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Country profile: Afghanistan
Landlocked and mountainous, Afghanistan has suffered from such chronic instability and conflict during its modern history that its economy and infrastructure are in ruins, and many of its people are refugees.
It is also afflicted by natural calamities such as earthquakes and drought.
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 and forbidding terrain.
It was at the centre of the so-called "Great Game" in the 19th century when Imperial Russia and the British Empire in India vied for influence.
And it became a key Cold War battleground after thousands of Soviet troops intervened in 1979 to prop up a pro-communist regime, leading to a major confrontation that drew in the US and Afghanistan's neighbours.
But the outside world eventually lost interest after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, while the country's protracted civil war dragged on.
The emergence of the Taleban - originally a group of Islamic scholars - brought at least a measure of stability after nearly two decades of conflict.
But their extreme version of Islam attracted widespread criticism.
The Taleban - drawn from the Pashtun majority - were opposed by an alliance of factions drawn mainly from Afghanistan's minority communities and based in the north.
In control of about 90% of Afghanistan until late 2001, the Taleban were recognised as the legitimate government by only three countries.
They were at loggerheads with the international community over the presence on their soil of Osama bin Laden, accused by the US of masterminding the bombing of their embassies in Africa in 1998 and the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.
After the Taleban's refusal to hand over bin Laden, the US initiated aerial attacks in October, paving the way for opposition groups to drive them from power.
Infighting between local commanders over power and territory has become a striking feature of the post-Taleban period. The authorities in Kabul have so far been unable to contain the fighting in the southern and eastern regions.
Afghanistan has an interim administration which was chosen at a Loya Jerga - or traditional assembly of tribal representatives - in June 2002.
It is to govern until 2004, and has the tasks of drafting a new constitution, overseeing the formation of a national army and of preparing for elections at the end of its term.
Hamid Karzai, who headed the provisional administration set up when the Taleban were driven from power, was chosen at the Loya Jerga as interim head of state.
President: Hamid Karzai