Map of Afghanistan
The National Flag
The Official flag of Afghanistan: Black represents the occupation of foreigners, the Red represents the blood of freedom fighters, and the Green represents freedom and Islam.
The Afghan flag is made up of three equal parts, with black, red and green colors juxtaposed from left to right perpendicularly. The width of every colored piece is equal to half of its length. The national emblem is located in the center of the flag. The national emblem of the state of Afghanistan is composed of Mehrab and Pulpit in white color. Two flags are located on its sides. In the upper-middle part of the insignia the sacred phrase of There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet and Allah is Great are placed along with a rising sun. The word Afghanistan and the year 1298 (solar calendar) are located in the lower part of the insignia. The emblem is encircled with two branches of wheat.
The executive branch of the Afghan government consists of a powerful and popularly elected President and two Vice Presidents. A National Assembly consisting of two Houses, the House of People (Wolesi Jirga) with 249 seats, and the House of Elders (Meshrano Jirga) with 102 seats forms the Legislative Branch. There is an independent Judiciary branch consisting of the Supreme Court (Stera Mahkama), High Courts and Appeal Courts. The President appoints the nine members of the Supreme Court with the approval of the Wolesi Jirga.
President Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected President of Afghanistan on December 7, 2004. Previously, Hamid Karzai had been Chairman of the Transitional Administration and Interim President from 2002.
Afghanistan's history spans five thousand years and the Afghan people have contributed to the emergence of many Central Asian empires. The ancient centers of culture and civilization were influenced by diverse outsiders such as Rome, Greece, Arabia, Iran, Central Asia, India, and China. Great conquerors such as Jenghiz Khan and Timurlane swept through Afghanistan during the 13th and 14th century. These rulers brought with them the desire to establish kingdoms, and founded cultural and scholarly communities in Afghanistan. In particular, during the Timurid dynasty, poetry, architecture and miniature painting reached their zenith.
The rise of the great Mughal Empire again lifted Afghanistan to heights of power. The ruler, Babur, had his capital in Kabul in 1512, but as the Mughals extended their power into India, Afghanistan went from being the center of the empire to merely a peripheral part of it. In the 18th and 19th century with European forces eroding the influence of the Mughals on the Indian subcontinent, the kingdom of Afghanistan began to emerge. Ahmad Shah ruled from 1747 and successfully established the concept of a united Afghanistan.
Throughout the 19th century Afghans fought against British forces. In the 1830s, Dost Muhammad skillfully balanced the influence of the Russians, British, Iranians, and Sikhs. However, rising tensions resulted in several wars from 1839 and 1842 and from 1878 to 1880. The twenty-one year reign of Abdur Rahman Khan was an important period for the consolidation of a modern state marked by efforts to modernize and establish control of the kingdom. The borders of Afghanistan were established in 1893 through negotiations with the British, and provincial governments emerged, taking the place of clan rule.
In 1919, Afghanistan gained independence from British occupying forces. From 1919-1973 Afghanistan modernized and built extensive infrastructure with the assistance of the international community. This period of relative stability ended in 1973 when King Zahir Shah was overthrown while away in Europe.
In 1978 and 1979, a number of coups brought to power a communist government that drifted increasingly toward the USSR, ending with a Soviet puppet government in Kabul led by Babrak Kamal and an invasion of Soviet forces. Throughout the eighties, an indigenous Afghan resistance movement fought against the invading Soviet forces. With the help of the United States, Afghans successfully resisted the occupation. On February 15, 1989 the last Soviet soldier retreated across Afghanistan’s northern border. As hostilities ceased, more than a million Afghans lay dead and 6.2 million people, over half the world's refugee population, had fled the country.
The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 weakened the communist government of President Najibullah, leading to his ousting in April 1992. An interim president was installed and replaced two months later by Burhanuddin Rabbani, a founder of the country's Islamic political movement, backed by the popular commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The government remained unstable and unable to form a national consensus amongst its various factions. This instability was exploited by a group of Islamic fighters called the Taliban ('talib' means 'religious student' or 'seeker of knowledge'). With the assistance of foreign governments, organizations, and resources, the Taliban seized Kandahar and in September 1998 entered Kabul.
Taliban rulers became infamous for their repression of women and dissidents as well as their destruction of the country's cultural heritage. Showing little interest in trying to govern and rebuild Afghanistan, they instead played host to the radical Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Following Al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks, the United States and its allies began military operations and quickly overthrew the Taliban. An interim government was installed.
