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1Up and Down the Hindu Kush

The Hindu Kush rises high above the plains and valleys ofAfghanistan. Over the millennia these majestic mountains havelooked down upon peaceful farmers and wandering pastoralists,upon the armies of Alexander the Great and Chingiz-Khan, upontraders and pilgrims, and in recent years upon multitudes of despar-ate foreign diplomats who have tried to bring peace to this war-torn country. Whatever these men and women accomplished inAfghanistan, not far off there always loomed the towering height ofthe Hindu Kush. Thousands of years ago the ancient Iranians calledthis range the *upiri sana, or (kf-i) aprsn, (the mountains)above the falcon, or in other words, mountains that rise higher thana bird can fly.1 In the late first millennium bc, the Greeks corre-spondingly used the name of the Paropanisadae to indicate the plainsthat stretch immediately southeast of the mountains, around themodern capital of Kabul.2 The Classical name probably derives fromIranian *para-upairisana, which should mean something like theland which lies beyond the upairisana and thus indicating a namegiven by people who lived on the other, northern side of the moun-tains. In the early seventh century of the modern era, the ChineseBuddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, while travelling through Afghanistan onhis way from China to the Indian subcontinent and back again, usedthe name of Poluoxina to describe the mountains north of Kabul.3

The appellation recalls the Old Iranian name, and in his Records the

1 The identity of the (Old Iranian, Avestan) Sana Mrga (Saena bird, eagle,falcon?) remains unknown. In later Iranian mythology it is referred to as the Simurgh(Middle Persian Snmurv); compare Bartholomae 1904:398 and Monchi-Zadeh1975:128.2 A western offshoot of the Hindu Kush, north and northeast of Herat, is stillknown as the Paropamisus Range by western geographers.3 Translation of the Si-Yu-Ki, Buddhist Records of the Western World, by SamuelBeal (1884: II, 286).

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pilgrim unwittingly illustrates this point by telling that [t]he verybirds that fly in their wheeling flight cannot mount alone this point,but go afoot across the height and then fly downwards.

The Hindu Kush is an offshoot of the Himalayas. In its widestsense the name covers much of the rugged centre and northeast ofAfghanistan. The mountains affect the countrys climate, the qualityof its soil, the availability of water and its routes of communication.In this way, the Hindu Kush constitutes a constant factor in the lifeof the people who make a living along its flanks and in the sur-rounding plains. It is a difficult life, in a harsh and often cruel envi-ronment, with cold winters and hot summers. In some areas there is plenty of water, while other places receive hardly any precipitationat all. Sometimes, as at the time of writing this book, it does not rain for years on end, causing immense suffering and great overalldamage. The average life expectancy for Afghan men and women isconsequently very low; the CIA factbook for the year 2000 gives anestimate of 45.88 years.4

Although producing relatively little and forcing people into a con-stant struggle against the environment, the country is also singularlyunique and full of potential, which is mainly due to its geographicalposition. The people of Afghanistan live along one of the most impor-tant high roads of Asia (Ill. 1). Their country constitutes the con-

2 Up and Down the Hindu Kush

Illustration 1 Group of Afghan Mujahedin, summer 1982 (photograph:author).

4 CIA factbook www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/af.html

necting link between the steppes and deserts of Central Asia, the vastexpanses of the Middle East and Iran, and the lush plains and sweltering heat of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout history,immigrants from neighbouring lands moved into and across themountains and passes of Afghanistan, traversing the country from all sides. They all left their traces, and their descendants, and thuscreated the mosaic of ethnic groups that characterizes the countryspresent population.

Contacts with the outside world, however, were never one-sided.Time and again, the hardened men from Afghanistan moved fromtheir mountains down into the surrounding plains and deserts, forgrazing, trade or plunder. They defeated kingdoms and foundedempires. In this way, the history of the people of Afghanistan is alsothe history of those who live beyond its modern borders.

