Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: The adoption of a new constitution in January 2004 and the election of Hamid Karzai as president in October 2004 were considered major advances in Afghanistan’s fragmented political life. However, day-to-day control of the provinces proved difficult both before and after the election, and substantial regional power centers remained in 2006. After the first National Assembly was seated in December 2005, the balance between the executive and legislative branches remained uncertain, and Karzai was obliged to name key regional warlords to his new cabinet in 2006. The role of Islamic precepts in governance remained extremely controversial, particularly in the judicial branch. In March 2006, the United Nations renewed for one year the mandate of its Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), designed to provide political and strategic guidance.

Executive Branch: The president and two vice presidents are elected as a ticket by popular vote to five-year terms. The first such election under the 2004 constitution occurred in October 2004. President Hamid Karzai, who was elected at that time, is both chief of state and head of government. The president appoints ministers, subject to the approval of the Wolesi Jirga (People’s Council), the lower house of the National Assembly. Following a reorganization in early 2006, the government included 25 ministries; appointments to these ministries have been distributed among influential regional and military groups. The reorganization reduced the number of ministries by two and shifted key individuals. One woman headed a ministry in 2006. The process of confirming Karzai’s new ministerial appointees for 2006, considered a major test of power between the president and his opposition in parliament, resulted in approval of all the president’s nominees. The National Defense Commission, headed by Karzai, is a six-member advisory board that includes leaders of the main regional groups. The former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who was 89 years old in 2005, received the honorific title “Father of the Country” and represents the country at some state functions, but he exercises no governmental power.

Legislative Branch: The constitution calls for a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly. Members of the lower house, the 249-member Wolesi Jirga (People’s Council), are elected directly for five-year terms. The Wolesi Jirga, whose geographical distribution is determined by population, has 249 seats. Some 68 seats are designated for women and 10 for the Kuchis. The 102 members of the upper house, the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), are appointed by provincial councils (one member for each of 34 provinces, serving four-year terms); by district councils (accounting for another 34 members, each serving three-year terms); and the president. The constitution specifies that the 34 presidential appointees, who serve five-year terms, be one-half women and include two representatives of the Kuchis and two representatives of the disabled. Members of the Meshrano Jirga are appointed after the elections for the Wolesi Jirga. The government can convene a Loya Jirga (Constituent Assembly) to decide urgent matters of independence, national sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Such an assembly, which can amend the constitution and bring charges against the president, must include members of the National Assembly and chairpersons of the provincial and district councils. A 1,650-member Loya Jirga chose the transitional government that took office in 2002, and a second one formulated the 2004 constitution.

Judicial Branch: Afghanistan’s judicial branch deteriorated during the Soviet occupation, and justice was administered by strict Islamic law during the Taliban era (1996–2001). To replace the ad hoc system in place under the transitional government, the constitution of 2004 stipulated that the Supreme Court include nine justices appointed by the president, with approval of the Wolesa Jirga, for 10-year terms. Those justices have particular importance because they are responsible for managing the personnel, budgets, and policy decisions of the entire national, regional, and local court system. At the urging of his Western partners in the 2006 Afghanistan Compact, President Karzai replaced several Supreme Court justices in 2006. However, the head of the court, responsible for appointing judges of the other national courts, remained the ultraconservative Fazel Hadi Shinwari, a staunch advocate of Islamic law. At the level below the Supreme Court are high and appeals courts. A National Security Court handles cases of terrorism and other threats to national security.

Administrative Divisions: The major subnational administrative division is the province (velayat), numbering 34 in 2006. The two newest provinces were added in 2004. Each province has between five and 15 districts; in 2006 some 361 districts were in existence. Each province has one designated provincial municipality; some but not all provinces also have a single rural municipality. The municipalities fall under the direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior.

Provincial and Local Government: According to the constitution, provinces, districts, and villages are governed by directly elected councils. The first elections for those councils, which totaled 420 seats, were held concurrently with the national parliamentary elections of September 2005. The chief executive at the province level is the governor, who is appointed by the president. As is the case with the national cabinet, the president has distributed governorships among influential regional and military groups. Province and district administrations have the same basic structure as the national government. According to the constitution of 2004, the central government, which theoretically stands at the center of a highly centralized system, delegates authority to the subnational jurisdictions in (unspecified) matters where local or regional action is more efficient. In actuality, the structure and government of the provinces have varied greatly; in most cases, provincial governance in 2006 was based on the financial and military strength of local leaders as well as personal and tribal loyalties.

