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Afghana! Afghanistan Neighbors

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Afghanistan is located in the heart of south-central Asia. It has an area of some 251,825 square miles (652,225 square kilometres) and is completely landlocked, the nearest coast lying along the Arabian Sea, about 300 miles to the south. Its longest border, of 1,125 miles (1,810 kilometres), is with Pakistan, to the east and south. The 510-mile border in the west separates Afghanistan from Iran, and there is a 200-mile border with the part of Jammu and Kashmir claimed by Pakistan. The combined length of Afghanistan's northern borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan is 1,050 miles. The shortest border--of 50 miles--is with the Uighur Autonomous Region of Sinkiang of the People's Republic of China, at the end of the long, narrow Vakhan (Wakhan Corridor), in the extreme northeast. The capital of Afghanistan is its largest city, Kabul, which is located in the east-central part of the country at an altitude of about 5,900 feet (l,800 metres). The city is connected by road to most Afghan provinces and neighboring countries to the north and east.

The boundaries of Afghanistan were established in the late 19th century in the context of rivalry between Britain and Russia. Modern Afghanistan became a pawn in struggles over political ideology and commercial influence. In the late 20th century Afghanistan suffered ruinous effects of prolonged civil war, invasion by the Soviet Union (1979), and Soviet military presence (1979-89).

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The land

Afghanistan's shape has been compared to a leaf, of which the Vakhan strip forms the stem. The outstanding geographic feature of Afghanistan is its mountain range, the Hindu Kush (in Afghanistan, Hendu Kosh). This formidable range is a barrier between the comparatively fertile northern provinces and the rest of the country, and it creates the major pitch of Afghanistan from northeast to southwest. The Hindu Kush, when it reaches a point some 100 miles north of Kabul, spreads out and continues westward under the names of Baba, Bayan, Safid Kuh (Paropamisus), and others, each section in turn sending spurs in different directions. One of these spurs is the Torkestan Mountains, which extend northwestward. Other important ranges include the Kasa Murgh, south of the Hari River; the Hhsar Mountains, which extend northward; and two formidable ranges, the Mazar and the Khurd, extending in a southwestern direction. On the eastern frontier with Pakistan, several mountain ranges effectively isolate the interior of the country from the rain-laden winds that blow from the Indian Ocean, accounting for the dryness of the climate.

The Hindu Kush and subsidiary ranges divide Afghanistan into three distinct geographic regions, which roughly can be designated as the Central Highlands, the Northern Plains, and the Southwestern Plateau. The Central Highlands, actually a part of the Himalayan chain, include the main Hindu Kush range. Its area of about 160,000 square miles is a region of deep, narrow valleys and lofty mountains, some peaks of which rise above 21,000 feet. High mountain passes, generally situated between 12,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level, are of great strategic importance and include the Shebar Pass, located northwest of Kabul where the Baba Mountains meet the Hindu Kush, and the Khyber Pass, which leads to the Indian subcontinent, on the Pakistan border southeast of Kabul. The Badakhshan area in the northeastern part of the Central Highlands is the location of the epicentres for many of the 50 or so earthquakes that occur in the country each year.

The Northern Plains region, north of the Central Highlands, extends eastward from the Iranian border to the foothills of the Pamirs, near the border with Tajikistan. It comprises 40,000 square miles of plains and fertile foothills sloping gently toward the Amu River (the ancient Oxus River). This area is a part of the much larger Central Asian steppe, from which it is separated by the Amu River. The average elevation is about 2,000 feet. The Northern Plains region is intensively cultivated and densely populated. In addition to fertile soils, the region possesses rich mineral resources, particularly deposits of natural gas.

The Southwestern Plateau, south of the Central Highlands, is a region of high plateaus, sandy deserts, and semideserts. The average altitude is about 3,000 feet. The Southwestern Plateau covers about 50,000 square miles, one-fourth of which forms the sandy Rigestan Desert. The smaller Margow Desert of salt flats and desolate steppe lies west of the Rigestan Desert. Several large rivers cross the Southwestern Plateau; among them are the Helmand River and its major tributary, the Arghandab.

Most of Afghanistan lies between 2,000 and 10,000 feet in elevation. Along the Amu River in the north and the delta of the Helmand River in the southwest, the altitude is about 2,000 feet. The Sistan depression of the Southwestern Plateau, 1,500 to 1,700 feet in elevation, was the seat of a flourishing ancient civilization that was ended in the 14th century by Timur (Tamerlane).

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Plant and Animal Life

Vegetation is sparse in the southern part of the country, particularly toward the west, where dry regions and sandy deserts predominate. Trees are rare, and only in the rainy season of early spring is the soil covered with flowering grasses and herbs. The plant cover becomes more dense toward the north, where precipitation is more abundant; and at higher altitudes the plants are almost luxuriant, particularly in the mountainous region north of Jalalabad, where the climate is influenced by the monsoons. The high mountains abound in large forest trees, among which conifers, such as pine and fir, predominate. Some of these trees are 180 feet high. The average altitude for the fir line is over 10,000 feet. At lower altitudes, somewhere between 5,500 and 7,200 feet, cedar is abundant; below the fir and cedar lines, oak, walnut, alder, ash, and juniper trees can be found. There are also shrubs, several varieties of roses, honeysuckle, hawthorn, and currant and gooseberry bushes.

