The location of Afghanistan astride the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and central Asia has enticed conquerors throughout history

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No comprehensive census based upon systematically sound methods has ever been taken in Afghanistan. Most population statistics rely on estimates and samples. Successive governments have manipulated figures for their own political objectives. UN agencies, hundreds of NGOs, as well as bilateral agencies use different figures to suit their purposes in designing assistance programs. Furthermore, instability caused by the Soviet-Afghan war and the subsequent civil war resulted in massive movements of uprooted peoples. These factors also make demographic sampling necessarily imprecise.

The most scientific demographic survey carried out in Afghanistan was also one of the first. Conducted in 1972-74 by the State University of New York (SUNY) for the United States Agency for International Development (AID), in cooperation with the Afghan government, this survey reported a settled population of 10.18 million. It did not cover the entire country, and the nomadic population was not surveyed. The nomads were separately estimated at slightly more than 1 million.

An official census was later hurriedly taken over a three-week period in June 1979 after the establishment of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), with UN assistance. This count estimated the population to be 13.9 million, including 800,000 nomads, but it is little credited since only 56 percent of the population was enumerated due to mounting resistance in the countryside. Grossly inflated figures were added for the rest.

The Statistical Yearbook published in 1983 by the Babrak Karmal government during the Soviet occupation claimed a total population of 15.96 million for 1981-82. Presumably this included over five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran. (see Refugees, this ch.).

Afghanistan's population in 1995 was estimated at 18.4 million by the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit agency based in Washington, D.C. This estimate, like others before it, is based on unreliable data, as the Bureau itself cautions. The Human Development Report, 1996 estimates that the population will rise to 26.7 million in the year 2000, using, however, a high growth rate of 6.1 percent. A rate of around 2.2 percent is more typically employed. UNDP calculations give a 1993 crude birth rate of 5l/1000, a crude death rate of 22/1000, and an infant mortality rate of 163/1000. Estimates of the average life expectancy at birth was 43.7 years. Again, growth figures depend on what is taken into account -- refugees, war dead estimated to range from three-quarters of a million to a million and a half, birth and death rates -- all of which are open to question.

The average population density was calculated in 1993 at 23.4 per square kilometer, but it varied widely between provinces: from 489.4 per square kilometer in Kabul to 0.7 in Nimroz, a province in the southwest with vast sandy and stony deserts. Residence was also unevenly distributed between rural and urban settlements, with over 35,000 rural settlements, but only sixty-four urban centers. Probably no more than ten of these centers are true cities, and other towns could be considered. Again, numbers depend on definitions. The United Nations reported that eighty-one percent of the population lived in rural areas in 1993.

What is important is that the gradual rural-urban migration noticeable over a period of several decades increased rapidly during the 1960s as the government laid out new road systems and quickened development. This trend accelerated during the Soviet-Afghan War as internally displaced persons (IDPs) fled the war-torn countryside for the relative safety of the cities. A number of major cities such as Kabul, Ghazni, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e Sharif absorbed IDPs in great numbers, causing overcrowding and rising demands for city-provided services. By 1985, unconfirmed reports placed Kabul's population at over two million, more than a 100 percent increase in less than a decade. Since the mujahidin took possession of Kabul in 1992, however, the incessant fighting by warring factions for control of the capital has caused the population to swell and diminish according to the level of security at any given moment.


Afghanistan is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and linguistic groups, as well as several sects within Islam and other religions. Historic and geographic factors created and preserved this diversity although varying degrees of cultural assimilation continuously take place and a considerable degree of cultural homogeneity exists.

Ethnicity has been extensively explored by scholars; they often disagree. Any simple classification is bound to have exceptions for Afghan society has never been static within fixed boundaries. The picture has been drawn and redrawn throughout the course of its history.

Further, ethnicity means different things to different groups. Every group uses the identification term qaum to explain a complexity of affiliations, a network, of families or occupations. Each has a rich density of meanings. Every individual belongs to a qaum which provides protection from outside encroachments, cooperation, support, security, and assistance, either social, political or economic. Frequently a village corresponds to a qawm, but it does not necessarily exist in a precise geographic setting. In a more restricted sense qaum refers to descent groups, from family kin to ethnic group. In tribal areas qaum refers to a common genealogy from extended family, or clan, to tribe to tribal confederation. Most simply, qawm defines an individual's identity in his social world.

