Official name: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Area: 647,500 square kilometers (250,001 square miles)
Highest point on mainland : Mount Nowshak (7,485 meters/24,558 feet)
Lowest point on land: Amu Darya River (258 meters/846 feet)
Hemispheres : Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 4:30 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from northeast to southwest; 560 kilometers (350 miles) from northwest to southeast
Land boundaries : 5,529 kilometers (3,436 miles) total boundary length; China, 76 kilometers (47 miles); Iran, 936 kilometers (582 miles); Pakistan, 2,430 kilometers (1,511 miles); Tajikistan, 1,206 kilometers (750 miles); Turkmenistan, 744 kilometers (463 miles); Uzbekistan, 137 kilometers (85 miles)
Territorial sea limits : None
Afghanistan is a landlocked nation (does not have access to the sea) in south-central Asia. At the crossroads of north-south and east-west trade routes, the country has been invaded many times, by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. , and by the Soviet Union in the twentieth century A.D. Almost as large as the state of Texas, Afghanistan is bounded by six different countries. Afghanistan's longest border—accounting for its entire southern boundary and most of its eastern one—is with Pakistan. The shortest one, bordering China's Xinjiang province, is only 76 kilometers (47 miles), at the end of the Wakhan corridor.
Afghanistan has no territories or dependencies.
The climate of Afghanistan ranges from semi-arid (light annual rainfall) to arid (almost no annual rainfall), with wide variations in temperature, both between seasons and between different times of day. Its summers are hot and dry, but its winters are bitterly cold. Recorded temperatures have ranged as high as 53°C (128°F) and as low as -26°C (-15°F) in the central highlands, which have a subarctic climate. (Subarctic climate features long, very cold winters with short, cool summers, and little rainfall.) Summertime temperatures in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, can vary from 16°C (61°F) at sunrise to 38°C (100°F) by noon. Summer highs in Jalalabad average 46°C (115°F). The mean January temperature in Kabul is 0°C (32°F). Strong winds that blow between June and September (called the "Winds of 120 Days") can have a velocity of up to 180 kilometers per hour (108 miles per hour).
In much of the country, rainfall is sparse and irregular, averaging 25 to 30 centimeters (10 to 12 inches) and mostly occurring between October and April. Rainfall is generally heavier in the eastern part of the country than in the western regions. Afghan summers are generally dry, cloudless, and hot. Humid air from the Persian Gulf (body of water lying west of Afghanistan between Saudi Arabia and Iran) sometimes produces summer showers and thunderstorms in the southwest. Most of the precipitation in the mountains falls in the form of snow—and sometimes as hail. During the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Afghan resistance fighters called mujahideen referred to the heavy hail that fell in the mountains as "Allah's minesweepers" because its force was sometimes strong enough to set off land mines.
|S EASON||M ONTHS||A VERAGE T EMPERATURE|
|Summer||June to September||16 to 33°C (61 to 91°F)|
|Winter||November to March||-8 to 2°C (18 to 36°F)|
From northeast to southwest, the Hindu Kush Mountains divide Afghanistan into three major regions: 1) the central highlands, which form part of the Himalaya Mountains and comprise roughly two-thirds of the country's area; 2) the southwestern plateau, which accounts for one-fourth of the land; and 3) the smaller northern plains area, which contains the country's most fertile soil. The Wakhan corridor, lying between Tajikistan and Pakistan, is a narrow panhandle in the northeast Hindu Kush.
Afghanistan is landlocked. The nearest seacoast is roughly 483 kilometers (300 miles) south in Pakistan on the shores of the Arabian Sea.
There are few lakes in Afghanistan, and the largest of them are along the country's southwestern border. The Daryacheh-e Namakzar and the Hamun-e Sāberī (also called Lake Helmand) have most of their surface area in Iran. Lake Zorkul is located in the Wakhan corridor near the border with Tajikistan. Abi-Istada, about 193 kilometers (120 miles) northeast of Qandahar, is a salt lake. Five small lakes in the central highlands, collectively called Band-e Amir, are known for their unusual colors, which range from a filmy white to a deep green.
Afghanistan's drainage system is landlocked. Most of its rivers and streams end in shallow desert lakes or oases (plural of oasis; any fertile tract in the midst of a wasteland) inside or outside the country's boundaries. A few rivers in the eastern part of the country, however, eventually reach the Arabian Sea after first emptying into the Indus River in Pakistan. In the western part of the northern plains many rivers disappear underground before emptying into the Amu Darya River (also called the Oxus River). In the west, the sandy deserts along the Iranian frontier (border) have no watercourses (natural flowing water).
