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June 18, 2024

CHAPTER III: An Introduction to Afghanistan

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Map of Afghanistan region


Lying more than 482 kilometers (300 miles) from the sea, Afghanistan is a barren, mostly mountainous country of about 647,500 square kilometers (250,000 square miles). It is bordered by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the east and south, and Iran to the west. Including a long, narrow panhandle (the Wakhan Corridor) in the northeast, Afghanistan has a northeast-southwest extent of about 11,450 kilometers (900 miles), and a northwest-southeast extent of about 804 kilometers (500 miles). With peaks up to about 7315 meters (24,000 feet), the Hindu Kush forms the spine of the country, trending southwestward from the Pamir Knot to the central Afghan province of Bamian. Subsidiary ranges continue to the south and the west with decreasing elevations, gradually merging into the plains that continue into Iran and Pakistan. A broad plateau stretches from north of the Hindu Kush to the Amu Darya River and eventually to the Russian steppes. In the east, the mountains are indistinguishable from those of Pakistan. Afghanistan is approximately the size of Texas.


About one-third of Afghanistan, in the southwest and north, is arid plain. The southwestern plain is the larger of the two and is a barren desert with large areas of drifting sand, scattered hill belts, and a few low mountains. Small villages along a few intermittent streams, small settlements, and a narrow band of cultivation along the Helmand River are the only features that break desolation. The Helmand is one of the few perennial streams in the region. The northern plains are actually steppes with seasonal grasslands supporting a small nomadic population. Permanent settlements are located along the margin of the steppes and on the flood plain of the Amu Darya River.

The mountains that comprise the other two-thirds of the country are the perennially snow-capped Hindu Kush in the northeast and progressively lower mountains in the west. The Hindu Kush have sharp-crested ridges and towering peaks, while the lower, western mountains are generally rounded or flat-topped. Afghanistan can be broken down into three military operational zones: the Northern Steppe, the Afghan Highlands, and the Southwestern Desert Basins.


Afghanistan has four major river systems that originate in the Hindu Kush: the Kabul, the Helmand, the Amu Darya, and the Harirud. Of the four, only the eastward flowing Kabul ever reaches the ocean; the other three eventually disappear into salt marshes or desert wastes. Only the Amu Darya (also known as the Oxus) has significant navigable reaches. The rest are fordable for the greater part of the year throughout their courses. The Amu Darya also serves as the northern border of Afghanistan. The Helmand is the largest in flow and volume and runs southward into across the southern desert into the salt marsh wastes found along the Afghan-Iranian border. The Harirud runs westward past Herat then turns northward, forming the border between Afghanistan and Iran.

All the Afghan rivers and their tributaries are used for irrigation. Supplementing the stream irrigation is the karez, a system of underground channels (with vertical access and maintenance shafts) carrying water from the base of the mountain slopes to oases on valley floors. The signature of karez (qanat in Iran), particularly noticeable from the air, is the row of evenly spaced openings (shafts) surrounded by mounds of earth that define the course of the underground channels.


What little natural vegetation there is in Afghanistan consists mainly of bunch grasses; trees are scarce and mostly limited to planted poplars and willows around settlements. Because of infertile soils and centuries of seeking fuel and forage, even scrub and brush are difficult to find. Timber is mostly absent. Any timber laying around the ground or attached to buildings in deserted villages should be suspect for booby traps. Timber is very scarce and villagers will booby trap their homes to prevent theft and pilferage.

Irrigated areas produce wheat, barley, corn, and rice, as well as sugar beets, melons, grapes, cotton almonds, and deciduous fruits. The two primary Afghan cash crops are opium poppy and cannabis. Afghanistan is the major opium supplier for the European heroin market.