In December of 2001, Afghan and world leaders met in Bonn, Germany under United Nations auspices to design an ambitious agenda that would guide Afghanistan toward “national reconciliation, a lasting peace, stability, and respect for human rights,” culminating in the establishment of a fully representative government. Many political and civil institutions were established with the Bonn Agreement, such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Judicial Commission, Counter- Narcotics Directorate, and the constitutional commission.
Progress on the political front has been rapid, with elections leading to an elected parliament and president as well as a national constitution. With international assistance, the new government of Afghanistan is developing a stable political infrastructure and security apparatus.
The security situation in Afghanistan necessitates the continued presence of international forces. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was created in accordance with the Bonn Conference, in December 2001, after the ousting of the Taliban regime. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) took over command and coordination of ISAF in August 2003. This is the first mission outside the Euro-Atlantic area in NATO’s history. Initially restricted to providing security in and around Kabul, NATO's mission now covers about 50% of the country's territory. ISAF currently numbers about 9,700 troops from 37 NATO and non-NATO troop contributing countries. The Alliance is expanding its presence in Southern Afghanistan.
The London Conference on Afghanistan in January 2006 aimed to launch the Afghanistan Compact, the successor to the Bonn Agreement, to present the interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy, and to ensure the Government of Afghanistan has adequate resources to meet its domestic ambitions. The Afghanistan Compact marks the formal end of the Bonn Process, with completion of the Parliamentary and Provincial elections, and represents a framework for co-operation for five years.
The Interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy (I-ANDS) is the product of twelve months of intensive consultations within the Afghan government and with a wide array of stakeholders including community representatives, the ulama, the private sector, NGOs, and the international community. The document outlines the government’s policy objectives and analyzes the obstacles to their achievement.
Arts and Culture
Artistic activity in Afghanistan can be traced back as early as 18,000 BC. For centuries Afghanistan linked the civilizations of Iran, India, and China. In the Islamic Era, the Ghaznavid rulers of the 10th to 12th centuries and the Ghorids fostered artistic development. Continuing through the Timurid dynasty, Afghanistan’s cultural life prospered and flourished through the rulers’ high regard for men of learning and artists. The descendants of Timur turned the city of Herat into a center of cultural activity enticing artists such as Abdul Rahman Jami, Abdulhay, and Kamal al-Din Bihzad to create finely illustrated books and exquisite buildings.
Folk lore and legends told through song and storytelling are a centuries-old tradition in Afghanistan and continue to thrive today. Afghanistan has a rich literary tradition as well. During the medieval period literature was written in Dari, Pashto, Turkic and Arabic. The royal courts of regional empires such as the Samanids, the Ghaznavids, the Timurids, and the Mughals, were great patrons of Persian literature supporting literary geniuses like Rumi, Rudaki, Abdullah Ansari, Ferdowsi and Jami.
From the un-manifest I came,
And pitched my tent, in the Forest of Material existence.
I passed through mineral and vegetable kingdoms,
Then my mental equipment carried me into the animal kingdom;
Having reached there I crossed beyond it;
Then in the crystal clear shell of human heart
I nursed the drop of self in a pearl,
And in association with good men
Wandered round the Prayer House,
And having experienced that, crossed beyond it;
Then I took the road that leads to Him,
And became a slave at His gate;
Then the duality disappeared
And I became absorbed in Him.
- By Abdullah Ansari
One of the most important works of this period was the Dari epic poem Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), completed in 1010 by Firdawsi and comprising 60,000 rhyming couplets. Another famous poet, Jalalaluddin Rumi Balkhi (1207-1273, also known as Rumi) from Balkhi, is considered one of the greatest Sufi poets. Much of his writings have been translated from Farsi into English.
In the 16th-18th centuries, many literary figures originated from Afghanistan but due to the partition of the region between Safavid Persia and the Mughal Empire, famous poets moved to literary centers. Khushal Khan Khattak, a 17th Century Pashtun poet and warrior, lived in the Hindu Kush foothills. He used verse to express the tribal code. By the late 19th century Pashto sung poetry had been formalized at the royal court into the classical genre known as ghazal, in recognition of the fact that music can be a powerful way to deliver great poetry.
Whenever I have said a word
To any single friend
Immediately the secret’s spread
Till all the world has known.
When the black partridge lifts its voice
From the lush meadow land
He is soon stripped of his regal plumes
By falcon or by hawk.
I’ve many quite devoted friends
The prize of passing years
But to their thousands there’s not one
To call a confident.
