At a glance | History

An arid, landlocked nation now devastated by civil war, earthquakes and drought, Afghanistan has endured countless invasions by the likes of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Its ethnically and linguistically mixed population reflects its position as a crossroads for historic trade routes through Central Asia. It has been a pawn in superpower struggles including Imperial Britain and Russia and most recently been the scene of a Cold War struggle in which the United States fought a proxy war backing guerrillas who would evolve into the greatest enemy America has faced in the 21st century.


Afghanistan is extremely poor, highly dependent on farming, sheep and goats. Military conflict, drought and earthquakes have forced one-third of the population to flee (as many as 6 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran). Gross domestic product has fallen substantially over the past 20 years because of the loss of labor and capital and the disruption of trade. Economic data is either unavailable or likely to be unreliable.

Area: 252,000 square miles; slightly smaller than Texas.
Terrain: Landlocked; mostly mountains and desert.
Climate: Dry, with cold winters and hot summers. Kabul's climate is similar to Denver's, but drier and dustier. Lies between 30 and 40 degrees of latitude the same as the warm southern region of the U.S. But an arc of mountains in the north and east rises as high as 21,000 feet, and the passes between the mountains seldom see sun in winter.
Time zone: Kabul is 12 hours ahead of Seattle time.
Key cities: Kabul (political capital); Kandahar (spiritual capital)
Per capita income: $178 (1999 U.N. estimate), lower than Bangladesh but higher than Chad.
Foreign aid: Almost totally dependent on international assistance. U.S. provided about $70 million in 1997, $29 million this year. The U.N. was also providing significant assistance, but withdrew because of restrictions imposed by Taliban rulers.
Natural resources: Extensive deposits of coal, natural gas, salt, chromium, iron ore, gold, fluorite, talc, copper, lapis lazuli and other gemstones. The remote and rugged terrain and inadequate transportation make mining unprofitable.
Industries: Small-scale production of textiles, handwoven carpets, soap, furniture, shoes.
Agricultural products: Opium poppies, wheat, fruit, nuts, wool, mutton. Only 12 percent of total land area is arable, and less than 6 percent is cultivated. Irrigation and mechanization negligible.
Currency: Approx. 6,600 afghanis = $1
Transportation: Landlocked Afghanistan has no railways, but the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, which forms part of Afghanistan's border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, has barge traffic. Highway connecting the principal cities needs reconstruction. Ariana Airlines offers international flights, Bakhtar Airlines internal flights.

Related info:

Since 1999, Afghanistan has produced approximately 75 percent of the world's opium, putting it ahead of Myanmar (Burma) as the world's top producer of opium poppies. U.S. officials say the drug trade brings the Taliban some $50 million a year.

Afghanistan has more land mines than any other country. Former Soviet troops, their mujahedeen guerrilla enemies, and Afghan armies fighting a civil war laid at least 6 million mines, said Haji Attiqullah, whose Mine Clearance Planning Agency has mapped minefields across Afghanistan.

Antipersonnel mine (statistics based on Russian data)
Height: 2.2 inches
Diameter: 4.4 inches
Weight: 1.3 pounds
Sensitivity: 18 pounds to 55 pounds of pressure


Sources: State Department; The Washington Post; The Los Angeles Times; Knight Ridder Newspapers; Gannett News Service; Newhouse News Services; The Associated Press; Reuters; Times staff research


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