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Gateway to India

Landlocked in the vast continent of Asia, Afghanistan is mostly too dry to grow crops. The mountains pull rain and snow from the sky and water the valleys, which makes some farming possible. Herdsmen in the hills and farmers in the valleys are two different cultures. A Pashtun proverb, “Honor ate up the mountains; taxes ate up the plains,” refers to costly vendettas in the hills and debt to Khans in the valleys. Occupying powers find the peasants in the valleys compliant and the hill tribes intractable. Alexander, Ghengis Khan, the British, and the Soviets could not pacify the hill tribes, we won’t either.

Afghanistan lies between the rich lands of India, Bactria, and Mesopotamia. With only a threadbare economy of their own, Afghans have collected tariffs on trade passing through their land for centuries. Today this takes the form of men armed with assault rifles blocking the road. War in Afghanistan can close these trade routes completely.

Four big towns, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar, and Kabul, bracket the country. They are connected by a circular road built half by the Soviets, half by the United States in the 1960s. Jealous of each other, the super-powers refused to connect their roads, although they come within yards of each other. The Hindu Kush Mountains cut the country in two, making it almost natural for Afghanistan to fall apart into autonomous kingdoms.

The Pashtuns in the east founded the nation. A warlike and libertarian people, Pashtuns consider Afghanistan to be their kingdom and refuse to accept national leadership from other ethnic groups. Pashtuns are light-skinned compared to Indians, and it’s possible they are descended from the “White Huns” or Scythians. In the struggle to control the country the Pashtuns are frequently assisted by their fellow tribesmen who live in Pakistan.

One third of Afghans speak Persian dialects. The Tajiks in the northeast are the largest and best organized of these groups, but Herat is also dominated by Persian-speakers.

Third in numbers are Mongol-Turkish peoples in the northwest of the country, mostly Uzbeks and Turkmen. Many of these are descended from people who fled the Russian advance in Central Asia during the 1800s. The Hazara are Persian-speaking but of Mongol stock. Balooch, Nuristanis, Aimacs, Ismailis, Kyrgyz, and others further complicate the ethnic picture.