The country of Afghanistan has a long and complicated history of domination by foreign powers and inter-factional conflict within the country.
While Afghanistan is well covered in headlines and reporting, the lion’s share of that coverage is directly related to the conflict. As a result, Afghanistan is viewed by many in Western countries as a war-torn desert, with conflict, ideology, and geopolitical power obscuring more practical information about the country and its people.
In the Afghanistan map graphic above, we step back and look at Afghanistan from a structural perspective. How does its unique landscape influence population patterns? How does this geography influence the economy and relations with neighboring nations? Let’s dive into it.
Top of the mountain, bottom of the valley
Afghanistan’s rugged landscape is defined by towering snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys and vast deserts.
First, the country has a wide variety of climatic extremes. There is over 100 ºC (180 ºF) separating the high and low temperature records.
The extremes don’t stop with temperature though. Afghanistan has the sixth highest elevation in the world, with 7,234 m (23,734 ft) between its highest and lowest point. Afghanistan is one of 44 landlocked countries in the world, which is why its lowest point is so much higher than sea level.
For those who live in North America, the country’s terrain has been compared to Colorado, with Kabul sharing similarities with Denver.
Where do people live in Afghanistan?
The settlement patterns in Afghanistan are similar to those in other countries in the region; people congregate where there is access to fresh water.
As the cartogram below shows, a large portion of the country’s population is around Kabul and in the region adjacent to the Kabul River.
The southwestern province of Nimruz is the least populated region in the country. The Wakhan Corridor, which connects Afghanistan to China, is also very sparsely populated, with around 14,000 inhabitants in total.
Key facts about the demographics of Afghanistan
Afghanistan has a very young population. The country’s median age, 19, is one of the youngest in the world and is low compared to its neighbors Pakistan (24) and Iran (30).
Islam is the official state religion of Afghanistan. 99.7% of the Afghan population is Muslim, one of the highest proportions of the 49 Muslim-majority countries.
So far in 2021, OCHA estimates that 550,000 people in Afghanistan are “internally displaced” as a result of the conflict, and that number could rise further as new data follows the final days of the capture. control of the country by the Taliban. The majority of these displaced people are children.
Opening the way
The ring road connecting major Afghan cities began in the 1960s, but was quickly interrupted by war. After the United States took control in 2001, construction of new roads began in earnest.
Between 2002 and 2016, USAID and the Department of Defense (DoD) spent approximately $ 2.8 billion to build and maintain Afghanistan’s road infrastructure. This figure does not include additional investments from other sources that have poured in to improve the country’s road network.
The result is a more complete road network, but difficult to maintain. A 2016 report revealed collapsed bridges and sections of road across the country that were washed away.
Resources and relationships
Afghanistan is a critical source of fresh water for the arid region. Several large regional rivers flow from the mountainous provinces in the east of the country to neighboring countries, so any new irrigation system and dam infrastructure will also come at a geopolitical price.
Already in the recent past, tensions have grown with Iran and Pakistan over the flow of water crossing the border.
Outside countries are also very interested in Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources. Decades of near-continuous conflict have made mining a difficult proposition in the country, but with increasing demand for resources such as lithium and rare earths, that may soon change.
Afghanistan is estimated to have over $ 1 trillion in untapped mineral reserves, and outside interests are taking note.
China has said it is ready for “friendly and cooperative relations” with the new Taliban regime, and investments from the China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may come in to fill the void left by the departure of the Western powers.