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Society - Ethnicity and Tribe

Afghanistan is home not only to several religious sects but also to a host of different ethnic, linguistic, and tribal groups. Rivalry and even armed hostilities have traditionally been common between and within many of these groups. Historic and geographic factors have led to the creation and preservation of diversity. The relationship between tribe and ethnicity is complex, and by no means do all Afghans, even all rural Afghans, consider themselves tribal members.

In addition to social diversity, many different phenotypes may be found in the population, including blond haired, blueeyed Afghans; those with darker features and epicanthal folds; tall, olive skinned, mustachioed tribesmen; and those who combine these features. Although it may be tempting to associate certain physical features with certain ethnic groups, scholars recognize that because all human populations are capable of interbreeding and do so with great regularity, there are more physical differences found within ethnic groups than between them. Canfield has observed that in Barman, "some Hazaras [who are thought to have "Mongolian" features], especially those from the chiefly families, do not have clearly defined Mongoloid features. Instead, some have heavy beards and lack the typical Mongolian eyefolds and high cheek bones. Conversely, some persons calling themselves 'Tajik' have rather strong Mongoloid features. I consequently doubt that the relationship between phenotype and ethnic identity is very close."

Afghanistan's rugged physical environment serves to isolate residential communities and to create microenvironments. Members of the same ethnic group and tribe who reside in different locations must adapt to their own microenvironment, which may result in different kin based groups within the same tribe and ethnic group using different modes of production. For example, the Durrani Pashtuns that Tapper studied were primarily agriculturalists, while the Sheikhanzai Durrani Pashtuns, who were the subject of Tavakolian's research, were primarily pastoralists. Many Durrani also live in cities, where they may have lost their tribal identity.

Within Afghanistan there are over 40 major ethnicities who speak over 50 separate languages or dialects. Its citizens naturally identify with those who speak their language and share their culture. Their loyalty is first to their local leaders and their tribe. Identification with an abstract Afghan nation has always been fragile.

Ethnicity only plays one part in understanding Afghanistan and its people. Afghanistan is organized according to many other factors. For example, far more Pashtuns were opposed to the Taliban than was generally reported, with two of the United Front's (Northern Alliance's) six factions being comprised primarily of Pashtuns. Afghanistan's ethnic diversity should also not hide the many traits which nearly all Afghans share: rugged independence and a generally egalitarian spirit. Afghans are lovers of freedom and are motivated by a common desire to resistoutside influence over internal affairs.

Ethnic identities fade in importance when Afghanis sense that they are confronted with a common enemy who seek to control Afghanistan. Afghanistan's ethnic diversity does not mean that the members of the different ethnic groups do not interact. There is a substantial amount of intermarriage between the ethnic groups. This inter-marriage tends to blur lines of loyalty between different ethnic groups.

Afghanistan's ethnic diversity is also complicated by the fact that the Afghan notion of ethnicity is different than the view commonly held in the West. Ethnicity or identity, known as qawm in Afghanistan, is not only defined by a common cultural or genetic group, but also by tribes, families, and geographic regions, or even occupations. In fact, in many instancesan Afghan will not primarily define himself as a "Pashtun" or a "Tajik," but as a member of the "Zadran" tribe or an inhabitant of the "Panjshir" valley. These types of identifiers include a sense of loyalty to a group that is providing the individual with things that are essential to live. The breakdown of the state during and after the Soviet-Afghan war made these types of relationships even more important than they were earlier in the 20th century.

These types of identifiers are not traditionally what westerner's view as ethnic characteristics, but are relevant in understanding how an individual will react in a given situation. This makes it difficult to understand Afghan ethnicity and the relationship of ethnicity to politicsand security. While the larger ethnic identities of Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, etc., do exist, and while they are important at a general level in understanding Afghan society, politics, economics, and security, these categories are only general descriptions of how Afghan's view themselves and one another. In some areas of Afghanistan, the Western notion of ethnicity has become so politicized that it has become rude to inquire immediately of an Afghan's ethnic identity (i.e. Tajik, Pashtun, Uzbek), similar to asking an American the details of his income.

Interethnic Relations

Scholars studying Afghanistan quip that if Afghans were not fighting the soldiers of another country, they would be fighting each other. Relations among Afghan ethnic groups have tended to bear this out. Groups that live in close proximity often have complex and hostile relations, a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that a multiplicity of ethnic groups may reside in the same region. Furthermore, when Pashtuns have trespassed on the property of other ethnic groups, these groups have been able to do little. The Pashtun dominated government generally sided with Pashtuns, regardless of the merits of the case. Examples of interethnic conflict abound. Two examples will suggest the complexity of interethnic relations.

