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Understand Afghanistan

Posted by in , on 6-19-13

Afghanistan has spent the last 3 decades in the news for all the wrong reasons. While visiting has not been advisable for several years, it has much to offer the intrepid traveller. That said, even the more adventurous should consider looking elsewhere for thrill-seeking at the moment.
Climate

Temperatures in the central highlands are below freezing for most of the winter, and snow is common at higher elevations. Summertime highs in lower elevations (such as Jalalabad or Mazar-e Sharif) can exceed 50°C/120°F. In higher areas such as Kabul, summer temperatures can be 30°C/90°F and winter around 0°C/30°F. The most pleasant weather in Kabul is during April, May and September.
Terrain

Mostly rugged mountains; plains in north and southwest. The Hindu Kush mountains run northeast to southwest, dividing the northern provinces from the rest of the country, with the highest peaks found in the northern Wakhan Corridor. South of Kandahar is desert.

The lowest point is Amu Darya at 258 m, and the highest is Nowshak at 7,485 m.
People
2011 Afghan Youth Voices Festival at Babur Gardens in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country. Tribal and local allegiances are strong, which complicates national politics immensely.

The largest ethnic group is the Pashtun, followed by Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and others.

Baloch tribesmen, still largely nomadic, can be found anywhere between Quetta in Pakistan and Mashad in Iran, including much of Western Afghanistan. They make marvellous rugs, if somewhat simple.

There are about three thousand Hindus and Sikhs living in different cities of the country but mostly in Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar who belong to the Punjabi, Sindhi, Kabuli, and Kandhari ethnic groups.

Hazaras in the Central mountains look much more Asiatic than other Afghans. According to some theories, many of them are descended from Ghengis Khan’s soldiers.

The two largest linguistic groups speak Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian). Pashto speakers predominate in the South and East, Dari in North, West and central Afghanistan. About 11% of the population have Turkic languages, Uzbek or Turkmen, as their first language. Many of them are in the North, near Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Minor native language groups include Nuristani, Dardic and Pamiri, found in small pockets in the east and northeast.
History
The main mosque in Kandahar, adjacent to it is the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani and the site of the Prophet’s Cloak.

Mir Wais Hotak, an Afghan tribal leader, rose up against the oppressing Shi’a Safavids in 1709 and made Afghanistan an independent state by establishing the Hotaki dynasty, with its capital at Kandahar. His son Mahmud later conquered what is now Iran and Iraq but the Hotaki dynasty collapsed in 1738. In 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani re-established an independent Afghanistan and expanded it to include what is now Pakistan as well as northeastern Iran and the Western parts of India. The country has a long history of warfare, mostly against invaders such as Alexander of Macedon, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and the British. On the contrary, it was once the second major Islamic learning center after Baghdad. Many world renowned scholars, scientists, mathematicians and poets hail from what is now Afghanistan. This includes Avicenna, Al-Biruni, Rumi, and others.

The Afghan Girl
The June 1985 cover of National Geographic [1] showed the most haunting image of the Afghan War: a young Afghan girl, with piercing sea-green eyes and a dilapidated hijab. The photo, taken by Steve McCurry in Pakistan in 1984, became the icon of the troubles in Afghanistan. But, for 17 years, no one knew the girl’s name. Then in 2002, following the defeat of the Taliban, National Geographic finally located the girl and her identity: Sharbat Gula. She vividly recalled being photographed and recognized her face as the one in the photo. Today, in her honor, NG now runs a fund to educate young Afghan girls, who were denied education under the Taliban.

Afghanistan remained peaceful between 1933 and the late 1970s, focusing on developing itself. After the April 1978 bloody coupe by pro-Soviet Union members, the Soviet Union invaded in December 1979 to support the new socialist government. By February 1989 all Soviet forces withdrew from the country but fighting continued between Soviet-backed Afghan government forces and mujahideen rebels, who were funded by the United States, Saudi Arabia and others while trained by Pakistan and Iran.

The Taliban grew out of this chaos in late 1994, providing a solution to what was by this time a civil war. Backed by foreign sponsors, and inspired by a conservative sect of Islam, the Taliban developed as a political force to end the civil war and bring order to the country. They seized the capital of Kabul in September 1996 and controlled most of the country by 2000, aside from some areas in the northeast.

After the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the world focused on the situation in Afghanistan. Washington accused Osama bin Laden and al Qaida for attacking the US, requested that the Taliban hand these people over to US authorities and destroy all al Qaida training camps inside Afghanistan. The Taliban did not take the US serious and requested to see evidence before anyone can be handed over to them. The US and allies decided to take military action with support from anti-Taliban Afghans, causing the Taliban government to fall in December 2001.

That same month, representatives from all ethnic groups of Afghanistan met in Germany and agreed to form a new democratic government with Hamid Karzai as Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority. Following a nationwide election in 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. A year later, in 2005, legislative elections were held and the country’s parliament began functioning again. In addition to occasionally violent political jockeying and ongoing military action to root out anti-government elements, the country suffers from poverty, opium cultivation, and widespread corruption.

In 2005, Afghanistan and the US signed a strategic partnership agreement committing both nations to a long-term relationship. In 2012, the two countries signed another more important strategic partnership agreement in which Afghanistan was designated a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). Afghanistan also signed a strategic partnership agreement with India, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and many other nations. In the meantime around 50 billion US dollars is being spent on the reconstruction of the country.
Electricity

Officially 220V 50Hz. Electricity supplies are erratic but slowly improving in major cities. Voltage can drop to below 150V in some places. The Afghans’ enthusiasm for home-made generators or modifying low quality ones means that the frequency and voltage can also vary wildly.

There are three types of electrical outlets likely to be found in Afghanistan. They are the old British standard BS-546, the newer British standard BS-1363 and the European standard CEE-7/7 “Schukostecker” or “Schuko”. The latter is the standard and obviously most common. Generally speaking, US and Canadian travellers should pack adapters for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Afghanistan. You may also find cheap universal adapters in the local markets.
Read

Afghan Scene magazine [2]

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby – a hilarious account of pioneer trekking in Nuristan in the 1950s

The Places Inbetween by Rory Stewart – a fascinating post 9/11 travelogue of Stewart’s walk from Herat to Kabul just after the fall of the Taliban.

The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini – a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of childhood in Afghanistan

Good Morning Afghanistan by Waseem Mahmood – a true account of the setting up of the first public radio station in Kabul after the Taliban fell.

An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot — a true travelogue from the period between the expulsion of the Soviets and the ascension of the Taliban. He went everywhere.

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