- by Khushal Khan Khattak
While Afghan literature can be split into Persian, Turkic, and Pashto, there is a shared tradition and heritage that unites the consciousness of all Afghans and is reflected in the literature. For example, a tradition of military prowess and invincibility presents itself in the literature, whether it is a product of Khyber Pass Pashtuns, Uzbek Central Asians, or Tajik mountain ghazis.
In the 20th century, Kabul became the center of publishing. Mahmud Tarzi (1865-1933), a reformer and editor of Kabul’s first literary publication, Seraj ul-Akhbar, was instrumental in developing a modern literary community. Afghanistan has produced several literary figures including Khalillulah Khalili (1907-1987) and Sayed Buhaniddin Majruh. A neo-classicist poet, prose writer, poet laureate, and ambassador, Khalili defined the Afghan Renaissance man.
A Night in Kohistan
On the mountain’s slope
The assembled trees form a dark green mass
The stars twinkle
And the moonlight adorns the Valley
It is a night of youth and love.
From the grassy meads, covered with wild flowers.
Where the nightingales sing
I hear the heavenly melody if the shepherd’s flute.
- By Khalili
Ancient and modern architecture in Afghanistan combines elements from Iran, India, and Byzantium. Afghanistan is filled with architectural gems. Mosques, fortresses and minarets reveal the artistic glory of past empires. The best sites to view architectural masterpieces are Herat, Bamiyan, Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh, Ghazni; however, architectural sites are spread throughout the country.
Efforts are currently being made to preserve Afghanistan’s many historical sites. Tragically, some of Afghanistan’s greatest cultural treasures, such as the Bamiyan giant Buddha statues, were destroyed by the Taliban. Other cultural heritage sites, such as the Heart mosque with its intricate ceramic tile designs, the hauntingly hidden Minaret of Jam, and the imposing Mazar-i-Sharif mosque have been preserved.
The Kabul Museum is also undergoing extensive renovation. The museum, which once housed the most comprehensive record of Central Asian history, was bombed numerous times throughout the nineties, causing extensive damage to the collection. Despite efforts by the United Nations and devoted museum staff to protect the remaining collection, thousands of antiquities were plundered for the illegal antiquities trade. Today, many of these items are being recovered, as efforts to restore and preserve Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage continue.
Buddhas of Bamiyan
Etched into the dappled sandstone of the Bamiyan mountains
are the faint remains of the once colossal Buddha statues that silently watched over the Bamiyan Valley for 1500 years. The Taliban’s destruction of the 174-feet and 115-feet tall monuments caused an uproar in March 2001. Recent efforts in the region hope to restore their magnitude and reintroduce their cultural significance.
The statues, which took Buddhist monks several decades to construct, date back to the 3rd and 4th century. Composed of mud-and-straw plaster and stucco, the Buddhas also harbored a variety of frescoes that decorated the walls in their vicinity. Until the 9th century, Bamiyan was a thriving Buddhist metropolis. Lying along the Silk Road, the area was frequented by many travelers who traversed the famous trade route linking China, Central Asia and Europe. Bamiyan’s beauty and the majestic presence of the buddhas have recounted in several ancient texts.
The structures, though over 1,500 years old, were remarkably resilient to demolition. The Taliban required several weeks of bombings to finally crumble the monuments, which they deemed idolatrous and un-Islamic. In 2003, in the wake of the Taliban destruction, UNESCO declared Bamiyan a World Heritage Site.
Beneath the shards of detonated bombs and rubble, archaeologists and other experts are attempting to gather and reassemble parts of the statues. Some hope that recovery of the fragments will lead to preservation and more importantly, reconstruction of the Buddhas. Due to a lack of detailed photography, it is increasingly difficult to match fragments to their corresponding statue, but modern technology allows geologists to “fingerprint” pieces of the statues, which will later be scanned into computers and used to assemble the fragments. However, many Afghans and cultural experts believe that the statues should not be rebuilt, and that their absence is a stark reminder of the cultural destruction of the Taliban era.
Recently, archaeologists, engineers and architects have flocked to the Bamiyan Valley to search for buried Buddhist monasteries as well as a legendary 1,000-foot long reclining Buddha statue. Zemaryalai Tarzi, an Afghan archaeologist, believes another giant Buddha may be hidden deep beneath the earth in the Bamiyan valley. A Chinese visitor in 632 described a reclining figure 1,000 feet long – if the account is accurate, the reclining Buddha is as wide as the Eiffel Tower is long.
Tarzi's recent excavations have unearthed one of the 10 monasteries that he says existed in Bamiyan. While the monastery did not yield any signs of the sought-after statue, the discovery was nonetheless an important step in reclaiming the cultural heritage and history that diminished with the demise of the two Giant Buddhas.