Most of the wild animals of the subtropical temperate zone inhabit Afghanistan. Large mammals, formerly abundant, are now greatly reduced in numbers. The Siberian tiger, which inhabited the banks of the Amu River, has all but disappeared, as have the tigers that inhabited the southeastern region. There is still a great variety of wild animals roaming the mountains and foothills, including wolves, foxes, striped hyenas, and jackals. Gazelles, wild dogs, and wild cats, such as snow leopards, are widespread. Wild goats, including the markhor (prized for its long, twisted horns) and the ibex (with long, backward-curving horns), can be found in the Pamirs, and wild sheep, including the urial and argali (or Marco Polo sheep), in the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush. Brown bears are found in the mountains and forests. Smaller animals, such as mongooses, moles, shrews, hedgehogs, bats, and several species of kangaroo rat (jerboas), may be found in the many isolated, sparsely populated areas.

Birds of prey include vultures, which occur in great numbers, and eagles. Migratory birds abound during the spring and fall seasons. There are also many pheasant, quail, cranes, pelicans, snipe, partridge, and crows.

There are many varieties of freshwater fish in the rivers, streams, and lakes, but their numbers are not great except on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, where the rivers are well stocked with brown trout.

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Settlement Patterns

The Hindu Kush divides the country into northern and southern regions, which can be further subdivided on the basis of topography, national and ethnolinguistic settlement patterns, or historical tradition. Northern Afghanistan, for example, may be subdivided into the Badakhshan-Vakhan region in the east and the Balkh-Meymaneh region in the west. The east, which is mainly a conglomeration of mountains and high plateaus, is inhabited chiefly by Tajiks, while the west, which is mostly plains of comparatively low altitude, contains a mixture of peoples in which Uzbeks and Turkmens of Turkic origin predominate.

Southern Afghanistan can be subdivided into four subregions--those of Kabul, Qandahar, Herat, and Hazarajat. The Kabul region combines the area drained by the Kabul River and the high plateau of eastern Afghanistan, bounded in the south by the Gowmal (Gumal) River. This region is inhabited by Pashtuns (formerly called Pathans, a term now considered to be derogatory), Tajiks, and Nuristanis. This region is the main corridor connecting the other regions and their peoples.

The Qandahar region consists of the sparsely populated southern part of Afghanistan. The people inhabiting this region belong principally to the Durrani branch of the Pashtuns. In addition, there is a small number of Baluch and Brahui peoples. The city of Qandahar is located in a fertile oasis near the Arghandab River.

The region of Herat, or western Afghanistan, is inhabited by a mixture of Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Chahar Aimaks. The life of the region revolves around the city of Herat.

The mountainous region of Hazarajat occupies the central part of the country and is inhabited principally by the Hazaras. Although Hazarajat is located in the heart of the country, its high mountains and poor communication facilities make it the most isolated part of Afghanistan.

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Urban settlement

Most urban settlements have grown along the road that runs from Kabul southwestward to Qandahar, then northwest to Herat, northeast to Mazar-e Sharif, and southeast back to Kabul. The rural population of farmers and nomads is distributed unevenly over the rest of the country, mainly concentrated along the rivers. The most heavily populated part of the country is between the cities of Kabul and Charikar. Other concentrations of people can be found east of the city of Kabul near Jalalabad, in the Herat oasis and the valley of the Hari River in the northwest, and in the valley of the Qonduz River in the northeast. The high mountains of the central part of the country and the deserts in the south and southwest are sparsely populated or uninhabited.

The major cities of Afghanistan are Kabul, Qandahar, Herat, Baghlan, Jalalabad, Konduz, Charikar, and Mazar-e Sharif. Kabul is the administrative capital of the country, located south of the Hindu Kush at the crossroads of the trade routes between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia and between the Middle and Far East. It is built on both sides of the Kabul River and is the main centre of economic and cultural activity. Qandahar, second to Kabul in population, is located on the Asian Highway in the south-central part of the country, between Kabul and Herat. Qandahar became the first capital of modern Afghanistan in 1747 under Ahmad Shah Durrani.

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Rural settlement

Sedentary farmers usually live in small villages, most of them scattered near irrigated land in the valleys of major rivers. These villages, as a rule, are built in the form of small forts. Each fort-village contains several mud houses inhabited by closely connected families who form a defensive community.

The semisedentary farmers, who breed livestock and raise a few crops, live in the high alpine valleys. Since cultivable land there is scarce, they live in scattered isolated hamlets. Each household owns a few head of livestock, which are moved in summer to the highland pastures. The people usually divide themselves into two groups in summer: one group remains in the hamlet to tend the crops, while the other accompanies the livestock to the highlands.

