Afghanistan's Ethnic Divides

Publication date:
Abubakar Siddique

Policy Research Papers

January 2012

A Tapestry of Ethnicities

Afghanistan’s national anthem recognizes 14 ethnic groups among the country’s 27 million people: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Balochis, Turkmens, Nooristanis, Pamiris, Arabs, Gujars, Brahuis, Qizilbash, Aimaq and Pashai. Few groups are indigenous to Afghanistan; most of the larg­er ones have significantly greater populations in neighbouring countries. Governing a viable state with these demographics has always been a core challenge. Maintaining harmony among these groups is one of the biggest problems confronting Afghanistan today and a key determinant of whether its future is to be one of peace and reconciliation or conflict and discord.

The largest group, the Pashtuns, have many more members in neigh­bouring Pakistan. The Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens are much more numerous in the contiguous Central Asian countries to the north.1 Nevertheless, as a people, Afghans do have a sense of nationhood despite their lack of a uniform national culture. Their shared history together with the country’s unique historical development clearly dis­tinguishes the various ethnic groups living in Afghanistan from those in neighbouring countries. But their ties also link Afghans with ethnic con­flicts in neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.

In the absence of accurate census data, determining the true percent­ages of various ethnic groups is problematic and can be contentious. Furthermore, simply defining various ethnic identities is not always easy. The idea that “ethnic groups are solid cultural units, which are divided by obvious boundaries” and have engaged in conflict for centuries is not applicable to Afghanistan. For example, a sizeable number of Dari speakers consider themselves Pashtuns because of ethnic heritage. Some native-Pashto speakers consider Dari their sec­ond language. While the Nooristanis, Balochis, Pashai and Brahuis are distinct groups in the south and east of the country, they are identified more closely with the Pashtuns in Kabul because many of their mem­bers are bilingual.