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Afghanistan


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Afghanistan’s history, people, culture, and demography/geography and their implications to the present conflict in the country has important implications for the United States. Afghanistan is a country of enormous complexity with a population that is fiercely independent. Much of the complexity is due to ethno-linguistic fragmentation of the country.  Afghans speak over 20 languages from 4 major language groups, many with a multitude of dialects. Afghanistan has also been a complex “melting pot” of Slavic, Indian, Persian, Turkish, Arab, Central Asian, and European personages.

 

The Pashtuns, representing approximately 42 percent of the population, are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.   Ethnic Tajiks represent 27 percent of the population. The Hazaras, represent another 9 percent. Other groups -- such as the Aimaks, Turkmen, Baluch, Uzbek, and others comprise the rest. The country is almost totally Muslim with the Sunni Muslims representing 80 percent of the population and Shi’s Muslims representing 19%.  Afghanistan is an example of the older form of Islamic society where religion is not an ideology but an all-encompassing way of life.

 

The country has been in continual and violent conflict since the 1970s.  By 1992 there were more personal weapons in Afghanistan than in India and Pakistan combined.  By some estimates more such weapons had been shipped into Afghanistan during the previous three decades than to any other country in the world.  Sadly, an entire generation of Afghans has known little other than conflict as their society with a long and proud culture was hijacked by guns, drugs, thugs and interlopers.  This near continuous conflict in addition to Afghanistan’s vast, remote regions have made it attractive to extremists and terrorists in search of a relatively safe and secure haven for refuge, training, and a base of operations.

 

The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington refocused attention on Afghanistan (at least until Iraq made it a “forgotten war” in Spring of 2003).  While the initial years of US operation in Afghanistan known as “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF) was accompanied by much optimism, the last 10 years have seen very disturbing trends in Afghanistan.  The country is locked in a significant insurgency wrapped in the narrative of jihad – much of which US Policymakers still don’t fully understand.  And the Kabul Government continues to have a very difficult time instituting meaningful political reform and development anywhere in the country.  Much of this is a reflection that the Kabul regime is viewed by the much of the population as being illegitimate and extremely corrupt. Finally, it must be recognized that a fundamental problem in Afghanistan today is that the Taliban are out governing the Kabul regime in many parts of the country.  The Taliban’s shadow justice system has been particularly effective and respected by many Afghans. This recognition in conjunction with the fact that the NATO and US never really pursued an effective population centric strategy has left Afghanistan in an extremely precarious situation.

 

The geography of Afghanistan consists of some very hostile terrain of vast mountains, barren deserts, and remote valleys.  Rugged terrain has traditionally allowed for distinct ways of life beyond control of state central rule. Afghanistan shares a 1400 mile border with Pakistan that has been the focus of much controversy and conflict.

 

Like its geography, the county’s weather is also dramatic with hot summers and frigid winters.

 

According to Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan is made up of two types of “societies.” The first is a desert civilization in “marginal zones” whose existence depends on subsistence agriculture and pastoralism and are organized around kinship. Here kinship ties are extremely important to all aspects of Afghan life. The second Afghan society is sedentary and is based on the surplus of agricultural production. This Afghan society exists primarily in river valleys and Afghan cities and is based on hierarchical social classes. Urban (25%) versus rural (75%) populations has long been a defining factor of the Afghan polity.

 

Louis DuPree in his seminal book Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, Fourth Printing, 2004, pp. 5-32) describes eleven Afghan “geographic zones”: the Wakhan Corridor – Pamir Knot;  Badakshan; Central Mountains; Eastern Mountains; Northern Mountains and Foothills;  Southern Mountains and Foothills; Turkestsan Plains; Heart-Farah Lowlands; Sistan Basin – Helmand Valley; Western Stony Deserts, and; Southwestern Sandy Deserts.

 

For our purposes we will simplify Afghanistan and break the 34 provinces of Afghanistan into four regions: Northern, Southern, Western, and Central Afghanistan.

 

The Provinces of Afghanistan via Wikipedia

Province

Centers

Population (2015)

Area (km²)

# Districts

U.N. Region

Badakhshan

Fayzabad

950,953

44,059

29

North East Afghanistan

Badghis

Qala i Naw

495,958

20,591

7

West Afghanistan

Baghlan

Puli Khumri

910,784

21,118

16

North East Afghanistan

Balkh

Mazar-i-Sharif

1,325,659

17,249

15

North West Afghanistan

Bamyan

Bamyan

447,218

14,175

7

Central Afghanistan

Daykundi

Nili

424,339

18,088

8

South West Afghanistan

Farah

Farah

507,405

48,471

11

West Afghanistan

Faryab

Maymana

998,147

20,293

14

North West Afghanistan

Ghazni

Ghazni

1,228,831

22,915

19

South East Afghanistan

Ghor

Chaghcharan

690,296

36,479

10

West Afghanistan

Helmand

Lashkar Gah

924,711

58,584

13

South West Afghanistan

Herat

Herat

1,890,202

54,778

15

West Afghanistan

Jowzjan

Sheberghan

540,255

11,798

9

North West Afghanistan

Kabul

Kabul

4,372,977

4,462

18

Central Afghanistan

Kandahar

Kandahar

1,226,593

54,022

16

South East Afghanistan

Kapisa

Mahmud-i-Raqi

441,010

1,842

7

Central Afghanistan

Khost

Khost

574,582

4,152

13

South East Afghanistan

Kunar

Asadabad

450,652

4,942

15

North East Afghanistan

Kunduz

Kunduz

1,010,037

8,040

7

North East Afghanistan

Laghman

Mihtarlam

445,588

3,843

5

East Afghanistan

Logar

Pul-i-Alam

392,045

3,880

7

Central Afghanistan

Maidan Wardak

Maidan Shar

596,287

9,934

9

Central Afghanistan

Nangarhar

Jalalabad

1,517,388

7,727

23

East Afghanistan

Nimruz

Zaranj

164,978

41,005

5

South West Afghanistan

Nuristan

Parun

147,967

9,225

7

North East Afghanistan

Paktia

Gardez

551,987

6,432

11

South East Afghanistan

Paktika

Sharana

434,742

19,482

15

South East Afghanistan

Panjshir

Bazarak

153,487

3,610

5

North East Afghanistan

Parwan

Charikar

664,502

5,974

9

Central Afghanistan

Samangan

Samangan

387,928

11,262

5

North West Afghanistan

Sar-e Pol

Sar-e Pol

559,577

16,360

7

North West Afghanistan

Takhar

Taloqan

983,336

12,333

16

North East Afghanistan

Urozgan

Tarinkot

386,818

12,696

6

Central Afghanistan

Zabul

Qalat

304,126

17,343

9

South East Afghanistan

 

For more reports, websites and analyses on Afghanistan see these sources: Brookings Institute, Institute for Study of War, and Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit.

 

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Kabul

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Material contained herein is made available for the purpose of peer review and discussion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.