Geographic's Race to Make New Map of Afghanistan

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
October 19, 2001

Recent events have provoked a sudden and intense interest in the people and geography of Afghanistan. Mapmakers at the National Geographic Society have responded by creating an up-to-date, detailed picture of the changing situation in the country.

Whereas it usually takes cartographers about seven months to produce a map at the Society, the new map was completed in just over a month. High demand for maps of Afghanistan and the surrounding region from schools, news organizations and the government motivated the intense effort.

The task was particularly challenging because Afghanistan is a poor, war-ravaged country—there has not been an official government map in decades. This means cartographers need to rely on a variety of expert sources to locate roads, trails, airfields, towns, bridges, the distribution of ethnic groups, new provinces and their boundaries, and military borders.

In the past month the cartographers have met with a range of sources to gather information for the map: the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, State Department, Library of Congress, Census Bureau, and Department of Defense—and the Taliban's opposition, the Northern Alliance, to name a few.

Mohammed Eshaq, a representative for the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance's political arm, met with the Society's cartographers to brief them on which areas had been lost or gained by the Alliance, penciling in ever-shifting boundaries and military movements.

"If a Taliban official had been available we would have contacted him too," said cartographer Juan Valdés.

Other changes made involved transliterating thousands of place names from Cyrillic to a roman script, adding two new provinces and new towns within Afghanistan.

Strategic Information Not Included on New Map

Not everything that the experts discuss ends up on the map. For strategic reasons airbases, refugee camps, trails and unpaved roads, obscure mountain passes and watering holes known only to the locals are being left off.

"We know where they are but they will not be shown," said Valdés. Although, he laments, it would be wonderful to include that level of detail.

"Right now we have a situation with Afghanistan that is very similar to one that existed in America in the 1970s," said senior map editor David Miller. "Back then few people could find Vietnam on a map.

"Our goal with this new map is to show how the ethnic rivalries and complexities in Afghanistan are exacerbated by extreme geography of the country," said Miller.

Continued on Next Page >>


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