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Afghanistan - Environment

The reactions of the Afghans to the invasion of their country by Soviet military forces in December 1979 were in keeping with Afghan responses to numerous earlier invasions. The almost universal resentment of the populace has been expressed in widespread, bitter, and costly guerrilla warfare against the Soviets and the Afghan government.

Although the cultures of Afghanistan are varied, complex, and often poorly understood, perhaps the most interesting question about the country in the mid 1980s was why the population responded to the invasion with determination, tenacity, and pugnaciousness. The answers to this question lie in many aspects of the country: its physical environment, population structure, religious traditions, tribes, and ethnicity; the nature of the Afghan family and kin groups; and gender roles.

The people of Afghanistan have adapted to an arid, rugged terrain, extreme climatic conditions, periodic droughts, and successive invasions. Afghans have coped with these difficulties by showing diversity, ingeniousness, and flexibility in subsistence strategies, technology, and religious and social organization. As they may move from one subsistence strategy to another to meet changing environmental and economic conditions, so they may change from one religious sect to another or expand or contract the boundaries of ethnic group, tribe, or lineage to adapt to the changing social environment. Despite this plasticity, certain values and shared identities endure. These include membership in the patrilineal family, with strong family loyalties and squabbles; gender separation, with bellicose males and secluded women; and membership in the Muslim community (umma), with reliance on charismatic religious figures, such as Sufi shaykhs, pirs, and miyans.

The Afghans' guerrilla war affected not only their own country but the entire region as well. By late 1985 the country was severely depopulated; about one third of the population had departed, and the war had claimed many lives. The dramatic drop in population within Afghanistan, coupled with the influx of Afghan refugees to Iran and Pakistan (where they reportedly had one of the highest birth rates in the world), had created a tremendous labor shortage within the country and a potentially volatile situation in the entire region.

The Natural Environment

Historically and contemporarily, Afghanistan's rugged terrain and often harsh climate have impeded but not deterred foreign invaders. Afghanistan is an extremely mountainous country with dramatic and often spectacular scenery. Yet the land is not generally lush, and a dearth of water has been and continues to be one of Afghanistan's most pressing problems. Afghans have adapted ingeniously to the land, only 22 percent of which is arable. For example, through the millennia they have developed elaborate underground irrigation systems in many areas. This technology has had the added benefit of being relatively inaccessible to hostile invaders until the recent invasion; intensive bombing reportedly has damaged many of the underground irrigation systems in some regions.

On the map, the country resembles an irregularly shaped leaf hanging from the Wakhan Corridor at its stem. It encompasses approximately 637,397 square kilometers and is completely landlocked, surrounded by the Soviet Union, Iran, and Pakistan. China also shares a bit of border with Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. The nearest seaport is Karachi, Pakistan, almost 1,170 kilometers away. The country's extreme length from west to east is about 1,240 kilometers, including Wakhan. Its greatest width from north to south is approximately 565 kilometers.

Mountains traverse the center of the country, running generally in a northeast southwest direction. Of the total land area, over 49 percent lies above 2,000 meters. Geographers disagree on the division of these mountains into systems. They are in accord, however, that the Hindu Kush, the most important of the mountain systems, is probably an extension of the Himalayas. Louis Dupree, an American anthropologist whose experience in Afghanistan spans decades, describes the Hindu Kush as "young rugged ranges . . . with sharp peaks, deep valleys, and many almost impenetrable barriers." The point of origin of the Hindu Kush is a matter of some dispute. Scholar Mohammad Ali and geographers Ramamoorthy Gopalakrishnan and W.B. Fisher describe the point of origin of the Hindu Kush as the Pamir Knot, which implies that the Hindu Kush runs from east to west. Conversely, in 1959 geographer Johannes Humlum fixed the point of origin in Iran.

The origin of the unusual term Hindu Kush (which translates as "Hindu Killer") is also a point of contention. Dupree discusses three possibilities: that the mountains are a memorial to 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 at the time divided Hindu southern Afghanistan from non Hindu northern Afghanistan; and finally, that the name is a posited Avestan appellation meaning "water mountains."

The highest peaks are over 7,000 meters above sea level and are found in the eastern part of the country. In comparison, Mount Everest, which has the highest elevation in the world, stands 8,853.5 meters above sea level. The mountains of the Hindu Kush diminish in height as they stretch westward. Toward the middle of the range, near Kabul, they extend from 4,500 to 6,000 meters above sea level. In the western portion of the range they attain heights of 3,500 to 4,500 meters and at the extreme western border are lower still. The average altitude of the Hindu Kush is 4,500 meters. The Hindu Kush runs about 966 kilometers laterally, and its median north south measurement is about 240 kilometers.

Other mountain ranges, usually considered to be offshoots of the Hindu Kush system, form part of the central highland's westward thrust but spread out from the central core. These mountain ranges include the Koh i Baba, Salang, Paghman, Safed Koh, Salt, Suleiman, Khwaja Amran, Siah Koh, Doshak, and Paropamisus (also referred to as Safid Kuh). Also included are the Hindu Kush range proper; only a portion of the Hindu Kush system is included in the Hindu range, while the rest of the mountain system is classified as part of these other ranges.

