When Soviet troops invaded in 1979, the U.S. — backed by
Pakistan, China and Arab countries — armed Afghan fighters and
financed military training camps established by Osama bin Laden.
After the Soviets were defeated in 1989, infighting erupted, and in
1996 the Taliban militia, which preaches a strict form of Islam,
seized most of Afghanistan. They did not control the northern
regions, which were held by rival mujahedeen (holy warriors) who
fought alongside the Taliban against the Soviets and later became
known as the Northern Alliance. Bin Laden has lived in Afghanistan
for five years as a “guest” and financial supporter of the
Taliban. His camps have become a launching pad for international
terrorism. The Northern Alliance is supported by Russia, Iran and
Area: 250,000 square miles (slightly smaller than Texas).
Population: 25.8 million. Ethnic Pashtuns — 38 percent
— have dominated the country. Most of the Talibans are Pashtuns;
the Northern Alliance are Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
Economy: Years of war have made Afghanistan one of the
world’s poorest countries. Traditional industries, such as carpet
making and farming, have been replaced by poppy cultivation and
opium production, which is the major source of income.
Key cities: Kabul is the political capital; the Taliban
rule from Kandahar, which is considered the spiritual capital.