Still a battleground between the Taliban and government and NATO forces.
Afghanistan is a largely mountainous country: more than half the territory is above 2,000 metres. Its central highlands are the western end of the Himalayan chain and include the Hindu Kush mountain range. The richest and most intensively cultivated agricultural land is in the lowland plains of the north. The land to the south and south-west is mostly desert or semi-desert. In recent years the environment has been devastated by conflict and drought.
The main ethnic group in Afghanistan are the Pashtun. They live throughout the country, but particularly in the south and east. Though they are the dominant group, the Pashtun are by no means homogenous and there have been frequent conflicts between different tribes and sub-tribes. The second largest group are Tajiks. Not organized on tribal lines, they are found mainly in the north-east and the west, particularly in the capital, Kabul, where they have made up most of the educated élite. The third main group, and among the poorest, are the Hazara, who live in the central highlands or as labourers or servants in Kabul.
Other groups include Uzbeks and Turkmen, descendants of refugees from the former Soviet Union who live in the northern plain. Almost all Afghans are Muslims, mostly Sunni.
In 2007 the population was estimated at 26 million. Since 1979, at least one million people have been killed. Millions more became refugees; around 4.5 million have returned, but in mid-2006 there were still 2.6 million in Pakistan. Levels of human development in Afghanistan were never high and are now among the worst in the world. Rates of infant and maternal mortality are high and most parts of the country lack access to clean water, adequate sanitation, and sufficient food.
Around one-third of health facilities have been severely damaged and many doctors have left the country. There have been some successful interventions by aid agencies, including a child immunization campaign. But health standards are very low particularly for women—with one of the world's highest rates of maternal mortality. Education too is in a grim state. Most qualified teachers left the country during the Taliban period and girls' schools were closed. Schools have now been reopened but they are struggling to cope with the new influx of pupils. Universities have also reopened. But illiteracy remains the highest in the world.
Women during Taliban rule could not be seen in public unless almost completely covered. But now girls can go to school and a number of women hold national positions.
Most people have traditionally relied on subsistence agriculture, raising livestock or growing crops on irrigated land—chiefly wheat, corn, and rice. But incessant conflict, including the sowing of landmines, has undermined food production and also destroyed most industry and infrastructure. Around half the government's budget has to come from international aid.
Opium dominates the economy
The only thriving activity seems to be the cultivation of opium. The Taliban had banned production, but since then prices have risen and by 2006 total production was around 6,100 tons—worth around half of GDP. Local warlords make a good income by taxing the trade.