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Geography of Afghanistan

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Mountain systems
3 Climate
4 Vegetation
5 Reference


Location: Southern Asia, north and west of Pakistan, east of Iran

Geographic coordinates: 33 00 N, 65 00 E

Map references: Asia

Area: total: 647,500 km² land: 647,500 sq km water: 0 sq km

Land boundaries: total: 5,529 km border countries: People's Republic of China 76 km, Iran 936 km, Pakistan 2,430 km, Tajikistan 1,206 km, Turkmenistan 744 km, Uzbekistan 137 km

Coastline: 0 km (landlocked)

Maritime claims: none (landlocked)

Rivers: Amu Darya, Kabul River, Hari Rud, Helmand River.

Climate: arid to semiarid; cold winters and hot summers

Terrain: mostly rugged mountains - the Hindu Kush and connected ranges; plains in north and southwest

Elevation extremes: lowest point: Amu Darya 258 m highest point: Nowshak 7,485 m

Natural resources: natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, iron ore, salt, precious and semiprecious stones

Land use: arable land: 12.13% permanent crops: 0.22% permanent pastures: n/a forests and woodland: n/a other: 87.65% (1998 est.)

Irrigated land: 23.860 sq km (1998 est.)

Natural hazards: damaging earthquakes occur in Hindu Kush mountains; flooding , droughts

Environment - current issues: Limited natural fresh water resources; inadequate supply of potted water; soil degradation; overgrazing; deforestation (much of the remaining forests are being cut down for fuel and building materials);desertification; air and water pollution

Environment - international agreements: party to: Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Marine Dumping, Nuclear Test Ban signed, but not ratified: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Life Conservation

Geography - note: landlocked, the Hindu Kush mountains that run northeast to southwest divide the northern provinces from the rest of the country; the highest peaks are in the northern Vakhan (Wakhan Corridor)

see also : Afghan Turkestan

Mountain systems

The dominant mountain system of Afghanistan is the Hindu Kush, and that extension westwards of its water-divide which reindicated by the Koh-i-Baba to the north-west of Kabul, and by the Firozkhoi plateau (Karjistan), which merges still farther to the west by gentle gradients into the Paropamisus, and which may be traced across the Hari Rud to Mashad.

The culminating peaks of the Koh-i-Baba overlooking the sources of the Hari Rud, the Helmund, the Kunduz and the Kabul very nearly reach 17,000 ft. in height (Shah Fuladi, the highest, is 16,870), and from them to the south-west long spurs divide the upper tributaries of the Helmund, and separate its basin from that of the Farah Rud. These spurs retain a considerable altitude, for they are marked by peaks exceeding 11,000 ft. They sweep in a broad band of roughly parallel ranges to the south-west, preserving their general direction till they abut on the Great Registan desert to the west of Kandahar, where they terminate in a series of detached and broken anticlinals whose sides are swept by a sea of encroaching sand. The long, straight, level-backed ridges which divide the Argandab, the Tarnak and Arghastan valleys, and flank the route from Kandaharto Ghazni. determining the direction of that route, are outliers of this system, which geographically includes the Khojak, or Kwaja Amran, range in Baluchistan.

North of the main water-parting of Afghanistan the broad synclinal plateau into which the Hindu Kush is merged is traversed by the gorges of the Saighan, Bamian and Kamard tributaries of the Kunduz, and farther to the west by the Band-i-Amir or Balkh river. Between the debouchment of the Upper Murghab from the Firozkhoi uplands into the comparatively low level of the valley above Bala Murghab, extending eastwards in a nearly straight line to the upper sources of the Shibarghan stream, the Band-i-Turkestan range forms the northern ridge between the plateau and the sand formations of the Chul. lt is a level, straight-backed line of sombre mountain ridge, from the crest of which, as from a wall, the extraordinary configuration of that immense loess deposit called the Chul can be seen stretching away northwards to the Oxus--ridge upon ridge, wave upon wave, like a vast yellow-grey sea of storm-twisted billows. The Band-i-Turkestan anticlinal may be traced eastwards of the Balkh-ab (the Band-i-Amir) within the folds of the Kara Koh to the Kunduz, and beyond; but the Kara Koh does not mark the northern wall of the great plateau nor overlook the sands of the Oxus plain, as does the Band-i-Turkestan. Here there intervenes a second wide synclinal plateau, of which the northern edge is defined by the flat outlines of the Elburz to the south of Mazar-itsharif, and immediately at the foot of this range lie the alluvial plains of Mazar and Tashkurghan. Opposite Tashkurghan the Oxus plain narrows to a short 25 m. On the south this great band of roughly undulatine central plateau is bounded by the Koh-i-Baba, to the west of Kabul, and by the Hindu Kush to the north and north-east of that city. Thus the main routes from Kabul to Afghan Turkestan must cross either one or other of these ranges, and must traverse one or other of the terrific defiles which have been carved out of them by the upoer tributaries of the rivers running northwards towards the Oxus. Probably in no country in the world are there gathered together within comparatively narrow limits so many clean-cut waterways, measuring thousands of feet in depth, affording such a stupendous system of narrow roadways through the hills.

