Afghanistan country brief

For the latest Australian Government travel advice for Afghanistan, please visit the Smartraveller website.

Overview

Afghanistan is a landlocked and mountainous country on the border of South and Central Asia. It shares a border with six countries — Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north and China to the extreme northeast. Most of Afghanistan is arid to semi-arid with hot summers and cold winters. Afghanistan’s total population is about 33 million, with 42% of the population aged under 15 years (World Bank, 2015). Kabul is Afghanistan’s capital and largest city with around 3.3 million people.

Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups are Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara. The official languages are Pashtu and Dari, however there are more than 30 distinct languages spoken across Afghanistan, and multilingualism is common. Most Afghans practice Sunni Islam, with the majority of the remainder practicing Shiism (Afghan Embassy in Australia, 2015).

Political overview

System of Government

Afghanistan is a constitutional democracy with the President as the Head of State and the Government. Under an extra-Constitutional political arrangement, the President shares power with a Chief Executive Officer. The National Assembly has two chambers comprising the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) and Meshrano Jirga (upper house). Under the 2004 constitution, elections for the country's President and for the Wolesi Jirga are each held every five years.

All of Afghanistan acts as a single electorate to elect the President of Afghanistan. The last election was in 2014. The cabinet is made up of the President, Chief Executive Officer, two Vice-Presidents (not directly elected, but part of the presidential candidate’s ticket), and 25 ministers. Ministers are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Wolesi Jirga.

The Wolesi Jirga has 250 representatives directly elected by provinces. The last election was in 2010. This house is responsible for drafting legislation and voting on presidential decrees and appointments.

The Meshrano Jirga is the house of review. It is made up of three representatives from each of the 34 provinces – one appointed by district councils for a three-year term, another appointed by provincial councils for a four-year term, and the last appointed by the president for a five-year term. It has quotas for women, ethnic minorities and people with a disability.

Legally mandated quotas and targets are used to increase women’s participation in Afghanistan’s legislative bodies. The 2004 Constitution introduced a quota system to ensure at least one-third representation in the national parliament. Subsequent electoral legislation has introduced quotas for women in provincial councils.

Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are the primary administrative divisions. Each province is divided into districts, which total 398. Each province has a provincial government under a governor, appointed by the president (United States Institute of Peace, 2015).

National Government

In 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected President in the in first poll of the post-Taliban era. He was re-elected in August 2009. The first post-Taliban era elections for the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils were held in September 2005. Following selection of Meshrano Jirga members, the new National Assembly sat for the first time in December 2005. Elections for the second Wolesi Jirga took place in September 2010.

Following closely contested elections in mid-2014, the two final presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, formed a National Unity Government under a political arrangement agreed on 21 September 2014. Dr Ghani was inaugurated as President of Afghanistan on 29 September, with Dr Abdullah assuming the new role of Chief Executive Officer.

Resolute Support Mission

In January 2015 the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) handed over security responsibility to the Government of Afghanistan. Formed in 2001 under UN Security Council Resolution 1386, ISAF was tasked with assisting the Government of Afghanistan to establish security and stability across the country following the overthrow of the Taliban.

In January 2015 ISAF was replaced with the NATO-led Resolute Support mission (RSM), involving 28 NATO countries and 14 operational partners. The RSM is a non-combat train, advise, and assist mission focused on building the capacity of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and Afghan security ministries.

Australia currently deploys about 300 Defence personnel under the RSM. Australia is committed to supporting the RSM and contributes US $100 million annually toward sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces, including the ANDSF and Afghan National Police.

More information on Australia’s military contribution to Afghanistan and the RSM is on the Department of Defence website.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is a political mission established by the UNSC in 2002 at the request of the Government of Afghanistan. UNAMA and its Special Representative lead and coordinate international civilian efforts in assisting Afghanistan, guided by the principle of reinforcing Afghan sovereignty, leadership and ownership. UNAMA works with the Afghan Government and supports the process of peace and reconciliation; monitors and promotes human rights and the protection of civilians in armed conflict; promotes good governance; and encourages regional coordination.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Afghanistan share a friendly and long-standing relationship. Relations can be traced back to the 1860s when Afghan cameleers came to Australia. For half a century, the cameleers played a crucial role in the exploration and development of the Australian outback, ferrying supplies across the continent. The Ghan is named in their honour. The next wave of Afghan migration to Australia followed the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan when thousands fled their homeland. The Afghan-born Australian population is about 32,000.

The first diplomatic link between Australia and Afghanistan was established in March 1969, when a non-resident Australian Ambassador was accredited to Afghanistan. The first resident Australian Ambassador to Afghanistan was appointed in 2006.

The Australian Government has continuing engagement with Afghanistan in the areas of security and development cooperation, and economic reform through bilateral, regional and multilateral dialogues.