Afghan cuisine is an appetizing cross between the flavors of the Mediterranean, Middle East, Iran and India. It contains several rice dishes that are often served with a assortment of thick, curried sauces cooked with lamb, beef and chicken. Spinach and eggplants constitute two commonly eaten vegetables. Traditional Afghan fare is rich in spices like as cardamom, which lends a sweet, aromatic quality to drinks and dishes.
A quintessential Afghan dish, Qabili Palao consists of raisins, carrots, and lamb with browned rice. Variations in the dish include the addition of sliced almonds or pistachios. Another important savory dish is Aushak – a leek-stuffed dumpling that is served over a garlic yogurt sauce and layered with a thick ground-beef tomato sauce with dried mint and crushed red pepper sprinkled on top. Appealing to their meat-centric gastronomy, Afghans also enjoy kabobs, which are skewers of meat heavily marinated in a delectable concoction of herbs and spices.
Afghan desserts are robust in flavor, often drawing upon fragrant ingredients, such as rosewater and cardamom. A popular treat is a creamy, custard-like dessert similar to the Italian Pannecotta with a crushed pistachio topping.
With its mélange of flavors, Afghan cuisine offers food to appease even the most demanding palate.
Afghanistan’s music tradition is expressed through three outlets: the art music specific to Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kandahar, the modern genres of popular music on the radio, and a plethora of regional 'folk music' styles characteristics of various ethnic groups inhabiting different parts of the country.
The music of Afghanistan is connected to the music of India and other Central Asian countries, though Iranian influences are also evident. The diversity of peoples including Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Uzbeks has given Afghan music a very rich musical heritage. In some ways, Afghanistan is a microcosm of all the different musics of Islamic Asia, the classical pieces of Transoxiana (modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), the love and spiritual poetry of India and Pakistan, the folk music of Turkmenistan, and a host of other styles from other cultures.
Whether at a home, a teahouse, a horse race, or a wedding, the same instruments dominate Afghan music. Along with the dutar and zirbaghali, there are variations on the fiddle (ghichak), the flute (badakhshani), and cymbals. The rubab, a lute-like instrument, is sometimes considered the national instrument of Afghanistan, and is called the “lion” of instruments. The most famous player of the rubab is Mohammed Omar, while modern performers include Essa Kassemi and Mohammed Rahim Khushnawaz. Uzbeks and Tajiks share a preference for the dambura, which is a long-necked, plucked lute. At home, women often play the daireh, a drum. Of course, one of the most important instruments in Afghanistan is the human voice.
Afghan folk music is traditionally played at weddings, holidays such as the New Year celebration, and rarely for mourning. Wedding music plays a vital part in Afghan folk music. A traveling people known as Jat, related to Gypsies, sell instruments door-to-door and play their own variety of folk music. The Jats frequently play for weddings, circumcisions and other celebrations as well. Afghan songs are typically about love, and use symbols like the nightingale and rose, and refer to folklore like the Leyla and Majnoon story.
The classical musical form of Afghanistan is called klasik, which includes both instrumental (ragas, naghmehs) and vocal forms (ghazals). Many ustad, or professional musicians, are descended from Indian artists who emigrated to the royal court in Kabul in the 1860s.
Radio broadcasting was introduced to Afghanistan in 1940 and fostered the growth of popular music. Modern Afghan popular music used orchestras featuring both Afghan and Indian instruments, as well as European clarinets, guitars and violins. Parwin became, in 1951, the first Afghan woman to broadcast on the air on Radio Afghanistan, while Ahmad Zahir, Mahwash, and Biltun found large audiences.
As with much of the region, the rise and fall of political power has been inextricably tied to the rise and fall of religions. It was in Afghanistan that the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism began in the 6th century BCE. Later, Buddhism spread west from India to the Bamiyan Valley, where it remained strong until the 10th century AD. The eastward sweep of Islam reached Afghanistan in the 7th century AD, and today the vast majority of Afghans are Muslim. In recent history, there have been small Sikh, Jewish, and Ismaili communities in Afghanistan.
Buzkashi is a game that dates itself into Afghan antiquity. The name Buzkashi, literally translated means “goat killing” suggest it was derived from hunting mountain goats by champions on horseback. Today the rider (or team) who is able to pitch a dead calf across a goal line first wins. The game may last as long as a week and is as free-wheeling as the Afghan spirit.
Another sport that is enjoyed by millions of Afghan children is kite-running, which involves competing teams that build and “fight” kites for large audiences.
