Afghanistan covers an area slightly smaller than the state of Texas (647,500 sq km / 249,935 sq mi). Its capital, Kabul, has a population of 1,780,000 (1999/2000 UN estimate); other major cities in Afghanistan are: Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Konduz. The country's terrain is landlocked with mostly mountains and deserts; its climate is dry, with cold winters and hot summers.
Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes and founded Afghanistan in 1747. The country served as a buffer between the British and Russian empires until it won independence in 1919. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to support the tottering Afghan Communist regime, touching off a long war; withdrawing in 1989. Subsequently, a series of civil wars saw Kabul finally fall in 1996 to the Taliban, ending the country's civil war and anarchy. Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, a US, Allied, and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance military action toppled the Taliban for sheltering Osama Bin Ladin. The UN-sponsored Bonn Conference in 2001 established a process for political reconstruction that included the adoption of a new constitution and a presidential election in 2004, and National Assembly elections in 2005. On 7 December 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. The National Assembly was inaugurated on 19 December 2005.
The government of Afghanistan consists of the President (chief of state), a bicameral Legislative branch (the House of the People - 249 seats; House of the Elders - 102 seats), and a Supreme Court. There are 34 provinces in Afghanistan. The natural resources of the country include: natural gas, oil, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron, salt, and precious and semiprecious stones. 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. 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. Dari is spoken by more than one-third of the population as a first language and serves as a lingua franca for most Afghans; Tajik and Turkic languages are spoken widely in the north. Afghanistan is an Islamic country. Islamic religious tradition and codes, together with traditional tribal and ethnic practices, have an important role in personal conduct and dispute settlement. Afghan society is largely based on kinship groups, which follow traditional customs and religious practices, though somewhat less so in urban areas.
Afghanistan's economy is recovering from decades of conflict. The economy has improved significantly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 largely because of the infusion of international assistance, the recovery of the agricultural sector, and service sector growth. Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan is extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, agriculture, and trade with neighboring countries. Long-term challenges include: budget sustainability, job creation, corruption, government capacity, and rebuilding war torn infrastructure.
CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes, 200712