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.

The wrinkled ranges of the Hindu Kush Mountains, for example, have created a labyrinth of ravines and mountain trails that have facilitated guerilla warfare tactics and prolonged various wars in the country for the past 23 years.

The extreme Afghan geography with radically different elevations throughout the country has also created natural boundaries between different ethnic groups, said Miller.

The Pashtun, the ethnic group from which the Taliban draws most of its members, are the main occupants of the southern and eastern lowlands. The Tajiks, who farm the lush northeastern valleys, and the Hazara, who eke out a sparse living on the arid central highlands, are the predominant forces behind the Northern Alliance.

More than Twenty Ethnic Groups in Country

The current civil war has an ethnic background, said Miller. Afghanistan has more than 20 ethnic groups living in a rugged, drought-ridden country a little smaller than Texas.

Now Americans want to know about Afghanistan. "People are asking themselves, who are these people and why have they been able to affect our lives so deeply. And again it gets back to geography," said Valdés.

What was most striking to Valdés was how connected Afghanistan is to all of its neighbors.

Almost all of the ethnic groups in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan are also found in Afghanistan. "Whatever we do in Afghanistan is definitely going to impact the area in many, many ways," said Valdés.

"Geography is at the core of people's identity. Without geography people cannot connect to a landscape, a way of being, contacting similar people. Geography is key," said Valdés.

Afghanistan is also a land of physical calamities. It is currently in the midst of the worst drought in 30 years, which has caused widespread death of livestock and crops, and as recently as 1998 suffered a violent earthquake that killed thousands and destroyed more than 50,000 homes.

The combination of wars, earthquakes, and drought-triggered famine has led to the displacement of more than one million people. Another 3.5 million refugees have fled the country.

Valdés believes that most people don't think much about geography. "And that's one of the reasons that maps are key. They open the door for people to start thinking about why people are different. What makes you different from someone else that lives thousands of miles away."

The new map of Afghanistan will appear in the December issue of National Geographic magazine, mailed to all members of the Society worldwide and on newsstands in the United States from about the middle of November.

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