Map sources: Afghanistan Central Statistics Office; Afghanistan Information Management Services (AIMS); Government of Canada: Canada's Engagement in Afghanistan; National Atlas of Peoples, Democratic Republic of Afghanistan; Centre for Intercultural Learning, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada; NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); International Council on Security and Development (ICOS); United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC); CBC News.


People

The 2010 population is estimated at 29.1 million by the United Nations, with 46 per cent of the population 14 or younger. Afghanistan is the 42nd largest country by population in the world.

afghan-schoolgirl-200

An Afghan schoolgirl is seen in the more tranquil north. Under the Taliban, girls schools were destroyed. ((Naheed Mustafa/CBC))

The largest ethnic groups are:

  • Pashtun, 42 per cent.
  • Tajik, 27 per cent.
  • Hazara, 9 per cent.
  • Uzbek, 9 per cent.

More than 30 languages are spoken but the main ones are Pashto and Dari (a Farsi or Persian dialect).

The country's population is 99 per cent Muslim: 85-90 per cent or more are Sunnis, and 10-15 per cent are Shia, according to a 2009 project by the Pew Center, Mapping the Global Muslim Population. There has been no reliable census in the country for decades.

More than five million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, resulting in a 20 per cent increase in the population. There are still almost three million Afghan refugees, mostly in Pakistan and Iran (about a quarter of the world's refugees). About 300,000 people are internally displaced.


Economy

One of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan is the lowest-ranking country outside Africa on the UN's human development index.

According to the World Bank, economic growth will be about 8.5 per cent in 2010-11 and GDP per capita will reach $609. Much of this is aid driven.

afghanistan-212-4136678

Canadian soldiers patrol in the Kandahar area, one of the deadliest regions. ((Canadian Press))

Unemployment is estimated at 40 per cent, and 42 per cent of Afghanistan's population lives below the poverty line.

The government's budget for the current year is $4.8 billion, with almost two-thirds going toward military and security spending.

By the end of 2009, the international community had pledged over $62 billion in aid since the fall of the Taliban but most of this has not actually been delivered. Afghanistan is the No. 1 global aid recipient, receiving about $6.2 billion in aid in 2009, according to Global Humanitarian Assistance.

Afghanistan's illicit opium trade, which primarily benefits the Taliban and local warlords, had an estimated value of $2.8 billion in 2009, equivalent to one-quarter of the GDP.


Military

There are approximately 130,000 NATO-led foreign troops in Afghanistan from more than 48 countries.

karzai_harper_cp_9673119

The West's choice? Afghan President Hamid Karzai walks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006.

They include 90,000 Americans and 2,900 Canadians, who are serving mostly in the southern province of Kandahar.

By October, the Afghan police force is expected to number 134,000 and its army, which had just over 90,000 soldiers in early 2009, may be as large as 171,600.

Polls find that the mission in Afghanistan is not popular with Canadians. An EKOS poll for CBC News in April 2010 suggested 49 per cent are opposed to the mission and 34 per cent in support. According to the poll, 60 per cent opposed extending Canada's mission and 28 per cent were in support.

Canada's military mission is to turn to training in 2011. Canada will provide up to 950 personnel over the three-year training mission.


Government

The country's constitution provides for a presidential system, not unlike the U.S., with a House of Elders in place of a senate and the stipulation that the president must be Muslim.

bamiyan_buddha_cp_2227875

The larger of Afghanistan's legendary Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, 1,500-year-old statues carved into a hillside, is shown before they were deliberately blown up by the Taliban in 2001. ((Associated Press))

The legal system is a mix of civil and Shariah law.

The first round of presidential elections was held in August 2009, but it was marred by massive ballot-box stuffing and other electoral fraud. About one-third of those eligible voted.

President Hamid Karzai, seeking a second term, finished in first place with 2.28 million votes, not enough to avoid a second round run-off against Abdullah Abdullah. However, Abdullah withdrew, saying that it would not be a transparent election. The vote was cancelled just a week before it was to take place.

Western governments paid the election tab of more $300 million.

The country's previous presidential election was in 2004. After several false starts, Karzai won with 55 per cent of the vote, and the UN reported that three-quarters of the country's eligible voters cast a ballot.

Karzai had been the leader of a transitional government, put in place by the UN and Western governments in 2001.

His government has been dogged by allegations of corruption and bribe-taking, particularly among its security forces.


Brief history

Afghanistan was for a long time a pawn in the so-called Great Game between the British and Russian empires. It broke free of Britain's control following three Anglo-Afghan wars.

Afghanistan was a monarchy until a communist-supported coup in 1978. In 1979 a faction of the Communist Party carried out its own coup, without Moscow's blessing. The Soviet army soon invaded, replacing that communist government with one more to its own liking.

A 10-year insurgency against the Soviets, supported in large measure by a Cold War-minded Washington, and neighbouring Pakistan, forced the Red Army to withdraw in humiliation in 1989.

It also left Afghanistan devastated and victim to a series of civil wars.

In 1996, the capital Kabul fell to the hardline and, many say, Pakistan-sponsored Taliban.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who had been sheltering in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, a NATO-led, UN-sanctioned international force ousted the Taliban.

The NATO-led force has been fighting ever since, particularly in the south, where the Canadian Forces are based, and in the east, along the border with Pakistan.