Ethnic Groups

Afghanistan Table of Contents

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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress