Full Name: The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Capital: Kabul
Head of State: Hamid Karzai
Population: 27.1 million (UN, 2007)
Ethnic Groups: Afghanistan's ethnically and linguistically mixed population reflects its location astride historic trade and invasion routes leading from Central Asia into South and Southwest Asia. While population data is somewhat unreliable for Afghanistan, Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic group at 38-44% of the population, followed by Tajiks (25%), Hazaras (10%), Uzbek (6-8%), Aimaq, Turkmen, Baluch, and other small groups.
Religions: Sunni Muslim 80%, Shi'a Muslim 19%, other 1%
Languages: Dari (Afghan Farsi) and Pashto are official languages. Dari is spoken by more than one-third of the population as a first language and serves as a lingua franca for most Afghans, though Pashto is spoken throughout the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan. Tajik and Turkic languages are spoken widely in the north. Smaller groups throughout the country also speak more than 70 other languages and numerous dialects.

Why do people flee Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has had a turbulent history. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million Afghans live outside the country, mainly in Pakistan and Iran, although over 5 million have returned since the removal of the Taliban. During the 1990s those who fled were escaping religious and ethnic persecution from the Taliban. In the post-Taliban years, as the country has faced trouble with warlordism and a booming drugs trade those leaving are escaping from extreme political instability, economic hardship and inter-ethnic conflict. While Afghanistan has seen one of the largest repatriation programmes in recent years those refugees who returned with high hopes are facing harsh realities.

A Cold War Battleground.
Afghanistan declared itself a republic in 1973, after a coup led by former Prime minister Daoud overthrew the Royal family. In 1977 the PDPA (People's DemocraticParty of Afghanistan) unified with Moscow's support. On April 27, 1978, the PDPA initiated a coup. Nur Muhammad Taraki, Secretary General of the PDPA, became President of the Revolutionary Council and Prime Minister of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Opposition to the Marxist government emerged almost immediately. During its first 18 months of rule, the PDPA brutally imposed a Marxist-style "reform" program, which ran counter to deeply rooted Afghan traditions. Decrees forcing changes in marriage customs and pushing through an ill-conceived land reform were resisted by virtually all Afghans. In addition, thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment, and the intelligentsia were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Conflicts within the PDPA also surfaced early and resulted in exiles, purges, imprisonments, and executions.

By the summer of 1978, a revolt began in eastern Afghanistan and quickly spread into a countrywide insurgency. The PDPA remained in power due to aid from the Soviet Union. However, in 1979 as the situation deteriorated the Soviet Union invaded. The invasion forces installed Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction, bringing him back from Czechoslovakia and making him Prime Minister. Following the invasion, the Karmal regime was unable to establich authority outside Kabul. An overwhelming majority of Afghans opposed the communist regime, either actively or passively. Afghan freedom fighters (mujahidin) made it almost impossible for the regime to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers. Poorly armed at first, in 1984 the mujahidin began receiving substantial assistance in the form of weapons and training from the U.S. and other outside powers.

By the mid-1980s, the Afghan resistance movement-aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others-was increasingly successful in undermining Soviet Troops. In 1988, the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the United States and Soviet Union serving as guarantors, signed an agreement settling the major differences between them. The Soviets withdrew at the beginning of 1989.

Significantly, the mujahidin were party neither to the negotiations nor to the 1988 agreement and, consequently, refused to accept the terms of the accords. As a result, the civil war continued after the Soviet withdrawal. In 1992 the mujahidin assumed control. However, rivalry between the various mijahidin militia groups meant fighting continued, descending in to anarchy and warlordism.

The Rise and Fall of the Taliban.
The Taliban rose to power in the mid 90's in reaction to this instability. Many Taliban had been educated in madrassas in Pakistan and were largely from rural southern Pashtun backgrounds. By the end of 1998 the Taliban occupied 90% of the country.

The Taliban sought to impose an extreme interpretation of Islam-based upon the rural Pashtun tribal code-on the entire country and committed massive human rights violations, particularly directed against women and girls. The Taliban also committed serious atrocities against minority populations, particularly the Shi'a Hazara ethnic group.

Following the September 11 attacks on the United States the U.S invaded Afghanistan in order to find Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national who had fought with the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets, and believed to be sheltering in Afghanistan. Kabul fell in November 2001.

The New Government.
Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban met at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn. Under the "Bonn Agreement," an Afghan Interim Authority was formed and took office in Kabul on December 22, 2001 with Hamid Karzai as Chairman. In October 2004, Afghanistan held its first national democratic presidential election. Hamid Karzai was announced as the official winner and inaugurated for a five-year term.

However, the new government has faced considerable difficulty extending its authority beyond the capital. Adherents of the hardline Islamic movement have re-grouped and are now a resurgent force, particularly in the south and east. Infighting between local commanders over power and territory became a feature of the post-Taliban period. The authorities in Kabul have been able to exert little control beyond the capital and militant violence has continued. Afghanistan's drugs industry makes up around 60% of the economy. The trade has boomed since the fall of the Taliban.

Timeline: Afghanistan (BBC)

A chronology of key events:
1919 - Afghanistan regains independence after third war against British forces trying to bring country under their sphere of influence.
1933 - Zahir Shah becomes king and Afghanistan remains a monarchy for next four decades.
1953 - General Mohammed Daud becomes prime minister. Turns to Soviet Union for economic and military assistance. Introduces a number of social reforms, such as abolition of purdah (practice of secluding women from public view).
1963 - Mohammed Daud forced to resign as prime minister.
1964 - Constitutional monarchy introduced - but leads to political polarisation and power struggles.
1973 - Mohammed Daud seizes power in a coup and declares a republic.
1978 - General Daud is overthrown and killed in a coup by leftist People's Democratic Party. But party's Khalq and Parcham factions fall out, leading to purging or exile of most Parcham leaders. At the same time, conservative Islamic and ethnic leaders who objected to social changes begin armed revolt in countryside.
1979 - Power struggle between leftist leaders Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki in Kabul won by Amin. Revolts in countryside continue and Afghan army faces collapse. Soviet Union finally sends in troops to help remove Amin, who is executed.
1980 - Babrak Karmal, leader of the People's Democratic Party Parcham faction, is installed as ruler, backed by Soviet troops. But anti-regime resistance intensifies with various mujahideen groups fighting Soviet forces. US, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia supply money and arms.
1985 - Mujahideen come together in Pakistan to form alliance against Soviet forces. Half of Afghan population now estimated to be displaced by war, with many fleeing to neighbouring Iran or Pakistan.
1986 - US begins supplying mujahideen with Stinger missiles, enabling them to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships. Babrak Karmal replaced by Najibullah as head of Soviet-backed regime.
1988 - Afghanistan, USSR, the US and Pakistan sign peace accords and Soviet Union begins pulling out troops.
1989 - Last Soviet troops leave, but civil war continues.
1991 - US and USSR agree to end military aid to both sides.
1992 - Resistance closes in on Kabul and Najibullah falls from power. Rival militias vie for influence.
1993 - Mujahideen factions agree on formation of a government with ethnic Tajik, Burhanuddin Rabbani, proclaimed president.
1994 - Factional contests continue and the Pashtun-dominated Taleban emerge as major challenge to the Rabbani government.
1996 - Taleban seize control of Kabul and introduce hardline version of Islam, banning women from work, and introducing Islamic punishments, which include stoning to death and amputations. Rabbani flees to join anti-Taleban northern alliance.
1997 - Taleban recognised as legitimate rulers by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Most other countries continue to regard Rabbani as head of state. Taleban now control about two-thirds of country.
1998 - Earthquakes kill thousands of people. US launches missile strikes at suspected bases of militant Osama bin Laden, accused of bombing US embassies in Africa.
