Mountains dominate the landscape, forming a terrigenous skeleton, traversingthe center of the country, running generally in a northeast-southwest direction.More than 49 percent of the total land area lies above 2,000 meters. Althoughgeographers differ on the division of these mountains into systems, they agreethat the Hindukush system, the most important, is the westernmost extension ofthe Pamir Mountains, the Karakorum Mountains, and the Himalayas.

The origin of the term Hindukush (which translates as Hindu Killer) is also apoint of contention. Three possibilities have been put forward: that themountains memorialize the Indian slaves who perished in the mountains whilebeing transported to Central Asian slave markets; that the name is merely acorruption of Hindu Koh, the pre-Islamic name of the mountains that dividedHindu southern Afghanistan from non-Hindu northern Afghanistan; or, that thename is a posited Avestan appellation meaning "water mountains."

The mountain peaks in the eastern part of the country reach more than 7,000meters. The highest of these is Nowshak at 7,485 meters. Mount Everest in Nepalstands 8,796 meters high. The Pamir mountains, which Afghans refer to as the'Roof of the World," extend into Tajikistan, China and Kashmir.

The mountains of the Hindukush system diminish in height as they stretchwestward: toward the middle, near Kabul, they extend from 4,500 to 6,000 meters;in the west, they attain heights of 3,500 to 4,000 meters. The average altitudeof the Hindukush is 4,500 meters. The Hindukush system stretches about 966kilometers laterally, and its median north-south measurement is about 240kilometers. Only about 600 kilometers of the Hindukush system is called theHindukush mountains. The rest of the system consists of numerous smallermountain ranges including the Koh-e Baba; Salang; Koh-e Paghman; Spin Ghar (alsocalled the eastern Safid Koh); Suleiman; Siah Koh; Koh-e Khwaja Mohammad;Selseleh-e Band-e Turkestan. The western Safid Koh, the Siah Band and Doshakhare commonly referred to as the Paropamisus by western scholars.

Numerous high passes (kotal) transect the mountains, forming astrategically important network for the transit of caravans. The most importantmountain pass is the Kotal-e Salang (3,878 meters); it links Kabul and pointssouth to northern Afghanistan. The completion of a tunnel within this pass in1964 reduced travel time between Kabul and the north to a few hours. Previouslyaccess to the north through the Kotal-e Shibar (3,260 meters) took three days.The Salang Tunnel at 3363 meters and the extensive network of galleries on theapproach roads were constructed with Soviet financial and technologicalassistance and involved drilling 1.7 miles through the heart of the Hindukush.

Before the Salang road was constructed, the most famous passes in the Westernhistorical perceptions of Afghanistan were those leading to the Indiansubcontinent. They include the Khyber Pass (,1027 meters), in Pakistan, and theKotal-e Lataband (2,499 meters) east of Kabul, which was superseded in 1960 by aroad constructed within the Kabul River's most spectacular gorge, the Tang-eGharu. This remarkable engineering feat completed in 1960 reduced travel timebetween Kabul and the Pakistan border from two days to a few hours.

The roads through the Salang and Tang-e Gharu passes played criticalstrategic roles during the recent conflicts and were used extensively by heavymilitary vehicles. Consequently these roads are in very bad repair. Many bombedout bridges have been repaired, but numbers of the larger structures remainbroken. Periodic closures due to conflicts in the area seriously affect theeconomy and well-being of many regions, for these are major routes carryingcommercial trade, emergency relief and reconstruction assistance suppliesdestined for all parts of the country.

There are a number of other important passes in Afghanistan. Wakhjir (4,923meters), proceeds from the Wakhan Corridor into Xinjiang, China, and intoKashmir. Passes which join Afghanistan to Chitral, Pakistan, include theBaroghil (3,798 meters) and the Kachin (5,639 meters), which also cross from theWakhan. Important passes located farther west are the Shotorgardan (3,720meters), linking Logar and Paktiya provinces; the Bazarak (2,713 meters),leading into Mazar-i-Sharif; the Khawak (3,550 meters)in the Panjsher Valley,and the Anjuman (3,858 meters) at the head of the Panjsher Valley givingentrance to the north. The Hajigak (2,713 meters) and Unai (3,350 meters) leadinto the eastern Hazarajat and Bamiyan Valley. The passes of the Paropamisus inthe west are relatively low, averaging around 600 meters; the most well-known ofthese is the Sabzak between Herat and Badghis provinces, which links the westernand northwestern parts of Afghanistan.

These mountainous areas are mostly barren, or at the most sparsely sprinkledwith trees and stunted bushes. True forests, found mainly in the easternprovinces of Nuristan and Paktiya, cover barely 2.9 of the country's area. Eventhese small reserves have been disastrously depleted by the war and throughillegal exploitation. The forests are in fact in a crisis situation. A 1996 aFAO report estimated that of the 4.7 million acres of forests existing at thebeginning of the war, in 1979, considerably less than one million acres survivetoday.

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