Afghanistan's Minorities and the Ethnicity Perspective

Published October 12th, 2021 - 06:46 GMT
There are differences over the number of ethnic groups and their population in Afghanistan. Some believe there are approximately 54 ethnic groups, and some even claim that there are 200 ethnic groups living in the country.
In this picture taken on October 3, 2021, a Hazara ethnic girl looks out of a window of her cave on a cliff pockmarked by caves where people still live as they did centuries ago in Bamiyan. (Photo by Bulent KILIC / AFP)
Highlights
There are differences over the number of ethnic groups and their population in Afghanistan. Some believe there are approximately 54 ethnic groups, and some even claim that there are 200 ethnic groups living in the country.

By Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

The central idea of ​​ethnicity, like religion, is one of the main characteristics on the basis of which individuals and groups are distinguished. Afghanistan's geography has had a profound effect on history, and ethnic culture among individuals and groups living in it. The truth is that Afghanistan is a land of small and large minorities. Among them, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks are the most powerful.

There are differences over the number of ethnic groups and their population in Afghanistan. Some believe there are approximately 54 ethnic groups, and some even claim that there are 200 ethnic groups living in the country. Afghanistan's constitution in 2004 formally recognized more than a dozen ethnic groups. Ethnicities such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluchis, Nuristanis, Imaqs, Arabs, Kyrgyz, Ghezelbash, Brahmins have been recognized.  In fact, no single ethnic group has an overwhelming majority of Afghanistan's 40 million people, and ethnic divisions have been a constant challenge to political stability.

Because of various political, security, social and other reasons, drawing accurate ethnic lines in Afghanistan is very difficult. Significant marriages, especially between Pashtuns and other groups, and between Tajiks and others, have somewhat reduced ethnic differences.

As a result of the forty-year wars, one third of the country's population had to leave their original place. This changed the proportions of the ethnic groups in the country fundamentally. Yet, Afghanistan is still largely a divided society with smaller ethnicities and groups.

Pashtuns are mainly concentrated in the south and southeast, but also live throughout the country. Tajiks live mainly in the north and northeast and the Kabul region. Hazaras live in the center, west and Kabul. Uzbeks in the north; Turkmen in the north; Baloch in the west and southwest; And the Nuristanis are living in the east.

The country is witnessing negative net migration rate due to internal conflict. No ethnic group makes up more than 50 percent of Afghanistan's population. While the country has not had a proper and accurate census, the two major ethnic groups of Pashtuns and Tajiks have always been in close competition. While some Pashtun and Pan-Pashtun sources consider Pashtuns to be sixty-two percent of the country's population, some other Tajik sources also believe that they are the largest ethnic group in the country, and according to the 2017 census, Tajiks make up 45% of Afghanistan's population. Some other sources estimate the exact number of ethnic groups as 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, 4% Aimaq, 3% Turkmen, 2% Baluch, and 4% others.

Pashtuns also make up the majority in 12 provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Zabul, Ghazni, Kandahar, Nimroz, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Helmand, Kunar and Valghman. Some Pashtuns speak Dari. Pashtuns (with the exception of some Shiite Pashtun groups) are mostly Sunni.

In fact, in 17 provinces of Badghis, Badakhshan, Baghlan, Balkh, Parwan, Takhar, Panjshir, Sar-e Pol, Samangan, Ghor, Farah, Kunduz, Maidan Wardak, Kabul, Kapisa, Logar and Herat, the majority of Tajiks are Sunni. But some Tajiks in western Afghanistan are Shiites and the Tajiks in Badakhshan are Ismailis.

The third ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Hazaras. They lost a significant portion of their entire population over the past few centuries through attacks and killings by Pashtun leaders. The majority of Hazaras is Shiites and lives in Hazarajat, but there are also smaller groups of Ismaili Hazaras and Sunni Hazaras. There are various estimates of the number of Hazaras from about 9 percent of the population to nineteen and twenty-four percent.

