Nancy Hatch Dupree and Thomas E. Gouttierre, Authors
THE HOPE AND EXHILARATION felt among Afghans as the last Soviet troops retreated from their country in early 1989 gave way to frustration within months. Disparate Afghan groups had struggled valiantly against a common enemy, but the extent of the discord and rivalries which characterized their efforts became ominously evident.
Many of those who marveled at the determined and tenacious Afghan response to the invasion of their country have questioned why these same people have turned upon themselves with equal ferocity. Numbers of answers lie in the impact of the Soviet-Afghan War upon Afghan society.
The regional and internal conflicts that erupted after the end of the war are the effects of that war. Islam as a measure of national identity is challenging a century of inroads by secular institutions. Traditional Afghan methods of conflict resolution guided by the spirit of egalitarianism and respect for others are being severely thwarted in an environment surfeited with modern weaponry supplied by outsiders pursuing a multiplicity of regional agendas centered on Afghanistan. Massive drug trafficking created during the war exacerbates the conflict. The persistent rise and fall of individuals forging power from these weapons and drugs fuel self-interests, preclude peace and stretch taut the fabric of the society.
Society in predominately Islamic Afghanistan is defined by a rich melange of variety reflecting its position at the hub of four great cultural zones. Central Asia, China, the Indian subcontinent and the Iranian plateau extend to its borders. Builders of empires, traders and pilgrims as well as those seeking haven from upheavals in their own societies have come to this land throughout the centuries. Some merely passed through; others settled to make it their homeland. Whatever the manner of their arrival, each impressed their own cultural mores on the society.
The Afghan area thus evolved as a zone of cultural transition with a complex ethnolinguistic population as varied as its geography which encompasses fertile mountain valleys in the east, plains and grasslands in the north, a central mountain core, and deserts and semideserts in the west and southwest. The inhabitants of these different areas take pride in these cultural differentiations and follow their own customs, distinct tribal norms, religious variations, divergent attitudes toward family and gender, and contrasting subsistence life-styles.
As the twenty-first century approaches, all Afghans face the challenge of rebuilding their civic society -- a struggle as daunting as their struggle was against the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan's rugged terrain and seasonally harsh climate have not deterred foreign invaders who coveted this land or sought to cross it on the road to further conquests. The history of Afghanistan is replete with tales of invasion. Yet the rugged landscape combined with the fiercely independent spirit of the Afghan people have seriously impeded and often repulsed would-be conquerors.
Afghanistan resembles an irregularly shaped hanging leaf with the Wakhan Corridor and the Pamir Knot as its stem in the northeast. Situated between 29 35' and 38 40' north latitude and 60 31' and 75 00' east latitude, it encompasses approximately 652,290 square kilometers, roughly the size of Texas, stretching 1,240 kilometers from east to west and 565 kilometers from north to south. Afghanistan is completely landlocked, bordered by Iran to the west (925 kilometers), by the Central Asian States of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north and northeast (2,380 kilometers), by China at the easternmost top of the Wakhan Corridor (96 kilometers), and by Pakistan to the east and south (2,432 kilometers).
Mountains dominate the landscape, forming a terrigenous skeleton, traversing the center of the country, running generally in a northeast-southwest direction. More than 49 percent of the total land area lies above 2,000 meters. Although geographers differ on the division of these mountains into systems, they agree that the Hindukush system, the most important, is the westernmost extension of the Pamir Mountains, the Karakorum Mountains, and the Himalayas.
The origin of the term Hindukush (which translates as Hindu Killer) is also a point of contention. Three possibilities have been put forward: that the mountains memorialize the Indian slaves who perished in the mountains while being transported to Central Asian slave markets; that the name is merely a corruption of Hindu Koh, the pre-Islamic name of the mountains that divided Hindu southern Afghanistan from non-Hindu northern Afghanistan; or, that the name is a posited Avestan appellation meaning "water mountains."
The mountain peaks in the eastern part of the country reach more than 7,000 meters. The highest of these is Nowshak at 7,485 meters. Mount Everest in Nepal stands 8,796 meters high. The Pamir mountains, which Afghans refer to as the 'Roof of the World," extend into Tajikistan, China and Kashmir.
The mountains of the Hindukush system diminish in height as they stretch westward: toward the middle, near Kabul, they extend from 4,500 to 6,000 meters; in the west, they attain heights of 3,500 to 4,000 meters. The average altitude of the Hindukush is 4,500 meters. The Hindukush system stretches about 966 kilometers laterally, and its median north-south measurement is about 240 kilometers. Only about 600 kilometers of the Hindukush system is called the Hindukush mountains. The rest of the system consists of numerous smaller mountain ranges including the Koh-e Baba; Salang; Koh-e Paghman; Spin Ghar (also called the eastern Safid Koh); Suleiman; Siah Koh; Koh-e Khwaja Mohammad; Selseleh-e Band-e Turkestan. The western Safid Koh, the Siah Band and Doshakh are commonly referred to as the Paropamisus by western scholars.
