durrani was elected king by a tribal council after the assassination of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah at Khabushan in the same year.
Throughout his reign, Durrani consolidated chieftainships, petty principalities, and fragmented provinces into one country.
His rule extended from Mashhad in the west to Kashmir and Delhi in the east, and from the Amu Darya (Oxus) River in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.
All of Afghanistan's rulers until the 1978 Marxist coup were from Durrani's Pashtun tribal confederation, and all were members of that tribe's Mohammadzai clan after 1818.
Recent history: Afghanistan's recent history is a story of war and civil unrest. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, but was forced to withdraw 10 years later by anti-Communist mujahideen forces supplied and trained by the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others.
The Communist regime in Kabul fought on until collapsing in 1992. Fighting subsequently erupted among the various mujahideen factions, giving rise to a state of warlordism that eventually spawned the Taliban. Backed by foreign sponsors, the Taliban developed as a political force and ultimately seized power in 1996.
The Taliban were able to capture most of the country, outside of Northern Alliance strongholds primarily in the northeast. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a US, Allied, and Northern Alliance military action toppled the Taliban.
In late 2001, major leaders from the Afghan opposition groups and diaspora met in Bonn, Germany, and agreed on a plan for the formulation of a new government structure that resulted in the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) on December 22 2001.
The AIA held a nationwide Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) in June 2002, and Karzai was elected President by secret ballot of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan (TISA).
The Transitional Authority convened a Constitutional Loya Jirga from December 14, 2003 until January 4, 2004 and ended with the approval of a new Constitution. The Constitution highlights a strong executive branch, a moderate role for Islam, and basic protections for human rights.
Present status: Today, after Karzai was elected President in the October presidential polls, in addition to occasionally violent political jockeying and ongoing military action to root out remaining terrorists and Taliban elements, the country suffers from enormous poverty, a lack of skilled and educated workers, a crumbling infrastructure, and widespread land mines. The road to recovery is not smooth. But the Afghans desire peace more than anything and their resilience provides the best key to the country's future.
Location: Southern Asia, north and west of Pakistan, east of Iran
Area: 652,000 sq km
Population: 24.9 million (UN, 2004)
Area: 652,225 sq km (251,773 sq miles)
Major language: Pashto, Dari (Persian)
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 43 years (men), 43 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Afghani = 100 puls
Main exports: Fruit and nuts, carpets, wool, opium
GNI per capita: n/a
International dialling code: +93