The fourth largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, Uzbeks, is predominantly Turkic-speaking and Sunni Muslim. Their exact number is estimated at eight to twelve percent. The main leader of the Uzbeks are Abdul Rashid Dostum and their party is the National Movement Party. Other ethnic groups, such as the Aimaqs, Ghezelbash, Baluchis, Nuristanis, Turkmen, Sikhs, or Hindus, are significant ethnic groups in Afghanistan whose number is not large.

Some, like the Baluchis (in southern and northwestern Afghanistan), speak a branch of the Iranian language, and some, like the Turkmen, speak Turkish. In addition, small Hindu and Sikh communities were estimated at 900 in 2016, but their numbers have declined significantly in recent decades due to immigration, and the last Jew is no longer present in Afghanistan.

"Afghans, from the Hazara ethnic minority studying at the prestigious "hawza" seminary that trains Shiite clergy, pray in their room in the holy city of Najaf on August 29, 2021."
Afghans, from the Hazara ethnic minority studying at the prestigious "hawza" seminary that trains Shiite clergy, pray in their room in the holy city of Najaf on August 29, 2021. (Photo by Ali NAJAFI / AFP)

The crisis of identity and ethnicity

Afghanistan seems is facing an identity crisis. The ethnic interests just faded during the war against the Soviet Union. Part of the national identity crisis generally showed itself in the form of extremist ethnicities. Ethnicity even severely affects the country's foreign relations. If the issue of Pashtunistan is not resolved, the type of relations with Pakistan will not return to normal.

Statistics on Afghanistan's ethnicities are usually misused for political purposes and ethnic abuse, and even the results are too political and lead to another unsuccessful census. Also the Dari (Persian) and Pashto languages in Afghanistan simultaneously are used as official languages of the country, but in recent decades ethnic disputes over the official and mediating language have also intensified. For the past two centuries, Afghanistan's political life has always been dominated by southern and eastern Pashtuns. But the Tajiks have also played a prominent role in Afghanistan's power struggle. Except from Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani was President of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996. Abdullah Abdullah is also known as Tajik.

Over the past few decades, many Pashtun leaders have emphasized Afghanistan's ‘right to rule’, which has angered other ethnic groups. In recent years, the registration of 54 different ethnicities in the electronic ID system of citizens has provoked a wave of protests and criticism from government officials, members of parliament and cultural figures.

Vision

Ethnicity is a dominant variable in the Afghan crisis and many consider the Afghan conflict to be ethnic. Although most Afghan politicians have always denied this important issue, many developments in the last two decades have been based on an ethnic approach. In fact, after the outbreak of war in 1979, ethnicity became a political-military tool, and parties and groups increasingly strengthened their ethnic potential. Many of them used ‘ethnicity’ to legitimize themselves. After the overthrow of the Taliban at the Bonn Conference in 2001, the division of power was based on ethnic quotas: 11 Pashtuns, 8 Tajiks, 5,000 Hazaras, 3 Uzbeks and three others.

What is clear is that incitement to ethnicity, ethnicism, and ethnic quotas have exacerbated the situation and thwarted nationalization. The abuse of ethnicity is while ethnic norms do not fully match with social behaviors and realities in Afghanistan. In fact, none of Afghanistan's provinces is ethnically homogeneous, and even the establishment of ethnic federalisms is faced to challenge. In the meantime, the accusations and thoughts of ‘ethnic cleansing’ as a political act can also be interpreted as ethnic cleansing with reports of displacement of certain ethnic groups, targeted massacres of residents of Panjshir and other areas by the Taliban.

In the meantime, the Taliban is seen by many as a Pashtun ethnic group, and past approaches such as Tajiks going to Tajikistan, Uzbeks going to Uzbekistan and Hazaras going to cemeteries add to the scale of the crisis in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban's withdrawal from an inclusive government and the establishment of a system based on tribal quotas does not reduce the conflict and even increases the risk of civil war and even the disintegration of Afghanistan.


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