Afghans also play a wide variety of sports familiar to Americans, such as soccer and basketball.
The modern educational system was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century by the Afghan government and combined traditional Islamic learning with a modern curriculum. In 1935, education was declared universal, compulsory and free. With its expansion, the secular system came to be regarded as the principle medium for creating a national ideology and emphasized productive skills. By the 1960s, technical education assumed critical importance as a result of Afghanistan’s development drive.
The Afghan educational system is currently experiencing a period of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Twenty years of conflict caused the exodus of many teachers and qualified instructors and caused literacy rates to plummet. Violence throughout the country during the Soviet invasion, the Civil War, and the Taliban period, made the existence of primary and secondary schools near impossible. Schools still existed during these times, but they had little access to resources or qualified professionals.
Today, starting at age seven, children attend six years of primary school, three years of middle school and three years of secondary school. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education provides a specialized curriculum and textbooks that have been developed with the assistance of Afghanistan’s international partners.
Traditional religious schools, found in towns and villages, teach children basic moral values and ritual knowledge through the study of the Koran, the Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), and popular edited religious texts. Herat, Kunduz, Ghazni, Kandahar and Kabul have become important centers for religious scholars.
While higher education also suffered during the 1980s and 90s, the Afghan government is striving to recruit foreign professors, computerize the universities, and train young Afghans to be qualified professionals in today’s competitive market. Currently, there are thirteen universities in Afghanistan educating 40, 000 students (19% women, 81% men), a tenfold increase from the 4,000 enrolled in 2002. American University of Afghanistan, supported by USAID, is opening its doors to Afghanistan and the world.
In recent years, education development has been a focus for international aid. Many organizations, especially UNESCO, ACEM, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank are sponsoring and organizing education initiatives. The Government of Afghanistan similarly view education is the key to the long-term success of the Afghan state.
A historically Pashto term, Loya Jirga, translates to “grand council.” It is a unique forum in which tribal elders of each ethnic group convene to discuss and resolve Afghanistan’s affairs. The loya jirga is centuries old tradition and a quintessential part of the Afghan government. A decision-making assembly, the jirga refrains from time limitations and continues until decision are reached through consensus. The jirga addresses a variety of issues, such as foreign policy, military action, or the introduction of new ideas and reforms.
Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan held several jirgas to determine the best course of action for the country’s social, political and economic development. Approximately 1,500 delegates from all over Afghanistan took part in the loya jirga in Kabul. Each district elected 20 people, who then held a secret vote to select one person to represent the whole district. The 362 districts in Afghanistan had at least one seat, with more seats allotted for every 22,000 people. Ultimately, women held 160 of the remaining seats.
In 2003, another historical loya jirga convened to discuss the proposed Afghan constitution, which was ratified on January 4th, 2004. The most pressing issues were those of centralized power, social reform, and the feasibility of a free-market economy in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Parliament draws upon this deep-rooted tradition in its structure and performance of legislative functions.
In September of 2006, President Karzai proposed holding jirgas along the Afghanistan-Paksitan border during a trilateral meeting with U.S. President George Bush and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Tribal elders on each side will side will meet with the participation of both President Karzai and President Musharraf with the hopes of resolving the problems of regional extremism and terrorism through consultation and consensus.
Since 2002, the government has made considerable progress in increasing access to health care services. Afghanistan’s health care sector has faced many challenges in the past four years, but the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) continues to move Afghanistan forward. Some achievements have included:
- Reform and restructuring of health system which has a public-private mix orientation
- Development of health policy and strategies for the period 2005 to 2009
- Expanded Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) from 9% of the population in 2003 to 77% in 2005
- Developed capacity at the Central MOPH for coordinating and managing donor funds.
In Kabul, state of the art hospitals have opened and clinics have been built and staffed all over the country. However, there is much left to be done. Maternal, infant and under-5 mortality rates are some of the highest in the world. Reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating malaria and other diseases and reaching Afghanistan’s Millennium Development Goals are central to Afghanistan’s public health mission.
- Eid al-fitr - After a month of Fasting (Ramadan), Afghans visit or entertain their friends and give gifts.
- Eid al-adha - The tenth day of the twelth month of the Higra calendar commemorates the Prophet Abraham’s devotion to God.
- Ashura - The tenth day of the month Muharram is a day of mourning commemorating the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain at the battle of Kerbala.
- Mawleed al-Nabi - The 12th day of Rabi al-Awal celebrates the Prophet’s birthday.
- Nowroze - March 21st marks the first day of spring.
- Jeshen – Afghanistan’s Independence Day - August 19th