The Geopolitics of Afghanistan

How does Afghanistan's unique landscape influence population patterns? How does this geography influence the economy and relationships with neighbouring nations?
7th September 20215 min

By Nick Routley of Visual Capitalist

The country of Afghanistan has a long and complicated history of domination by foreign powers and conflict between factions within the country.

While Afghanistan is well covered in headlines and news stories, the lion’s share of this coverage is directly related to conflict. As a result, Afghanistan is viewed by many in Western countries as a war-torn desert, with conflict, ideology, and geopolitical power obscuring more practical information about the country and its people.

In the Afghanistan map graphic below, we step back and examine Afghanistan from a structural point of view. How does its unique landscape influence population patterns? How does this geography influence the economy and relationships with neighboring nations? Let’s dive in.

afghanistan map explainer
           (click map to enlarge)
Mountain High, Valley Low

Afghanistan’s rugged landscape is defined by towering snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys, and expansive deserts.

First, the country has a wide variety of climate extremes. There is more than 100ºC (180ºF) separating the record high and low temperatures.

The extremes don’t stop at temperature though. Afghanistan has the sixth-highest elevation span in the world, with 7,234m (23,734 ft) between its highest and lowest point. Afghanistan is one of 44 landlocked nations in the world, which helps explain why its lowest point is so much higher than sea level.

For those living in North America, the country’s terrain has been compared to Colorado, with Kabul sharing similarities with Denver.

Where Do People Live in Afghanistan?

Settlement patterns in Afghanistan are similar to other countries in the region; people cluster where there is access to fresh water.

As the cartogram below demonstrates, a large portion of the country’s population is located around Kabul, and the region adjacent to the Kabul River.

afghanistan gridded population cartogram

The southwestern province of Nimruz is the most sparsely populated area in the country. The Wakhan Corridor—which connects Afghanistan to China—is also very sparsely populated, with about 14,000 total residents.

Afghanistan’s Demographics

Afghanistan has a very youthful population. The country’s median age of 19 years is one of the youngest in the world, and is low compared to its neighbors Pakistan (24) and Iran (30).

afghanistan demographic population pyramid

Islam is the official state religion of Afghanistan. 99.7% of the Afghan population are Muslim, one of the highest proportions of the 49 Muslim-majority countries.

So far in 2021, the OCHA estimates that 550,000 people in Afghanistan are “internally displaced” due to conflict, and this number may rise still as new data tracks the final days of the Taliban’s takeover of the country. The majority of those displaced persons are children.

Paving the Way

The Ring Road connecting Afghanistan’s major cities began in the 1960s but was soon cut short by war. After the U.S. took control in 2001, new road construction began in earnest.

Between 2002 and 2016, USAID and the Department of Defense (DoD) spent approximately $2.8 billion building and maintaining Afghanistan’s road infrastructure. This number doesn’t include additional investment from other sources that poured in to improve the country’s road network.

The result is a more comprehensive road network, but one that is difficult to maintain. A 2016 report found collapsed bridges and sections of road around the country that were washed out.

Resources and Relationships

Afghanistan is a critical source of fresh water for the arid region. Several major regional rivers flow from the country’s mountainous eastern provinces into neighboring countries, so any new irrigation schemes and dam infrastructure will come with a geopolitical price tag as well.

Already in the recent past, tensions have increased with Iran and Pakistan over the flow of water crossing the border.

Outside countries are also very interested in Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources. Decades of near-continuous conflict have made mining a tough proposition in the country, but with growing demand for resources such as lithium and rare earths, that may soon change.

afghanistan mineral production potential

Afghanistan is estimated to have over $1 trillion of untapped mineral reserves, and outside interests are taking notice.

China said it was ready for “friendly and cooperative relations” with the new Taliban regime, and it’s possible that investment from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may step in to fill the vacuum left by departing Western powers.

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