Afghanistan is located in Central Asia with Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east. Tall, forbidding mountains and dry deserts cover most of the landscape of Afghanistan. The jagged mountain peaks are treacherous, and are snow covered for most of the year.
Many Afghans live in the fertile valleys between the mountains and grow their crops and tend to their animals. Only 20 percent of the land is used as fields.
Summers are hot and dry but the winters are very cold, especially north of the Hindu Kush, which is located in the eastern part of the country near Pakistan and Tajikistan. Many rivers flow through the mountain gorges. Snow melt and rain that flow out of the Hindu Kush pool into a low area and never reach the ocean.
The mountain passes in Afghanistan allow for travelers passage across Asia. The country was a busy section of the Silk Road, a route that merchants have traveled over land between China, India, and Europe for over 2,000 years.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
The country is made of many different groups. About 15 million people, nearly half of Afghanistan's population are Pashtuns and live in the south around Kandahar. They are descendants of people who came to the country 3,200 years ago.
Many other groups live in the country as well—Pashtuns are related to the Persian people of Iran, the Tajiks are also Persian, but speak another language called Dari, and the Uzbeks speak a language similar to Turkish.
The Hazaras live in the mountains of central Afghanistan and are believed to be descendents of the Mongols because their Dari language contains many Mongol words.
Due to many years of war, the countryside is littered with unexploded mines and children who herd animals are often killed by stepping on mines. Many schools have been destroyed, but children, including girls, go to school in ruins or wherever possible.
Over the centuries, travelers have braved the dangerous high mountain passes to find shelter in the valleys and plains of Afghanistan. Today nomads called Kuchi lead their herds of animals across the country and into the mountain pastures for grazing.
Afghans take pride in making and flying their own kites. They even have kite fights and use wire or glass in their kites to cut the kite strings of rival kite flyers.
Tea is the favorite Afghan drink and a popular meal is palau, made from rice, sheep and goat meats, and fruit.
Decades of war, hunting, and years of drought have reduced the wildlife population in Afghanistan. Tigers used to roam the hills, but they are now extinct. Bears and wolves have been hunted nearly to extinction.
Endangered snow leopards live in the cold Hindu Kush, but rely on their thick fur to stay warm. Hunters sell the soft leopard skins in the markets in the capital Kabul. The rhesus macaque and the red flying squirrel are found in the warmer southern areas of the country.
The country is rich in the vibrant blue stone, lapis lazuli, which was used to decorate the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamun.
Afghanistan is a newly formed democracy. Under the new constitution, the president and two vice presidents are elected every five years. The International Security Force Assistance helps the government maintain peace and rebuild the country.
The government still faces problems with the Taliban, internal security, and public services.
Afghanistan was settled around 7000 B.C. and has been in transition for most of its history. Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan in 330 B.C. and brought the Greek language and culture to the region. Genghis Khan's Mongols invaded in the 13th century. In 1747, Pashtun elders held a council meeting called a Loya Jirga and created the kingdom of the Afghans.
The British and Afghans fought in three wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the Afghans finally defeated the British in 1919 and formed an independent monarchy in 1921. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and the Afghan fighters called Mujahedin were aided by the United States, Pakistan, China, and Iran.
In 1996, Soviet troops left Afghanistan and the Taliban took control of the capital Kabul. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States began searching for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and invaded Afghanistan, along with an international coalition to remove the Taliban. A Loya Jirga wrote a new constitution in 2004 and the people elected their first president, Hamid Karzai. In September 2014, a new president, Ashraf Ghani, was elected.