A popular information site on Afghanistan advertises the land-locked Asian nation as "The Friendliest Country in the World, Possibly the Universe."

Tell that to the 24 relief workers detained there since August 5 for allegedly teaching Christianity. Or even to the citizens of Afghanistan—a country ravaged by 23 years of war, plagued by disease, drought, and famine, and ruled with an iron fist by its self-declared leaders, the Taliban.

On August 5, Taliban authorities closed down the Kabul office of Shelter Now, a Germany-based aid group, and arrested eight foreigners and sixteen Afghan employees. All will remain in captivity until the Taliban conducts a full investigation into the extent of what they allege is a conspiracy by aid groups (including the U.N.'s World Food Program) to convert Muslims.

A continuous battlefield
The nation's population of 25 million is vastly diverse ethnically, and 34 different languages are spoken. But Islam unites Afghans: 84 percent of the nation is Sunni Muslim, and 15 percent is Shi'ite. Nevertheless, most of Afghanistan's past is marked by power struggles, war, and radical ideological shifts in governance.

For many years, conservative and liberal Islamic groups battled for control, culminating in the bloody 1978 coup by the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands were arrested and executed while countless others—especially elites—faced repression. Uprisings against the PDPA became common.

The Soviet invasion This unrest set the scene for the second phase of Afghanistan's recent violent history: 1979's Soviet invasion. Possibly both to protect its disintegrating southern border and to stabilize trade routes, the Soviet Union ...

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