After the Hindu Kush and the Turkestan mountains, that range which divides Ningrahar (or the valley of ialalabad) from Kurram and the Afridi Tirah, and is called Safed Koh (also the name of the range south of the Hari Rud), is the most important, as it is the most impressive, in Afghanistan.

The highest peak of the Safed Koh, Sikaram, is 15,600 ft. above sea-level. From this central dominating peak it falls gently towards the west, and gradually subsides in long spurs, reaching to within a few miles of Kabul and barring the road from Kabul to Ghazni. At a point which is not far east of the Kabul meridian an offshoot is directed southwards, which becomes the water-parting between the Kurram and the Logar at Shutargardan, and can be traced to a connexion with the great watershed of the frontier dividing the Indus basin from that of the Helmund. This main watershed retains its high altitude far to the south. There are peaks measuring over 12,000 ft. on the divide between the Tochi and the Ghazni plains.

There are no glaciers now to be found in Afghan Turkestan; but evidences of their recent existence are abundant. The great boulder bed terraces in some of the valleys of the northern slopes of the Ferozkhoi plateau are probably of glacial origin. In the mountains west of Kabul glaciers have retired, leaving the moraines perfectly undisturbed. They are probably contemporary with the older alluvia.


The variety of climate is immense, as might be expected. Taking the highlands of the country as a whole, there is no great difference between the mean temperature of Afghanistan and that of the lower Himalayas. Each may be placed at a point between 50 deg. and 60 deg. F. But the remarkable feature of Afghan climate is its extreme range of temperature within limited periods. The least daily range in the north is during the cold weather, the greatest in the hot. For seven months of the year (from May to November) this range exceeds 30 deg. F. daily. Waves of intense cold occur, lasting for several days, and one may have to endure a cold of 12 deg. below zero, rising to a maximum of 17 deg. below freezing-point. On the other hand the summer temperature is exceedingly high, especially in the Oxus regions, where a shade maximum of 110 deg. to 120 deg. is not uncommon. At Kabul, and over all the northern part of the country to the descent at Gandamak, winter is rigorous, but especially so on the high Arachosian plateau. In Kabul the snow lies for two or three months; the people seldom leave their houses, and sleep close to stoves. At Ghazni the snow has been known to lie long beyond the vernal equinox; the thermometer sinks to 10 deg. and 15 deg. below zero (Fahr.); and tradition relates the entire destruction of the population of Ghazni by snowstorms more than once.

At Jalalabad the winter and the climate generally assume an Indian character. The summer heat is great everywhere in Afghanistan, but most of all in the districts bordering on the Indus, especially Sewi, on the lower Helmund and in Seistan. All over Kandahar province the summer heat is intense, and the simoon is not unknown. The hot season throughout this part of the country is rendered more trying by frequent dust storms and fiery winds; whilst the bare rocky ridges that traverse the country, absorbing heat by day and radiating it by night, render the summer nights most oppressive. At Kabul the summer sun has great power, though the heat is tempered occasionally by cool breezes from the Hindu Kush, and the nights are usually cool. At Kandahar snow seldom falls on the plains or lower hills; when it does, it melts at once.

At Herat, though 800 ft. lower than Kandahar, the summer climate is more temperate; and, in fact, the climate altogether is far from disagreeable. From May to September the wind blows from the N.W. with great violence, and this extends across the country to Kandahar. The winter is tolerably mild; snow melts as it falls, and even on the mountains does not lie long. Three years out of four at Herat it does not freeze hard enough for the people to store ice; yet it was not very far from Herat, and could not have been at a greatly higher level (at Rafir Kala, near Kassan) that, in 1750, Ahmad Shah's army, retreating from Persia, is said to have lost 18,000 men from cold in a single night. In the northern Herat districts, too, records of the coldest month (February) show the mean minimum as 17 deg. F., and the maximum 38 deg. . The eastern reaches of the Hari Rud river are frozen hard in the winter, rapids and all, and the people travel on it as on a road.

