For the past decade, Afghanistan has evoked images of war, political corruption and civil strife. It seems appropriate to shift gears and focus on the natural landscape of that isolated but starkly beautiful region of our planet.
Consulting a map, one finds that the country of Afghanistan is pear-shaped, aligned northeast to southwest; the narrower part, complete with a thin stem of territory that pokes eastward to China, is to the northeast while its broader portion is to the southwest, abutting Iran, western Pakistan and southern Turkmenistan. The high spine of the Hindu Kush, the westernmost extension of the Himalayas, bisects the northeastern half of the country, curving from its northeastern frontier to the heart of Afghanistan; some peaks in easternmost Afghanistan soar above 25,000 feet while elevations gradually decrease toward the west. On either side of this natural divide, numerous streams have carved a maze of ridges, canyons and valleys from the Hindu Kush massif, giving rise to four major river systems.
The Kabul River drains the southeast edge of the Hindu Kush, flowing through the capitol city before cutting through the Spin Ghar Range along the border with Pakistan, where it joins the Indus River. The Helmand River and its tributaries drain the southwestern and western flanks of the Hindu Kush, crossing the southwest plateau region of Afghanistan and eventually flowing westward into Iran. The Hari Rud, rising along the northwest side of the massif, also flows westward into Iran while the Amu Darya, fed by mountain glaciers of the Hindu Kush, snakes westward across the fertile plain of northern Afghanistan, forming its border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (east to west) before angling northwestward into the latter country. With the exception of the Kabul River, which reaches the sea via Pakistan's massive Indus River system, the rivers of Afghanistan, heavily utilized for irrigation in this dry landscape, eventually disappear into the desert sands of Iran and Turkmenistan.