Ethnic Groups

In 1996, approximately 40 percent of Afghans were Pashtun, 11.4 of whom are of the Durrani tribal group and 13.8 percent of the Ghilzai group. Tajiks make up the second largest ethnic group with 25.3 percent of the population, followed by Hazaras, 18 percent; Uzbeks, 6.3 percent; Turkmen, 2.5 percent; Qizilbash, 1.0; 6.9 percent other. The usual caveat regarding statistics is particularly appropriate here.


The largest and traditionally most politically powerful ethnic group, the Pashtun (or Pakhtun in northern Pakhtu dialects), is composed of many units totalling in 1995 an estimated 10.1 million, the most numerous being the Durrani and the Ghilzai. Other major tribes include the Wardak, Jaji, Tani, Jadran, Mangal, Khugiani, Safi, Mohmand and Shinwari. Like a number of other Afghan ethnic groups, the Pushtun extend beyond Afghanistan into Pakistan where they constitute a major ethnic group of about 14 million.

The Afghan Pushtun heartland roughly covers a large crescent-shaped belt following the Afghan-Pakistani border on the east, southward from Nuristan, across the south, and northward along the Iranian border almost to Herat. Enclaves of Pashtun also live scattered among other ethnic groups throughout the nation, where they have settled at various times since the end of the nineteenth century as shifts in populations, some forced, some voluntary, occurred in response to political expediency and economic opportunities (see Abdur Rahman Khan, 1880-1901, ch.1).

Physically the Pushtun are basically a Mediterranean variant of the greater Caucasian race and speak several mutually intelligible dialects of Pashtu; some also speak Dari. Both Pashtu and Dari belong to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Pushtun are generally Hanafi Sunni Muslims, but some are Ithna Asharia Shia (see Ithna Asharia, this ch.).

The Pushtun have provided the central leadership for Afghanistan since the eighteenth century when Ahmad Khan Abdali of Kandahar established the Durrani Empire. This one-time general in Nadir Shah's Persian army was elected to power in 1747 at a tribal jirgah, an assembly which takes decisions by consensus. The legitimacy of his rule was sanctioned at the same time by the ulama (religious scholars) (see Ahmad Shah and the Durrani Empire, ch. 1). Ahmad Khan assumed the title of Durr-i-Durran (Pearl of Pearls) and was henceforth known as Ahmad Shah Durrani and his tribe, the Pushtun Abdali tribe, as the Durrani. When his successors lost the support of the tribes after Ahmad Shah's death in 1772, control passed to the Mohammadzai lineage within the Barakzai section of the Durrani Pushtun.

Mohammadzai dominance continued from 1826 to 1978, interrupted only for a scant nine months in 1929. Then power shifted to the second largest Pushtun tribe, the Ghilzai, who dominated the leadership of the secular Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) after 1978, although most were essentially detribalized because of their close association with urban life. This regime was in turn replaced in 1992 by the Islamic State of Afghanistan, established by the mujahidin whose leaders were mostly from the Ghilzai, and a variety of eastern Pushtun tribes, although the President from 1992-1996 was a Tajik. This state has been challenged since the October 1994 takeover of Kandahar by the Pushtun Taliban. The Taliban heartland remains in the south and while the original leadership bid for unity by playing down tribal identities, divisions began to surface after Kabul was taken in September 1996.

Pushtun culture rests on Pushtunwali, a legal and moral code that determines social order and responsibilities. It contains sets of values pertaining to honor (namuz), solidarity (nang), hospitality, mutual support, shame and revenge which determines social order and individual responsibility. The defence of namuz, even unto death, is obligatory for every Pushtun. Elements in this code of behavior are often in opposition to the Shariah. Much of the resistance to the largely detribalized leadership of the DRA stemmed from the perception that in attempting to nationalize land and wealth, as well as regulate marriage practices, the DRA was unlawfully violating the prescriptions of Pushtunwali.