Judicial and Legal System: Although every province has a lower and a higher court, judicial procedures are influenced by local authorities and traditions. The supply of trained jurists is very limited. In 2002 the transitional government established an education program run by Italian judicial experts to prepare judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers. Although some individuals received secular judicial training in the early 2000s, the majority of local court officials came from Muslim religious schools and lacked judicial skills. The respective roles of Islamic and secular law in the new national judicial system have not been well established; a large portion of the current law code is based on laws passed under the last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah (ruled 1933–73). In rural areas, where local elders and tribal authorities resolve criminal cases, Taliban laws have remained in effect. According to a 2006 estimate, in all provinces some 90 percent of local cases are based on Islamic and tribal law.

Electoral System: Suffrage is universal for male and female citizens 18 years of age and older. A new electoral and political party law went into effect in May 2004. About 77 percent of registered voters participated in the direct presidential election of 2004, the first since 1969. That election was managed by the Interim Election Commission appointed by Hamid Karzai, then the head of the interim government. Although some incidents of intimidation were reported in elections for the constitutional Loya Jirga in late 2003, the constitutional referendum of January 2004, and the presidential election of October 2004, monitors found those voting processes to be basically fair. In 2004 Karzai appointed an 11-member Joint Electoral Management Body to permanently oversee election registration and procedures. The first parliamentary and local elections were held in September 2005 after being postponed for nearly a year for security reasons; technical assistance was provided by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Although the election commission ostensibly disqualified individuals commanding armed groups from the parliamentary elections, several of the most powerful regional warlords gained seats. The complex voting system for those elections, in which about 50 percent of eligible voters participated, received substantial criticism. Because all candidates ran as individuals and no party representation was allowed, substantial fragmentation resulted.

Politics and Political Parties: The Political Parties Law of 2003 requires that all political parties be registered with the Ministry of Justice and observe the precepts of Islam. In 2005 some 43 parties had gained such recognition, but party identification was not allowed for candidates in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Most political groupings are based on alliances that formed during the military struggles of 1979–2002. The Northern Alliance is an influential loose confederation of several Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek groups who fought against the Taliban. Factions of the alliance were key forces in the parliament of 2006. At the time of the 2004 presidential election, the largest individual parties were the Islamic Party of Afghanistan, the National Congress Party of Afghanistan (represented in the presidential election by fifth-place finisher Abdul Latif Pedram), the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (represented in the election by fourth-place finisher Abdul Rashid Dostum), and the National Movement of Afghanistan (a coalition of 11 parties known variously as the Afghan Nationalist Party and the Afghan National Understanding Front, represented in the election by second-place finisher Yonous Qanooni). As speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, Qanooni subsequently was a key voice of opposition to the Karzai government. Other major parties are the Afghan Social-Democratic Party, the Communist Party of Afghanistan, the Liberal-Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, and the Socialist Nationalist Afghan Party. President Karzai has declined to form a party to advance his programs. In 2005 important non-party political pressure groups were the Society of Islam under former president Burhanuddin Rabbani and the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan under military leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. The two groups were allied in 2004. The first parliament featured a broad division between leaders of previous military conflicts and younger “modernists” who emphasized future development of the country. Another important division of political power is between the Pashtun-dominated south and the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated north. Substantial realignment of political factions was expected during the 2006 session of the Wolesi Jirga.

Mass Media: In 2005 Afghanistan had an estimated 45 FM radio stations and about 10 television stations. Radio is the most widespread source of information. In 2003 an estimated 37 percent of Afghan citizens, mainly in urban centers, had access to a local radio station. A government-run national television station and seven radio stations were located in Kabul, and nine provinces had regional television stations. Most of the electronic news media are government-owned. In the early 2000s, state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan was the most powerful broadcast outlet. Four cable stations appeared after the overthrow of the Taliban, carrying Indian and U.S. programs. However, in 2003 the Supreme Court banned cable television on moral grounds. In the early 2000s, international nongovernmental organizations supported establishment of more than a dozen new radio stations. Some government officials have used their positions to maintain their own communications facilities. The circulation of independent print publications has been confined to the Kabul region. The 2004 media law requires registration of periodicals with the Ministry of Information and Culture; in 2005 some 250 periodicals were registered. The principal daily newspapers are the state-owned Anis, Arman-e Melli, Eslah, and Kabul Times and the privately owned Eradeh, Hewad, Ittefaq-e Islam, and Shari’at. Because of financial difficulties, all independent print media are dependent on the government or another faction.

