Afghanistan, 250,000 square miles of often forbidding terrain pinched between Iran and Pakistan, has been controlled by the radical Islamic Taliban movement since 1996.
Negotiating even reasoning with the Taliban has vexed governments and international organizations ever since the group assumed power after a long civil war.
Only three countries Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government in Kabul.
The group, whose name means "seekers of religious knowledge," sprang up from ultra-conservative religious schools in refugee camps in Pakistan.
The camps were recruiting grounds for guerrilla groups during the Soviet Union's 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan and during years of battle between rival ethnic warlords that followed the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in 1992.
The emergence of the Taliban in the mid 1990s was initially hailed by many Afghans, who welcomed the group's promise to unite the country and end more than 15 years of warfare. But powerful warlords in the north particularly the Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud continued their guerrilla campaigns. Many Afghans have turned against the Taliban because of its repressive brand of Islam and the brutality of its leaders.
Foreign governments, alarmed by the proliferation of Islamic terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, a rise in opium cultivation and trafficking and disdain for human rights, shunned and isolated the country. Today, Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most backward countries in the world.
Particularly galling for foreign governments is the Taliban's harboring of Osama bin Laden, a fugitive Saudi millionaire who is the world's most wanted terrorist suspect.
Last December, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the Taliban hand over bin Laden to any country "where he will be arrested and effectively brought to justice."
The resolution also said the Taliban "should act swiftly to close all camps where terrorists are trained within the territory under its control."
John Ward Anderson
Pakistan serves as the Afghan regime's principal channel to the world. Nevertheless, Pakistan appears to have relatively little influence on the Taliban, whose leaders are extremely resistant to advice and pressure from abroad.
Pakistan, which is governed by an army general who seized power in October 1999, is trying to win international support to shore up its economy and project a moderate image despite its support for the Taliban and for armed guerrillas fighting Indian forces in the disputed border region of Kashmir. However, if the United States were to launch an air attack or commando raid on Afghanistan to kill or seize bin Laden, Pakistan would likely criticize such an attack publicly and not overtly allow its territory to be used as a launching pad.
In August 1998, the United States bombed several desert camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for bin Laden's alleged links to the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa. A number of Pakistanis were killed and wounded in the attacks; most were reportedly being trained there for armed religious combat, possibly with funding from bin Laden.
The two countries share a long and porous border, which has served for years as a relief valve for hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing war and drought. Pakistan is also a Muslim state; a vocal and influential minority of Muslims in Pakistan support the Taliban, including armed extremist groups.
Strategic ties between the two countries intensified during the 1980s, when Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan while Pakistan served as a base for U.S.-backed resistance fighters, who included bin Laden.
India has no official ties with the Taliban government and regards it as a dangerous source of Islamic terrorism.
Islamic extremists hijacked an Indian jet in 1999 and forced it to land in the Afghan city of Kandahar. Taliban authorities acted as a go-between to secure the release of most hostages in exchange for allowing the hijackers to escape. Indians criticized the government for caving in to terrorists, and since then, India has been even more critical of the Taliban.
If there is an epicenter of Islamic anger against the United States, it lies 60 miles south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at a desert airfield where dozens of American fighter and reconnaissance planes are stationed to police southern Iraq.
U.S. aircraft arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. They helped repel that invasion and remained at the invitation of the Saudi royal family to help guarantee stability in the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf despite pledges to Islamic conservatives that they would return home as soon as the Iraq crisis ended.
Still nervous about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and wary of the future of the Shiite Muslim government in nearby Iran, the Sunni Muslim-run Arab countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have in the past decade bought tens of billions of dollars in weapons from the United States and accepted what has evolved into a permanent force of American ships, planes, tanks and personnel.
To bin Laden and other extremists who trained with him to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the U.S. presence amounts to a modern crusade, an army of infidels in the sacred birthplace of Islam interested only in oil supplies and defending Israel. It was the basis of his call for holy war against the United States, beginning after the Gulf War.