Numerous high passes (kotal) transect the mountains, forming a strategically important network for the transit of caravans. The most important mountain pass is the Kotal-e Salang (3,878 meters); it links Kabul and points south to northern Afghanistan. The completion of a tunnel within this pass in 1964 reduced travel time between Kabul and the north to a few hours. Previously access to the north through the Kotal-e Shibar (3,260 meters) took three days. The Salang Tunnel at 3363 meters and the extensive network of galleries on the approach roads were constructed with Soviet financial and technological assistance and involved drilling 1.7 miles through the heart of the Hindukush.
Before the Salang road was constructed, the most famous passes in the Western historical perceptions of Afghanistan were those leading to the Indian subcontinent. They include the Khyber Pass (,1027 meters), in Pakistan, and the Kotal-e Lataband (2,499 meters) east of Kabul, which was superseded in 1960 by a road constructed within the Kabul River's most spectacular gorge, the Tang-e Gharu. This remarkable engineering feat completed in 1960 reduced travel time between Kabul and the Pakistan border from two days to a few hours.
The roads through the Salang and Tang-e Gharu passes played critical strategic roles during the recent conflicts and were used extensively by heavy military vehicles. Consequently these roads are in very bad repair. Many bombed out bridges have been repaired, but numbers of the larger structures remain broken. Periodic closures due to conflicts in the area seriously affect the economy and well-being of many regions, for these are major routes carrying commercial trade, emergency relief and reconstruction assistance supplies destined for all parts of the country.
There are a number of other important passes in Afghanistan. Wakhjir (4,923 meters), proceeds from the Wakhan Corridor into Xinjiang, China, and into Kashmir. Passes which join Afghanistan to Chitral, Pakistan, include the Baroghil (3,798 meters) and the Kachin (5,639 meters), which also cross from the Wakhan. Important passes located farther west are the Shotorgardan (3,720 meters), linking Logar and Paktiya provinces; the Bazarak (2,713 meters), leading into Mazar-i-Sharif; the Khawak (3,550 meters)in the Panjsher Valley, and the Anjuman (3,858 meters) at the head of the Panjsher Valley giving entrance to the north. The Hajigak (2,713 meters) and Unai (3,350 meters) lead into the eastern Hazarajat and Bamiyan Valley. The passes of the Paropamisus in the west are relatively low, averaging around 600 meters; the most well-known of these is the Sabzak between Herat and Badghis provinces, which links the western and northwestern parts of Afghanistan.
These mountainous areas are mostly barren, or at the most sparsely sprinkled with trees and stunted bushes. True forests, found mainly in the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Paktiya, cover barely 2.9 of the country's area. Even these small reserves have been disastrously depleted by the war and through illegal exploitation. The forests are in fact in a crisis situation. A 1996 a FAO report estimated that of the 4.7 million acres of forests existing at the beginning of the war, in 1979, considerably less than one million acres survive today.
In addition to its mountains, the country possesses many rivers, river basins, lakes and desert areas. The four major river systems are the Amu Darya, the Oxus of antiquity, (boundary with Central Asia, 1,100 kilometers in Afghanistan); the Hilmand (1,300 kilometers); the Harirud (650 kilometers in Afghanistan); and the Kabul (460 kilometers). Only the Kabul River, joining the Indus system in Pakistan, leads to the sea. Many rivers and streams simply empty into arid portions of the country, spending themselves through evaporation without replenishing the four major systems; others flow only seasonally.
Three major dams harness these rivers for land reclamation and hydroelectric purposes: the Arghandab Dam above Kandahar, completed in 1952, is 145-feet-high and 1,740-feet-long and has a storage capacity of 388,000 acre-feet of water; the Kajakai Dam on the Hilmand River, completed in 1953, is 300-feet-high and 887-feet-long, with a storage capacity of 1,495,000 acre-feet of water; the Naglu Dam on the Kabul River west of Jalalabad, completed in the 1960s, is 361-feet-high and 919-feet-long, stores 304,000 acre-feet of water. These large dams were not destroyed by war, but because of lack of maintenance, looted cables and major silting in the reservoirs, none are functioning to full capacity.
Scholars disagree over the division, number and definitions of Afghanistan's regions. Louis Dupree's geographic paradigm is one of the most respected and is based on the regional division of human geography and ecology. He divides Afghanistan into eleven geographic zones. The first six--the Wakhan Corridor-Pamir Knot, Badakhshan, Central Mountains, Eastern Mountains, Northern Mountains and Foothills, Southern Mountains and Foothills--are connected to the Hindukush systems. The remaining five--Turkistan Plains, Herat-Farah Lowlands, Sistan Basin-Hilmand Valley, Western Stony Desert, and Southwestern Sandy Desert--comprise deserts and plains "which surround the Mountains in the north, west and southwest." Medieval geographies speak of the remarkable prosperity of the Sistan which is now known principally for its deserts covered with moving sand dunes rising to a height of 20 meters. Some experts have concluded these may be the fastest moving sand dunes anywhere in the world.
