For most of us, it is difficult to imagine what Afghanistan is like for the people who live there. Yet, as debates about Afghanistan’s future continue, some fundamental questions deserve exploration. What is life like in Afghanistan? What is society like? How does history affect events in Afghanistan today? What is life like in rural areas of Afghanistan?
Afghanistan’s population today is about thirty million people. More than 75 percent live in rural areas, most in small villages. Life expectancy is low, around forty-five years. Most rural Afghans are either subsistence farmers or pastoralists, which means they graze small herds of animals. Life in rural Afghanistan is difficult for many people. Family members rise before dawn to begin working. Men typically labor on small, family-owned plots to sow and harvest wheat, barley, rice, fruit, or nuts, most of which are saved for family consumption. Women often manage the household, collect water and firewood, and take care of children. Electricity is extremely rare as is mechanical farm equipment. Except in the mountain regions, most rural villages depend on irrigation and are located near water sources. Farmers without irrigation depend on rainfall to water their crops. Life for pastoralists also tends to be difficult. Pastoralists are nomadic, which means they migrate according to the season. By some estimates more than one million nomadic pastoralists live in Afghanistan today. They raise sheep and camels and move from pasture
Afghanistan, landlocked multiethnic country located in the heart of south-central Asia. Lying along important trade routes connecting southern and eastern Asia to Europe and the Middle East, Afghanistan has long been a prize sought by empire builders, and for millennia great armies have attempted to subdue it, leaving traces of their efforts in great monuments now fallen to ruin. The country’s forbidding landscape of deserts and mountains has laid many imperial ambitions to rest, as has the tireless resistance of its fiercely independent peoples—so independent that the country has failed to coalesce into a nation but has instead long endured as a patchwork of contending ethnic factions and ever-shifting alliances.
The modern boundaries of Afghanistan were established in the late 19th century in the context of a rivalry between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia that Rudyard Kipling termed the “Great Game.” Modern Afghanistan became a pawn in struggles over political ideology and commercial influence. In the last quarter of the 20th century, Afghanistan suffered the ruinous effects of civil war greatly exacerbated by a military invasion and occupation by the Soviet Union (1979–89). In subsequent armed struggles, a surviving Afghan communist regime held out against Islamic insurgents (1989–92), and, following a brief rule by mujahideen groups, an austere movement of religious students—the Taliban—rose up against the country’s governing parties and warlords and established a theocratic regime (1996–2001) that soon fell under the influence of a group of well-funded Islamists led by an exiled Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban regime collapsed in December 2001 in the wake of a sustained U.S.-dominated military campaign aimed at the Taliban and fighters of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization. Soon thereafter, anti-Taliban forces agreed to a period of transitional leadership and an administration that would lead to a new constitution and the establishment of a democratically elected government.
The capital of Afghanistan is its largest city, Kabul. A serene city of mosques and gardens during the storied reign of the emperor Bābur (1526–30), founder of the Mughal dynasty, and for centuries an important entrepôt on the Silk Road, Kabul lay in ruins following the long and violent Afghan War. So, too, fared much of the country, its economy in shambles and its people scattered and despondent. By the early 21st century an entire generation of Afghans had come to adulthood knowing nothing but war.
Afghanistan is completely landlocked—the nearest coast lies along the Arabian Sea, about 300 miles (480 km) to the south—and, because of both its isolation and its volatile political history, it remains one of the most poorly surveyed areas of the world. It is bounded to the east and south by Pakistan (including those areas of Kashmir administered by Pakistan but claimed by India), to the west by Iran, and to the north by the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It also has a short border with Xinjiang, China, at the end of the long, narrow Vākhān (Wakhan Corridor), in the extreme northeast. Its overall area is roughly twice that of Norway.
Afghanistan’s shape has been compared to a leaf, of which the Vākhān strip, nestled high in the Pamirs, forms the stem. The outstanding geographic feature of Afghanistan is its mountain range, the Hindu Kush. This formidable range creates the major pitch of Afghanistan from northeast to southwest and, along with its subsidiary ranges, divides Afghanistan into three distinct geographic regions, which roughly can be designated as the central highlands, the northern plains, and the southwestern plateau. When the Hindu Kush itself reaches a point some 100 miles (160 km) north of Kabul, it spreads out and continues westward as a series of ranges under the names of Bābā, Bāyan, Sefīd Kūh (Paropamisus), and others, and each section in turn sends spurs in different directions. One of these spurs is the Torkestān Mountains, which extend northwestward. Other important ranges include the Sīāh Kūh, south of the Harīrūd, and the Ḥeṣār Mountains, which stretch northward. A number of other ranges, including the Mālmand and Khākbād, extend to the southwest. On the eastern frontier with Pakistan, several mountain ranges effectively isolate the interior of the country from the moisture-laden winds that blow from the Indian Ocean. This accounts for the dryness of the climate.