Marked seasonal extremes of temperature and scarcity of precipitation characterize Afghanistan’s climate. Topographic features strongly influence all elements of the climate. Winters (December through February) are dominated by constantly changing air masses associated with passing migratory lows and frontal systems. Winters are cold, with nighttime temperatures below freezing common in low elevations and frequent winter snows at higher elevations. To the south and southeast the low-level temperatures are less severe. Winter snows are frequent at the higher elevations and there are permanent snowfields in the Hindu Kush. Summers (June through August) are continuously sunny, dry, and severely hot; however, intrusions of moist, southerly monsoon air occasionally bring rain, increased humidity, and cloudiness to the extreme eastern portions. At elevations below 1,220 meters (about 4,000 feet) temperatures rise to over 38oC (100oF) on a daily basis. Very low humidity is normal during the summer. In the other seasons, relative humidity is high in the early morning and moderate in the afternoon over most sections. In most of Afghanistan, winter and spring are the cloudiest periods, and clear skies are common in summer.

Precipitation is scarce, with desert conditions prevailing in the southwestern and northern plains. What annual precipitation there is falls mostly in the winter and spring; summers are almost uniformly rainless. Thunderstorms are most frequent during the spring, but also occur during summer in extreme eastern portions of the country. Flash floods sometimes result from severe thundershowers. Long droughts are not uncommon.


Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. The geographical location of Afghanistan contributes to many of its features: abundance of natural resources such as natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, and precious and semiprecious stones; varied but landlocked topography with mostly rugged mountains, especially in the northeast, and plains in the north and southwest; earthquakes and flooding; ethnic diversity; and a variety of languages.

The Taliban, preoccupied by its determination to defeat the Northern Alliance, did little to rebuild Afghanistan, which has been in economic disarray since the end of Soviet occupation in 1989. Two decades of war and grinding poverty have left Afghanistan in disrepair: Warfare has destroyed roads, bridges, and canals, while looting and shortages of spare parts has shut down power plants, factories, and telephone systems. Afghanistan has some of the worst social indicators in the world: the highest rates of illiteracy; mother, child, and infant mortality; malnutrition; and ratio of widows and orphans in the population. These combine to produce one of the lowest life expectancies on the globe. The bleak situation has prompted foreign aid efforts, such as the UN World Food Program, which provides assistance during periods of drought.


Afghanistan’s population, estimated at 26,813,057 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001) is characterized by high growth, low quality of life, and an unusual settlement pattern brought on by conflict and drought. The country is extremely young, with 42 percent of the population under the age of 15. Life expectancy is under 40 years, reflecting the overwhelmingly poor living conditions throughout the country. The majority of the people (about 60 percent) live in rural areas, about 30 percent live in cities, and 10 percent live a nomadic lifestyle. These percentages are rough estimates, however, because the ongoing civil war and a succession of poor growing seasons have forced over 3 million Afghanis to become refugees. Between 600,000 and 800,000 people were internally displaced as of the end of 2000, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 2.5 million Afghanis have migrated out of the country.


Afghanistan is a complex mosaic of ethnolinguistic groups. The dominant group, politically and in terms of numbers, has been the Pashtun, who consider themselves the “true” Afghani people. Pashtuns are Sunni Moslems, tribally organized, speak Pashtun, and comprise between 35 and 50 percent of the population. The Pashtun live primarily in the south and east areas of Afghanistan, which include the cities of Kandahar and Kabul, respectively. Throughout Afghanistan’s history, tribal rivalries have characterized the Pashtun people, but tribes have tended to put aside such differences when faced by a common enemy, such as the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in 1979.

The Tajiks are the principal ethnic group of Afghanistan’s northeast. Tajiks comprise about 25 to 30 percent of the population and are defined as Sunni Moslems who speak Dari, a derivative of Farsi. Animosity between the Tajiks and Pashtuns has been a hallmark of internal politics since the British were driven out in the 19th century.

The Hazaras, who make up about 15 percent of the population, are concentrated primarily in the center of the country. Hazaras are characterized by Mongoloid features and practice the Shia variety of Islam. Historically, the lowest group on the Afghan social ladder, the Hazaras have endured discrimination and poor living conditions for centuries. Most are engaged in agricultural activities.

