Between the 5th and 7h century CE, Afghanistan was the epicenter of a global network of trade and commerce. It stood midway on the trade route from Rome to China. Traders travelled to Afghanistan from all over the world, bringing painted glass from Antioch, inlaid gold vessels from Byzantium, ivory from south India, carpets from Persia, horses from Mongolia and Siberia and silk from China. Buddhism was widespread in the country from the 3rd century BCE until the 11th century. The advent of Islam in Afghanistan can be traced to the middle of the 7th century. Heart was conquered by the Umayyad forces in 652 CE. By the 11th century nearly the whole country had come under the fold of Islam. The cities of Balkh, Heart, Badakhshan, Khurasan, Jowzjan, Ghazni and Sistan were renowned centres of learning and cultural refinement during the medieval period.
Since early times, Afghanistan has been controlled by various emperors and imperial dynasties, including the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander the Great, the Sassanian Empire, the Mughal Empire and the Safavid Empire. The present boundaries of Afghanistan were established in the late 19th century in the context of an intense geopolitical rivalry between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia. Britain fought several wars in the region in the 19th century. In 1919, in the wake of the Third Anglo-Afghan War, King Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan a sovereign ad fully independent state. King Zahir Shah, Amanullah Khan’s grandson, ascended the throne in 1933. In 1973, Dawud Khan, King Zahir Shah’s cousin, launched a coup and became the first President of Afghanistan. In 1978 the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power, following which a civil war broke out across large parts of the country. In 1979 thousands of Soviet troops entered Afghanistan to lend support to the pro-Soviet regime. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union (1979-89) had a devastating effect on the economy, society and political tability. During the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan experienced an intense and protracted civil war between the Mujahideen fighters, who were supported and armed by Pakistan and the United States, and the Soviet-backed Afghan government, in which over a million Afghans were killed. In 1996 the Taliban, an extremist political movement, took control of several provinces in southern and central Afghanistan and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban were universally condemned for their brutal treatment of women. The Taliban regime collapsed in 2001 in the wake of the US-led invasion and occupation of the country.
In the 2004 presidential elections, Hamid Karzai was elected president. He was reelected in 2009. Afghans are currently voting in run-off elections that will determine who will succeed President Hamid Karzai. The contest is between the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and a former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani. The final results are expected by 22 July this year.
Afghanistan’s Rich, Untapped Resources
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Soviet mining experts had collected substantial data about the vast mineral deposits in the country. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the plans for the exploration and harnessing of the country’s mineral resources were set aside. In 2004, American geologists stumbled upon a number of maps, charts and technical data, collected by Soviet experts, at the Library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul. With the help of these maps and charts, the United States Geological Survey began a series of aerial surveys of Afghanistan’s mineral resources in 2006, using advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment attached to an old Navy Orion P-3 aircraft that flew over about 70 per cent of the country. Encouraged by the results of the aerial survey, American geologists returned the next year with even more sophisticated equipments. In 2009, a Pentagon business development task force came upon the geological data and, realizing its huge economic value, brought in a team of American mining experts to confirm the survey’s findings, and then briefed the US Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Surveys carried out by the Pentagon and the US Geological Survey over the past few years indicate that huge deposits of valuable minerals, including gold, copper, iron, cobalt, lithium, high-grade chrome ore, uranium, beryl, barite, fluorspar, bauxite, tantalum, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, lapis lazuli, niobium and silver, lie hidden in the country’s mountainous regions. Lithium is a highly prized raw material which is used in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys. Niobium is a soft metal which is used in producing superconducting steel. US officials believe that the huge deposits of minerals, which are scattered throughout Afghanistan, would transform the country’s economy and would make it into one of the most important mining centres in the world. The United States Geological Survey estimated in 2006 that northern Afghanistan has an average of 2.9 billion barrels of crude oil, 15.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 562 million barrels of natural gas liquids. The Khanashin carbonatite in Helmand Province contains 1,000,000 metric tons of rare earth elements. There are vast deposits of emerald in the Panjshir Valley. The Afghan emerals is renowned as the world’s best in terms of quality. Government officials estimate that the country's untapped mineral deposits are worth between $900 billion and $3 trillion.
China has been eyeing Afghanistan’s natural resources for quite a while. It won a bid for the Aynak copper mine in Logar Province. In 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the Aynak copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group for $3 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan's history. In 2008, a Chinese mining consortium bought a 30-year lease on Mes Aynak in northern Afghanistan for $3 billion. They estimated that the valley contained potentially $100 billion worth of copper, possibly the largest such deposit in the world. It is estimated that the project would provide $300 million a year by 2016 and about $40 billion in total royalties to the Afghan government. In December 2011, Afghanistan signed an oil exploration contract with China National Petroleum Corporation for the development of three oil fields along the Amu Darya in the north.