Foreign Relations: Traditionally a neutral country, Afghanistan mirrored the foreign policy of the Soviet Union during the decade of Soviet occupation (1979–89). Neither the Soviet-supported regimes in Afghanistan nor the Taliban regime (respectively, 1979–89 and 1996–2001) received wide international recognition. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan established diplomatic relations with most countries of the world. In December 2002, the six nations bordering Afghanistan signed a “Good Neighbor Declaration,” guaranteeing the country’s independence and territorial integrity.

Since its establishment in 1948 on Afghanistan’s southeastern border, Pakistan has been a key neighbor with which Afghanistan has had substantial differences. During the Soviet occupation, Pakistan was the main supply point for the mujahideen insurgency. In the late 1990s, Pakistan supported the Taliban regime, reversing its support only after the Taliban refused to surrender Osama bin Laden in late 2001. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been strained by the ongoing separation of the Pashtun tribes and by disagreements on border procedures and smuggling. A United States-sponsored Tripartite Commission is the main arena for discussion of these issues. Major current issues are the continued presence of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Pakistan’s border provinces and Afghanistan’s willingness to have closer relations with India. Both partners have a vital stake in friendly relations: for Afghanistan, Pakistan remains a vital corridor to the Arabian Sea, and for Pakistan, Afghanistan is a vital connection to the hydrocarbon and other resources of Central Asia. In the early 2000s, Pakistan’s archenemy India has moved aggressively by offering a range of assistance projects worth US$600 million and establishing diplomatic missions throughout Afghanistan. India further expanded the assistance package in 2006.

Relations with Iran generally have been positive. Iran opposed the Soviet-backed and Taliban regimes in Afghanistan, and it has actively supported reconstruction efforts of the early 2000s. Trade relations also have improved in this period. The main bilateral issue is Iran’s long-standing claim to share the water resources of the Helmand River, which irrigates Afghanistan’s southern agricultural region before flowing into Iran. Other issues are the ongoing presence of Afghan refugees in Iran, Iranian support for certain warlords in Afghanistan’s border provinces, and Iranian concerns for the Shia minority in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2005, the Karzai government felt substantial Western pressure to eschew closer relations with Iran, which in turn endeavored to create new bilateral links.

Russia has viewed Afghanistan as a vital region since the early nineteenth century. Relations with the Soviet Union were close until the invasion of 1979, which aroused lasting hostility on the Afghan side. In the early 2000s, official relations have improved as Russia pledged assistance in building Afghanistan’s military and business establishments, clearing landmines, and developing oil and gas extraction. However, residual mistrust and issues such as outstanding Soviet-era debts to Russia, which Afghanistan has not officially recognized, have limited improvement.

Relations with post-Soviet Tajikistan were complicated by Afghanistan’s role in its neighbor’s long civil war of the 1990s. Tajik insurgents used Afghanistan as a base for military operations, and about 100,000 Tajiks took refuge in northern Afghanistan in the early 1990s. In the early 2000s, Afghanistan has sought improved commercial relations; a planned bridge over the Amu Darya River will enhance the trade route north into Tajikistan. Relations with Uzbekistan have been limited by the harsh border controls enforced by Uzbekistan to prevent the entry of narcotics smugglers and Islamic fundamentalists from the south and by Uzbekistan’s ongoing support for Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who controls parts of northeastern Afghanistan.

Afghanistan became an important region for the United States because of the Soviet invasion of 1979, but the Soviet occupation, ensuing civil war, and Taliban regime made normal relations difficult or impossible until the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Since that time, the successive Karzai governments have received substantial U.S. support to reestablish the infrastructure and strengthen government control of outlying regions. The United States has granted Afghanistan considerable preferential trade treatment. Since entering Afghanistan in late 2001, the U.S. military’s Operation Enduring Freedom has pursued its objectives of eliminating Taliban and al Qaeda forces from Afghanistan and providing humanitarian assistance.

Membership in International Organizations: Afghanistan belongs to the following international organizations: the Asian Development Bank, Colombo Plan, Economic Cooperation Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), International Development Association, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Organization for Migration, International Telecommunication Union, Islamic Development Bank, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (cooperative partner), Organization of the Islamic Conference, United Nations, United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, and World Trade Organization (observer status).