Against this environmental and geographical backdrop, the peopleof Afghanistan have woven a web of shared customs, beliefs, andtechniques, and with a comparable outlook on life. This web justi-fies the writing of a book on the history of the Afghans as a singlegroup distinct from neighbouring peoples, even if the name Afghanreally only applies to one of the peoples that inhabit the country.These are the Pashtuns, who for centuries have constituted the domi-nant ethnic group of Afghanistan and who live mainly in the southand east of the country and in neighbouring Pakistan. It also meansthat in order to understand the people of Afghanistan and theirhistory, it is necessary to know something about the physical envi-ronment that made the Afghans into what they are now.

Present-day Afghanistan

The modern Islamic State of Afghanistan (Dawlat-i Islmi-yiAfghnistn)5 is a landlocked country of 647,500 square km (Map1) and is therefore somewhat larger than France.6 In the south andeast, over a distance of 2,430km, it borders on Pakistan. In the north-east, high in the mountains, it shares a very short boundary (76km)with China. Two northern neighbouring countries are Tajikistan(1,206km) and Uzbekistan (137km). In the northwest lies Turk-menistan (744km), and to the west Afghanistan is bounded by theIslamic Republic of Iran (936km). Estimates of Afghanistans presentpopulation are notoriously vague. In 1978, experts accepted a figure

Up and Down the Hindu Kush 3

5 The Taliban movement, presently in control of most of the country including thecapital Kabul, describes the country as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.6 CIA factbook.

of some fifteen million. Following the communist coup of 27 April1978, and especially after the invasion of the country by Soviet forcesat Christmas 1979, some five million refugees fled the country. Hundreds of thousands died during the war (Ill. 2), which continuedafter the Soviet withdrawal that was completed on 15 February 1989.The number of refugees who have since then returned to their country is unknown, nor are there clear figures of new refugees trying to es-cape the internecine wars that dominate modern politics. The CIAfactbook for 2000 gives estimates of some 1,200,000 Afghans stillremaining in Pakistan, and some 1,400,000 in Iran. Yet what is clear is that in spite of all the upheaval, the population of Afghanistanhas in fact increased considerably and estimates indicate a figure of almost 26 million for mid-2000. However, reliable information and figures are absent and the present description of Afghanistan and its population is therefore mainly based on the pre-1979 situation.

Almost all of the modern frontiers of Afghanistan were formallydefined and acknowledged in the late nineteenth century. Most of the

4 Up and Down the Hindu Kush

TURKMENISTAN^ UZBEKISTAN

IRAN^

Quetta

Ghazni

Qunduz

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Maymana

Shibarghan^

Farah^

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Registan Desert^DA

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Salang Pass^

Mazar-iSharif

^

NURIS

TAN^

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Herat^

Peshawar^

Qandahar^

Kabul^Bamiyan^ ^

BADA

KHSH

AN^

TAJIKISTAN

SISTA

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PAKISTAN^ ^

^ ^ ^

Map 1 The main cities and districts of Afghanistan.

borders were not pegged out along clear geographical features, or onthe basis of long-accepted historical traditions. Instead, political andmilitary considerations by the superpowers of those days determinedthe course of the frontiers. Hence, in the days when European powerscontrolled most of the globe, British and Russian boundary commis-sions traversed this part of the world in order to mark Afghanistansouter contours. They intentionally separated the British possessionsin the Indian subcontinent from the Russian conquests in Central

Up and Down the Hindu Kush 5

Illustration 2 Two Afghan Mujahedin on their way from Ghazni to Hazarajat, summer 1982 (photograph: author).

6 Up and Down the Hindu Kush

Qunduz

Herat^Kabul^

Qandahar^

Land above 3000 mLand between 1800 and 3000 m

Map 2 The mountains of Afghanistan.

Quetta

Kabul^

Chitral^

Herat^

Qandahar^

Hari Rud

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.

Qun

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d R

.

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astan^

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h Ru

d

^

Murghab^

Amu DaryaPa

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IndusBal

khab

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^

Peshawar^

Map 3 The main rivers of Afghanistan.

Up and Down the Hindu Kush 7

Asia.7 These were the years of the Great Game between Russia andEngland, so well described by Rudyard Kipling in his book, Kim. Inthose years, the state of Afghanistan under Amir Abd al-RahmanKh

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