Country profile: Afghanistan
Country profile: Afghanistan
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.
Since the fall of the Taleban administration in 2001, adherents of the hardline Islamic movement have re-grouped. It is now a resurgent force, particularly in the south and east. A fledgling democratic government faces the challenges of extending its authority beyond the capital and of forging national unity.
Its strategic position sandwiched between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent along the ancient “Silk Route” means that Afghanistan has long been fought over – despite its rugged and forbidding terrain.
It was at the centre of the so-called “Great Game” in the 19th century when Imperial Russia and the British Empire in India vied for influence.
And it became a key Cold War battleground after thousands of Soviet troops intervened in 1979 to prop up a pro-communist regime, leading to a major confrontation that drew in the US and Afghanistan’s neighbours.
But the outside world eventually lost interest after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, while the country’s protracted civil war dragged on.
The emergence of the Taleban – originally a group of Islamic scholars – brought at least a measure of stability after nearly two decades of conflict.
But their extreme version of Islam attracted widespread criticism.
The Taleban – drawn from the Pashtun majority – were opposed by an alliance of factions drawn mainly from Afghanistan’s minority communities and based in the north.
In control of about 90% of Afghanistan until late 2001, the Taleban were recognised as the legitimate government by only three countries.
They were at loggerheads with the international community over the presence on their soil of Osama bin Laden, accused by the US of masterminding the bombing of their embassies in Africa in 1998 and the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.
After the Taleban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden, the US initiated aerial attacks in October, paving the way for opposition groups to drive them from power.
Infighting between local commanders over power and territory became a feature of the post-Taleban 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 Taleban and the country supplies 93% of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin.
International bodies and governments say the drugs trade is helping to fuel the Taleban insurgency, which is estimated to receive up to US$100m a year from the trade.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has called on Afghanistan to target the major traffickers and corrupt government officials, who it says operate with impunity in the country.
President: Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai, who headed the provisional administration set up when the Taleban were driven from power, won a five-year term in Afghanistan’s first direct presidential elections in October 2004.
He gained 55.4% of the vote. Officials said voting irregularities were not enough to affect the outcome of the poll.
The president faces the challenges of forging national unity, disarming regional militias and tackling drug production.
Mr Karzai, a Pashtun leader, is an effective player on the world stage and enjoys strong backing from the US. In 2002 he persuaded international donors to pledge $4bn to help rebuild his country.
Born in the southern Afghan town of Kandahar in 1957, Hamid Karzai studied in India and France. Exiled in Pakistan for much of the Soviet occupation and during Taleban rule, he was chosen as post-Taleban Afghanistan’s interim leader in late 2001.
Afghanistan’s constitution, which was adopted in 2004 by an assembly of tribal representatives, envisages a powerful presidency and defines Afghanistan as an Islamic republic, where men and women enjoy equal status before the law.
Parliamentary and provincial elections were held in September 2005 and a new Afghan parliament held its inaugural session in December.
The growth in the number of media outlets – private TV stations in particular – has characterised the post-Taleban media scene.
There are scores of radio stations, dozens of TV stations and some 100 active press titles, operating under a wide range of ownerships – from the government, provincial political-military powers and private owners to foreign and NGO sponsors. The main private TV and radio networks command large audiences.
An Australian-Afghan media group, Moby Capital Partners, operates some of the leading stations, including Tolo TV and Arman FM.
Much of the output on private TV stations consists of imported Indian music shows and serials, and programmes modelled on Western formats. The channels are very popular in urban centres, especially among the under 30s.
However, media laws prohibit material that is deemed to run counter to Islamic law and some private stations have drawn the ire of conservative religious elements. Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders says media regulatory bodies are “under the government’s thumb”.
Relays of foreign radio stations or stations funded from overseas are on the air in Kabul, including the BBC, Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle and US-funded broadcasts from Radio Free Afghanistan, which uses the name Azadi Radio, and the Voice of America, which brands its Dari and Pashto broadcasts as Radio Ashna (“Friend”).
BBC World Service is also available on FM and mediumwave (AM) in other parts of Afghanistan.
Newspaper readership has seen a significant leap, from almost nil under Taleban rule. Newspapers tend to reflect more openly on domestic developments than do broadcasters.
Internet access is scarce and computer literacy and ownership rates are minuscule.
Afghanistan’s media were seriously restricted under Taleban rule. Radio Afghanistan was renamed Radio Voice of Shariah and reflected the Islamic fundamentalist values of the Taleban. TV was seen as a source of moral corruption and was banned.