The Pushtun are basically farmers or herdsmen, or combinations of both, although several groups are renowned for specialized occupations. For instance, the monarchy and many government bureaucrats were Durrani Pushtun, the Ahmadzai Ghilzai are consulted for their legal abilities, the Andar Ghilzai specialize in constructing and repairing underground irrigation systems called karez, and the Shinwari of Paktya monopolize the lumber trade. Pushtun nomads are discussed below.


The Tajik form the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Estimates in 1995 averaged around 4.3 million. Afghan Tajik live mainly in the Panjsher Valley north of Kabul and in the northern and northeastern provinces of Parwan, Takhar, Badakhshan, and also Baghlan and Samangan. Tajik also extend into the central mountains. There is a tendency of some non-Tajik groups to classify any Dari speaker as a member of this group. Some also tend to categorize any urban resident who has become detribalized as Tajik. This is particularly true in Kabul. Tajik are also found north of Afghanistan's border in their own state of Tajikistan.

Tajik are physically from the Mediterranean substock. They speak various Tajiki dialects of Dari, an Iranian language in the Indo-European language family. Most are Hanafi Sunni, although a sizeable number living in areas from Bamiyan to eastern Badakhshan are Ismaili Shia. Tajik are not organized by tribe and refer to themselves most often by the name of the valley or region they inhabit, such as Panjsheri, Andarabi, Samangani, and Badakhshi. Those living among non-Tajik, such as those living among the Pushtun who refer to them as dehqan, often describe themselves simply as Tajik.

Tajik are predominantly fully sedentary mountaineer farmers and herders, who often make short-range seasonal migrations to alpine grazing meadows during which whole families move up to the mountains to harvest grain and melons. The Tajik areas are famous for a wide variety of fruits and nuts which are acknowledged to be among the finest in the country.

Many Tajik migrated to the cities, especially to Kabul, which was primarily a Tajik town until Timur, the son of Ahmad Shah Durrani, moved his court to Kabul in 1776 and declared it to be the Pushtun capital. In Kabul the Tajik are still dominant and well-represented in the uppermiddle class. Many are active in business and in government service; others find employment as cooks, houseboys or gardeners in the homes of foreigners. On the off-agricultural season Tajik may join the workforce at industrial complexes near their villages. Whether seasonally or permanently based in cities, Tajik tend to maintain close links with their rural kin.

Except for the short rule of the Tajik known as Bacha Saqqao in 1928, the Tajik have not dominated politically. Since 1978, however, several Tajik military leaders have gained substantial recognition, the most renowned being Ahmad Shah Masood from the Panjsher Valley. Burhanuddin Rabbani who served as President of The Islamic State of Afghanistan from 1992-1996 is a Tajik from Badakhshan.


Afghanistan's rugged central mountainous core of approximately 50,000 square kilometers is known as the Hazarajat, Land of the Hazara. Others live in Badakhshan, and, following Kabul's campaigns against them in the late nineteenth century, some settled in western Turkestan, in Jauzjan and Badghis provinces. Estimated population in 1995 was one million.

Physically the Hazara are Mongoloid, possibly of mixed Eastern Turkic and Mongol origin, although numerous contradictory speculations exist. Scholars agree that the Hazara were established here since the beginning of the thirteenth century. Hazara speak Hazaragi, a Persianized language with a large mixture of Mongol words. A majority are Imami Shia; fewer are Ismaili Shia; while others, particularly in Bamiyan and the north, are Sunni.

The leaders of Hazara lineages, known as mirs or khans, lost their powerful status in communities after Amir Abdur Rahman subdued them in 1891. The Pushtun state established a local administration, imposed harsh taxation policies and distributed lands to Pushtun, including fertile pasture lands in areas previously inaccessible to Pushtun nomads.

The Hazarajat continued to be a neglected area. Services and physical infrastructure were practically nonexistent. Farming and animal husbandry are the principal occupations; there is no industry. Because of their meager resources, the Hazara seasonally sought work and services in other areas as low grade civil servants, shopkeepers, artisans, urban factory workers, and unskilled labour. In the 1960s an estimated 30-50 percent of Hazara males migrated to the cities where they were considered to be on the lowest rung of the social scale. During the 1960s and 70s their economic and political status improved remarkably.