The United Nations has defined eight regions for their assistance planning: Northeast--Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan; North--Samangan, Balkh, Saripul, Jawzjan; West--Faryab, Badghis, Herat, Farah; East-Central--Bamiyan, Ghor; Central--Kapisa, Parwan, Kabul, Logar, Wardak; East--Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman, Nangarhar; South--Paktya, Pakteka, Khost, Ghazni; Southwest--Zabul, Uruzgan, Kandahar, Hilmand, Nimroz. This reflects the creation since 1978 of three new provinces--Saripul, Khost and Nuristan--bringing the 1996 total to thirty-two.
Construction of a circular road system to link these regions was assiduously promoted during the 1960s: with assistance from the United States south of the Hindukush, the Soviet Union north of the Hindukush, and West Germany in Paktya Province. These roads connected major cities with the principal border crossings: from Herat to Iran and Turkmenistan in the west; from Kandahar to Pakistan in the south; from Kabul through Jalalabad to Pakistan in the east; from Balkh to Uzbekistan in the north.
Other roads are unpaved, and the once-paved roads have been almost totally destroyed. This is a major impediment to reconstruction since any improvements, particularly in the agriculture sector, are hampered by the lack of an efficient delivery infrastructure. Rebuilding of the roads, however, is beyond the capacity of any agency now involved in Afghanistan's rehabilitation. This is the one sector that will require massive inputs which can only be obtained by such organizations as the World Bank or the Asian Bank, both of which insist on peace before becoming involved.
The plate-tectonic activity in Afghanistan has contributed to the creation of the geologic riches of the country, but has also produced frequent earthquakes; around fifty are recorded each year. Although most are relatively mild, the most severe earthquake in recent history occurred on 29 July 1985. French scientists recorded a measurement of 7.3 on the Richter scale at its epicenter in the Hindukush. Since then, according to the United States Geological Survey, there have been ten earthquakes in Afghanistan which have registered above 6.0; the most severe, both registering at 6.4, occurred in January and July 1991.
The climate is typical of an arid or semiarid steppe, with cold winters and dry summers. The mountain regions of the northeast are subarctic with dry and cold winters. In the mountains bordering Pakistan, a divergent fringe effect of the monsoon, generally coming from the southeast, brings tropical air masses that determine the climate between July and September. At times, these air masses advance into central and southern Afghanistan, bringing increased humidity and some rain.
On the intermountain plateaus the winds do not blow very strongly, but in the Sistan Basin there are severe blizzards that occur during the winter, generally December through February. In the western and southern regions a northerly wind, known as the "wind of 120 days," blows during the summer months of June to September. This wind is usually accompanied by intense heat, drought, and sand storms, bringing much hardship to the inhabitants of the desert and steppe lands. Dust and whirlwinds frequently occur during the summer months on the flats in the southern part of the country. Rising at midday or in the early afternoon, these "dust winds" advance at velocities ranging between 97 and 177 kilometers per hour, raising high clouds of dust.
Temperature and precipitation are controlled by the exchange of air masses. The highest temperatures and the lowest precipitation prevail in the drought-ridden, poorly watered southern plateau region, which extends over the boundaries with Iran and Pakistan.
The Central Mountains, with higher peaks ascending toward the Pamir Knot, represent another distinct climatic region. From the Koh-e Baba Range to the Pamir Knot, January temperatures may drop to -15 C or lower in the highest mountain areas; July temperatures vary between 0 and 26 C depending on altitude. In the mountains the annual mean precipitation, much of which is snowfall, increases eastward and is highest in the Koh-e Baba Range, the western part of the Pamir Knot, and the Eastern Hindukush. Precipitation in these regions and the eastern monsoon area is about forty centimeters per year. The eastern monsoon area encompasses patches in the eastern border area with Pakistan, in irregular areas in eastern Afghanistan from north of Asmar to just north of Darkh-e Yahya, and occasionally as far west as the Kabul Valley. The Wakhan Corridor, however, which has temperatures ranging from 9 C in the summer to below -21 C in the winter, receives fewer than ten centimeters of rainfall annually. Permanent snow covers the highest mountain peaks. In the mountainous region adjacent to northern Pakistan, the snow is often more than two meters deep during the winter months. Valleys often become snow traps as the high winds sweep much of the snow from mountain peaks and ridges.
Precipitation generally fluctuates greatly during the course of the year in all parts of the country. Surprise rainstorms often transform the episodically flowing rivers and streams from puddles to torrents; unwary invading armies have been trapped in such flooding more than once in Afghanistan's history. Nomadic and seminomadic Afghans have also succumbed to the sudden flooding of their camps.
The climate of the Turkistan Plains, which extend northward from the Northern Foothills, represents a transition between mountain and steppe climates. Aridity increases and temperatures rise with descending altitudes, becoming the highest along the lower Amu Darya and in the western parts of the plains.