Over the past two decades Afghanistan has suffered every conceivable calamity and now finds itself mired in a fresh humanitarian disaster and another conflict that its people did not seek.
Life expectancy has dropped to 43 years. The literacy rate is 25 per cent, and gross domestic product has fallen to less than $700 a head.
The country has been hit by droughts that have depleted food reserves and left 5m people at risk of starvation this winter.
The attack on Afghanistan by the military coalition of US allies was an opportunity to oust the Taliban regime and introduce a peaceful democratic political process.
But the recent history suggests great difficulties in removing the gun from the forefront of politics.
The challenge of building a viable state out of the rubble of war has already proved too great for international efforts that have come before.
In a precursor to the Soviet invasion, Moscow instigated a bloody coup on April 27 1978 in which President Daoud and his family were shot and the Afghan communist party seized power.
The USSR moved to strengthen its ties with the new government, signing a bilateral treaty of friendship and co-operation with Afghanistan and increasing military assistance.
But the rise to power of Hafalizullah Amin, a communist leader resistant to Soviet instruction on state affairs, ruptured relations and prompted Moscow to invade.
On December 24, 1978 under the pretext of field exercises, the Red Army rolled into Afghanistan. Mr Amin was killed and replaced by his communist rival Babrak Karmal, who was backed by 120,000 Soviet troops.
When the Soviets invaded, its leaders believed it would be for a short period, to stabilise the grip of a pro-Moscow Marxist regime under Karmal's leadership and to gain a new ally along the southern underbelly of its empire.
The soldiers stayed for a decade before a humiliating withdrawal, with Russian as well as Afghan opinion against them.
In an echo of what has been happening again recently, the war displaced an estimated 2m Afghans within the country and drove 4.5m refugees abroad. That on top of an estimated 1.3m Afghan deaths as well as 15,000 killed and up to 50,000 wounded among Soviet troops.
The Soviet forces - like those of the US today - had infinitely superior firepower. But their tanks and artillery proved of limited value in the mountainous terrain, blunt instruments against the mujahideen, which preferred to tactically withdraw before retaliating.
They managed to rapidly secure the Afghan cities and principal communications networks but had little control over the countryside and soon became vulnerable to attacks on their permanent bases as well as on supply lines.
With the cold war ending, the Soviet withdrawal and the loss of interest by the US in fighting what was once described as "the most overt covert operation in history" left Afghanistan a divided and devastated society.
Full Soviet withdrawal in 1989 was agreed as part of the Geneva accords, signed by the US, Soviets, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which forbade US
and Soviet interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and Pakistan and guaranteed the right of return for refugees.
Critically, the Geneva accord negotiations excluded mujahideen commanders and left in power the Soviet backed president Muhammed Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police.
The withdrawal sparked a vicious civil war as competing warlords, championing different regions and ethnic groups, carved up the country. The Taliban subsequently exploited the void.
The mujahideen took Kabul in 1992 and toppled President Najibullah as the UN was trying to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power. An Islamic republic was created headed by Burhannudin Rabbani, a leader of the ethnic Tajik resistance to the Soviets from his base in Peshawar, Pakistan.
President Rabbani was supported by Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary Tajik guerrilla commander from the Panjsher valley known as the "Lion of Panjsher". The two men would later go on to lead the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
A few days before the terrorist attacks on the US, blamed on Osama bin Laden, Arab assassins posing as journalists killed Mr Masood in a suicide bomb attack. Mr Masood's followers are convinced that the Taliban prevailed upon the exiled Saudi militant to remove their most capable enemy before anticipated US retaliation.
The Islamic republic created in 1992 was quickly torn apart by fighting among rival mujahideen factions, although it continues to enjoy diplomatic recognition as a sort of government in exile.
The fighting pitted President Rabbani, Mr Masood and their Tajik forces against multiple factions that included the Uzbek forces of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Soviet militia leader trained in the USSR who switched sides after the withdrawal of the Red Army.
The civil war destroyed Kabul and other urban centres and tens of thousands of Afghans lost their lives. Mr Dostum's Uzbek forces were accused of human rights violations.
Despite the bloodshed, Mr Dostum, Mr Rabbani and Mr Masood later banded together to form the Northern Alliance.
The Alliance was drawn mainly from Afghanistan's Uzbek and Tajik minorities in the north, and found its basis of unity in opposing the Taliban, a movement backed mainly by majority Pashtuns in the south.
Emerging in the mid-1990s from Islamic schools in neighbouring Pakistan, the Taliban quickly gained momentum in a country with no central political authority and a population that welcomed the promise of internal security.
By some accounts the grouping of mostly Afghans, but also including Pakistanis and Arabs, was supported by members of the Pakistani intelligence community who were eager to install an Islamic government in Kabul, believing this would ensure it was pro-Pakistan because Islamabad had always supported the jihad (holy war).
The Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996 and pushed the forces led by Mr Dostum, Mr Rabbani and Mr Masood int
o the north, which united under the umbrella of the Northern Alliance and won backing from Iran and Russia.
While, the demise of the Taliban is not a foregone conclusion, planning for a post-Taliban era has already begun. The aspiration for regional stability has forged a loose consensus between the US, Russia, China and the UK on the need for a new regime.
But there are growing concerns among world leaders about the ability to contain the military and political ambitions of the Northern Alliance, which is a creature of Afghanistan's scarred history of civil war and Soviet occupation.
China and Russia oppose rule by the Northern Alliance alone and stress the need for a broad-based and ethnically diverse coalition government in Kabul.
While the UK has called for a transitional body that can convene elections, the US has been reticent about being drawn to deeply into "state building" and says the UN should play a leading role.
But the means by which the UN would enforce any future political arrangement has not been settled, a key question in a heavily armed country with strong antipathy to the presence of foreign troops. If the job of forging a post-Taliban regime does fall to the UN, it may have great difficulty in breaking the cycle of Afghanistan's violent history and removing the gun from the forefront of politics.