Afghanistan is a country whose name evokes so many vivid images. Bearded, turbaned Taliban holding Kalashnikovs, arid mountain and desert landscapes, fields of beautiful, deadly poppies, burkashrouded women crouching on street corners, schoolgirls playing outside a newly built school, and suicide bombs causing carnage on the streets of Kabul.

These images tell only part of the story of a nation whose hopes, dreams and ambitions to be a prosperous nation have been continually dashed by civil war, Islamic insurgence and the controversial involvement of Western powers. Their future security still remains so uncertain.

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a landlocked country that borders Pakistan in the south and east, Iran in the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, and China in the far northeast. It is split east to west by the Hindu Kush mountain range and most of the country is covered by snow-capped mountains, traversed by deep valleys.

Afghanistan has always been on the crossroads between ancient civilisations such as the Mesopotamians, the Persians and the Greeks. Around 500BC, Darius the Great expanded the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire to its peak when it took most of Afghanistan. 200 years later it was taken by Alexandria the Great, though the Afghans never accepted his rule and revolts were common.

Afghanistan was a focal point of the ancient trading route, the Silk Road, connecting East, South, West and Central Asia. It has been a target of many invaders. It in turn invaded its neighbouring regions and attempted to form its own empires. By the 18th Century, Ahmed Shah Durrani unified Afghan tribes and founded the Afghan Empire which, extending beyond its present territory, was the foundation of the current state of  Afghanistan. Since the 1980’s, the predominant religion, Islam, has become a rallying point for the warring factions, a common and potentially unifying force in a fragmented, multi-tribal society.