Afghanistan Table of Contents

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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Source: U.S. Library of Congress