Afghanistan is governed by the Taliban, a group that rules according to strict Islamic code, known as sharia. Its leader is the reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar.
After their failed invasion, Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, creating a power vacuum that led to ethnic fighting and civil war. But by 1995, a band of youthful Islamic fundamentalists began to take over the Taliban.
Population 26.8 million in a country almost the size of Texas.
Government Ruled by the Taliban.
Though the Taliban had controlled as much as 95 percent of the country, a loose conglomerate of rebel forces known as the Northern Alliance has been claiming territory from the north. Its leader, military commander Ahmad Shah Masood, was killed by suicide bombers posing as journalists just days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He has been replaced by Gen. Muhammad Fahim.
More well-known than either Omar or Fahim is exiled Saudi dissident and suspected international terrorist Osama bin Laden. By harboring bin Laden and his al-Qaida associates, the Taliban have become inextricably linked to the most wanted man on earth. Their refusal to release him to international authorities has prompted massive U.S.-led military strikes against targets in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's ethnic groups
Pashtun (mainly Taliban)
Tajik (mainly Northern Alliance)
Uzbek (mainly Northern Alliance)
Northern Alliance vs. the Taliban
The Taliban emerged in the city of Kandahar in 1994. It seized power in 1996 by ousting President Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose government was a collective of warring groups. In Pashto, the language of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the word Taliban means "religious students."
Its leaders: They grew up in squalid camps in Pakistan, among the refugees fleeing the 1979-1989 war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. As religious students in the camps, they embraced a strict interpretation of Islam. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive religious leader whose right eye was damaged by shrapnel during the Afghan-Soviet war, is reportedly married to one of Osama Bin Laden's daughters.
What it holds: The Taliban occupies the capital, Kabul, and the major cities of Jalalabad, Herat and Kandahar. About 90 percent of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic militia.
Equipment 650 tanks, troop carriers, fighting vehicles
Aircraft 250, including 10 Su-22 fighter-bombers, five MiG-21 fighters, 28 helicopters
Missiles Stinger surface-to-air missiles
The Northern Alliance is made up of the groups of the Rabbani government that now are united in the fight against the Taliban in 17 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces.
What it holds: The Northern Alliance controls about 10 percent of Afghanistan, mainly the strategic Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul and other regions of northern Afghanistan.
Its leaders: The United Nations recognizes Burhanuddin Rabbani as Afghanistan's legitimate leader. The military has been led by Gen. Mohammed Fahim Khan since Gen. Ahmad Shah Masood was assassinated Sept. 10.
Northern Alliance forces:
Soldiers 15,000 to 20,000
Equipment 60 to 70 tanks, troop carriers, fighting vehicles
Aircraft Eight transport helicopters, three cargo planes
Missiles FROG surface-to-surface, Scud short-range ballistic missile
Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has had trouble with neighbors. To the south, the Muslim nation faces rival Hindu-dominated India. To the north, it maintained sour relations with Afghanistan. But in 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. United by a common enemy, Pakistan and Afghanistan became allies. In fact, it was with Pakistani backing that the Taliban came to power in 1996.
Pakistan's friendship with Afghanistan has been tested since the Sept. 11 attacks.
It was one of the few countries, along with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, to have had formal relations with the Taliban.
Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has promised full cooperation with the United States in its fight against terrorism. The support is critically important to U.S. operations in the region. Musharraf faces domestic opposition from Islamic fundamentalists who oppose U.S. strikes against the Taliban.
After the attacks on the United States, Pakistani officials said: "Pakistan is committing all of its resources in an effort coordinated with the United States to locate and punish those involved in these horrific acts."
Population 142 million in a country almost double the size of California.
Government military rule.
Political alliances in Pakistan can shift frequently. Among the major parties:
Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is divided between one camp supporting Mian Muhamman Azhar, and those who claim exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as leader.
Pakistan People's Party, headed by exiled former leader Benazir Bhutto.
Awami National Party.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
Though military dominates, Muslim clergy, landowners and industrialists remain influential.