During the war, contending groups within the Hazarajat achieved greater unity than ever before. Hazara political parties were excluded from the mujahideen alliances, however, largely because of rabidly anti-Shia prejudices held by some leaders, such as Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf and Yunus Khalis. It is doubtful if the Hazara will accept their former inferior status in the future.


About 1.3 million Uzbek live mingled with the Tajik all across the northern plains of Afghanistan, from Faryab Province to Faizabad, capital of Badakhshan Province. There are many mixed Uzbek and Tajik villages, although each live in separate residential quarters. In 1983 a sizeable group of Uzbek were included among the group of 4,000 Turkic speakers from Afghanistan that were resettled in Turkey. Uzbek also reside north of the Afghan border in Uzbekistan, Tajikstan and Turkmenistan.

The Uzbek are Mongoloid with considerable Mediterranean admixture. They are Sunni Muslim and speak central Turkic dialects called Uzbeki. Uzbek practice agriculture and herding, but many live in towns where they are known as astute businessmen and skillful artisans as silver and goldsmiths, leatherworkers, and rug makers.

Some Afghan Uzbek refer to themselves by old tribal names; others identify with their towns of origin in Central Asia. Uzbek social structure is strictly patriarchal, giving considerable authoritarian power to leaders called begs, arbabs or khans. Marital endogamy is of prime importance. Although interethnic marriages between Uzbek, Turkoman and Tajik do take place, antipathy to marriage with Pushtun is widespread.

Afghan Uzbek originally came from Central Asia and their rise as the dominant political force in north Afghanistan followed the demise in 1506 of the Timurid dynasty centered at Herat. They established eleven strong principalities from Maimana to Kunduz under strong leaders, sometimes independent, sometimes nominally acknowledging allegiance to either Bokhara or Kabul, but always jockeying for power among themselves.

At the end of the nineteenth century Amir Abdur Rahman consolidated these Uzbak khanates under his rule. Later, fresh immigrations took place in the 1920s and 1930s as Russian conquests and local uprisings in Central Asia continued. During this same period many Pushtun settled among the Uzbeks with the result that by the 1960s the Uzbek had become a small minority within the area they once dominated. Since 1992, the Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostom, principal leader of the coalition opposing the Taliban, has controlled the predominant centers of power in the north.


Turkmen are another Sunni Turkic-speaking group whose language has close affinities with modern Turkish. They are of aquiline Mongoloid stock. The Afghan Turkmen population in the 1990s is estimated at around 200,000. Turkmen also reside north of the Amu Darya in Turkmenistan. The original Turkmen groups came from east of the Caspian Sea into northwestern Afghanistan at various periods, particularly after the end of the nineteenth century when the Russians moved into their territory. They established settlements from Balkh Province to Herat Province, where they are now concentrated; smaller groups settled in Kunduz Province. Others came in considerable numbers as a result of the failure of the Basmachi revolts against the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.

Turkmen tribes, of which there are twelve major groups in Afghanistan, base their structure on genealogies traced through the male line. Senior members wield considerable authority. Formerly a nomadic and warlike people feared for their lightening raids on caravans, Turkmen in Afghanistan are farmer-herdsmen and important contributors to the economy. They brought karakul sheep to Afghanistan and are also renowned makers of carpets, which, with karakul pelts, are major hard currency export commodities. Turkmen jewelry is also highly prized.

Other Groups


Aimaq, meaning tribe in Turkish, is not an ethnic domination, but differentiates seminomadic herders and agricultural tribal groups of various ethnic origins, including the Turkic Hazara and Baluch, that were formed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They live among nontribal people in the western areas of Badghis, Ghor and Herat provinces. They are Sunni, speak dialects close to Dari and refer to themselves with tribal designations. Population estimates vary widely, from less than 500,000 to around 800,000. A group of about 120,000 live in Iranian Khorasan.