Major International Treaties: Afghanistan is a signatory to the following multilateral agreements: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques; conventions prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, and use of biological and chemical weapons (known, respectively, as the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention); Geneva Conventions; Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer; Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Afghanistan has signed but not ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas, and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As of April 2006, Afghanistan had not signed the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


Overview: In 2006 the aim of the Karzai government’s national security policy is to establish a credible armed force, the Afghan National Army (ANA), and a national police force that will represent all the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan and provide all conventional aspects of domestic security. In early 2006, some 24,000 soldiers had been trained by U.S. forces and participated in counterterrorism operations, but the air force still was in the planning stage. Afghanistan, a landlocked nation, has no navy. The long-term goal has been to prepare an army of 70,000 (in five corps), an air force of 8,000, a border guard force of 12,000, and a police force of 62,000. In 2006 the government estimated that 10,000 militia organizations existed, many of them commanded by regional warlords. Some militia personnel have been integrated into the ANA and the police forces, but the disbanding of militias remained an elusive goal of the central government in 2006. Large areas remained outside government control and were dominated by narcotics traffickers, tribal leaders, and terrorist groups. Reportedly, in 2005–6 trafficking and terrorist groups in the south increased their cooperation.

Foreign Military Relations: Afghanistan has depended almost entirely on U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces to provide security in and around Kabul. In early 2006, some 19,000 U.S. troops and 1,500 troops from other countries made up the United States-led Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2006 the International Security Assistance Force, which since 2003 has been under the rotating command of officers from NATO countries, included 9,000 troops from 36 countries. In May 2006, command rotated from Italian to British officers. In 2003 Afghanistan received an estimated US$191 million in foreign military assistance; in 2005 that figure was US$396 million. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Afghanistan became a cooperative partner in 2003, provides expertise on border security.

External Threat: The only external threat is the movement of hostile forces and terrorists from staging areas across the porous Pakistan border.

Defense Budget: The estimated military expenditure for 2003 was US$61 million.

Major Military Units: In 2006 all of Afghanistan’s 24,000 military troops were in the Kabul-based Central Corps of the army, which consisted of three ground forces brigades. Plans called for an army headquarters command in Kabul and regional commands in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kandahar. Militia forces of the Northern Alliance, estimated to total 15,000 personnel, have acted in conjunction with Afghan forces in some instances.

Major Military Equipment: Amounts and distribution of equipment, mostly Soviet-manufactured, are not known. In 2005 the army had main battle tanks, reconnaissance vehicles, armored infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, towed artillery, multiple rocket launchers, mortars, surface-to-surface missiles, recoilless rifles, antiaircraft guns, and surface-to-air missiles. The air force had five combat aircraft and five armed helicopters.

Military Service: Males are eligible for conscription at age 22, and volunteers can enlist at age 18. The term of service is 12 months.

Paramilitary Forces: Plans call for a border guard force of 12,000, which was not yet in existence in mid-2006.

Foreign Military Forces: In early 2006, the United States-led Operation Enduring Freedom included some 19,000 U.S. troops and 1,500 troops from other countries. Plans called for reduction of the U.S. contingent to 16,000 during 2006 and for command of the Afghanistan occupation to pass from the United States to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in July 2006. The International Security Assistance Force, which since 2003 has been under NATO command, included 9,000 troops from 36 countries. In 2006 that force was scheduled to expand to about 17,000. The largest contingents were to come from Britain, Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands. Previously concentrated in northern and western Afghanistan, the force was to move into the southern province of Helmand and the central province of Uruzgan. The 2006 Afghanistan Compact called for NATO troops to remain through 2010 or until the Afghan armed forces reach their planned troops levels. In 2006 President Karzai forecast that Afghanistan would need some foreign troops for 10 more years.

Police: Plans called for Afghanistan to increase its police force, the Afghan National Police (ANP), to 62,000, including conventional, border, highway, and counternarcotics police, by the end of 2005. By that date, about 40,000 individuals had been trained with substantial German assistance. Although the police officially are responsible for maintaining civil order, local and regional military commanders continue to exercise control in the hinterland. Police have been accused of improper treatment and detention of prisoners. The mandate of the International Security Assistance Force extended into several new provinces between 2003 and 2006, but local militias maintained control in some areas unoccupied by those forces. Because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force has not assumed counternarcotics or border control functions, serious gaps exist in those aspects of security. Troops of the Afghan National Army have been sent to quell fighting in some northern regions lacking police protection.