The harnessing of Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources requires huge investment and infrastructure before they begin to yield profits. Afghanistan has no mining industry or infrastructure in place. Almost all of the emeralds mined in Afghanistan is exported or smuggled out of the country uncut to Pakistan and India. Emeralds are at present sold for about $200 million a year. It is estimated that if the emeralds are cut and marketed in Afghanistan before being exported, they could fetch revenues of more than $1 billion a year.
It may take many years to develop a mining industry. But once developed, the industry would radically alter the economic and social landscape. International accounting firms that have expertise in mining contracts have been hired to offer advice to the Afghan Ministry of Mines, and technical data about the deposits are being made available to multinational mining companies and potential foreign investors. Afganistan has the potential to become one of the major mining centres in the world.
Afghan society is characterized by a good deal of ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. The main ethnic groups are Pashtun (45-50%), Tajik (27%), Hazara (10-15%) and Uzbek (9%). There are small groups of Chahar Aimak, Baloch, Kyrgyz, Turken and Brahui people. While the Uzbek are mostly farmers, the Kyrgyz practice herding. The population of Afghanistan is almost entirely Muslim. Nearly 85 per cent of the population are Sunni and the rest follow the Shia creed. Sufism has a pervasive influence on Afghan society. Pashto and Dari (a dialect of Persian) are the country’s official languages. In addition, Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi and Brahui languages are also spoken.
Afghanistan’s population is predominantly rural. Life expectancy is about 47 years for men and 46 for women, one of the lowest in the world. Child labour is quite common across the country. It is estimated that about 10 per cent of children are working on farms, brick kilns, factories and shops.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. Decades of war and civil strife have brought the country to the brink of ruin and devastation. The country’s GDP at the official exchange rate is $14.04 billion and the GDP per capita is $1,100, one of the lowest in the world. More than 40% per cent of the population live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is more than 35 per cent. Life expectancy is about 47 years for men and 46 for women, one of the lowest in the world. Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world. The country is highly dependent on foreign aid and trade with neighbouring countries. The economy has suffered from decades of conflict and violence, corrupt governments and foreign occupation. The country’s war-ravaged economy is largely based on the cultivation opium and hashish, illegal and clandestine narcotics traffic, and aid from industrialized countries. Large sections of the population continue to suffer from lack of basic amenities, insecurity, chronic shortages of housing, clean drinking water, electricity and medical care, crime and drug addiction.
Afghanistan has the highest proportion of people with disabilities – an estimated one million people. About 80,000 people have become disabled as a result of landmines. More than 2.7 million Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan and Iran.
There is a complete absence of foreign direct investment, thanks to endemic violence, political instability and widespread corruption. According to Transparency International, Afghanistan ranks as the third most corrupt country in the world. The New York Times reported on April 29, 2013 that, for more than a decade, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the US Central Intelligence Agency to the office of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. The CIA is known to have supported some relatives and close aids of Karzai. The cash flow has fuelled corruption and added to the clout of Afghan warlords. In fact, some US officials point out that the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan is the United States.
Afghanistan has one of the worst human development indices in the world. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, it is the 15th least developed country in the world. The overall literacy rate is about 28 per cent and less than 10 per cent of Afghan women can read or write. Afghanistan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, estimated at 1,400 deaths per 100,000 live births. The country also has the dubious distinction of having the highest infant mortality rate in the world. One in ten Afghan children dies before attaining the age of five.
One of the gravest problems faced by the country is the flourishing narcotics trade and the alarming increase in the number of drug addicts, including women and children. Afghanistan accounts for nearly 93 per cent of the world’s supply of opium, whose global retail supply exceeds $52 billion. In 2012 the cultivation of poppy covered an area of 154,000 hectares, up from 1311,000 hectares in the previous year. From Shaddle Bazaar and other markets, where thousands of kilos of opium are openly bought and sold, opium is taken to heroin labs in the border areas set up by local drug lords, where it is processed into heroin and smuggled into Europe and the US. Heroin, which is refined from raw opium, is relatively cheap – about $6 for a gram -- and easily available. Drug trafficking is controlled by powerful warlords, many of whom enjoy protection from the government. The thriving drug trade is a great source of financial support for the Taliban as well as for many people in the government.
There are an estimated one million addicts in Afghanistan’s population of 35 million, including some 60,000 child drug addicts – the highest figure in the world. Women and children make up nearly 40 per cent of drug addicts. The addicts include refugees who came back from Pakistan, farmers, female carpet weavers and war veterans who lost limbs in the war. It is common to see men and teenage boys sitting huddled and smoking and injecting heroin in the heart of Kabul. The addicts also include educated people, doctors and engineers. Children are introduced to opium, often by parents and grandparents, as early as the age of five. Sometimes toddlers are given opium by their mothers to stop them from crying for food, which is always in short supply. Afghanistan’s health ministry runs 95 de-addiction and rehabilitation centres across the country, but the rehabilitation programme is severely hampered by the shortage of funds and trained personnel.