-- Howard Schneider
Iran occupies a strategic position between the Middle East and Central and South Asia, sharing a 580-mile border with Afghanistan. But it has poor relations with the Taliban government as well as with the United States.
Some of the deepest differences between Iran and Afghanistan are ideological and doctrinal. Iran's conservative religious leaders base their legitimacy on their Shiite strain of Islam, while the equally conservative Taliban leaders base theirs on the majority Sunni strain.
The two countries also have serious border disputes. Iran unwillingly plays host to about 1.4 million Afghan refugees, most congregated in camps near the frontier, and it is waging a violent campaign to seal its border to opium shipments from Afghanistan. Iran almost went to war with Afghanistan in 1998, when Taliban soldiers killed 10 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist in the northern Afghanistan town of Mazar-e Sharif.
Some analysts have argued that the United States should try more forcefully to repair relations with Iran because it could play a role in containing hostile regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, another of its neighbors.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the few countries in the world that refuses to establish government-to-government ties with the United States, citing numerous historical grievances, particularly the CIA's role in a 1953 coup that overthrew an elected government and installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as ruler. The shah was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic revolution, during which radical students seized the U.S. Embassy and held 52 U.S. Americans hostage for 444 days. Relations between the two countries have never recovered.
-- John Ward Anderson
Russia knows what it is like to go to war in Afghanistan and lose.
The Soviet Union -- which then included Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Years of fighting followed until the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989.
The fight against the Soviets marked the beginning of the two-decade career of bin Laden, who came to Afghanistan to battle the Soviets with fellow Islamic warriors, called mujahedin, and is now the alleged leader of a terrorist organization taking refuge with the Taliban.
Russia has emerged as a leading opponent of the Taliban, helping to finance the lingering Afghan civil war by providing arms to opponents in the north of the country and urging joint action by other European powers against the regime. Russia fears a new wave of instability in the already unstable region in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States.
Russian leaders say they are already at war with bin Laden and forces they describe as his proxies in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia that is fighting for independence. They say Chechen rebels have been financed by bin Laden and other Islamic extremists, although without citing conclusive evidence.
-- Susan B. Glasser
The Central Asian countries that formed the underbelly of the Soviet Union have emerged as the battleground for an Islamic insurgency aided by Afghanistan that threatens to destabilize the region. In the past two years, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has staged raids in a bid to overthrow the area's young, quasi-democratic governments and establish a land based on Islamic law in the Ferghana Valley that encompasses parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The region's leaders have responded by bolstering their militaries, tightening their borders, cracking down on internal liberties and turning increasingly to Moscow for help. The situation has led to increased tension in the strategically located region where Russia, China and the United States all vie for influence by coming to their aid against a common enemy.
Washington fears that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- powered by the Afghan drug trade, trained by the Taliban and operating out of Tajikistan -- represents an arm of bin Laden's organization and has supplied training, equipment and political support to the governments fighting it. Russia has even stationed troops in Tajikistan.
-- Peter Baker
China has developed increasingly close ties with the Taliban and, according to news reports, recently signed a memorandum of understanding for more economic and technical cooperation.
The memorandum is the most substantial part of a series of Chinese contacts with Afghanistan over the last two years. China now has the closest relationship with the isolated Kabul regime of any non-Muslim country, a senior Western diplomat said.
China has helped form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which joins it with Russia and four Central Asian countries in a loose grouping. One of its main purposes is to combat cross-border terrorism, specifically from Afghanistan. But at the same time, China has dealt with the Taliban as part of an effort to persuade its officials to close Afghan-based camps that are used to train Muslim separatists from China's restive Xinjiang region. Those separatists on occasion re-enter China and launch attacks on China's security services or civilian targets.
As part of a sweetener to secure cooperation from the Taliban leadership, Asian diplomats say, China has dangled the prospect of providing Afghanistan with much needed infrastructure and economic development assistance. The new agreement was reported on Tuesday. A Chinese delegation signed the deal in Kabul with the Taliban's mining minister, Mulla Muhammad Ishaq, news reports said.