Afghanistan 101

By Matthew Hansen / World-Herald staff writer

Why Does Afghanistan Matter to the United States?

The U.S. military and coalition forces invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were planned and executed by al-Qaida, a terrorist organization operating freely in the country.

Afghans had little connection to the attacks. No Afghans were among the 19 al-Qaida operatives who hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

Al-Qaida's leadership, headed by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, was mostly composed of Arabs whose historic beefs with U.S., Israel and Middle Eastern leaders had little connection to Afghanistan or its people. It was the Taliban's refusal -- or, possibly, inability -- to hand over bin Laden and his group that led to the full-scale invasion of the country.

A decade later, al-Qaida's leaders have mostly been killed or, like bin Laden, pushed into remote areas of Pakistan where they are protected by tribal leaders and allies in Pakistan's military.

But the war continues. A resurgence of the Taliban and related insurgent groups has made the stated U.S. goal -- to help build a viable democratic state where al-Qaida couldn't operate -- more difficult than envisioned.

Various American politicians also worry that the political return of the Taliban could increase power for extremists in Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons.

A host of other problems, including poppy farming that provides 90 percent of the world's heroin, Afghan government corruption and mistakes made by the United States and its allies during the reconstruction, has bogged down the war.

President Barack Obama has stated that the United States will begin lowering troop levels this summer and withdraw all combat troops by 2014.

It's an open question as to how successful the American invasion and reconstruction of Afghanistan will look once the United States does leave.

This much is certain: At nearly 10 years old, the American war in Afghanistan is the longest war in U.S. history.

Who lives in Afghanistan?

Lima Sahar, a woman from the conservative Pashtun belt was a contestant on "Afghan Star" in 2008. (AP Photo)

Roughly the size of Texas, Afghanistan is home to about 30 million people.

Nearly half of them are Pashtun, the predominant ethnicity here and in Pakistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is Pashtun, as was King Zahir Shah and most past leaders. Many Pashtuns speak both Pashto and Dari, the official languages of Afghanistan.

Tajiks, the largest ethnic minority, are traditionally linked to Iranian Persians by language, culture and history.

Afghan Tajiks tend to speak Dari, have lighter skin and hair color than Pashtuns and live mostly in the north and west.

Ten percent of the population are Hazaras. Believed to have descended from Genghis Khan, they are Afghanistan's only significant group of Shia Muslims. The vast majority of Afghans identify themselves as Sunni Muslims.

The Hazaras have faced serious repression over the years, including by the Taliban.

What is life like for the average Afghan?

Put simply, it ain't easy.

Many Afghan lives end practically before they begin nearly 15 out of every 100 babies die before they reach their first birthday.

Afghans die at an average age of 45.2 years. Only Angola has a higher infant mortality and shorter life expectancy.

By comparison, Americans now live to an average age of 78.4.

Unemployment has hovered near 40 percent in recent years, and about the same percentage of Afghans lives below the poverty line.

The average Afghan can't read or write only 28 percent of Afghan adults are literate. The percentage is far lower for women who were barred from attending schools during the Taliban's reign.

What do Afghans eat?

Palau, an Afghan rice dish

Rice dishes are the backbone of the Afghan cuisine. The country is also known for its fresh pomegranates and bread.

Palau, a famous Afghan dish, features meat covered with basmati rice, baked and topped with carrots, raisins and chopped nuts.

Qorma, a stew with dozens of variations, is generally made with meat, fried onions, vegetables and spices.

Mantu is a dish with dumplings filled with ground beef and onion and topped with a yogurt sauce.

What sports do Afghans love?

Afghans follow soccer, and cricket has long been popular, particularly in eastern Afghanistan.

The sport of buzkashi is popular in northern Afghanistan.

The popularity of cricket has spread through the country after the Afghan national cricket team enjoyed some international success.

But arguably the most interesting Afghan sport is buzkashi, a rougher and rawer version of polo, which has what may be the most interesting "ball" of any sport: a beheaded goat carcass.

Players, riding horses, attempt to pick up the goat and elude the others, who often kick, whip or shove the "ball carrier" in an attempt to steal it away.

In the game's simpler form, the goal is basically just to move the goat in any direction past all the other players. In its more complex form, players try to carry the carcass around a flag at one end of the field, then ride back and toss it into the scoring circle.

In previous centuries, a game of buzkashi was often violent, with injuries and death common. It often had no time limit matches could last for days.

The game, like most others, was banned by the Taliban.

Today's buzkashi tends to be less physical and a way for northern Afghans, in particular, to connect to their sporting past.

What TV shows do Afghans watch?

