Ethnic Groups

Ahmad Shah Baba, the "Father" of Afghanistan united the large number of tribes as one nation when he was appointed King in 1747. Ahmad Shah Baba's ability to unite the country in that first Loya Jirga (see Loya Jirga) was due to his talent as a statesman. He managed to balance tribal alliances by governing with the help of a council of chiefs. Tribes were ruled by men of their own choice and he afforded a great deal autonomy to each alliance. Ahmad Shah Baba did not impose himself too strongly on those who may have resisted his authority, most notably the Khattaks of Lanri, a mountain people. He did, however, engage such resisting tribes by rewarding them justly for their aid in conquest. Such conquests helped strengthen the unity of the peoples of Afghanistan who were, thanks to over a thousand years of engagement and commerce, a vastly diverse population. One of Ahmad Shah's most notorious battles was Panipat where he seized a portion of Northern India in 1761. Though few of his conquests remained part of the kingdom due to military losses during his life and the lack of strong leadership in the years directly following his rule, his reign was marked by Afghan strength in the region. From 1818 until Dost Mohammad's ascendancy in 1826, chaos again reigned in the Durrani empire as various claimants of the throne vied for power. Afghanistan, during that tumultuous era, ceased to exist as a single nation.

When Ahmad Shah ascended to the throne, his people included many groups, some of whose ethnic origins were difficult to ascertain. Many could trace their lineage to ancient Aryan tribes but some others descended from the Turks. To this day there are mant Pashtuns in the southeast portion of Afghanistan. Their European language, Pashto, is spoken in much of the nation. Many tribes comprise the Pashtun ethnic group,such as the Ghilzai, the Durrani, the Wardak, Jaji, Tani, Jadran, Mangal, Khugiani, Safi, Mohmand and Shinwari.

Another group in the southern portion of the country is the Baluch. The first mention of Baluch is from the 10th century AD. These people are mostly nomadic, but for some dry-crop agriculture is a way of life. The Baluchi people are divided politically between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The territory formerly referred to as Baluchistan, though it only briefly could have conceived of calling itself a nation, has archeological evidence of man dating back to the Stone Age, the most important of which is the neolithic site at Mehrgarh (7000-3000 BC), now located in Pakistan. The ethnic history of the Baluchi tribes is disputed with some scholars claiming they were originally Aryans, and others maintaining that they are Semites tracing their roots to a nephew of Noah. It is certain, however, that given the geographic location of the former Baluchistan, they are no doubt a mixture of various people with Baluch like the Ashkanis, Kushans, Huns, Scythians, Pathians, Turks, Sakas and many others. Most probably the Mongolian invasion of Central Asia was responsible for the known migration of the Baluchi from the Caspian Sea around 1200 AD. The Baluch are Sunni Muslims and emigrated from Iran and, not surprisingly, their language is closely related to the Indo-European language of Persian. They are mentioned in the great Persian epic “Shah-Nama” or the Book of Kings, in the 10th century. Southwestern Afghanistan is largely desert or semi-desert, as in the Hilmand Province, and the Baluch are renowned camel breeders. Some Baluchs have migrated north to the Faryab Province, but exact numbers are not known.

The Tajiks are also an ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Tajiks now inhabit primarily the northeastern section of the nation, a region marked by mountains and high plateaus, but can also be found in areas in the western portion of the country. This predominantly Hanafi Sunni Muslim people speak Dari and have over time incorporated Turkic culture. The Tajiks are a sedentary people who built villages of flat-roofed mud or stone houses and cultivated irrigated fields of wheat, barley and millet. They were famous for gardens of melons and a variety of other fruits. Their highly developed crafts were valued by the caravans that passed through the territory that is now Afghanistan, but from the Roman times constituted the Silk Road linking Persia to China and India. Tajiks are caucasian like the Pashtuns, frequently sandy-haired, some green-eyed and light-skinned, who are not divided into tribes. Some Tajiks in remote mountain areas are Shi'a Muslims.

The Central Highlands of Afghanistan are dominated by the tribes of the Hazara, a Central Asian people. This group has a long and rich history in the region. The Hazara often speak Hazaragi, a dialect of Dari with some Turkic and Mongol words. The majority of Hazara are Shi'a Muslims.

The Uzbeks are largely from northern Afghanistan and are descended from the Central Asian eastern Turks. The Uzbeks speak an Altaic language which is related to the Eastern Turkic branch of languages. Additionally, there are also Turkmans who have their own language. They have light skin and are predominantly farmers and breeders known for the Karakul sheep and an exceptional breed of horse. The Republic of Uzbekistan is just north of this region and during the 1920's many Uzbeks migrated into northern Afghanistan to avoid the Soviets attempts to stamp out their customs and Sunni Muslim religious beliefs.