Large groups of Sunni Arab living in the vicinity of Bokhara in Central Asia fled to northeastern Afghanistan following Russian conquests in the nineteenth century. By the 1880s they were, with the Uzbek with whom they established close ties, the second most populous ethnic group in present day Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces. Smaller groups settled in scattered communities as far west as Maimana, Faryab Province.

The Arab are pastoralists who raise sheep and grow cotton and wheat. Some among the eastern groups make summer migrations of up to 300 kilometers to reach the lush high pastures in Badakhshan. Government development schemes, especially those which brought large numbers of Pushtun to the area in the 1940s, relegated the Arab to a small proportion of the population and the Arab ceased to hold a monopoly on long distance migration. Bilingual in Dari and Uzbeki, but speaking no Arabic, they continue to identify themselves as Arab although they have had no contact with the Arabs of the Middle East since the late fourteenth century.


The Kirghiz are a Sunni Mongoloid group speaking Kipchak Turkic dialects who were originally from Central Asia. About 3,000 lived in the Pamir mountains east of the Wakhan Corridor, one of the more inaccessible regions in the world where relatively flat valleys suitable for habitation lie at altitudes over 10,000 feet between ranges rising over 16,500 feet. Only a small group remains. A majority moved to Pakistan in 1978 after Soviet and Afghan troops occupied the Wakhan; later, in 1983, resettled in Turkey.

The Kirghiz lived in yurts, tended large flocks of sheep and utilized yak which are found only in this area of Afghanistan.


The neighboring Wakhi, along with several thousand other Mountain Tajik who are physically of the Mediterranean substock with Mongoloid admixture, speak Dari and various eastern Iranian dialects. They live in small, remote villages located at lower altitudes in the Wakhan Corridor and upper Badakhshan. They are often Ismaili Shi'a, but some are Imami Shi'a and Sunni.


Farsiwan are Dari-speaking village agriculturalists of Mediterranean substock who live in the west near the Afghan-Iranian border or in districts of Herat, Kandahar and Ghazni provinces. Estimates for 1995 vary from 600,000 to 830,000. Most are Imami Shi'a; in urban centers some are Sunni.


The Nuristani reside throughout a 5,000 square mile area in the east bordering Pakistan that is heavily forested and so rugged that much of it is accessible only by foot trails. The Nuristani designate themselves by the local geographical names of the five major north-south valleys and 30 east-west lateral valleys leading into the major valleys where they live. They speak Indo-Iranian dialects of Nuristani and Dardic called by village and valley names; many are mutually unintelligible from valley to valley. In 1990 the province of Nuristan was created from parts of the provinces of Laghman and Kunar. The population in the 1990s is estimated at 125,000 by some; the Nuristani prefer a figure of 300,000.

The Nuristani are of the Mediterranean physical type with mixtures from Indian stocks on the fringes. Historians accompanying Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC described this group as differing culturally and religiously from other peoples in the area. They were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam in 1895 during the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman but retain many unique features in their material culture.

The Nuristani are mountaineer herders, dairymen and farmers. They hold a respected place in the social order and many have risen to high government positions, particularly in the army.


The homeland of the Sunni Baluch in southwestern Afghanistan is in the sparsely settled deserts and semi-deserts of Hilmand Province, although Baluch enclaves are also found in northwestern Faryab Province. These semisedentary and seminomadic populations are famed for camel breeding. They number perhaps around 100,000, although other estimates are lower. Seventy percent of the Baluch live in Pakistan; others reside in Iran. The Baluch speak Baluchi, an Iranian branch in the Indo-European language family; most speak Dari and Pashto as well. Baluch society is tribal, highly segmented and centrally organized under powerful chieftains known as sardars.


The Sunni Brahui is another distinctive group settled in the desert areas of southwestern Afghanistan. They numbered about 200,000 in 1970 according to an estimate by Louis Dupree; estimates in the 1990s run lower. The basic Brahui physical type is Veddoid of South India, and they speak Brahui which is allied to Dravidian, a major language of South India, with a heavy mixture of Balulchi and Pashto. Brahui mostly work as tenant farmers or hired herders for Baluch or Pushtun khans. Larger communities of Brahui reside in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province.


