Afghanistan has a rich history and diverse, multi-ethnic culture. Its geostrategic location has long forced it to play an important role in international affairs.
Afghanistan’s place as a major international crossroads has proven a double-edged sword. Its exposure to a variety of civilizational influences, among them the Greeks, Indians, Bactrians, Persians, Pashtuns, and Mongols, has enriched the cultural life of the country, but at the expense of political stability. It has been part of numerous states throughout its past; at the same time, many great empires arose in Afghanistan and conquered vast territories in Central and South Asia. The modern nation-state of Afghanistan began as the Durrani Empire in 1747. It became entangled in the struggle between Britain and Russia for regional dominance in the 19th century, succumbing to British control until 1919. For several decades after regaining independence it experienced great stability and some measure of modernization, but soon became embroiled in another international conflict: the Cold War. A progressive, Soviet-backed government took control of the country, but suffered heavily from regional militias supported by the US. The USSR invaded in 1979 in an attempt to pacify Afghanistan, but met with little success; when the Soviet Army retreated in 1989, the Afghan government was left with no support, and the country quickly dissolved into civil war. The religious extremist Taliban movement gained control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, and instituted a regime based upon strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The Taliban’s harboring of the militant Al-Qaeda group instigated a US-led invasion in 2001, which fostered the restoration of an Afghan democracy. Since then, Afghanistan has seen rapid economic growth and a dramatic increase in the quality of human rights; however, the country remains one of the world’s poorest and least developed. The continuing Taliban insurgency, decimated infrastructure, and lack of skilled labor are severe challenges to Afghan progress, and pandemic unemployment has created the world’s largest illegal opium industry. Nevertheless, reconstruction efforts have produced many successes, and with substantial, untapped mineral and fossil fuel reserves, Afghanistan’s economy has enormous potential.
Immigration to Afghanistan is tightly regulated, as travel in the country is still rather dangerous. Despite this, over 4 million Afghans living abroad have returned to their homeland following the invasion, providing an invaluable source of economic stimulus. Most civilian foreigners entering Afghanistan do so as development workers or volunteers. Not everyone will be suited to a move to Afghanistan, due to its tough living conditions and ongoing security concerns; there remains, however, a great deal of work to help this country recover from nearly four decades of social upheaval.
Dari, a dialect of Persian (or Farsi), has historically served as the lingua franca of Afghanistan, and today is the country’s most widely spoken language. It is co-official alongside Pashto, the language of the country’s Pashtun ethnic majority. Many regional and minority languages exist, including Uzbek, Turkmen, and Balochi; naturally, with so many languages present, bilingualism is particularly common in Afghanistan.