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Image: Ethnic groups
 Photo: Bente Elisabeth Skjefstad
Photo: Bente Elisabeth Skjefstad

Ethnic groups

Afghanistan has a wide variety of ethnic groups with each having different linguistic, religious and ethnic identities.

Afghanistan’s topography has contributed to keeping people and communities isolated from each other.  During the course of the 20th century, contact between different groups increased, with development of the country’s communication and road system and consolidation of state power.  This contact continued after the Soviet invasion, although the country’s development stagnated and violence erupted.

Politicised overestimation

Estimates of the numbers of different ethnic groups have to be taken with a grain of salt. There has not been a census in Afghanistan for decades, and all figures are based on estimates.  In addition, various ethnic groups often exaggerate their own population size for political reasons. This text, including all statistics, is based on the book Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield, which is generally regarded as a good and balanced reference on Afghanistan.

Pashtuns

Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and are estimated to make up around 40% of the Afghan population. The majority follow the Sunni Muslim doctrine.  Pashtuns are the world’s largest remaining tribal community. They have held the reins of power in Afghanistan since the 18th century.

The majority of rural Pashtuns are farmers, while a minority are trading nomads.  Their language, Pashto, is an Indo-European language of eastern Iraqi origin.  Pashtuns believe they have a common ancestor, Qais Abdur Rashid (575–661 A.C.), the traditionally renowned and perhaps mythical founding father of the Pashtun nation.  Pashtuns can trace their lineage back to four of Qais’s sons and their family lines: Abdali (later known as Durrani), Gharghasht, Kalanai and Ghilzai. These in turn divide into clans and tribes. 

The concept of Pashtunwali is important in the Pashtun culture.  It reflects loyalty to a maxim where honour is central as well as independence, courage, self-respect and respect for others. However, many Pashtuns who have lived for generations in the Dari-speaking cities, no longer relate to Pashtunwali, nor do they speak Pashto.

There are significant internal rivalries between the branches and clans of Pashtuns, such as the long-standing political rivalry between the Durrani and the Ghilzai. President Hamid Karzai is a Durrani, while the opposition to his government has been led mainly by Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis, all belonging to the Ghilzai tribe.  One of the main grievances of the Ghilzai tribe is the fact that they are underrepresented in the Afghan leadership, which motivates many to continue the insurgency.

Tajiks

Tajiks are also mostly Sunni Muslims, but they speak Dari and group cohesion is non-tribal. They constitute the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, an estimated 30%. They have long been more urbanised than other groups. The majority, however, still live scattered in the mountainous north and north-eastern areas, such as Badakhshan, and parts of Herat province along the western border with Iran.  They have relatively little internal cohesion as an ethnic group and the majority identify themselves primarily with the region or cities they come from, rather than by ethnicity.

While government leaders and key ministers have had Pashtun origin, the bureaucracy has been traditionally dominated by the Tajik.  This is partly because of their Dari language skills, which the public administration historically has used at the regional level. 

Like Pashtuns, a clear majority of Tajiks follow the Sunni Muslim doctrine, while about 5% are Shia Muslims, Twelver and Ismaili Shia, concentrated in scattered pockets.  Many times, these two Shia minorities have been the victims of discrimination.  Rural Tajik live mainly on agriculture, handicrafts and trade while urban Tajiks have been prominent traders, officials and religious scholars.

Hazaras

Hazaras account for about 15% of the population and are the third largest ethnic group.  The majority of Hazaras are located in Hazarajat, an area in the central highlands of Afghanistan that they controlled autonomously until the end of the 19th century. The majority of the Hazara belong to the Twelvers, a branch of the Shia Muslim doctrine, while only a small minority belongs to the Sunni doctrine.

Hazaras speak Hazaragi, a dialect very close to Dari that uses many Turkish and Mongolian expressions.  Ethnically, they originate from the central Asian region and are popularly claimed to be descendants of the Mongol Army that invaded Afghanistan in the 13th century under the command of Genghis Khan. Most Hazaras are farmers, often living at higher altitudes.

Historically, Hazaras have often been victims of discrimination and persecution by other ethnic groups for religious and racial reasons. They have been systematically excluded from government positions and education and have struggled to achieve social mobility. The Taliban regime was particularly brutal in its persecution of Hazaras. However, in the constitution ratified in 2004, Hazaras were given equal rights to other ethnic groups.

Since the late 19th century, many Hazaras migrated to Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, often as a result of systematic discrimination by Afghanistan’s rulers. By the 1970s they made up one third of the population in the capital. 

Uzbeks and Turkmen

The Uzbek and Turkmen minorities in Afghanistan make up about 10% of the population.  They are Sunni Muslim and originate historically from nomadic tribes that arrived in waves from Central Asia. Their languages belong to the Turkic language family.

They are traditionally associated with the areas northwest of the Hindu Kush mountain range, near the borders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Uzbeks live off agriculture, crafts and trade, while the Turkmen herd goats, horses and/or camels.  This lifestyle has traditionally given them a relatively good economic basis, but also made them highly vulnerable to war and drought. Both Turkmen and Uzbeks are known for their craftsmanship of hand-woven carpets and sheep pelt export. In Kabul and other northern cities, Turkmen are known for trade.

Aimaqs

Aimaqs are the smallest of the main ethnic groups and probably account for around 5%.  They are Sunni Muslims, and their primary language is Dari with many loan words from Turkish.  They are tribes that historically settled around the western parts of the Hindu Kush, that is, east of Herat and west of the Hazarajat.  Under persecution by the central government at the end of the 19th century, many were displaced to northern Afghanistan.  Aimaqs are either settlers, nomads, or a combination of both.

Other minorities

Farsiwan are settled in western Afghanistan, near the border with Iran.  They speak a Persian dialect that is close to Dari and they belong to Twelver branch of Shia Muslim in Afghanistan.

Nuristani people are settled in the eastern Afghan mountains where they make their living from agriculture and livestock. They are Sunni Muslims and speak a language that is considered to be very old, with features from both Persian and Hindi. Living in isolated valleys and rough terrain, Nuristanis had a distinct culture and a polytheistic religion, but were conquered and forcibly converted to Islam in the end of the 19th century.

Kyrgyz are Turkic-speaking, and before the war they lived mostly in the Pamir Wakhan Corridor, the long and thin strip of Afghan territory that stretches northeast from Badakshan province to form a narrow border with China. They herd Yak-oxen, goats and camels.  There are only few Kyrgyz living in Afghanistan today.  Most of them fled to Turkey, China, Pakistan or other countries during the Soviet occupation.

Among other smaller ethnic groups are Arabs, Pashayi, Baloch, Pamiris, Brahuis, Mongols, Qizilbash, Hindus, Kohistani, Gujars and Sikhs.

Main source:

  • Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A cultural and political history.
Norwegian Afghanistan Committee
Addresse:  Nawai Watt, Street # 03 •  Postal addresse:
work # 148 Shahr-i-Naw, KabulAfghanistan

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