The central highlands—actually a part of the Himalayan chain—include the main Hindu Kush range. Its area of about 160,000 square miles (414,000 square km) is a region of deep, narrow valleys and lofty mountains, some peaks of which rise above 21,000 feet (6,400 metres). High mountain passes, generally situated between 12,000 and 15,000 feet (3,600 to 4,600 metres) above sea level, are of great strategic importance and include the Shebar Pass, located northwest of Kabul where the Bābā Mountains branch out from the Hindu Kush, and the storied Khyber Pass, which leads to the Indian subcontinent, on the Pakistan border southeast of Kabul. The Badakhshān 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 some 40,000 square miles (103,000 square km) of plains and fertile foothills sloping gently toward the Amu Darya (the ancient Oxus River). This area is a part of the much larger Central Asian Steppe, from which it is separated by the Amu Darya. The average elevation is about 2,000 feet (600 metres). 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 elevation is about 3,000 feet (900 metres). The southwestern plateau covers about 50,000 square miles (130,000 square km), one-fourth of which forms the sandy Rīgestān region. The smaller Mārgow Desert of salt flats and desolate steppe lies west of Rīgestān. Several large rivers cross the southwestern plateau; among them are the Helmand River and its major tributary, the Arghandāb.
Most of Afghanistan lies between 2,000 and 10,000 feet (600 and 3,000 metres) in elevation. Along the Amu Darya in the north and the delta of the Helmand River in the southwest, the elevation is about 2,000 feet (600 metres). The Sīstān depression of the southwestern plateau is roughly 1,500 to 1,700 feet (450 to 500 metres) in elevation.
Practically the entire drainage system of Afghanistan is enclosed within the country. Only the rivers in the east, which drain an area of 32,000 square miles (83,000 square km), reach the sea. The Kābul River, the major eastern stream, flows into the Indus River in Pakistan, which empties into the Arabian Sea of the Indian Ocean. Almost all the other important rivers of the country originate in the central highlands region and empty into inland lakes or dry up in sandy deserts. The major drainage systems are those of the Amu Darya, Helmand, Kābul, and Harīrūd.
The country possesses extremes in the quality of its soils. The central highlands have desert-steppe or meadow-steppe types of soil. The northern plains have extremely rich, fertile, loesslike soils, while the southwestern plateau has infertile desert soils except along the rivers, where alluvial deposits can be found.
In general, Afghanistan has extremely cold winters and hot summers, typical of a semiarid steppe climate. There are many regional variations, however. While the mountain regions of the northeast have a subarctic climate with dry, cold winters, the mountainous areas on the border of Pakistan are influenced by the Indian monsoons, usually coming between July and September and bringing maritime tropical air masses with humidity and rains. In addition, strong winds blow almost daily in the southwest during the summer. Local variation is also produced by differences in elevation. The weather in winter and early spring is strongly influenced by cold air masses from the north and the Atlantic low from the northwest; these two air masses bring snowfall and severe cold in the highlands and rain in the lower elevations.
Temperatures vary widely in Afghanistan. Daytime highs over 95 °F (35 °C) occur in the drought-ridden southwestern plateau region. In Jalālābād, one of the hottest localities in the country, the highest temperature, 120 °F (49 °C), has been recorded in July. In the high mountain areas, January temperatures may drop to 5 °F (−15 °C) and below, while at the city of Kabul, located at an elevation of 5,900 feet (1,800 metres), a low of −24 °F (−31 °C) has been recorded.
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 denser toward the north, where precipitation is more abundant, and at higher elevations the vegetation is almost luxuriant, particularly in the mountainous region north of Jalālābād, where the climate is influenced by the monsoons. The high mountains abound with large forest trees, among which conifers, such as pine and fir, predominate. Some of these trees are 180 feet (55 metres) high.
No national census has been conducted in Afghanistan since a partial count in 1979, and years of war and population dislocation have made an accurate ethnic count impossible. Current population estimates are therefore rough approximations, which show that Pashtuns comprise about two-fifths of the population. The two largest Pashtun tribal groups are the Durrānī and Ghilzay. Tajiks are likely to account for some one-fourth of Afghans and Ḥazāra nearly one-fifth. Uzbeks and Chahar Aimaks each account for slightly more than 5 percent of the population and Turkmen an even smaller portion.
The people of Afghanistan form a complex mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. Pashto and Persian (Dari), both Indo-European languages, are the official languages of the country. More than two-fifths of the population speak Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns, while about half speak some dialect of Persian. While the Afghan dialect of Persian is generally termed “Dari,” a number of dialects are spoken among the Tajik, Ḥazāra, Chahar Aimak, and Kizilbash peoples, including dialects that are more closely akin to the Persian spoken in Iran (Farsi) or the Persian spoken in Tajikistan (Tajik). The Dari and Tajik dialects contain a number of Turkish and Mongolian words, and the transition from one dialect into another across the country is often imperceptible. Bilingualism is fairly common, and the correlation of language to ethnic group is not always exact. Some non-Pashtuns, for instance, speak Pashto, while a larger number of Pashtuns, particularly in urban areas, have adopted the use of one of the dialects of Persian.
Virtually all the people of Afghanistan are Muslims, of whom some three-fourths are Sunnites of the Ḥanafī branch. The others, particularly the Ḥazāra and Kizilbash, follow either Ithnā ʿAsharī or Ismāʿīlī Shīʿite Islam. Sufism is practiced widely. The Nuristani are descendants of a large ethnic group, the Kafir, who were forcibly converted to Islam in 1895; the name of their region was then changed from Kāfiristān (“Land of the Infidels”) to Nūrestān (“Land of Light”). There are also a few thousand Hindus and Sikhs.