The final large ethnic group in Afghanistan are the Uzbeks, whose numbers have diminished in recent years as many have migrated to Uzbekistan. Located primarily in the north-central section of the country, the Uzbeks speak Uzbeki and comprise about 10 percent of the national population.


As of 1979, 99.7 percent of the Afghan population was of the Moslem faith, and the remainder was largely Hindu. In Taliban-held areas, Islam was the dominant force in everyday life, imposing a draconian form of sharia law. Under this legal system, all tenets of the Muslim faith were adhered to, or a punishment was meted out. Religious police carried small whips, which they used to publicly flog people if some aspect of their appearance or behavior was not in compliance with Muslim law. Hangings took place on a regular basis. Women were not allowed to receive an education and only worked outside the home if they were involved in health services. Conversion to another faith could be punishable by death. There was an initiative on the part of the ruling Taliban to make Hindus wear identity badges – ostensibly to protect them from the religious police.


Kandahar. Kandahar is located is southern Afghanistan, approximately 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of Kabul and 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of the Pakistan border. The city lies at the northeast corner of the vast, nearly uninhabited Dasht-i Margow. Kandahar is in an area of subtropical steppe. Sand ridges and dunes alternate with expansive desert plains. There are also areas of barren gravel and clay where sparse vegetation and low growth prevail. Kandahar’s population is estimated at 329,300 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).

Map of Kandahar

Kabul. Kabul is located in northeastern Afghanistan on the banks of the Kabul River. The city spreads out on the north and south banks of the river and is further separated into northern and southern sections by a series of low hills. The Kabul River flows from southwest to northeast and through the water gap known as “Lion’s Gate,” which divides the hills. Elevations range from 1,789 meters above sea level at Kabul International Airfield to 2,219 meters at Kohe Sher Peak near the city center. Several small streams flow in from the west, joining to form the Cheltan River, which, in turn, joins the Kabul River just south of the Lion’s Gate. The Logar River flows north to join the Kabul River in eastern Kabul; Khargz Lake, about 20 kilometers west of central Kabul, is the only lake in the region. There are, however, several small marshes scattered across the northeastern half of the city and environs. Soils on the mostly flat plains around Kabul are deep silty sand, clayey sand, and gravels that are fair to good in over-all suitability for construction purposes. On hill slopes, bedrock outcrops comprise half or more of the surfaces.

Map of Kabul

Jalalabad. Jalalabad is the largest urban center in eastern Afghanistan between Kabul (125 kilometers [78 miles] to the west) and the Pakistan border at the Khyber Pass (75 kilometers [47 miles] to the east). The city has been an important commercial, telecommunications, and cultural center, and has a population of 154,200 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). The city dominates the entrances to the Laghman and Kunar valleys and is a leading trading center with India and Pakistan. Oranges, rice, and sugarcane grow in the fertile surrounding area, and the city has cane processing and sugar refining as well as papermaking industries.

Map of Jalalabad

Mazar-e Sharif. Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital of the Balkh Province, is situated on the main route between Kabul and the Termiz, Uzbekistan. Historically, its importance was twofold: it was 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of the Soviet Union, and it was a center for Afghanistan’s fledgling oil industry. Its population is estimated at 232,800 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).

Map of Mazar-e Sharif

Herat. Herat is centered in western Afghanistan on the flat river plains a few kilometers north of the Harirud River. The Iran border is approximately 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the west, Turkmenistan 110 kilometers (68 miles) to the north, and Kabul is approximately 650 kilometers (400 miles) to the east. Elevations within the city range from roughly 920 meters (3,018 feet) ASL in the south to 960 meters (3,150 feet) ASL in the north. Mountains ranging in height from 1,800 meters to 3,300 meters (about 6,000 to 11,000 feet) surround the city. Earthquakes and tremors are common occurrences. Herat experiences a hot, north-northwesterly wind from May to September. This wind blows constantly, but is particularly strong in the afternoon; wind velocity is typically around 50 miles per hour (43.5 knots), with gusts up to 80 miles per hour (69.5 knots).

