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 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.
Until very recently, Afghanistan was considered a newly formed democracy. However in mid-August 2021, the Taliban—a religious and political group that ruled the country from the mid-1990s until 2001—took control of the country's major cities and regained power. (Taliban means “students” in Pashto, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan.)
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.
In 1978, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in the country, setting in motion a series of events that would turn the poor, mostly peaceful country into a breeding ground for terrorism. The PDPA’s occupation of Afghanistan eventually led to civil war, or a war between citizens of the same country.
Afghan fighters called the mujahedin fought against the PDPA; these rebels later received aid from the United States, Pakistan, China, and Iran. The Soviet Union, now called Russia, supported the PDPA regime. Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and remained in the country until 1989. Civil war continued in Afghanistan after the Soviet departure until the fall of the PDPA regime in 1992.
After the PDPA’s fall, various groups fought to gain control of the country. The Taliban emerged in 1994 and quickly began to take over cities across Afghanistan, with military support from Pakistan. During the Taliban's rule, the group was condemned by the international community for murdering innocent Afghan civilians and denying food supplies to starving citizens.
In 2001, following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11 of that year, the U.S. government demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden, the leader of a terrorist group called al Qaeda, which was based in Afghanistan. The Taliban refused. The United States and its allies then took military action in Afghanistan and drove the Taliban from power in December 2001.
Both the Taliban and al Qaeda fled Afghanistan and relocated to nearby Pakistan, where they set up political and military outposts. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies worked with Afghans to set up schools, hospitals, and public facilities following the Taliban’s departure. Thousands of girls—who were banned from being educated under Taliban rule—went to school for the first time. Women were free to get jobs and take part in government activities, both of which were forbidden under the Taliban.
In 2004, Afghanistan adopted its current constitution and became an internationally recognized government, electing Hamid Karzai as its first president. Under its constitution, the president and two vice presidents are elected every five years. But the government struggled to extend its authority beyond the capital city of Kabul because the Taliban forces continued to try to regain control of the country.
In 2020, the Taliban and the Afghan government began to discuss a peace treaty, and though some people were concerned that the talks wouldn't progress, U.S. president Donald Trump planned to remove U.S. troops from the country by May 2021. His successor, Joe Biden, extended the date for the withdrawal to August 31 of that year. After nearly 20 years of U.S. occupation in Afghanistan, the United States’ longest war was going to end.
But the people who were concerned about the peace treaty talks stalling were right: Following Biden’s official announcement in July and the start of the withdrawal of international troops, the Taliban quickly took over multiple cities by force and brought back their extreme practices. By August 15, 2021, the Taliban had taken control of all major cities, including the capital of Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and the Afghan government all but collapsed.
The United States is sending military troops to the country to help the American diplomats and support staff still remaining at the U.S. embassy in Kabul to evacuate safely.