The Aimak peoples inhabit the northwest section of Afghanistan, including the region of Herat, near the borders with Turkmenistan and Iran. The tribes of the Aimak are generally Dari speakers. Though among the twenty or so clans a variety of dialects are spoken. The Aimaks consist of four principal tribes who were unified around 1600 AD.

To the north of the Hindu Kush, on the steppes near the Amu Darya, in the extreme northeast Vakhan Corridor, live the Kyrgyz people. This mountainous area offers little in the way of agriculture. The Kyrgyz speak an Eastern Turkic language by tradition, but they also speak Dari. All of the Turkic peoples, those who speak languages considered subfamilies of the Altaic languages, are descendants of large tribes believed to have originated in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz migrated south. The Kyrgyz often practice Sunni Islam. They are traditionally a nomadic people who herd yaks. The men wear large, soft leather boots, cloaks tied with a belt and turbans, while the women wear leggings under brightly colored long dresses.

The Turkmans inhabit the northwestern part of Afghanistan. While the majority of Turkmen now have their own nation, Turkmenistan, which was created due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan is home to a significant number of members of this ethnicity, though still a small minority of the total national population. The word turkman means "made from light." Afghanistan's Turkmen community is known for being industrious and peace loving. Like the Uzbeks, they are light-skinned and many have their own language. Trade routes connecting the Caucasus to the Central Asia and Iran over the Caspian Sea passed through the original Turkmen lands, but conflicts throughout history, most recently with Russia, caused a good number to leave their native lands and settle elsewhere. The Turkmen people were greatly assimilated into the Ottoman tradition not by force, as was the Ottoman's usual tactic, but rather through purchase of Turkmen lands and marriage.

The Nuristani inhabit the Hindu Kush mountain area in northeast Afghanistan, the northeastern part of the province of Nangarhar. Nuristan means "Land of Light" and was given to their territory when they adopted Islam in 1885. The Nuristani speak Kafiri (or Nuristani), which belongs to the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European language family. The Afghans conquered and converted Nuristan in 1895 under the leadership of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan. Predominantly Sunni Muslims, the Nuristani have a clan organization and are an agricultural people. The landscape of the 5,000 square mile Nuristani territory consists of both mountainous and forested regions mostly accessible only by foot trails. Narrow mountain valleys are used to grow wheat, barley, peas and maize. In lower areas grapes and mulberries are grown. The Nuristani also raise goats, some cattle and a few sheep in the upper, wider valleys. Their appearance is more Mediterranean like their neighbors, the Pashtuns and Tajiks.

The Pamiri live in territories bordering on Pakistan and Tajikistan. The Pamir territory played a key role during the "Great Game" between the Russian and British Empires in 1813 to 1907. The region was once again of strategic importance for Soviet Union when it served as the primary supply route of Soviet military operations in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. This area was first referred to as the "roof of the world" by the Persians who were awed by the mountains that are over 6,000 meters in many zones. The Soviets were not the first to use the treacherous region for material transport. In the Roman times the Silk Road went over the passes of southwestern Pamir, along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Ancient graffiti, tombs and archeological digsites have been found to testify to the history of this area. The Pamir region was split when parts were divided between the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925 and Afghanistan. The left banks of the Roshan, the Shighnan and the Vakhan were given to Afghanistan while the right banks were kept by the Soviets. The major Pamiri groups are Wakhi (Ismaili Shia), Parachi and Ormuri and all speak archaic Dari (Avestan) dialects including Wakhi, Xikzik, Yazqulami, Ishkashim and Shugni Rushani.

A still smaller group, the Qizilbash, are the descendants of the Afshar guard of Nader Shah Afshari, believed to have been brought to Afghanistan in order to govern certain territories. Ahmad Shah Durrani favored the Qizilbash, creating some conflict between them and the Pashtuns. The people of this group speak Dari. The Qizilbash ruled Persia for two centuries in Iran until they spilled over into Afghan territory. The Qizilbash have a tradition of being among the more literate groups and, therefore, were frequently members of the professional and governmental society. Nadir Shah Afshar directly preceded Ahmad Shah Durrani, who became the first Amir of Afghanistan in 1747. They are principally an urban people with greatest numbers in Kabul, but with significant settlement also in Ghazni, Kandahar and several other towns. The word Qizilbash is a Turkic word for redhead, so named because during the Saffavid dynastic period they wore red turbans.

Other groups in Afghanistan include the Waziris, the Mahsuds, the Shinwaris, Yusufzais, Afridis and Mohmands. Ethnicity is certainly one way Afghans identify themselves, but Afghans also can identify with their compatriots via linguistic and religious traditions, as well as through common occupations. Some historians believe that the word Afghan is an archaid Turkic word meaning "between", referring to Afghanistan's geographic position linking so many diverse and powerful empires throughout history. If that is so, the name Afghan holds a powerful message. Afghans cannot afford to have just one identity; each individual must be a bridge between the many cultures that make up Afghanistan.