Physical and human geography
Afghanistan's shape has been compared to a leaf, of which the Vakhan
strip forms the stem. The outstanding geographic feature of Afghanistan
is its mountain range, the Hindu Kush (in Afghanistan, Hendu
Kosh). This formidable range is a barrier between the comparatively
fertile northern provinces and the rest of the country, and it creates
the major pitch of Afghanistan from northeast to southwest. The Hindu
Kush, when it reaches a point some 100 miles north of Kabul, spreads
out and continues westward under the names of Baba,
Bayan, Safid Kuh (Paropamisus), and others, each
section in turn sending spurs in different directions. One of these
spurs is the Torkestan Mountains, which extend northwestward.
Other important ranges include the Kasa Murgh, south of the Hari
River; the Hesar Mountains, which extend northward;
and two formidable ranges, the Mazar and the Khurd, extending in a
southwestern direction. On the eastern frontier with Pakistan, several
mountain ranges effectively isolate the interior of the country from
the rain-laden winds that blow from the Indian Ocean, accounting for
the dryness of the climate.
The Hindu Kush and subsidiary ranges divide
Afghanistan into three distinct geographic regions, which roughly
can be designated as the Central Highlands, the Northern Plains,
and the Southwestern Plateau. The Central Highlands, actually a
part of the Himalayan chain, include the main Hindu Kush range.
Its area of about 160,000 square miles is a region of deep, narrow
valleys and lofty mountains, some peaks of which rise above 21,000
feet. High mountain passes, generally situated between 12,000 and
15,000 feet above sea level, are of great strategic importance and
include the Shebar Pass, located northwest of Kabul where the
Baba Mountains meet the Hindu Kush, and the Khyber
Pass, which leads to the Indian subcontinent, on the Pakistan border
southeast of Kabul. The Badakhshan 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
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 40,000 square
miles of plains and fertile foothills sloping gently toward the
Amu River (the ancient Oxus River). This area is a part of the much
larger Central Asian steppe, from which it is separated by the Amu
River. The average elevation is about 2,000 feet. 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 altitude is about 3,000 feet. The Southwestern Plateau covers
about 50,000 square miles, one-fourth of which forms the sandy Rigestan
Desert. The smaller Margow Desert of salt flats and
desolate steppe lies west of the Rigestan Desert.
Several large rivers cross the Southwestern Plateau; among them
are the Helmand River and its major tributary, the Arghandab.
Most of Afghanistan lies between 2,000 and 10,000 feet in elevation.
Along the Amu River in the north and the delta of the Helmand River
in the southwest, the altitude is about 2,000 feet. The Sistan
depression of the Southwestern Plateau, 1,500 to 1,700 feet in elevation,
was the seat of a flourishing ancient civilization that was ended
in the 14th century by Timur (Tamerlane).
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