Ethnic Groups

Ethnic Groups

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


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

The Afghan Pushtun heartland roughly covers a large crescent-shaped beltfollowing 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 thenation, where they have settled at various times since the end of the nineteenthcentury as shifts in populations, some forced, some voluntary, occurred inresponse to political expediency and economic opportunities (see Abdur RahmanKhan, 1880-1901, ch.1).

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

The Pushtun have provided the central leadership for Afghanistan since theeighteenth century when Ahmad Khan Abdali of Kandahar established the DurraniEmpire. This one-time general in Nadir Shah's Persian army was elected to powerin 1747 at a tribal jirgah, an assembly which takes decisions byconsensus. 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 Khanassumed the title of Durr-i-Durran (Pearl of Pearls) and was henceforthknown as Ahmad Shah Durrani and his tribe, the Pushtun Abdali tribe, as theDurrani. When his successors lost the support of the tribes after Ahmad Shah'sdeath in 1772, control passed to the Mohammadzai lineage within the Barakzaisection of the Durrani Pushtun.

Mohammadzai dominance continued from 1826 to 1978, interrupted only for ascant nine months in 1929. Then power shifted to the second largest Pushtuntribe, the Ghilzai, who dominated the leadership of the secular DemocraticRepublic of Afghanistan (DRA) after 1978, although most were essentiallydetribalized because of their close association with urban life. This regime wasin turn replaced in 1992 by the Islamic State of Afghanistan, established by themujahidin whose leaders were mostly from the Ghilzai, and a variety of easternPushtun tribes, although the President from 1992-1996 was a Tajik. This statehas been challenged since the October 1994 takeover of Kandahar by the PushtunTaliban. The Taliban heartland remains in the south and while the originalleadership bid for unity by playing down tribal identities, divisions began tosurface after Kabul was taken in September 1996.

Pushtun culture rests on Pushtunwali, a legal and moral code thatdetermines social order and responsibilities. It contains sets of valuespertaining to honor (namuz), solidarity (nang), hospitality,mutual support, shame and revenge which determines social order and individualresponsibility. The defence of namuz, even unto death, is obligatoryfor every Pushtun. Elements in this code of behavior are often in opposition tothe Shariah. Much of the resistance to the largely detribalized leadership ofthe DRA stemmed from the perception that in attempting to nationalize land andwealth, as well as regulate marriage practices, the DRA was unlawfully violatingthe 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 AhmadzaiGhilzai are consulted for their legal abilities, the Andar Ghilzai specialize inconstructing and repairing underground irrigation systems called karez,and the Shinwari of Paktya monopolize the lumber trade. Pushtun nomads arediscussed below.

Other Groups:


Interethnic Relations


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