In Nuristan the Kom Nuristanis have been subject to the encroachments of the Gujars (another ethnic group). The Kom let some of their pastures to the Gujars in return for payment in livestock. In the late 1940s the Gujars began to renege on this agreement. Strand reports that "since then hostilities have become perennial with occasional shootings and rustlings on both sides." Government officials attempting to mediate have almost always been biased against the Kom. The Kom leaders feel that this reflected the desire of the government to promote disunity among Nuristani tribes so that it could manage them more easily. This kind of raiding was widespread among many ethnic groups in the country. Occasionally it has erupted into open warfare.

Historically, stronger groups have attempted to dominate weaker ones. The weaker groups have had the choice of moving to a harsher, more marginal environment or paying tribute to the more powerful groups. Such has been the case in the Wakhan Corridor. Both Wakhi and Kirghiz occupy this region. The Ismaili Wakhi farm and herd in the lower valleys. In addition, there are Pashtuns and Tajiks in the area who are traders supplying market goods. The traders choose their wares carefully and consciously or unconsciously foster a dependence on tea, opium, and other luxury goods. Their customers, particularly the Kirghiz, are often indebted to them. Shahrani observes that relations between Sunni Kirghiz, who inhabit the high, frigid mountain valleys, and relatively lowland Wakhi are tense. "The Kirghiz refer to Wakhi as sart (a derogatory term) and regard them as "nonbelievers." Feelings of contempt are mutual, yet both groups have developed increased economic dependence on each other." The Kirghiz cannot grow grain in their inhospitable environment and consequently must purchase this from the Wakhi. The Wakhi resort to the Kirghiz for animals and animal products, which they employ for their own use or use to pay traders. Shahrani writes that these two groups "have achieved a successful economic exchange system in a situation filled with social tensions."

Ethnic groups are perceived to be ranked in terms of status, although members of the groups in question may not always agree with members of other groups about their own status ranking. Virtually everywhere, Pashtuns are the most prestigious ethnic group, both in their own eyes and usually also in the eyes of others. The subsequent rankings vary by region, but Hazaras are almost always ranked as one of the lowest ethnic groups. They are often placed directly above the despised gypsies. Tapper reports that other groups in north central Afghanistan regard the gypsies (fats and Juggis) "as blots on the ethnic landscape."

Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity does not mean that the members of the different ethnic groups do not interact. There is a substantial amount of intermarriage between the ethnic groups. This intermarriage tends to blur lines of loyalty between different ethnic groups. For example, the main Tajik commander around Mazar-e-Sharif, Atta Mohammed, is married to a Pashtun and owes his life to his in-laws who were able to smuggle him out of the area when the Taliban took over. Similarly, the foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah, had a Pashtun father from Kandahar while his mother was a Tajik from the Panjshir valley. One of the deputy defense ministers, Zabet Saleh Registani, has a Hazara motherand a Tajik father. The Tajik Interior Minister, Yunus Qanuni, is married to a Pashtun, and the former Tajik President, Burhanuddin Rabbani, has a Pashtun daughter-in-law.

Afghanistan’s ethnic diversity is also complicated by the fact that the Afghan notion of ethnicity is different than the view commonly held in the West. Ethnicity or identity, known as qawm in Afghanistan, is not only defined by a common cultural or genetic group, but also by tribes, families, and geographic regions, or even occupations. In fact, in many instances an Afghan will not primarily define himself as a “Pashtun” or a “Tajik,” but as a member of the “Zadran” tribe or an inhabitant of the “Panjshir” valley. These types of identifiers include a sense of loyalty to a group that is providing the individual with things that are essential to live. The breakdown of the state during and after the Soviet-Afghan war made these types of relationships even more important than they were earlier in this century.

While the larger ethnic identities of Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, etc., do exist, and while they are important at a general level in understanding Afghan society, politics, economics, and security, these categories are only general descriptions of how Afghan’s view themselves and one another. In some areas of Afghanistan, the Western notion of ethnicity has become so politicized that it has become rude to inquire immediately of an Afghan’s ethnic identity (i.e. Tajik, Pashtun, Uzbek), similar to asking an American the details of his income.



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Page last modified: 06-09-2018 17:36:46 ZULU