The Qizilbash of Mediterranean sub-stock speak Dari, are Imami Shi'a, and scattered throughout Afghanistan, primarily in urban centers. There are perhaps 50,000 Qizilbash living in Afghanistan although it is difficult to say for some claim to be Sunni Tajik since Shia Islam permits the practice of taqiya or dissimulation to avoid religious discrimination. The Qizilbash form one of the more literate groups in Afghanistan; they hold important administrative and professional positions.

The Qizilbash are traditionally considered to be the descendants of Persian Shia mercenaries and administrators left behind by the Safavid Emperor Nadir Shah Afshar (1736-47) to govern the Afghan provinces. Under Ahmad Shah Durrani, who served in Nadir Shah's bodyguard, and his successors, the Qizilbash acquired power and influence at court out of proportion to their numbers. This created resentment among the dominant Pushtun which hardened over the years, especially after the Qizilbash openly allied themselves with the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842). Amir Abdur Rahman accused the Qizilbash of being partisan to the enemy during his campaigns against the Shi'a Hazara in 1891-1893, declared them enemies of the state, confiscated their property and persecuted them.


Kabuli, is an ambiguous term which provides a sense of identity for Afghanistan's largest heterogeneous urban population without designating distinct ethnic associations. The city of Kabul has drawn members of all ethnic groups in growing numbers since 1776 when it was declared the capital in favor of Kandahar; generations of intermarriages have also taken place. Nevertheless, ethnic roots and regional links have always also remained important. This is reflected in the spatial layout of the city which, before two-thirds of the city was reduced to rubble after 1992, consisted of ethnic, geographic or religious-oriented wards and suburbs. Social stratification along occupational lines was also clear although over the past few decades lines tended to blur significantly.

A typical Kabuli speaks Dari in addition to his mother tongue and, whether male or female, is urbane, favors European fashions, is secularly educated, and most probably works as a bureaucrat, shopkeeper/owner or in the service sector. Many have had professional education or experience abroad, live in apartments or single-family dwellings, are Western-oriented in outlook and enjoy cosmopolitan lifestyles. It is this image which conservatives, especially those such as the rural Taliban find unpalatable, a symbol of moral degradation which must be eradicated if a truly Islamic state is to be established in Afghanistan.

Many Kabuli who remained in Kabul during the Soviet-Afghan War have since left because they find the attitudes of the new leadership incompatible. They are now displaced in cities inside Afghanistan, living as refugees in Pakistan or resettled abroad. Their absence will severely hinder the reestablishment of viable administrative and economic systems necessary for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.


There are other small marginal communities of occupational specialists based in eastern Afghanistan in provinces such as Laghman. They are commonly referred to as Jat which is a generic term indiscriminately applied by others with derogatory connotations implying low descent and low occupations. The groups reject the term and refer to themselves by specific names. Of Mediterranean-Indian type physically, speaking Indo-Aryan dialects in addition to Pashto and Dari, they are primarily gypsy-like itinerant petty traders, bangle sellers, fortune-tellers, musicians, jugglers, snake-charmers and performers with animals such as bears and monkeys. Some are specialized craftsmen, working as weavers, potters, sievemakers, knife-makers, and leather-workers. Some hire out as seasonal itinerant farm laborers. They rank lowest on the social scale and are stigmatized by many in the society.


Hindus and Sikhs live mostly in urban centers throughout Afghanistan. They are merchants and moneylenders. In 1978 they numbered about 30,000. Many left in 1992, but are slowly returning to such cities as Ghazni and Jalalabad. The Jewish community of Kabul is totally depleted. One family remains in 1996 to care for the synagogue which partially remains in an area otherwise pulverized.

Interethnic Relations

Afghanistan's ethnic mosaic has no precise boundaries; nor is its national culture uniform. Few of its ethnic groups are indigenous; few maintain racial homogeneity. Many zones overlap and interactions broadened as the economic infrastructure improved and educational opportunities widened.

Resentment rising out of wars and conquests remains long after the power of conquerors dissipates. This is true with regard to the Uzbeks. The distrust and discrimination between Hazara and Pushtun set during late nineteenth century confrontations is still abundantly present. The causes of prejudice against the Qizilbash go back to the eighteenth century.