The nomads are mainly Pashtun herdsmen; there are also several thousand Baluch and Kyrgyz nomads. They move in groups (tribes or clans) from summer to winter pasturages, living in tents and, while on the move, packing their belongings on the backs of camels, donkeys, and cattle. Between one-sixth and one-fifth of the total population may be classified as nomadic. Since 1977, however, some nomads have been settled in the plains north of the Hindu Kush or in the area of the Helmand Valley (irrigation) Project.

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Ethnolinguistic groups

The people of Afghanistan form a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. Pashto (Pushtu) and Dari, a dialect of Persian (Farsi), are Indo-European languages; they are the official languages of the country. More than one-third of the population speaks Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns, while about half of the population speaks Dari, the language of the Tajik, Hazara, Chahar Aimak, and Kizilbash peoples. Other Indo-European languages, spoken by smaller groups, include Western Dardic (Nuristani or Kafiri), Baluchi, and a number of Indic and Pamiri languages spoken principally in isolated valleys in the northeast. Turkic languages, a subfamily of the Altaic languages, are spoken by the Uzbek and Turkmen peoples, the most recent settlers, who are related to peoples from the steppes of Central Asia. The Turkic languages are closely related; within Afghanistan they include Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz, the last spoken by a small group in the extreme northeast.

The present population of Afghanistan contains a number of elements, which, in the course of history and as a result of large-scale migration and conquests, have been superimposed upon one another. Dravidians, Indo-Aryans, Greeks, Scythians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols have at different times inhabited the country and influenced its culture and ethnography. Intermixture of the two principal linguistic groups is evident in such peoples as the Hazaras and Chahar Aimaks, who speak Indo-European languages but have pronounced Mongoloid physical characteristics and cultural traits usually associated with Central Asia.

The Pashtuns of Afghanistan principally inhabit the southern and eastern parts of the country but are also well represented in the west and north. They are divided into a number of tribes, some sedentary and others nomadic. The traditional homeland of the Pashtuns lies in an area east, south, and southwest of Kabul; many live in contiguous territory of Pakistan. The two most important groups of the Pashtun tribal confederation are the Durranis, who live in the area around the city of Qandahar, and the Ghilzays, who inhabit the region between Kabul and Qandahar. The Durranis formed the traditional nucleus of Afghanistan's social and political elite.

The Tajiks, mostly farmers and artisans, live in the Kabol and Badakhshan provinces of the northeast and the Herat region in the west; there are also pockets of Tajiks in other areas. They are sedentary in the plains and semisedentary in the higher valleys. The Tajiks are not divided into clear-cut tribal groups.

The Nuristanis, who speak Western Dardic, inhabit an area of some 5,000 square miles in Laghman, Nangarhar, and Konarha provinces, north and east of Kabul. The Hazaras traditionally occupy the central mountainous region of Hazarajat. Because of the scarcity of land, however, many have migrated to other parts of the country. The Hazaras speak a Dari dialect that contains a number of Turkish and Mongolian words.

The Chahar Aimaks are probably of Turkic or Turco-Mongolian origin, judging by their Mongoloid physical appearance and their housing of Mongolian-style yurts. They are located mostly in the western part of the central mountain region. The Uzbeks and Turkmens inhabit a region north of the Hindu Kush, and there are small numbers of Kyrgyz in the Vakhan in the extreme northeast. The Uzbeks are usually farmers, while the Turkmens and Kyrgyz are mainly seminomadic herdsmen. The Uzbeks are the largest Turkic-speaking group in Afghanistan. There are also other smaller Turco-Mongolian groups.

Afghanistan has very small ethnic groups of Dravidian and Semitic speakers. Dravidian languages are spoken by the Brahuis, residing in the extreme south. There are also a small number of Jews, most of whom speak Dari in their daily lives but use Hebrew for religious ceremonies.

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History of the region from prehistoric times to the present

Variations on the word "Afghan" may go back as early as a 3rd-century-AD Sasanian reference to "Abgan." The earliest Muslim reference to the Afghans probably dates to AD 982, but tribes related to the modern Afghans have lived in the region for many generations. For millennia, the land now called Afghanistan has been the meeting place of four cultural and ecological areas: the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia.


Paleolithic peoples probably roamed Afghanistan as early as 100,000 BC. The earliest definite evidence of human occupation was found in the cave of Darra-i-Kur in Badakhshan, where a transitional Neanderthal skull fragment in association with Mousterian-type tools was discovered; the remains are of the Middle Paleolithic, dating about 30,000 years ago. Caves near Aq Kopruk yielded evidence of an early Neolithic culture (c. 9000-6000 BC) based on domesticated animals. Archaeological research since World War II has revealed Bronze Age sites, dating both before and after the Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilization of the 3rd to the 2nd millennium BC. There was trade with Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Egypt, the main export from the Afghan area being lapis lazuli from the mines of Badakhshan. In addition, a site with definite links to the Harappan civilization has been excavated at Shortugai near the Amu River, northeast of Konduz.