The summer rains that accompany the S.W. monsoon in India, beating along the southern slopes of the Himalaya, travel up the Kabul valley as far as Laghman, though they are more clearly felt in Bajour and Panjkora, under the high spurs of the Hindu Kush, and in the eastern branches of Safed Koh. Rain also falls at this season at the head of Kurram valley. South of this the Suliman mountains may be taken as the western limit of the monsoon's action. It is quite unfelt in the rest of Afghanistan, in which, as in all the west of Asia, the winter rains are the most considerable. The spring rain, though less copious, is more important to agriculture than the winter rain, unless where the latter falls in the form of snow. In the absence of monsoon influences there are steadier weather indications than in India. The north-west blizzards which occur in winter and spring are the most noticeable feature, and their influence is clearly felt on the Indian frontier. The cold is then intense and the force of the wind cyclonic. Speaking generally, the Afghanistan climate is a dry one. The sun shines with splendour for three-fourths of the year, and the nights are even more clear than the days. Marked characteristics are the great differences of summer and winter temperature and of day and night temperature, as well as the extent to which change of climate can be attained by slight change of place. As the emperor Baber said of Kabul, at one day's journey from it you may find a place where snow never falls, and at two hours' journey a place where snow almost never melts.


The characteristic distribution of vegetation on the mountains of Afghanistan is worthy of attention. The great mass of it is confined to the main ranges and their immediate off-shoots, whilst on the more distant and terminal prolongations it is almost entirely absent; in fact, these are naked rock and stone.

Take, for example, the Safed Koh. On the alpine range itself and its immediate branches, at a height of 6000 to 10,000 ft., we have abundant growth of large forest trees, among which conifers are the most noble and prominent, such as Cedrus Deodara, Abies excelsa, Pinus longifolia, P. Pinaster, P. Pinea (the edible pine) and the larch. We have also the yew, the hazel, juniper, walnut, wild peach and almond. Growing under the shade of these are several varieties of rose, honeysuckle, currant, gooseberry, hawthorn, rhododendron and a luxuriant herbage, among which the ranunculus family is important for frequency and number of genera. The lemon and wild vine are also here met with, but are more common on the northern mountains. The walnut and oak (evergreen, holly-leaved and kermes) descend to the secondary heights, where they become mixed with alder, ash, khinjak, Arbor-vitae, juniper, with species of Astragalus, &c. Here also are Indigoferae rind dwarf laburnum.

Lower again, and down to 3000 ft. we have wild olive, species of rock-rose, wild privet, acacias and mimosas, barberry and Zizyphus; and in the eastern ramifications of the chain, Chamaerops humilis (which is applied to a variety of useful purposes), Bignonia or trumpet flower, sissu, Salvadora persica, verbena, acanthus, varieties of Gesnerae.

The lowest terminal ridges, especially towards the west, are, as has been said, naked in aspect. Their scanty vegetation is almost wholly herbal; shrubs are only occasional; trees almost non-existent. Labiate, composite and umbelliferous plants are most common. Ferns and mosses are almost confined to the higher ranges.

In the low brushwood scattered over portions of the dreary plains of the Kandahar table-lands, we find leguminous thorny plants of the papilionaceous sub-order, such as camel-thorn (Hedysarum Alhagi), Astragalus in several varieties, spiny rest-harrow (Ononis spinosa), the fibrous roots of which often serve as a tooth-brush; plants of the sub-order Mimosae, as the sensitive mimosa; a plant of the rue family, called by the natives lipad the common wormwood; also certain orchids, and several species of Salsola. The rue and wormwood are in general use as domestic medicines---the former for rheumatism and neuralgia; the latter in fever, debility and dyspepsia, as well as for a vermifuge. The lipad, owing to its heavy nauseous odour, is believed to keep off evil soirits. In some places, occupying the sides and hollows of ravines, are found the rose bay (Nerium Oleander), called in Persian khar-zarah, or ass-bane, the wild laburnum and various Indigoferae.

In cultivated districts the chief trees seen are mulberry, willow, poplar, ash, and occasionally the plane; but these are due to man's planting.


Much of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website. The text comes from part of the entry on Afghanistan in a 1911 encyclopedia