High level visits

In April 2017, President Ashraf Ghani visited Australia. During this visit, our Governments signed a memorandum of understanding for an Afghanistan-Australia Development Partnership 2017-2020, and a new agreement between Geoscience Australia and the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum.

Following President Ghani’s visit, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Afghanistan later in April. The Prime Minister met President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah to discuss Afghanistan’s political and security outlook, and met Australian Embassy and Defence Force personnel working in Kabul.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop visited Kabul in January 2015.

Australia’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan

In early 2017, Penny Williams was appointed as Australia’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to reinforce the Government’s commitment to a coordinated and effective regional and international diplomacy agenda.

Development cooperation

Our program in Afghanistan focuses on three priority areas: economic growth and effective governance; empowering women and girls; and building resilience and supporting at-risk populations.

Australia has provided over $1.26 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001.

Information on development assistance to Afghanistan.

Refugees

The humanitarian and security environment in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate after more than 30 years of conflict, with civilians, particularly women and children, among the worst affected. The United Nations report that as at 27 July,168,000 Afghans have been displaced due to conflict across Afghanistan in 2017, and a further 1,662 civilians killed and 3,581 injured — including a 23 per cent increase in female casualties and nine per cent increase in child deaths from the same period in 2016. Additionally, the unanticipated return of more than one million Afghans (documented and undocumented) from neighbouring countries in 2016, added to the pressure on humanitarian partners. From the start of the year up to 27 July, more than 303,000 Afghans had returned from neighbouring countries. Flows at this rate or greater are expected throughout the remainder of 2017. The UN estimates that there are currently 1.5 million people displaced across Afghanistan and almost one third of the national population, 9.3 million people, are in need of humanitarian assistance. This represents a 13 per cent increase from 2016.

Australia has provided $66.2 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan since 2013, including $23.9 million in 2016-17. Australia’s humanitarian assistance focuses on supporting the most vulnerable, including women, children and people with disability. In 2016-17 Australia provided $8 million through UNOCHA to support the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, $4.5 million to support the World Food Programme (WFP), $4 million through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), $3 million through the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), $2 million through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), $2 million through the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and $410,000 to support the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS).

Australia is on track to deliver on the Prime Minister’s pledge to commit $39 million over three years to refugees and displaced populations in Afghanistan, as announced at President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in September 2016.

For more information, see the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website.

Human rights

Afghanistan’s constitution enshrines many fundamental human rights, including the right to life, liberty and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention. Afghanistan has also ratified a number of international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the International Convention on Torture.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) is accredited with an ‘A’ rating from the International Coordinating Committee for National Human Rights Institutions. The Commission noted in 2015 that decades of conflict, a lack of respect for the rule of law, and a culture of impunity and corruption have had a severe impact on the government’s ability to implement human rights guarantees. A joint report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and UN Human Rights Office released in February 2017 highlighted the severe toll of conflict-related violence in Afghanistan, with total civilian casualties rising to the highest level since 2009, when UNAMA began systematic documentation of civilian casualties.

The January 2015 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Afghanistan highlighted priority areas of concern including the protection of civilians in armed conflict, prevention of torture and arbitrary detention, elimination of violence against women, and the human rights aspects of peace and reconciliation processes. A joint report by UNAMA and the UN Human Rights Office released in April 2017 documented concerns on torture in Afghan detention centres.

For more information see the UN OHCHR website.

Economic overview

Trade and investment

Afghanistan's economy is recovering, but remains dependent on foreign aid. Ongoing international assistance aims at supporting longer-term economic development in Afghanistan.

Agriculture is one of the largest sources of income in Afghanistan. In 2015, approximately 60 per cent of the population was employed in the agriculture industry, which accounted for 40 per cent of GDP (FAO, Agriculture Fact Sheet, January 2015).

Australia has limited trade with Afghanistan. In 2016, total merchandise trade between Australia and Afghanistan was valued at $23.3 million. In 2016, Australia was the 15th largest destination for Afghan exports, and the 44th largest origin of imports.

Further information can be found on the DFAT Economic Fact Sheet on Afghanistan and at the World Bank website.

Cooperation opportunities in Afghanistan

Tenders

See the AusTender website for opportunities in Afghanistan.

Direct Aid Program

The Direct Aid Program (DAP) is a small grant scheme that collaborates with various organisations to support projects that directly contribute to the welfare and the income-generating capacity of poor or disadvantaged groups, or enhance the long-term productivity and sustainability of the physical environment.

Get involved in the Direct Aid Program

Australian NGO Cooperation Program

The Australian NGO Cooperation Program supports accredited Australian NGOs to implement their own international development programs. Under the program, the Department collaborates with Australian professional development NGOs.

Get involved in the Australian NGO Cooperation Program

Last Updated: 4 September 2017