Kabul's political policies also had long-term effects in aggravating ethnic tensions. This is most evident in the successive movements of thousands of Pushtun into the northern areas, beginning with the forced relocations of Amir Abdur Rahman's Pushtun opponents in the late nineteenth century and again employed as late as 1947-1949 following revolts among the Safi Pushtun in eastern Afghanistan. Competition with local populations occasioned considerable stress.

Equally significant were the effects of successful land reclamation projects, beginning in the 1930s, which offered attractive incentives to new settlers. These invariably favored the Pushtun over local populations. The land settlement schemes in the Hilmand in the southwest, begun in 1910 and massively extended after 1946, were similarly disruptive. Settlers from all parts of Afghanistan were recruited into this predominantly Pushtun and Baluch area, creating new tensions not only among the new disparate groups, but also among new and old Pushtun groups.

Local conflicts in all areas, within all groups, most often erupt over disputes concerning property or access to resources, whether it be land, water, money, business or government opportunities, bridewealth or inheritance. Naturally evolving demographic pressures accompanied by competition form the basis of other conflicts. Also, the tendency of past governments to initiate policies enhancing Pushtun prominence, increased the traditional Pushtun military and numerical dominance which allowed them to assert their will over other ethnic groups and maintain their status as the nation's most prestigious group.

Thus, there have always been tensions between groups, from petty squabbles to feuds lasting for generations, rising from a variety of causes but rarely from intrinsic attitudes of ethnic discrimination. Considering the disparate and volatile ingredients that exist, Afghanistan's history records remarkably few internal explosions that are specifically focussed on ethnicity.

During the Soviet-Afghan War, the shared goals of the mujahidin--opposition to nonbelieving atheist invaders and group solidarity--were reminiscent of familial, tribal, and ethnic group construction. As such, the appeal of the mujahidin was a strong and familiar rallying cry and source of solidarity for Afghans in their struggle for national liberation.

Afghan ethnic identities emerged more clearly during the Soviet-Afghan War. Five groups could be easily distinguished: Tajik, including all Sunni Dari speakers; Hazara; Uzbek; Durrani Pushtun; Ghilzai Pushtun and Eastern Pushtun. Fighting among Afghans in the years following the fall of Najibullah's government in 1992 exceeded levels of violence experienced even during the wars of Amir Abdur Rahman against the Hazara and the Nuristani between 1891 and 1896. Some would say that these conflicts are evidence that Afghan society must now be fragmented between groups identified by religious, ethnic, or regional labels. There is no doubt that the Soviet-Afghan War severely disturbed the delicate social infrastructure constructed over many centuries, yet according to many Afghans the present turmoil is driven more by political greed and external interference than by ethnic, religious or regional considerations. While traditional structures were not equitable for all Afghan citizens, they did permit extended periods of civic stability. Even in the mid-1990s, there was ample evidence in a number of areas outside the present arenas of conflict to suggest that a return to the old order could occur.

Elements of material culture are used by all ethnic groups to build pride and a sense of social superiority, particularly in mixed ethnic zones. The Nuristani are the most unique in dress, diet and architecture. In other areas distinctions have softened over the years as the improved infrastructure encouraged greater mobility.

The most striking differences are noted in dress, particularly in headgear. Turbans are characteristic of the Pashtun. The shape of caps, round, conical or peaked, their material and decoration are distinctive indicators between and within many groups. Chapan, loose sometimes quilted coats of cotton or silk with stripes of varied colors to indicate specific regions, are worn in the north; pattu, shawls, are preferred in the south. For women, color, the width of the skirt, and the type of embroidery are meaningful distinctions.

Diet also changes from group to group, although bread and tea are dietary staples everywhere. Some bread is round, some oval; some prefer black tea, others green. The Uzbek include many pasta dishes in their cuisine. Dwellings of sedentary groups, mostly made from pressed mud or sun-dried brick, may be domed or flat-roofed, modestly enclosed behind walls or hidden within towering fortress-like enclosures, although open villages do exist in the Hazarajat. Tents used by the nomads vary in shape, material and structure from group to group.

