Area: 652,230 sq. km. (251,827 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Texas.
Cities: Capital--Kabul. Other cities--Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, Konduz.
Terrain: Landlocked; mostly mountains and desert.
Climate: Dry, with cold winters and hot summers.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Afghan(s).
Population (July 2009 est.): 28.396 million. More than 3 million Afghans live outside the country, mainly in Pakistan and Iran, although over 5 million have returned since the removal of the Taliban regime.
Annual population growth rate (2009 est.): 2.629%.
Main ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Aimaq, Baluch, Nuristani, Kizilbash.
Religions: Sunni Muslim 80%, Shi'a Muslim 19%, other 1%.
Main languages: Dari (Afghan Farsi), Pashto.
Education: Approximately 7 million children, of whom some 37% are girls. Literacy (2008 est.)--28.1% (male 43%, female 12%), but real figures may be lower given breakdown of education system and flight of educated Afghans during 3 decades of war and instability.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2011 est.)--125 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy (2011 est.)--49 years.
Type: Islamic Republic.
Independence: August 19, 1919.
Constitution: January 4, 2004.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state). Legislative--bicameral National Assembly; Wolesi Jirga (lower house) 249 seats, Meshrano Jirga (upper house) 102 seats. Judicial--Supreme Court, High Courts, and Appeals Courts.
Political subdivisions: 34 provinces.
Suffrage: Universal at 18 years.
GDP (2010 est., purchasing power parity): $27.36 billion.
GDP growth (2010-2011): 8.2%.
GDP per capita (2009 est.): $900.
Natural resources: Natural gas, oil, coal, petroleum, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semiprecious stones.
Agriculture (estimated 31.6% of GDP): Products--wheat, opium, sheepskins, lambskins, corn, barley, rice, cotton, fruit, nuts, karakul pelts, wool, and mutton.
Industry (estimated 26.3% of GDP): Types--small-scale production of textiles, soap, furniture, shoes, fertilizer, cement; hand-woven carpets; natural gas, coal, and copper.
Services (estimated 42.1% of GDP): Transport, retail, and telecommunications.
Trade (2010-2011): Exports--$252 million (does not include opium): fruits and nuts, hand-woven carpets, wool, cotton, hides and pelts, precious and semiprecious gems. Major markets--Central Asian republics, United States, Russia, Pakistan, India. Imports--$2.9 billion: food, petroleum products, textiles, machinery, and consumer goods. Major suppliers--Central Asian republics, Pakistan, China, India.
Currency: The currency is the afghani, which was reintroduced as Afghanistan's new currency in January 2003. As of November 21, 2011, $1 U.S. equaled approximately 48.28 afghanis.
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 42% of the population, followed by Tajiks (27%), Hazaras (9%), Uzbek (9%), Aimaq, Turkmen, Baluch, and other small groups. 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.
Afghanistan is an Islamic country. An estimated 80% of the population is Sunni, following the Hanafi school of jurisprudence; the remainder of the population--and primarily the Hazara ethnic group--is predominantly Shi'a. Despite attempts during the years of communist rule to secularize Afghan society, Islamic practices pervade all aspects of life. Islam served as a principal basis for expressing opposition to communism and the Soviet invasion. 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, often called the crossroads of Central Asia, has had a turbulent history. In 328 BC, Alexander the Great entered the territory of present-day Afghanistan, then part of the Persian Empire, and established a Hellenistic state in Bactria (present-day Balkh). Invasions by the Scythians, White Huns, and Turks followed in succeeding centuries. In AD 642, Arabs invaded the entire region and introduced Islam.
Arab rule gave way to the Persians, who controlled the area until conquered by the Turkic Ghaznavids in 998. Following Mahmud's short-lived dynasty, various princes attempted to rule sections of the country until the destructive Mongol invasion of 1219 led by Genghis Khan.
Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, a succession of petty chiefs and princes struggled for supremacy until late in the 14th century, when one of his descendants, Tamerlane, incorporated Afghanistan into his own vast Asian empire.
In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of what is known today as Afghanistan, established his rule. A Pashtun, Durrani was elected king by a tribal council after the assassination of the Persian ruler Nadir Shah at Khabushan in the same year. Throughout his reign, Durrani consolidated chieftainships, petty principalities, and fragmented provinces into one country. His rule extended from Mashad in the west to Kashmir and Delhi in the east, and from the Amu Darya (Oxus) River in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.