Local groups in the mountains of Central Asia make up the population of Kyrgyzstan.
The forty rays of sun on the country’s flag symbolize of the legendary forty tribes of Manas that represent the nation. The rugged landscape of this mountainous land includes the high ranges of the Tian Shan Mountains, which can reach elevations as high as 24,400 feet and cover about 80 percent of the country.
Snowfall from the mountains provides fresh water for agriculture as well as hydroelectric energy. Issyk-Kul Lake, in the north-eastern Tian Shan is the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and the second largest mountain lake in the world after Titicaca (a lake in the Andes on the border of Bolivia and Peru).
Food crops can be grown in the valleys and the few lowland areas. Half the population works in agriculture, and self-sufficiency in food production is a major objective for survival. The mountains hold deposits of metals and minerals that have a strong potential for adding to the national wealth. Oil and natural gas reserves are also available for exploitation. The government is seeking foreign aid and investments to help develop these resources.
In 2020, Kyrgyzstan had a population of about 6.5 million in a land area about the size of the US state of South Dakota. The nation’s largest ethnic group is the Kyrgyz, a Turkic people, who comprise 73.3% of the population. The Kyrgyz have historically been semi-nomadic herders, living in round tents called yurts and tending sheep, horses, and yaks. This nomadic tradition continues to function seasonally as herding families return to the high mountain pasture in the summer.
The western boundary with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is winding and creates various small enclaves and exclaves of people from one country surrounded by people of another country and separated from their home nations.
Kyrgyzstan’s transition from a Soviet republic to independence was not smooth. The loss of the state social safety net pushed the economy further to the informal sector, where trading and small transactions for personal survival are common. Shortages of consumer goods occur in rural areas and small towns.
In Kyrgyzstan there is a tradition of bride kidnapping. It is debatable whether bride kidnapping is actually traditional. Some of the confusion may stem from the fact that arranged marriages were traditional, and one of the ways to escape an arranged marriage was to arrange a consensual “kidnapping.”
The eastern region of Central Asia has some of the highest mountain ranges in the world; about 90 percent of Tajikistan is mountainous, and more than half the country is 10,000 feet in elevation or higher. Ranges of the Himalayas extend from the south all the way to the western border with China. The Pamirs is a mountain range located where the Tian Shan, Karakorum, and Hindu Kush mountain ranges meet in Tajikistan, an area referred to as the Pamir Knot, or the roof of the world. Elevations in the Pamirs often exceed 24,500 feet.
The Pamirs is the source of the Amu Darya River and is home to the longest glacier outside the polar regions (forty-eight miles long in 2009). There is great potential for hydroelectric power generation, and Tajikistan is developing the world’s highest dam.
Tajikistan has the smallest physical area of any country in Central Asia but has a population of about 7.3 million. Only about one-fourth of the population is urban, and one-third of the population is younger than fifteen years of age. There is less ethnic or religious diversity; 80 percent of the people are ethnically Tajik and are Sunni Muslims. Though it has natural resources similar in quantity to those in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan’s economy is not advanced enough to fully take advantage of its economic potential. Half the labor base works abroad and sends remittances back to their families for economic support. Unemployment is high, and job opportunities have not been able to keep up with demand.
Dushanbe, the capital and largest city of Tajikistan, is situated on the confluence of two local rivers and is famous for its Monday markets (Dushanbe means “Monday” in Tajik).
Dushanbe, like Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, was originally a small village; it became an administrative center for the region when the Soviet army conquered the area in 1929. Similar to many of the other cities and regions in Central Asia, the Soviets transformed the political and economic landscape and made Dushanbe a center for cotton and silk production. The Soviets also transformed the cultural and ethnic makeup of the city by relocating tens of thousands of people from Russia and other regions of Central Asia to Dushanbe.
The transition from a Soviet Republic to an independent country in 1991 was difficult for Tajikistan. From 1992 to 1997, a bitter civil war between regional factions killed more than fifty thousand people. Political instability and corruption has hampered the growth of a market economy, and political power remains in the hands of the economic elite.