Each group uses folktales to reinforce the uniqueness and superiority of the one over the other, as well as to describe their individual ideals.


Tribalism is not a feature of every ethnic group in Afghanistan; and even within tribally organized groups tribalism is a flexible concept that allows variations to exist and changes to occur as kinship groups rise and fall.

Tribal identity which merges with ethnicity rests on unified genealogies consisting of descendants of a common male ancestor whose name often provides the name of the group. Internal divisions consist of the descendants of intermediate descendants of the original founder. Thus an entire tribe may descend from a man ten or more generations in the past. Smaller segmentary patrilineages composed of great-grandsons and grandsons form units of residence and strong personal loyalty.

Although preferred marriages for males are to father's brother's daughters, genealogies reflect political, economic and social alliances outside strict descent lines. Typically, it is men from dominant groups who will seek to marry with females outside their own ethnic group.

The Pushtun represent the largest tribal entities in Afghanistan; among them tribal institutions are strongest within the Ghilzai. Common characteristics of Pushtun tribal organization ideally feature egalitarianism, democratic decision-making through councils called jirgah at which individual members have the right to express themselves freely, and certain corporate responsibilities such as revenge. Revenge, for instance, may be taken on any member of an offending tribe, although liability is usually greater for those most closely related to the accused. The essentially decentralized independent communities within tribal subsections conduct both internal and external affairs according to the tribal code of conduct called Pushtunwali (see Pushtun, this ch.).

The aristocratic elites who lead subdivisions, rise to their positions primarily through personal charisma, patronage, and leadership abilities rather than by primogeniture, which is not recognized in Muslim law, or any type of prescribed hereditary rights. Tribal organization is therefore acephalous or without a paramount chief. And the measure of their power differs. Heads of nomadic tribal groups, for instance, act principally as spokesmen, but have no right to make decisions binding on others.

The absence of recognized principles governing the assumption of leadership allows for intense competition. Rivalries within and between tribal segments and between tribes and subtribes consequently have always existed. It is these internecine feuds that have earned the Pushtun their reputation as an unruly and warlike people. Nonetheless, when outside forces threaten, the Pushtun are equally reputed for their ability to forge formidable alliances, among themselves and with other ethnic groups.

Both internal as well as intergroup conflicts are most often rooted in matters of personal and group honour, personal enmities, family dissensions concerning brides and property, struggles for material possession, access to resources, territorial integrity and extensions of power, rather than in intrinsic attitudes of ethnic discrimination.

Many contentious struggles raged about the creation of the nation-state. Although Ahmad Shah Durrani set the stage for Pushtun dominance, his successors lacked both his personal charisma and his leadership abilities. His son, Timur Shah (1772-1783), further compounded the problem by leaving behind 23 sons born of wives from ten different tribes without designating a successor. Similarly, the next charismatic leader to consolidate the area, Amir Dost Mohammad (1834-38; 1842-63), left 20 sons to fight for the throne. Violent episodes involving individual quests for power characterized much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

With the advent of Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901), a grandson of Amir Dost Mohammad, the situation changed dramatically. Amir Abdur Rahman utilized his powerful personality in combination with adroit politics and judicious use of financial subsidies and weaponry provided by the British. To further his ambition to establish a centralized state under his authoritarian control, he created the first standing army and relied heavily on the support of his own Mohammadzai section of the Barakzai Durrani, to whom he granted annual allowances. Thus he raised the Mohammadzai to a privileged group and reduced the power of the tribal Sardars. At his death in 1901 he was succeeded by his son without the usual violent upheavals.

State institution building was met with periodic open revolts such as that of the eastern Pushtun which ended the rule of King Amanullah in 1929. King Nadir (1929-1933) restored the preeminence of central Mohammadzai control with tribal assistance. The 1978 coup d'etat deposed the Mohammadzai and the Soviet-Afghan War introduced political parties which brought new leadership patterns into being, altering tribal structures and reshaping ethnic identities. Traditional segmentation has not disappeared, but it is now being expressed through new political structures.

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