Now that the bombing is over and Osama and Omar have evacuated themselves, Afghanistan will once again recede from our mindset. But we still do not know Afghanistan. In an attempt to keep Afghanistan in focus and to understand it better, Himal presents a checklist of Afghan’s ethnic groups. Adapted from the report Afghanistan: Minorities, Conflict and the Search for Peace by Peter Marsden, published in November 2001
by Minority Rights Group International.
The Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, occupy a belt of mountains that extends for much of the border with Pakistan, which has benefited their crossborder smuggling operations. In addition to occupying territory in the Registan Desert and around Kandahar, the Pashtuns also have a significant presence in the Helmand River valley, the Kabul River valley, and other scattered parts of Afghanistan’s southeast. Pashtuns also own land in northern areas such as Kunduz, following a colonising process begun in the nineteenth century. By being able to draw primarily on irrigated wheat for their survival, they are at an advantage vis-avis other ethnic groups, which have to depend on a combination of rain-fed and irrigated wheat. The nomadic population of Afghanistan is predominantly Pashtun and there has been competition, historically, between these nomads and the Hazaras of central Afghanistan for control of pasturelands. Struggles for this land in the past two decades have alternated control between the nomads and the Hazaras. The Pashtuns organise their affairs through tribal and clan structures called Pushtunzvali, which puts a strong emphasis on tribal honour and revenge and places great restrictions on female mobility, including the institution of purdah.
Hazaras and Tajiks
The western half of the central Hindu Kush range is largely occupied by the Shia Hazaras and the east by the Tajiks. Inhospitable agricultural conditions have rendered both the Hazaras and the Tajiks relatively poor, although the Tajiks have access to the Shomali and Panjshir valleys. The Hazaras are thought to be of Turkic origin and much of the population adopted Twelver Shi’ism after occupation by the Persian Safavids in the 16th and 17th centuries. The term ‘Tajik’ can apply to all Persian-speaking Sunnis who are not of Turkic origin and, therefore, Tajiks have a less,pronounced collective identity than other groups. Prior to the 1978 coup, Tajiks were heavily represented in the state bureaucracy, a situation which has almost certainly changed. Alternatively, Hazaras have tended to be marginalised and have normally occupied the most menial positions in the economy.
Turkomans and Uzbeks
Turkomans primarily occupy the Badghi hills of the northwest Hindu Kush and their origins date back to the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. Most Turkomans, along with thousands of Uzbeks, came to Afghanistan in the 1920s and 1930s to escape Soviet domination to the north. They brought with them garakul sheep and the Turkoman rug industry. To the east of the Badghi hills is the Faryab desert and the Central Asian flat plain. Uzbekis, also of Turkic origin, are the predominant group in this area, although there are pockets of Pashtuns. This area suffered greatly after the closure of the border with Uzbekistan in 1998, although that border has recently been reopened.
Afghani Ismailis, a Shia group, are settled to the north and northwest of the Salang Pass, through which the main Kabul—Mazar-i-Sharif highway runs. Ismailis are intermingled amongst Hazara and Tajik communities, with significant numbers in Afghanistan’s extreme northeast.
Baluchis occupy the inhospitable desert zone along the borders with Pakistan and Iran in Afghanistan’s southeast. Many are semi-nomadic and some Baluchis have been heavily involved in opium smuggling into Iran.
Sometimes considered to be a Baluchi sub-group, the Brahui live in Afghanistan’s south and southwest and practise agriculture and animal husbandry. Some Brahui also work as tenant farmers for Baluchis.
The Nuristanis live in isolated valleys south of Badakshan in eastern Afghanistan and trace their origins back to the armies of Alexander the Great. They were forcibly converted to Islam in the late nineteenth century by Amir Abdur-Rahman and they survive primarily on goat herding.
Located along the border with Iran, the Farsiwan are an Imami Shia group. They survive primarily through agriculture and are also located in some southern and western towns.
Also Imami Shia, the Qizilbash are a small minority which used to be located in Afghanistan’s urban areas, where they occupied senior bureaucratic and professional positions prior to the 1978 coup. As a consequence of more than two decades of war, emigration and purges, it is possible that this group’s presence has declined significantly.
The Aimaqs are of Turkic origin and are found in the westernmost part of the Hindu Kush. Social Factors in Afghani Society The Sunni population, comprising the Baluchis, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkomans and Uzbeks, generally adhere to the Hanafi School. Shi’as are divided between the Imami sect (part of the Hazara population, along with the Farsiwans and Qizilbashes) and the Ismailis (part of the Hazara and Tajik populations, together with several thousand people living in the Pamirs). At one time, Sufism was strong in Afghanistan; in later years it was linked with Pir Gailani and Sibghatullah Mujadidi, two Mujahidin leaders. As Sufism was not tolerated by the Taliban, it is likely that this practice has largely died out. In addition to the Muslim population, 20,000 Hindus and 10,000 Sikhs have worked in Afghanistan’s eastern cities as traders, merchants and moneylenders. The Hindu and Sikh communities have been able to practice their religious practices without official constraints, although the perilous political climate has led to de facto constraints. Most Hindus and Sikhs left Afghanistan during the 1992-1996 fighting.
Linguistically, the country is roughly divided along ethnic lines, with the Pashtun population speaking Pashto and the other ethnic groups, together with the urban elite, speaking Dari, a dialect of Persian. There are a number of minority languages, most notably Turkic, which is spoken by to the Turkoman and Uzbek populations.
The heads of state from 1933 to 1979 were members of the Muhammadzai clan of the Barakzai tribe within the Durrani confederation, the most socially affluent of the three major Pashtun tribes. After the Pashtuns, the social hierarchy tended to favour other Sunnis, with Tajiks usually taking priority over Uzbeks. Shi’as were largely left outside the sphere of government. The leadership of the Soviet-backed government was from the Ghilzai Pashtun confederation. The Taliban reasserted the traditional dominance of the Durrani.
Numerous ethnic allegiances spill over Afghanistan’s borders into neighbouring countries. There are equal numbers of Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many of the northern groups have ethnic loyalties that extend into Central Asia. Southern. Baluchi groups have ties to both Pakistan and Iran. Pashtuns also have cultural links with Arabia. At the time of India’s partition in 1947, Afghanistan argued for a separate Pashtun state, with the implicit aim of later incorporating it into Afghanistan. Tensions have risen over the Pastun issue, leading Islamabad to pursue of policy of control over Kabul.