Afghanistan's mountains are transected by a number of passes that have been, and continue to be, of great strategic importance. These include the Knwtal a Shehar. where the Hindu Kush range proper merges with the Koh i Baba northwest of Kabul; eight to 10 passes in the eastern part of the Hindu Kush, such as the Killik (4,755 meters) and Wakhjir (4,923 meters); and the Baroghil (3,798 meters) and Kachin (5,639 meters) passes that join Chitral, Pakistan, to the Wakhan Corridor. Other passes leading from Afghanistan to Chitral are the Dorah (4,511 meters), Sad Eshtragh (5,319 meters), Agram An (5,069 meters), and Afsik (3,749 meters). Several important passes are located farther west the Molla Khak (3,548 meters), Bazarak, the important Barman pass (2,713 meters), and Hajji Gak. The passes of the Paropamisus in the west are relatively low in general about 610 meters above sea level. Among the most famous passes in Western historical perceptions of Afghanistan are those leading to the Indian subcontinent. They include the Khyber Pass (1,027 meters) and Lateh Band Pass (also found at a relatively low elevation) leading to Kabul. The difficulties faced by any invader, as well as by Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Pakistan, become evident when the heights of the mountain passes are compared with the highest elevation in the continental United States, Mount Whitney, which at 4,420.7 meters is much lower than some important Afghan passes and not much higher than most.

Between Quetta in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province and its border with China, there were more than 200 passes leading into Afghanistan. Ninety of these were motorable. The mujahidiin passed back and forth across the sieve-like border to launch attacks against the regime and then return to their bases in Pakistan.

In addition to its mountains, the country also possesses many rivers, river basins, lakes, and desert areas. Rivers take on a very special significance in an arid, landlocked country. The major rivers axe the Amu Darya (or Oxus; length at least 800 kilometers), Helmand (length 1,000 kilometers), Harirud 850 kilometers), and Kabul (length 460 kilometers). In addition, four important rivers flow northward: the Balkh, Morghab, Koshk, and Qonduz. The last two rivers flow into the Amu Darya. Many additional rivers and streams flow only seasonally, drying to a trickle or becoming totally dry during part of the year. Most rivers simply empty into arid portions of the country, spending themselves through evaporation without emptying into another watercourse. The most important river basins in the view of Gopalakrishnan are the Amu Darya, Kabul, Helmand, and Harirud.

Using geographical features, geographers divide Afghanistan into several regions. As with other facets of the geography, scholars disagree over the definition of regions and what and how many regions there are. Dupree's paradigm is most revelant because he bases his divisions on human geography and ecology. Using Humlum's 1959 work as a basis, he divides the country into 11 geographic zones: the Wakhan CorridorPamir Knot, Badakhshan, Central Mountains, Eastern Mountains, Northern Mountains and Foothills, Southern Mountains and Foothills, Turkestan Plains, Herat Farah Lowlands, Sistan Basin Helmand Valley, Western Stony Deserts, and Southwestern Sandy Deserts. The first six zones are connected to the Hindu Kush system. The rest of the zones comprise deserts and plains "which surround the mountains in the north, west, and southwest."

Iran shares an 800 kilometer border with Afghanistan, running north to south from its border with the Soviet Union to the northwestern tip of Pakistan. The regions that it passes through are desert but not as rugged as those along the Afghanistan Pakistan border. Thus, it was more difficult for mujahideen and refugees to cross undetected. In late 1985, however, an estimated 1.9 million Afghans resided on Iranian soil (whether most came after 1979 or were earlier arrivals was unclear).

Geologically, the country is notable for the richness of its mineral and oil resources and for its numerous earthquakes. American geographer John F. Shroder, Jr., stresses the munificence of Afghanistan's mineral wealth and suggests that Russia has coveted the natural riches since tsarist times. The outstanding mineral resources include copper, iron, lead, zinc, mercury, tin, chromium, lithium, tungsten, niobium, gold, and uranium (among others), as well as a variety of precious stones. Afghanistan also boasts deposits of combustible hydrocarbons, including coal, lignite, peat, and oil.

About 50 earthquakes are reported each year. As of mid1985 the most recent was reported to have occurred on July 29, 1985, at 12:25 P.M. local time, lasting four minutes and 45 seconds. Its strength on the Richter scale was reported at 5.6 (possibly at the point that it was measured rather than at the epicenter) by the Afghan Seismological Institute of the Natural Science Center of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. French scientists recorded a measurement of 7.3 on the Richter scale at the epicenter, which was located in the Hindu Kush range. Such a strong earthquake is not unusual for Afghanistan, although most are relatively mild. The earthquake activity is a result of the considerable differential earth movements occurring in the region. As might be expected, there are fault lines and overthrust zones.

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Page last modified: 17-08-2012 18:47:38 ZULU