Present-day Afghanistan has been conquered by the likes of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and the Mogul Empire and was a buffer zone for colonial feuds between Russia and British India. The high central mountain range of the Hindu Kush dominates the country and leaves a zone of well-watered fertile plains to the north and a dry desert region to the south. Afghanistan is a remote region without access to the sea and acts as a strategic link between the Middle East and the Far East.
The Soviet Invasion and the Taliban
In 1979, the Soviet Union took advantage of ongoing ethnic warfare in Afghanistan to inject itself into the country. The Soviets pushed in from the north and occupied much of Afghanistan until they completely withdrew in 1989. During the Soviet occupation, the United States supported anti-Communist resistance groups such as the Mujahideen with money, arms, and surface-to-air missiles. The missiles were instrumental in taking out Soviet aircraft and MiG fighters, which caused a critical shift in the balance of power in the war. One of the major connections between the for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Mujahideen was a Saudi national named Osama bin Laden. Support from the CIA through bin Laden to the Mujahideen was instrumental in defeating the Soviets.
Growing up bin Laden
In their own words, Osama bin Laden’s wife and son tell the astonishing story of the man they knew―or thought they knew―before September 11, 2001.
The world knows Osama bin Laden as the most wanted terrorist of our time. But people are not born terrorists, and bin Laden has carefully guarded the details of his private life―until now, when his first wife and fourth-born son break the silence to take us inside his strange and secret world. In spine-tingling detail, Jean Sasson tells their story of life with a man whose growing commitment to violent jihad led him to move his wives and children from an orderly life to one of extreme danger, even choosing the teenage Omar to accompany him to the mountain fortress of Tora Bora.
The power vacuum left by the retreating Soviets allowed conflicts to reemerge between the many ethnic factions in Afghanistan. Dozens of languages are spoken in Afghanistan; the top two are Pashtu and Afghan Persian-Dari.
There are also a dozen major ethnic groups; the top two are Pashtun and Tajik.
The groups regularly fight among themselves, but they have also been known to form alliances. Rural areas are usually led by clan leaders who are not part of any official arm of a national government. Afghanistan is a place where forming any national unity or identity is not easy. The national government in the capital city of Kabul has little influence in the country’s rural regions.
The Soviet invasion brought the internally warring factions together for a short period to focus on the Soviet threat. Chaos and anarchy thrived after the Soviet forces withdrew, but the Islamic fundamentalist group known as the Taliban came forward to fill the power vacuum. One objective of the Taliban was to use Islam as a unifying force to bring the country together. The problem with that concept was that there was much diversity in how Islam was practiced by the numerous local groups. Many of the factions in Afghanistan opposed the Taliban; one such group being the Northern Alliance, which was an association of groups located in the northern portion of the country. The civil war between the Taliban and those that opposed them resulted in the deaths of more than fifty thousand people by 1996 when the Taliban emerged to take power in Kabul. The Taliban is a Sunni Muslim group that adheres to strict Islamic laws under the Wahhabi branch of the faith similar to that of Saudi Arabia. Under Taliban rule, women were removed from positions in hospitals, schools, and work environments and had to wear burkas (also spelled burqas) and be covered from head to toe, including a veil over their faces. Violators were either beaten or shot. The Taliban brought a sense of militant order to Kabul and the regions under their control. Various factions such as the Northern Alliance did not share the Taliban’s strict Islamic views and continued to oppose their position in power.
Al-Qaeda and the US Invasion
After the war against the Soviet Union was over, the US role in Afghanistan diminished. The groups that the United States had supported continued to vie for power in local conflicts. Osama bin Laden remained in Afghanistan and established training camps for his version of an anti-Western resistance group called al-Qaeda. Just as he had opposed the Soviet Union, he now opposed the United States, even though the United States had supported him against the Soviets. The Saudi government allowed the United States to establish military bases in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War, and this was one reason for bin Laden’s opposition; he believed that non-Muslims should not be on the same ground as the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
The 9-11 attack in New York City was traced back to al-Qaeda and bin Laden, who was residing in Afghanistan at the time. In a military action dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, removed the Taliban from power, and dismantled the al-Qaeda training camps. Although bin Laden escaped, the terror of the Taliban was temporarily reduced. Women were allowed to return to the workplace, and the rebuilding of the country became a priority. The country was devastated by war and is divided by the human geography because of the various ethnic and traditional groups. Afghanistan is one of the most impoverished places on Earth. The armed conflicts in Afghanistan did not end with the US invasion. After regrouping, the Taliban rallied its supporters on the Pakistani side of the border and returned to the fighting front in Afghanistan against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US forces.