Internal Threat: In 2006 a large part of the country remained without adequate security, and armed bands launched attacks in regions not controlled by the central government. Several extremist antigovernment groups maintained a substantial presence in Afghanistan in 2005. They included surviving members of the Taliban, al Qaeda operatives, and the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In 2006 elements of the formerly anti-Taliban Northern Alliance reportedly were supplying arms to the Taliban. In 2004 the international medical organization Doctors without Borders withdrew its aid workers from Afghanistan when five members were killed, and in 2005 other international nongovernmental organizations periodically suspended operations.

A major internal security factor has been criminal activity associated with the prosperous drug trade. Drug processing laboratories are located throughout the country, traditional informal financial networks launder narcotics profits, and some provincial and national government officials have been implicated in the drug trade. Despite a small decrease in 2005, Afghanistan's estimated opium output still made it by far the largest global producer of the drug. In 2005 progress was reported in several major opium-producing provinces, but the government program lacked national scale, opium growers often were not compensated for lost crops, and strong regional leaders profited from the drug trade. Cultivation expanded significantly in provinces such as Badakhshan, which is located on the main trafficking route into Tajikistan. Reportedly, as of early 2006 only two major Afghan narcotics dealers had been arrested since the government began its “war on drugs” in 2002.

Incidents of abduction, violence, and terror continued in 2005, particularly in regions not under control of the national government. A government program to disarm 100,000 militia personnel in 2003 and 2004 resulted in disarming an estimated 11,000 by mid-2004. Abdul Rashid Dostum (who also is deputy defense minister), Water and Energy Minister Ismail Khan, Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, Atta Mohammad, and former Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim have been particularly intransigent warlords. Local fighting also has persisted over land resettlement questions. Between 2004 and 2005, the Afghan government decommissioned more than 60,000 former combatants and collected more than 35,000 weapons under the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration program. A new effort, the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG), was launched in June 2005.

Terrorism: In the early 2000s, President Karzai suffered two assassination attempts (one during his presidential campaign), and some government officials were assassinated. Small-scale attacks on villages have been common. Large-scale terrorist attacks were rare in 2004 and 2005, but incidents increased in the south and southeast during 2005 and were expected to increase more sharply in 2006 as larger Western forces entered southern territory dominated by insurgents and narcotics traffickers. In an effort to split the Taliban movement, in 2005 President Karzai offered amnesty to members of the former Taliban regime and current fighters. He claimed that several hundred had accepted his offer by early 2006.

Human Rights: The Bonn Agreement of 2001 established the Independent Afghan Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights abuses and war crimes. However, in the early 2000s some types of human rights violations have continued, particularly outside the region controlled by the central government. The National Security Directorate, Afghanistan’s national security agency, has been accused of running its own prisons, torturing suspects, and harassing journalists. The security forces of local militias, which also have their own prisons, have been accused of torture and arbitrary killings. Warlords in the north have used property destruction, rape, and murder to discourage displaced Pashtuns from reclaiming their homes. Child labor and trafficking in people remain common outside Kabul. Civilians frequently have been killed in battles between warlord forces. A prison rehabilitation program began in 2003, but poor conditions in the overcrowded prisons have contributed to illness and death among prisoners. In the absence of an effective national judicial system, the right to judicial protection has been compromised as uneven local standards have prevailed in criminal trials.

The government has limited freedom of the media by selective crackdowns that invoke Islamic law, and self-censorship of the media has been encouraged. The media remain substantially government-owned. In 2004 a media law nominally lifted restrictions on some media activity but continued to forbid criticizing Islam or insulting officials. Journalists and legal experts criticized the nominally lesser restrictions of the 2004 law, and harassment and threats continued after its passage, especially outside Kabul. The commission that oversees the press includes no representatives of the news media, and the press law permits government censorship of the news. No registration of religious groups is required; minority religious groups are able to practice freely but not to proselytize. In 2006 a Supreme Court decision to free an Afghan citizen accused of apostasy for having converted to Christianity received substantial criticism from the conservative Muslim community.

Women’s right to work outside the home, including political activity, has received increasing acceptance in the early 2000s. The constitution of 2004 makes an explicit commitment to the advancement of women and to gender equality, and 25 percent of the seats in the lower house of the National Assembly are designated for women. However, conservative elements in the judiciary have demanded separate education and a strict dress code for women.

Index for Afghanistan:
Overview | Government


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