Under the Taliban, owning a television set could get you arrested.

Mozhdah Jamalzadah performs at the White House in 2010

After the Taliban fell, Afghans had no television programming of their own anyone who did own a TV tended to watch Indian soap operas and pirated copies of American movies like "Titanic."

Today, Afghanistan's television industry is booming, and Afghans can choose from a wide array of shows, many of which would look familiar to Americans.

"Afghan Star" is Afghanistan's "American Idol," with young, unknown pop singers competing for national fame.

"Raaz Hai Een Khana" ("The Secrets of This House") is a popular Afghan drama, and the first show to be entirely written and filmed by Afghans. The all-Afghan cast includes women, some of whom have been disowned by their families and physically assaulted for appearing on television.

The show often deals with issues like corruption, drugs and depression, which are rarely raised in public.

The "Mozhdah Show" is like a daytime talk show crossed with a variety hour. The host is Mozhdah Jamalzadah, often called Afghanistan's Oprah.

An Afghan-Canadian singer, she grew wildly famous in Afghanistan in 2010 for a hit pop song, "Afghan Girl."

She often angers conservative Afghans by touching on traditionally taboo subjects like divorce and women's rights.

What is the Taliban?

The Taliban emerged in 1994 as a political movement intent on spreading its extreme brand of Islamic law throughout Afghanistan.

Led by Mullah Omar, a reclusive, one-eyed religious leader, the Taliban first controlled Kandahar before moving into Kabul. By 2001, the group controlled 90 percent of the country.

The Taliban were at first supported by many Afghans who hoped they would end the corruption and rampant violence of the civil war period.

But the Taliban's leaders, many of whom were educated at radical religious schools in Pakistan, quickly instituted strict laws and terrorized those who disobeyed. Women required to wearn head-to-toe veils. No education for girls. No television, kite flying, soccer or modern books.

The Taliban also provided a safe haven for al-Qaida, a terrorist organization run by Osama Bin Laden.

Routed by the Americans in 2002, the Taliban regrouped in remote, lawless areas of Pakistan. They have since controlled parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan, allegedly with financial and military help from the ISI, Pakistan's elite intelligence agency.

Low-level Taliban fighters often pick up a gun during the spring and summer, earn a decent paycheck by Afghan standards, and then go back to normal life when it grows cold.

Groups commonly referred to as "Taliban" might in fact be any number of insurgent groups who oppose the American presence in Afghanistan.

Why are things so hard in Afghanistan?

While Afghanistan became a country in 1747, it has rarely been unified under a central government. The past 30 years have brought a seemingly unending string of wars that wrecked the economy, destroyed infrastructure and left many without education or hope.

Ahmad Shan Durrani founded Afghanistan by uniting the Pashtun tribes dispersed around Kandahar and then Kabul.

King Zahir Shah

In the 1800s, Afghanistan became a pawn in the "Great Game," a British and Russian fight for the riches of Asia. The British Empire controlled Afghanistan for decades, installing rulers and crushing opposition.

The Afghans eventually drove out the foreign force, as they had done to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. The British and Afghans fought three bloody wars before the British pulled out in 1919.

In 1933, King Zahir Shah began a 40-year reign that saw Afghanistan slowly modernize and take small steps toward democracy, particularly in the capital city of Kabul.

There, with the help of American and Soviet money, Afghans built a good university, shopping centers, even a zoo.

The city became a diverse melting pot of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras living in relative harmony and Islamic scholars debating leftist academics at Kabul University, even as residents in more rural areas continued life as they always had.

Then the king was overthrown in a coup. The Soviets, wanting to extend their empire south, installed a puppet government and then invaded in 1979. The 10-year invasion killed more than a million Afghans, according to the CIA.

When the Soviets left, a civil war turned Kabul into rubble. Virtually every family who didn't flee lost a husband, wife, son or daughter to the indiscriminate shelling.

Then the Taliban came to power, imposing extremist policies hated by a large portion of Afghans, particularly in the central and northern parts of the country.

The Taliban took Kabul in 1996, banning girls' schools, television and radio, any artwork not depicting the Prophet Muhammed, kite flying, even modern toothpaste. They beat men for shaving their beards too short and abused women for leaving the house unaccompanied by a man.

Most Afghans celebrated the U.S. invasion in 2002, but some have turned against the U .S. presence as the war drags on, the violence worsens and, in many places, the reconstruction process is slow.

SOURCES: CIA Fact Book, U.S. State Department, New York Times, Associated Press,, Foreign Policy magazine, "Ghost Wars" by Steve Coll and "Taliban" by Ahmed Rashid.

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