Fighting between Western forces and the Taliban in Afghanistan continued to provide the exiled bin Laden a platform to promote his al-Qaeda terrorist activities from his hiding place. Efforts to locate and marginalize bin Laden continued through to the US presidency of Barack Obama. In May of 2011, on orders from President Obama, a team of US Navy Seals were sent into the city of Abottabad, Pakistan, to a private compound where intelligence indicated that bin Laden was hiding. In the confrontation, the US Navy Seal team killed bin Laden. The entire operation was conducted without the awareness of the Pakistani government. This event may have impacted al-Qaeda but has not likely diminished the fighting in Afghanistan.
Resources and Globalization
In 2010, a US government report indicated that vast amounts of mineral wealth were discovered in Afghanistan by American geologists and Pentagon officials. Enormous deposits of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, and rare industrial minerals such as lithium are reported to be present in Afghanistan. Total reserves are unknown or have not been released but if extracted would result in trillions of dollars of economic gain for the country. Lithium is highly sought after and is used in the manufacturing of batteries, computers, and electronic devices. The report indicated that Afghanistan could become the world’s premier mining country.
Agricultural production is the backbone of Afghanistan’s economy. The country is known for producing pomegranates, grapes, apricots, melons, and several other fresh and dry fruits.
The country is the world’s largest producer of opium, a product extracted from a poppy plant seedpod that can also be refined into heroin. The expanding poppy cultivation, as well as a growing drug trade, may account for one-third of the country’s income. More than 80 percent of the heroin consumed in Europe is grown in Afghanistan. The drug trade has only multiplied the problems in this devastated country. Prudent and effective methods for the government to address the drug trade are matters for debate and negotiation. Most of the country is ruled by warlords and clan leaders who have few resources other than tradition and custom.
Afghanistan’s infrastructure has been destroyed through warfare, and its government is dependent on foreign aid; without it, this country cannot recover to integrate itself with the global economy. Central Asia has enormous oil and natural gas reserves, and the core economic regions of the world will continue their work to extract these resources for economic gain.
A newfound potential for mineral wealth will change the future of Afghanistan. It will be interesting to watch how Afghanistan adapts to and benefits from the discovery of previously unknown resources.
Afghan cuisine is largely based upon the nation’s chief crops, such as wheat, maize, barley and rice. Accompanying these staples are native fruits and vegetables as well as dairy products such as milk, yogurt and whey.
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Next: 8.3: South Asia
Additional information and image credits:
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32296077
Kyrgyzstan relief map
By File:Kyrgyzstan location map.svg: NordNordWestderivative work Виктор_В – File:Kyrgyzstan location map.svg by NordNordWestETOPO1, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11306348
By Made by Andrew Duhan for the Sodipodi SVG flag collection, and is public domain. – Drawn by User:SKopp, construction sheet.Redo by: cs:User:-xfi-, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=343626
Tian Shan photo
By Chen Zhao – originally posted to Flickr as 天山山脉西段航拍 / West Tian Shan mountains, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8723906
Bringing the sheep home
By Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA – Bringing the sheep home, on the southern shore of Issy-Kol., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24275430
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650099
Hindu Kush map
By Hindu_Kush_satellite_image.jpg: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFCderivative work: Rupert Pupkin – This file was derived from: Hindu Kush satellite image.jpg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22886435
By Ninara from Helsinki, Finland – Dushanbe, Mehrgon Market, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74267859
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29589570
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12567
By Spc. Matthew Freire (U.S. Army) – Flickr – 090929-A-2946F-001, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8703491
By Ilhoms – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87512706
By USAID Afghanistan – Flickr – Pomegranates, Public Domain,
By Jost Wagner – World66, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2312699