Afghanistan, officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, covers and area of 647,500 sq. km. (249,935 sq. mi.), slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Texas. Its capital, Kabul has an estimated population of 1,780,000; other major cities include: Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalabad, and Konduz. This landlocked country is comprised of mostly mountains and desert. Afghanistan's climate ranges from arid to semiarid with cold winters and hot summers. Its natural resources include: natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semiprecious stones.
In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes and founded Afghanistan. The country served as a buffer between the British and Russian empires until it won independence in 1919. A brief experiment in democracy ended in a 1973 coup and a 1978 Communist counter-coup. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to support the Afghan Communist regime, touching off a long and destructive war. The USSR withdrew in 1989 under relentless pressure by internationally supported anti-Communist mujahedin rebels. A series of subsequent civil wars saw Kabul finally fall in 1996 to the Taliban, a hardline movement that emerged in 1994 to end the country's civil war and anarchy. Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, 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, a presidential election in 2004, and National Assembly elections in 2005. In December 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan and the National Assembly was inaugurated the following December. Despite gains toward building a stable central government, a resurgent Taliban and continuing provincial instability - particularly in the south and the east - remain serious challenges for the Afghan Government. On 20 August 2009, Afghanistan held democratic elections.
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 (Afghan Farsi) and Pashto are the official languages of Afghanistan. Smaller groups throughout the country also speak more than 70 other languages and numerous dialects. Afghanistan is an Islamic country. An estimated 80% of the population is Sunni; the remainder of the population (primarily the Hazara ethnic group) is predominantly Shi'a. In June 2006, Afghanistan and the International Monetary Fund agreed on a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility program for 2006-2009 that focuses on maintaining macroeconomic stability, boosting growth, and reducing poverty. In 2007, GDP growth exceeded 7%. In 2008, 11.5% GDP growth was expected.
CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes, 8/2009; 11/2008