Map of Herat


Even though ethnicity has only recently surfaced as a central issue, ethnic divisions and internal colonization have existed in Afghanistan for the last 250 years. Since Ahmad Shah Durani founded the Afghan state in 1747, various Pashtun-dominated regimes (monarchic, republican, communist, Islamist) have used the powers and institutions of the central government to colonize the non-Pashtun ethnolinguistic areas. To this end, Pashtun regimes tried various Pashtunization measures (political, educational, linguistic, economic, demographic, social, and economic) to suppress and weaken other ethnic communities and their hold on territories and to ensure Pashtun supremacy and domination.

Pashtun domination ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when Babrak Karmal, leader of the Parcham faction of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), became president. The Parcham, unlike the Khalq faction, was composed mostly of non-Pashtuns. The Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and other minority ethnic groups were allowed equal participation in politics, education, economics, and other aspects of life in the Afghan communist government. Under its so-called nationalities policy, minority languages and dialects – such as Hazaragi, Uzbeki, Baluchi, Pashai, and others – began to flourish, and Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and other minority ethnic groups were appointed to positions in the foreign ministry, including diplomatic posts abroad, as well as in the Ministries of Defense and Interior.

These opportunities changed the balance of power for the minority ethnic groups inside Afghanistan. By the time the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, there were many more Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and other minorities than ever before serving as pilots, engineers, doctors, ambassadors, military generals, ministers, central committee members, governors, university professors, and so on. One Hazara, Sultan Ali Keshtmand, even became prime minister, something unthinkable during the Pashtun-dominated regimes in the past.

The situation among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation was different, however. In Pakistan, the Pashtuns dominated the Afghan refugee political parties. Of the seven political groups in Peshawar, Pakistan, only one – the Islamic Society (Jamiyat-e Islami) headed by Burhanudin Rabani – was non-Pashtun; the others were all Pashtuns, either linguistically or genealogically. This meant that most of the cash and weapons provided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others went to the Pashtuns, as well as the lucrative jobs related to the humanitarian assistance agencies and other organizations helping the Afghan refugees.

When the Islamic groups came to power in 1992, the ex-communists in the government joined the mujahidin according to their ethnic affiliation. The Pashtuns sided with Gulabudin Hikmatyar's Islamic Party (Hizb-e Islami) – a Pashtun party – while the non-Pashtuns supported Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik and Rabani's military commander, and his Supervisory Council (Shoray-e Nezar)/Islamic Society (Jamiyat-e Islami). This division established the parameters for the beginning of a civil war based on ethnic divisions.

In 1994 when Gulabudin Hikmatyar, a Pashtun and the creator of Pakistan's ISI (Interservices Intelligence) failed to rally the Pashtuns and to seize Kabul from Tajik Massoud, the Taliban, a Pashtun-dominated Islamic militia said to have been created and supported by Pakistan and some Arab countries – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – took over the fight for Pashtun domination. Pakistan, with its own significant Pashtun minority, has been exploiting the ethnic and sectarian conflict for its own objectives. Iran and Uzbekistan, and to some extent Tajikistan, feared the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban and assisted the non-Pashtuns with whom they have an ethnolinguistic and cultural affinity. This has intensified the ethnic conflict in Afghanistan.

Since 1997 some ethnic cleansing has also taken place in which the Hazaras and the Pashtuns have reportedly massacred thousands of each other's people in Mazar-e-Sharif, in Bamyan, and in other regions. Also, the Taliban have reportedly evicted Tajiks from the Shomaly Valley north of Kabul and sent them to Kandahar along with some Hazaras and other members of minority ethnic groups. There are reports that the Taliban have brought Pashtuns to settle on the land and in the houses taken from dislocated Tajiks, Hazaras, and others.