1999 - UN imposes an air embargo and financial sanctions to force Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial.
2001 - January - UN imposes further sanctions on Taleban to force them to hand over Osama bin Laden.
2001 - March - Taleban blow up giant Buddha statues in defiance of international efforts to save them.
2001 - April - Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, the second most powerful Taleban leader after the supreme commander Mullah Mohammad Omar, dies of liver cancer.
2001 - May - Taleban order religious minorities to wear tags identifying themselves as non-Muslims, and Hindu women to veil themselves like other Afghan women.
2001 - September - Eight foreign aid workers on trial in the Supreme Court for promoting Christianity. This follows months of tension between Taleban and aid agencies.
2001 - October - US, Britain launch air strikes against Afghanistan after Taleban refuse to hand over Osama bin Laden, held responsible for the September 11 attacks on America.
2001 - November - Opposition forces seize Mazar-e Sharif and within days march into Kabul and other key cities.
2001 - 5 December - Afghan groups agree deal in Bonn for interim government.
2001 - 7 December - Taleban finally give up last stronghold of Kandahar, but Mullah Omar remains at large.
2001 - 22 December - Pashtun royalist Hamid Karzai is sworn in as head of a 30-member interim power-sharing government.
2002 - January - First contingent of foreign peacekeepers in place.
2002 - April - Former king Zahir Shah returns, but says he makes no claim to the throne.
2002 - May - UN Security Council extends mandate of International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) until December 2002. Allied forces continue their military campaign to find remnants of al-Qaeda and Taleban forces in the south-east.
2002 -June - Loya Jirga, or grand council, elects Hamid Karzai as interim head of state. Karzai picks members of his administration which is to serve until 2004.
2002 - July - Vice-President Haji Abdul Qadir is assassinated by gunmen in Kabul.
2002 - September - Karzai narrowly escapes an assassination attempt in Kandahar, his home town.
2002 - December - President Karzai and Pakistani, Turkmen leaders sign deal to build gas pipeline through Afghanistan, carrying Turkmen gas to Pakistan.
2003 - August - Nato takes control of security in Kabul, its first-ever operational commitment outside Europe.
2004 - January - Grand assembly - or Loya Jirga - adopts new constitution which provides for strong presidency.
2004 - March - Afghanistan secures $8.2bn (£4.5bn) in aid over three years.
2004 - October-November - Presidential elections: Hamid Karzai is declared the winner, with 55% of the vote. He is sworn in, amid tight security, in December.
2005 - September - First parliamentary and provincial elections in more than 30 years.
2005 - December - New parliament holds its inaugural session.
2006 - May - Violent anti-US protests in Kabul, the worst since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, erupt after a US military vehicle crashes and kills several people.
2006 - May-June - Scores of people are killed in battles between Taleban fighters and Afghan and coalition forces in the south during an offensive known as Operation Mountain Thrust.
2006 - July onwards - Nato troops take over the leadership of military operations in the south. Fierce fighting ensues as the forces try to extend government control in areas where Taleban influence is strong.
2006 - October - Nato assumes responsibility for security across the whole of Afghanistan, taking command in the east from a US-led coalition force.
2007 - March - Pakistan says it has arrested Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the third most senior member of the Taleban's leadership council.
Nato and Afghan forces launch Operation Achilles, said to be their largest offensive to date against the Taleban in the south. There is heavy fighting in Helmand province.
2007 - May - Taleban's most senior military commander, Mullah Dadullah, is killed during fighting with US, Afghan forces.
Afghan and Pakistani troops clash on the border in the worst violence in decades in a simmering border dispute.
2007 - July - A group of South Korean Christian charity workers is kidnapped by the Taleban. Two are killed, the rest are freed over the next six weeks.
2007 - August - Opium production has soared to a record high, the UN reports.
2007 - October - Fifteen are put to death in the second confirmed set of executions since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.
2007 - November - A suicide attack on a parliamentary delegation kills at least 41 in northern town of Baghlan, in the country's worst such attack.
2007 - December - Two senior EU and UN envoys are accused by Afghan officials of making contact with the Taleban and expelled from the country.

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