Afghanistan is a landlocked, mountainous country in south Asia. Its strategic position sandwiched between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent along the ancient "Silk Route" means that Afghanistan has long been fought over despite its rugged terrain. It was at the center of the so-called "Great Game" in the 19th century when Imperial Russia and the British Empire in India vied for influence. It won independence from British control in 1919. A military coup in 1973 abolished the monarchy, and the country became a republic.
Afghanistan became a key Cold War battleground after the Soviet troops invaded in 1979 to support a pro-communist regime, touching off a long and destructive war. The Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, but a series of subsequent civil wars saw Afghanistan finally fall in 1996 to the Taliban which was in control of about 90 percent of the country until late 2001.
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. and its partners in the anti-terrorist coalition launched air strikes against Afghanistan in October 2001 after Taliban refuse to hand over Osama bin Laden who was held responsible for the September 11 attacks. The Taliban regime was toppled, and Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban met at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn, Germany in December 2001 and agreed to restore stability and governance to Afghanistan--creating an interim government and establishing a process to move toward a permanent government. Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan in December 2004; he won a second term as president controversial elections in late 2009.
More than two decades of conflict destroyed much of Afghanistan’s limited infrastructure and disrupted normal patterns of economic activity. Although the country’s economic outlook has improved significantly and is showing strong signs of recovery since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The economy is highly dependent on foreign aid and agriculture, which is extremely vulnerable to adverse weather conditions, especially drought.
Despite gains toward building a stable central government, a resurgent Taliban and continuing provincial instability - particularly in the south and the east - remain serious challenges for the Afghan government. United States-led NATO forces have been operating in Afghanistan with a eye on staving off the threat posed by militant Jihadist extremists from the Taliban and al-Qaida, who have been responsible for acts of terrorism, including the 2001 attacks in the United States.
Note: About 33,000 United States-led NATO forces are on an exit schedule to leave the country in 2012. A full withdrawal of foreign combat troops is scheduled to take place in 2014.