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High mountains cover much of Afghanistan, with about one-half of the land over 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in elevation. Small glaciers and year-round snowfields are common. The highest peak, Nowshak (Noshaq), rises 7,485 m (24,557 ft) on the northeast border and is a lower spur of the Tirich Mir peak in Pakistan. The Hindu Kush range extends across the country in a southwesterly direction from the Vakhan Corridor almost to the Iranian border. From the Hindu Kush, other lower ranges radiate in all directions. Some of the major mountain systems include the Pamirs in the upper northeast of the Vakhan Corridor, the Badakhshan Ranges in the northeast, the Paropamisus Range in the north, and the Safed Koh range, which forms part of the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lowland areas are concentrated in the south and west and include the Turkistan Plains, the Herat-Ferah Lowlands of the extreme northwest, the Sistan Basin and Helmand River valley of the southwest, and the Rigestan Desert of the south.
Except for the river valleys and a few places in the lowlands where underground fresh water makes irrigation possible, agriculture is difficult. Only 12 percent of the land is cultivated. Moreover, a war with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 1980s and the subsequent civil war in the 1990s left some of that land unusable because of neglect, the planting of explosive mines, and other problems. In general, sheep and goat grazing make up the main agricultural land use. In eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, forest lands amounted to 1.4 million hectares (3.3 million acres), or 2 percent of the country's land area in 2000. The ravages of war, the scarcity of fuel, and the need for firewood for cooking and heating have caused rapid deforestation.
Because Afghanistan has so many high mountains, the passes through them have been of profound importance in both the history of invasion of the country and in commerce. In the 320s BC Alexander the Great invaded the country through the Kushan Pass (about 4,370 m/about 14,340 ft) in the west and left it to the east through the low Khyber Pass (1,072 m/ 3,517 ft) to invade India. These same passes were used by the Mughal emperor Babur to conquer both Afghanistan and India in the 1500s. The famous Salang Pass (3,880 m/12,720 ft) and its Soviet-built tunnel in the central Hindu Kush was one of the main routes the Soviets used to invade Afghanistan in 1979.
Many of Afghanistan's major rivers are fed by mountain streams. The Amu Darya on the northern frontier receives water from two main tributaries, the Panj and the Vakhsh, which rise in the Pamirs. The Amu Darya is the only navigable river in Afghanistan, though ferry boats can cross the deeper areas of other rivers. The Harirud River rises in central Afghanistan and flows to the west and northwest to form part of the border with Iran. The long Helmand River rises in the central Hindu Kush, crosses the southwest of the country, and ends in Iran. It is used extensively for irrigation and agriculture, although in recent years its water has experienced a progressive build up of mineral salts, which has decreased its usefulness. Most of the rivers end in inland seas, swamps, or salt flats; the Kabul River is an exception. It flows east into Pakistan to join the Indus River, which empties into the Indian Ocean.
Afghanistan's lakes are small in size and number, but include Lake Zarkol in the Vakhan Corridor along the Tajikistan border, Shiveh in Badakhshan, and the saline Lake Istadeh-ye Moqor, located south of Ghazni. The country also has a few salt marshes at the limits of the Helmand drainage on the western border with Iran. The most important dams and reservoirs are the Kajaki Reservoir on the Helmand, the Arghandab Dam on a tributary of the Helmand, the Sardeh Dam on the Ghazni River, and the Kelagay Dam on the Darya-ye-Qondoz tributary of the Amu Darya. Prior to the civil war, less than 10 percent of the country's hydroelectric potential had been developed. After the war began, hydroelectric production dropped off severely as turbines were destroyed, floodgates blown open, and transmission lines brought down. Private diesel-fired generators were about all that remained of 75 years of electric development. In 1999 Afghanistan generated only 420 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.
Plant life in Afghanistan is sparse but diverse. Common trees in the mountains are evergreens, oaks, poplars, wild hazelnuts, almonds, and pistachios. The plains of the north are largely dry, treeless steppes, and those of the southwestern corner are nearly uninhabitable deserts. Common plants in the arid regions include camel thorn, locoweed, spiny rest harrow, mimosa, and wormwood, a variety of sagebrush. The wild animals of Afghanistan include 123 mammal species, some of which are nearing extinction. The most seriously endangered are the gazelle, leopard, snow leopard, mark or goat, and Bactrian deer. Other wild animals of Afghanistan include Marco Polo sheep, urials, ibex, bears, wolves, foxes, hyenas, jackals, and mongooses. Wild boar, hedgehogs, shrews, hares, mouse hares, bats, and various rodents also occur. Some 460 bird species are found in Afghanistan, with more than 200 breeding there. Flamingo and other aquatic fowl breed in the lake areas south and east of Ghazni. Ducks and partridges are also common, but all birds are hunted widely and many are becoming uncommon, including the endangered Siberian crane.
Most of Afghanistan has a subarctic mountain climate with dry and cold winters, except for the lowlands, which have arid and semiarid climates. In the mountains and a few of the valleys bordering Pakistan, a fringe effect of the Indian monsoon, coming usually from the southeast, brings moist maritime tropical air in summer. Afghanistan has clearly defined seasons; summers are hot and winters can be bitterly cold. Summer temperatures as high as 49° C (120° F) have been recorded in the northern valleys. Midwinter temperatures as low as -9° C (15° F) are common around the 2,000-m (6,600-ft) level in the Hindu Kush. The climate in the highlands varies with elevation. The coolest temperatures usually occur on the heights of the mountains.
Most of the precipitation falls between the months of October and April. The deserts receive less than 100 mm (4 in) of rain a year, whereas the mountains receive more than 1,000 mm (40 in) of precipitation, mostly as snow. Frontal winds sweeping in from the west may bring large sandstorms or dust storms, while the strong solar heating of the ground raises large local whirlwinds.