Ethnic Groups and National Unity in Afghanistan

By Emadi, Hafizullah | Contemporary Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Groups and National Unity in Afghanistan


Emadi, Hafizullah, Contemporary Review


KARL von Clausewitz wrote that war is nothing but the pursuit of politics by other means. The war in Afghanistan could be characterized as concerted efforts by ethnic communities to jockey for power in the post-Soviet era. One of the chief characteristics of the rogue political parties and radicalized faith-based groups leading this war is a lack of tolerance for other faiths and political beliefs. Monopolization of institutions of power by one political and ethnic group, its unwillingness to transcend narrow sectarian interests for the common good and the lack of dialogue among warring factions inhibited the resolution of ethnic and tribal conflicts. Since the objective of this lengthy civil war is power and position, its effective resolution lies in the distribution of power and institutions of power among ethnic communities and participation in the country's politics that previous despotic regimes denied them.

Ethnic and Religious Communities

Afghanistan's history is replete with violence, tribal and ethnic conflicts resulting in the domination of the country's politics by one ethno-religious community whose leadership excluded others from the decision-making processes. Those in a leadership position did not consider the country's multiplicity of languages, faiths, cultures, traditions and ethnic communities as a source of strength but as a weakness and consequently tried to suppress individualism and aspirations of other ethnic communities for autonomy. An authoritarian-top-down development approach paved the way for periodic conflicts between the dominant and the dominated ethnic communities that hampered the building of a modern and united civil society. Afghanistan is a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic community. It is estimated that some forty-nine languages are spoken of which Persian (Farsi) and Pushtu are the two officially recognized languages; more than fifty per cent of the country's population speak Persian. The country is also divided a long ethnic lines. Pushtuns are the dominant ethnic group making up about 38 per cent of the population, followed by Tajiks (25 per cent), Hazaras (19 per cent), Uzbeks (6 per cent) and many other ethnic communities such as Turkman, Baluch, Aimaq, Qirghiz, Nuristami, Arab, Hindu and others. All the ethnic communities have their unique traditions and cultures and, to some extent, have participated equally in the country's political, social, and economic development; however, the word Afghani is often associated with the Pushtuns, whose name also translates to Afghan. In ancient times the country was called Aryana and later Khurasan, the land of the rising sun, when the Islamic Empire extended its rule over the region. By mid-eighteenth century this region formed the basis of modern Afghanistan. The word Afghanistan literally means homeland of the Afghans and the word Afghan has been applied to all ethnic communities that reside in the country. However, other ethnic communities do not call themselves by such a designation but identify themselves by their respective ethnic name such as Tajik, Hazara, Baluch, etc.

Afghanistan is further fragmented along sectarian lines. It is estimated that at least seventy-five per cent of the population subscribe to the legal schools of the Sunni branch of Islam. Twenty-four per cent practise the Shin faith of Islam (Ithna Ashari and Ismaeilis) while less than one per cent are followers of other faiths, i.e. Hindus, Sikhs and Jews. In addition to this diversity the country is also divided on the basis of tribalism and regionalism.

Ever since the rise to power of Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1747, the head of state has always been a member of one of the prominent Sunni Pushtun tribal communities, i.e., Sadozai, Barakzai and Mohammadzai. Other Sunni Pushtun tribes and clans occupied junior positions in the state apparatuses, followed in turn by dominant Persian speaking communities. The Shiite Hazara community sat at the bottom of Afghanistan's political and social ladder. …

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