UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!



Pashtun 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.

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.

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.

In its annual report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan for 2002, Human Rights Watch reported: "In the last months of 2001 and first months of 2002, there was a wave of attacks on Pashtun civilians in the north of the country, seemingly because they shared the same ethnicity as the Taliban leadership. Specifically, troops associated with the predominately Uzbek party Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami-yi, led by Rashid Dostum, the predominately Tajik party Jamiat-e Islami, led in the north by Ustad Atta Mohammad, and the predominately Hazara party Hizb-i Wahdat, led in the north by Mohammad Mohaqiq, were all implicated in systematic and widespread looting and violence in almost every province under their separate control, almost all of it directed at Pashtun villagers. In scores of villages, homes were destroyed, possessions were taken, and men and boys were beaten and in some cases killed.[T]here were several reports of rapes of girls and women. In Chimtal district near Mazar-e Sharif, and in Balkh province generally, both Hizb-i Wahdat and Jamiat forces were particularly violent: in one village, Bargah-e Afghani, Hizb-i Wahdat troops killed thirty-seven civilians, the largest known intentional killing of civilians since the fall of the Taliban.

It is from Kandahar, not Kabul, that President Karzai's claim to national legitimacy originates, and where, through leadership of the royal Durrani Popalzai tribe, he has a true political base. In Kandahar, political clans consisting of personal, tribal, marriage and economic alliances engage in balance of power competition and cooperation. At the pinnacle of Kandahar's political clans, the Karzai clan functions as a semi-modern aristocracy, with the President ultimately presiding over the nation.

Much of the real business of running Kandahar takes place out of public sight, where AWK operates parallel to formal government structures through a network of political clans that use state institutions to protect and enable licit and illicit enterprises. At its core, this clan network has a caste-like division of labor. The Popalzai occupy the leadership pinnacle. The Barakzai, with Gul Agha Sherzai as their leader, compete for power and business, which includes, for example, contracting at Kandahar Air Field and transport on Highway 4 from the Pakistan border at Spin Boldak. The Noorzai occupy key positions in the ANSF and are the traditional racketeers (with ties to narcotics trafficking). The Achekzais along the border are the traditional smugglers, and the Alikozai are the traditional warriors.

The traditional tribal power structures in Kandahar have many implications for U.S. objectives in the region. Initiatives that rely on the Afghan government to take the lead in bringing to justice major corrupt figures or negative influences in Kandahar contain a serious dilemma: they would include some of Karzai's closest relatives and allies and require the prosecution of people on whom we often rely for assistance and/or support. Second, any efforts to bring these individuals to justice could compromise the informal governing networks to which Kandaharis have become accustomed, without necessarily replacing them with effective officials or improving the delivery of services. A focus on bottom-up local solutions, such as identifying and reaching out to the multiple factions in Arghandab as well as the official shura could offset this problem to some degree.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list