Afghanistan became a key Cold War battleground after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to prop up a pro-communist regime. However, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, civil war continued and the US lost interest in the country.
The emergence of the Taliban – originally a group of Islamic scholars – brought a measure of stability after nearly two decades of conflict. But their extreme version of Islam attracted widespread criticisms as did their hosting of Osama bin Laden, who was generally believed to have been behind the bombing of US embassies in Africa in 1998 and then the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001. After the Taliban's refusal to hand over bin Laden, the US initiated aerial attacks in October 2001, paving the way for opposition groups to drive the Taliban from power.
Since the fall of the Taliban administration, adherents of the hardline Islamic movement have re-grouped. It is now a resurgent force, particularly in the south and east, fuelled by funds from the drugs trade. A fledgling government, with the support of some 130,000 foreign troops serving in a NATO force (International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)) as well as the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, faces the challenges of extending its authority beyond the capital and of forging national unity.
Afghanistan's drugs industry makes up around 60 percent of the economy. The trade has boomed since the fall of the Taliban and the country supplies 95 percent of the world's opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. International bodies and governments say the drug trade is helping to fuel the Taliban insurgency, which is estimated to receive up to US$ 100m a year from the trade.
Following the presidential elections in the USA on 4 November 2008, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on President-elect Barack Obama to "end civilian casualties in Afghanistan and take the war to places where there are terrorist nests and training centres." In March 2009, US President Barack Obama unveiled a new American strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to combat what he called an increasingly perilous situation. An extra 4,000 US personnel were to train and bolster the Afghan army and police, and there was also to be support for civilian development. 30,000 additional troops were pledged in November 2009, bringing the total American troop presence in Afghanistan to around 100,000. More recently, however, the US policy in Afghanistan, seen to have yielded little success, has been reported to have shifted toward targeted killings in an effort to hunt down insurgents. In 2011, President Obama ordered a speedier troop withdrawal, in a move which US military leaders feared would increase the number of soldier deaths.
In June 2009, it was reported by the BBC that a US military inquiry had uncovered serious mistakes made when US forces bombed suspected Taliban positions in Afghanistan in May. Dozens of civilians were killed in the air strikes in western Farah province. The Afghan government says 140 people were killed in the strikes in early May, while the Americans say 20-30 people died. Some of the raids would have been called off, had the rules of engagement been followed strictly, unnamed officials were quoted as saying. Meanwhile, General Stanley McChrystal, then-US commander in Afghanistan, said civilian casualties caused by US and NATO-led forces could alienate the Afghan people. Civilian casualties are causing growing public outrage in Afghanistan and friction between the US and Afghan governments. With its more than 3,000 civilian deaths, 2011 was the bloodiest year for civilians in Afghanistan since 2001.Generals David Petraeus replaced General McChrystal in June 2010, and was in turn replaced by General John R. Allen in July 2011.
In March 2010, the Afghan Government for the first time admitted to the enactment of an amnesty law for all war crimes and human rights violations having occurred before December 2001. The so-called National Stability and Reconciliation Law has received widespread criticism, including from Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Afghanistan.
Early in January 2010, Taliban commanders held secret talks in Dubai with the United Nations to discuss peace terms. On 28 January 2010, more than 70 countries and organizations met at a major conference in London and Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated he intended to reach out to the top echelons of the Taliban with a Peace Initiative. The Taliban, however, declined to take part in the March 2010 preliminary Kabul peace talks. National peace talks were held in June 2010 at Jirga, where a set of goals designed to forge sustainable peace were adopted. President Karzai later announced the first step in achieving the aims of the summit: the creation of a commission to review the cases of all suspected Taliban militants held in custody, with those held without sufficient evidence to be immediately released. Another international conference was held in Kabul on 20 July 2010, where the international community again expressed its commitment to what has come to be referred to as the "Kabul process" (the transition to full Afghan leadership and responsibility). In January 2012, the Taliban announced they would open a political office in Qatar for the purpose of negotiations "with the international community". In February 2012, reports surfaced of "exploratory" talks between the US and the Taliban which bypassed the Afghan Government.
In July 2010, some 92,000 classified individual military incident and intelligence reports used by the US military in the war in Afghanistan were made available on the Internet.
Following the mid year report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict issued by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in August 2010, Amnesty International called for the prosecution of the Taliban for war crimes perpetrated against civilians. The Taliban, in turn, proposed to set up a joint commission to investigate allegations of civilians being killed and wounded in the conflict.
On 21 May 2012 NATO leaders concluded a decisive summit in Chicago, taking key decisions on the Alliance’s future engagement in Afghanistan, military capabilities and worldwide partnerships. The Summit set out a strategy for concluding the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, and delivered a commitment to supporting the Afghan forces after that date.
This overview is adapted from the BBC online country profile of Afghanistan.
Last updated: 22 May 2012