The Amu Darya River, at 2,661 kilometers (1,654 miles) long, is the country's longest river. About 965 kilometers (600 miles) of its upper course separates Afghanistan from its neighbors Turkmenistan, Uzbeki-stan, and Tajikistan. The Helmand is the principal river in the southwest, bisecting (crossing through) the entire region. The Helmand is approximately 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) long. The Kabul River, 515 kilometers (320 miles) long, is a vital source of water in the Kuh-e Baba Mountains.
The Rigestan Desert, along the country's southern border, occupies roughly one-quarter of the southwestern plateau. Sand ridges and dunes alternate with wide desert plains devoid of vegetation. West of the Rigestan Desert lies the Dasht-e Margo, a desolate region with salt flats. A flat strip of desert and grassy steppe (treeless flat land) extends along the banks of the Amu Darya River. Desert areas are also found along the foothills of the central Hindu Kush and west of Mazar-e Sharif.
North of the mountainous central highlands are the northern plains, Afghanistan's smallest natural region, with an area of approximately 103,600 square kilometers (40,000 square miles). They stretch from the Iranian border in the west to the foothills of the Pamir mountains in the east. The eastern half of this region, which forms a part of the Central Asia steppe, is bounded by the Amu Darya River. The northern plains have an average elevation of 609 meters (2,000 feet), except for the Amu Darya valley floor, which drops to as low as 183 meters (600 feet).
The mountainous central highlands formed by the Hindu Kush and its subsidiary ranges (the ranges that branch from the Hindu Kush) are extensions of the Himalayas. Crossing the country for 965 kilometers (600 miles) from east to west and covering an area of approximately 414,400 square kilometers (160,000 square miles), this area contains towering peaks alternating with steep gorges and barren slopes.
This mountain system—Afghanistan's dominant physical feature—is composed of three high ridges. The main ridge begins in China and runs southwestward as the eastern Hindu Kush, with summits over 6,400 meters (21,000 feet) high. The highest mountains are in the Wakhan corridor, including the country's highest peak, Mount Nowshak. At the Anjuman Pass, the eastern Hindu Kush becomes the central Hindu Kush. The Kuh-e Baba range runs parallel to and south of the central Hindu Kush. Other important mountain ranges include the Kuh-e Hisar, the Firoz Kuh, and the Paropamisus.
The city of Mazar-e Sharif is famous throughout the Islamic world as the place where Ali, the son-in-law of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, is buried.
A similar series of ranges runs parallel to the Paropamisus and Hindu Kush at lower altitudes along the southern rim of the northern plains. In addition, several mountain chains fan out to the southwest. In the southeast, several lower ridges enclose long valleys that run parallel to the boundary with Pakistan. The valley region that is home to the capital city of Kabul is bounded by this range system.
The caves that have been used for military purposes since the 1970s are largely man-made (see below). Afghanistan has few natural caves; limestone, from which most natural caves are formed, is found only in isolated areas of the country. Afghanistan's largest natural cave is the 1,120-meter-long (1,120-foot-long) Ab Bar Amada northwest of Kabul.
The southwestern plateau southwest of the central highlands is an arid region of desert and semidesert extending into Pakistan to the south and into Iran to the west. From an altitude of about 914 meters (3,000 feet) at its highest point, it slopes gently to the southwest. A few large rivers traverse this plateau, including the Helmand and its major tributary the Arghandab. The southwestern plateau region covers approximately 129,500 square kilometers (50,000 square miles) and includes the Rigestan Desert.
Afghanistan's so-called "caves" are actually man-made dugouts built into the mountains by mujahideen rebels fighting the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. Al Qaeda Muslim extremists also used the caves for military purposes in 2001 and 2002. The dugouts are between 3 and 9 meters (10 to 30 feet) deep.
Elliot, Jason. An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan . London: Picador, 1999.
Ellis, Deborah. Women of the Afghan War . Westport, CT.: Praeger, 2000.
Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A New History . Richmond: Curzon, 2001.
"The Most Dangerous Place on Earth: A Look Inside Afghanistan." Special report. Current Events. Nov. 30, 2001, pp.S1-5.
Afghanistan Online. http://www.afghan-web.com/ (accessed February 14, 2003).
National Geographic. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/popups/popunder.html (accessed June 21, 2003).