In a country where the pace of life is slow, where dates and names are often confused, and where dust is something more than a figure of speech, we often lack the most elementary facts. Olivier Roy 1
AFGHANISTAN is a place not easily got at. Wrapped around a great mountain range, dry, distant and forbidding, even now it is not a simple trip, and before the first all-weather road was opened over the mountains thirty years ago, the difficulties must have discouraged most would-be travelers—friends or enemies. The Hindu Kush mountains are not as high as the impossible Pamirs, Karakorams, and Himalayas to the east, but the half dozen main passes are blocked during the long winter by snow, and watched over for the rest of the year by suspicious men who know how to use their guns.
According to a tradition first recorded by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century, the very name “Hindu Kush” had a scarifying meaning: “Slayer of Hindus.” Perhaps from the number of Indian slaves who died in the high passes on their way to the markets of Central Asia. * It's not hard to imagine the Afghans making grim jokes about the way those shivering southerners (especially the rich merchants) just seemed to disappear in the deep snows. If this suggests a disdain for effete lowlanders, it is not misleading. Toynbee pictures the Iranian highlands as a gigantic fortress with Afghanistan an impregnable citadel in the northeastern corner. 2
On the map Afghanistan seems somewhat less grand: it is the sack sliding down the back of Pakistan toward the Arabian Sea. And reflecting the fact that it was created as a buffer state, only the northern border has a natural explanation: half of its thousand or so miles follows the Amu Darya River and tributaries. In a supportive arc from west to east lie Iran and Pakistan; the Wakhan Corridor still exists and stretches like a big-headed snake 180 miles eastward to touch China.
*Louis Dupree finds a duller, more likely etymology in the Persian “Hindu Koh, ” or “Hindu Mountains.”