Special Report—United We Stand

Afghanistan Update


One year has passed since the events of September 11, 2001. During the last 12 months, much of the world's attention has been focused on the nation of Afghanistan. There the United States and its allies in the war on terrorism have carried out military actions aimed at defeating the al-Qaeda terrorists thought to be responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Taliban government that supported them. The early bombings and fighting did bring about a change in Afghanistan's government in late 2001. Since that time, the Afghan people have tried to rebuild their nation and their society. The challenges they face remain enormous. Meanwhile, occasional fighting continues between allied forces and pockets of remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban. Yet many Afghans go forward with great hope that they can escape the fighting and turmoil that have bloodied their recent history.


By the late 1990s, Afghanistan had already experienced nearly 20 years of terrible turmoil. An invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 had been followed years of bloody fighting. When the Soviets finally left a decade later, civil war broke out among competing groups. Out of this terrible fighting, which left much of the country in ruins, the Taliban emerged. They had gained control of most of Afghanistan by the late 1990s.

The Taliban had a close relationship with Osama bin Laden and his Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda group. When the United States determined that al-Qaeda was behind the September 11 attacks, it demanded that the Taliban cooperate with efforts to bring bin Laden and al-Qaeda to justice. When the Taliban refused, the United States threatened to destroy the Taliban as well. This threat was carried out with the start of military action in October 2001. Within weeks, the Taliban had been forced from power.

When the rule of the Taliban ended, there was no person or group that was clearly ready to assume power. On November 27, the United Nations held talks in Bonn, Germany, aimed at making temporary arrangements for the rule of Afghanistan. The meeting led to the establishment of an "interim authority" that would provide government in Afghanistan. The meeting also named Hamid Karzai, a popular Afghan politician, to fill this post. He was to serve at least until a meeting of a special emergency council of Afghanistan's leading citizens, called a loya jirga. This meeting was to take place by June 2002.


Out of this background, Afghanistan began its post-Taliban future. It is a future many in the country look forward to with hope. But there are many concerns as well. What follows is a summary of the important issues and challenges that have faced the Afghan people in the past few months.

Rebuilding the Country. Even before the allied bombing of late 2001, much of Afghanistan lay in ruins from years of fighting. Fields were littered with live landmines. Millions of Afghans lived in refugee camps. To make matters worse, the nation was in the grips of a terrible drought. Many people faced starvation.

Karzai faced the difficult challenge of rebuilding the country and helping its citizens. However, there was reason for hope. The international assistance community has been working closely with Karzai's new government. In addition, nations from around the world have made pledges of billions of dollars in aid. The task remains huge. But one sign of progress is that refugees have begun to return to their homes.

Establishing a Government. One of Karzai's most basic tasks has been establishing his government as a legitimate one for the people of Afghanistan. In this effort, Karzai is working nearly from scratch. For over 20 years, Afghanistan had basically been without a fully functioning central government.

A key challenge facing Karzai's government has been the continued power of many of Afghanistan's warlords. These powerful leaders were left over from the nation's civil wars. Some were unwilling to give up their power. Remnants of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces also existed in parts of the country. Karzai was forced to rely on an International Security Assistance Force to keep the peace. Even with this help, lawlessness reamained in large areas of Afghanistan. Government workers and offices, as well as U.S. and allied soldiers, faced increasing attacks.

Another factor troubling the new Afghan government has been ethnic divisions. Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun. Rival groups, such as the Tajiks, are interested in making sure they have power in the new government. In July 2002, a Tajik Vice President in Karzai's administration was assassinated in the capital city of Kabul. The killing threatened to deepen ethnic divisions and weaken Karzai's fragile government.

The Loya Jirga. Ethnic competition reared its head in the emergency loya lirga held in June 2002. This special country-wide council was called for in the December 2001 Bonn agreement that established Afghanistan's new government. Fifteen hundred delegates from around Afghanistan took part in the loya jirga. One thousand of these were elected from Afghanistan's 32 provinces. Included were 160 women. (See more about women in Afghanistan, below.) The meeting was opened by Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah. As had been expected, the loya jirga named Karzai transitional leader. He held the title of president.

The Role of Women. The Taliban's rule had taken an especially harsh toll on Afghanistan's women. The Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women's right to work, attend school, and travel in public was severely limited. The Taliban enforced these laws with a brutal system of justice.

Improving women's lives and rights is a main priority in post-Taliban Afghanistan. There has been some progress. Women in many areas have been freed from the rules against working or attending school. At the June loya jirga, not only did 160 women take part, but one, Massouda Jalal, received 200 votes for president.

Still, there is much room for improvement. Some of the repressive attitudes toward women that existed under the Taliban remain. In some cases, repressive laws are still on the books. The status of women is improving. But it may take years before women can feel secure throughout Afghanistan.

Ongoing War on Terror. As of September 2002, the United States and its allies continued to operate in Afghanistan. They did so with the support of Karzai, who agreed with the aim of ridding Afghanistan of terrorists. Unfortunately, some U.S. operations have led to the deaths of Afghan civilians. In July, for example, U.S. bombs apparently killed 48 civilians and wounded over 100 others who were attending a wedding in southern Afghanistan. The United States claimed that its planes had come under fire. Local residents insisted that the only fire was the occasional shooting of guns into the air—a traditional wedding custom. In any case, many people in Afghanistan were furious at what they saw as American carelessness in the incident. Karzai, meanwhile, struggled to maintain his support for the war while at the same time expressing unhappiness with U.S. actions. This was just another of the difficult balancing acts Karzai must perform in these challenging times.


  1. Use library and/or Internet resources to research the recent history of Afghanistan over the last 30 years or so. Create a timeline of key events.
  2. Write an "open letter" to the people of Afghanistan. In your letter, explain what you think the United States can and should do to help Afghanistan in the future. Offer your thoughts about what the people of Afghanistan need to do to build a better future for themselves and their nation.


United Nations

The United States Department of State

United States Department of Defense

The Embassy of Afghanistan