The ethnic issue poses problems of terminology. The words “nation” (mellat) and “nationality” (melliyat) with their European origin do not have the same meaning in the Afghan context or among the various ethnic groups. In the West, “nation” implies citizenship and refers to a “community of people composed of one or more nationalities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government,” it has a completely different meaning to the Afghan ethnic groups. To the Pashtuns, “nation” subsumes a combination of notions, encompassing geography, ancestry, language, religion, culture, and nation-state. In the Pashtuns' view, the Afghan nation refers to those people who originally settled near the Suleiman Range and spread to what is now modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pashtun nationalists say “Afghan” also refers to the descendants of the Prophet Ibrahim. Furthermore, they insist the Afghan nation belongs to the people who have been speaking Pashto as a native language for many generations. To the Pashtun nationalists, the Afghan nation also refers to the “real” citizens of Afghanistan – a “typical” or “true” Afghan is a conservative, orthodox Sunni Muslim. Most importantly, to the Pashtun nationalists, real Afghans are those who have Pashtun tribal customs and traditions. This may explain why their well-known nationalist political party and their newspaper are both named “Afghan Mellat” and “Afghan Nation” (that is, Pashtun Nation). According to nationalist Pashtuns, an individual is considered an Afghan if he possesses “all” of the above qualifications, not just one or two. For example, speaking Pashto as a native language or being a Sunni Muslim alone does not make one an Afghan citizen, at least in the eyes of the nationalist Pashtuns.

The non-Pashtuns have their own interpretation of these terms. Unlike the Pashtuns, they do not identify themselves as a nation (mellat) because they do not feel they were treated as “real” citizens with equal rights by the Pashtun-dominated regimes. Instead, they refer to themselves as nationalities (melliyat) or ethnic groups (qawm). While the word “nation” specifically refers to territorial boundaries, melliyat identifies a specific group on the basis of such cultural factors as language, sect, customs, mores, ideals, cultural habits, and traditions. In the Afghan context, melliyat and qaumiyat are synonymous and can be translated as “ethnicity,” although melliyat is more general than qaumiyat because a melliyat can consist of more than one qawm. To non-Pashtuns, only the Pashtuns are referred to as a nation because they have had the nation-state and the political system under their control, without giving equal rights to the minorities. In fact, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other minority groups refer to the Pashtuns as “Afghans.” “Afghanistan” literally means “the land of the Afghans” (that is, Pashtuns). That is why when asked about their identity, these non-Pashtun ethnic groups call themselves “Hazaras,” “Tajiks,” “Uzbeks,” and so on instead of “Afghans.”

In Afghanistan one's loyalty is still first and foremost to the family, qawm/tribe, sect, and even geography (place of birth) instead of to the “Afghan nation” as a whole. In the words of one non-Pashtun diplomat, “It is hard to ascribe any other term [Afghanistan] to [the territory called Afghanistan] including country, nation, government, and national identity . . . Ethnic, familial blood determines everything.” The precise ranking of loyalties in a given situation depends on what is at issue. As a general rule, religion/sect or ideology supersedes ethnolinguistic group or tribe/qawm. During the Soviet occupation, all the Afghan ethnic groups united against the communists in a holy war. After the defeat of the communists, ethnicity became the issue. For example, when the mujahidin took Bagram military airport north of Kabul in 1992, the Pashtun communists joined the forces of Gulabudin Hikmatyar, a Pashtun, and the Tajik communists joined Ahmad Shah Massoud.


Afghanistan has a number of large mammal species that could pose a threat to U.S. personnel. Brown bears, Siberian tigers, and several species of leopards inhabit the mountains and foothills. Wolves, striped hyena, jackal, wild pigs and wild dogs are widespread. In addition, soldiers should expect to encounter numerous venomous reptiles, insects, and plants.

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