Geographic's Race to Make New Map of Afghanistan

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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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