Ethnic groups

An approximate distribution of ethnic groups based on the CIA World Factbook Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%.

To this day the Pashtuns dominate the southeast portion of Afghanistan. Their European language, Pashtu, is spoken by roughly half of the nation. Many tribes comprise the Pashtun ethnic group, the most numerous being the Ghilzai and the Durrani (Ahmad Shah's tribe). Others include the Wardak, Jaji, Tani, Jadran, Mangal, Khugiani, Safi, Mohmand and Shinwari. This southeast territory was known as ‘the land of Pathuns’, but in 1893 it was split in an agreement between the Afghanistan's Amir Abdur Rahman Khan and the British. The line of division between the Afghan section of the Pashtun land and the British section of Pashtun land is known as the Durand Line. The Afghan section covers a crescent shaped region along the then British and presently Pakistani border. There are many Pashtun enclaves scattered throughout the country indicating shifts in the population from the nineteenth century to present. The Pashtun are generally Sunni Muslims, but physically they are more of a Mediterranean Caucasian people.

The other dominant group in the southern portion of the country, inhabiting the western end of the crescent, is the Baluch. The first mention of Baluch is from the 10th century AD. This people are mostly nomadic, but for some dry-crop agriculture is a way of life. The Baluchi people are divided politically between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The territory formerly referred to as Baluchistan, though it only briefly could have conceived of calling itself a nation, has archeological evidence of man dating back to the Stone Age, the most important of which is the neolithic site at Mehrgarh (7000-3000 B.C.), now located in Pakistan. The ethnic history of the Baluchi tribes is disputed with some scholars claiming they were originally Aryans, and others maintaining that they are Semites tracing their roots to a nephew of Noah. It is certain, however, that given the geographic location of the former Baluchistan, they are no doubt a mixture of various people with Baluch like the Ashkanis, Kushans, Huns, Scythians, Pathians, Turks, Sakas, Turks and many others. Most probably the Mongolian invasion of Central Asia was responsible for the known migration of the Baluchi from the Caspian Sea around 1200 A.D.. The Baluch are Sunni Muslims and emigrated from Iran and, not surprisingly, their language is closely related to the Indo-European language of Persian. They are mentioned in the great Persian epic ‘Shah-Nama’ or the Book of Kings, in the tenth century. Southwestern Afghanistan is largely desert or semi-desert, as in the Hilmand Province, and the Baluch are renowned camel breeders. Some Baluchs have migrated north to the Faryab Province, but exact numbers are not known.

The Tajiks are also a large ethnic group in Afghanistan comprising approximately 25% of the total population. The Tajiks now inhabit primarily the northeastern section of the nation, a region marked by mountains and high plateaus, but can also be found in areas in the western portion of the country. The urban areas of Herat and Farah have a large Tajik population. This predominantly Hanafi Sunni Muslim people speak Dari (spoken by more than 50 percents of Afghans) and have over time incorporated Turkic culture. The Tajiks are a sedentary people who built villages of flat-roofed mud or stone houses and cultivated irrigated fields of wheat, barley, and millet. They were famous for gardens of melons and a variety of other fruits. Their crafts, highly developed, were valued by the caravans that passed through the territory that is now Afghanistan, but from the Roman times constituted the Silk Road linking Persia to China and India. Tajiks are caucasian like the Pashtuns, frequently sandy-haired, some green-eyed, and light-skinned, who are not divided into tribes. Some Tajiks in remote mountain areas are Shi'a Muslims. The late Ahmed Shah Masood was a Sunni Tajik from the Panjshir Valley.

The Central Highlands of Afghanistan are dominated by the tribes of the Hazara, a Central Asian people likely of Eastern Turkic origin, although their ethnicity is debated through numerous scholarly speculations. It is known that they have inhabited the region since the early thirteenth century and now make up roughly 11% of the national population of Afghanistan. The Hazara speak Hazaragi, a dialect of Dari with some Turkic and Mongol words. The majority of Hazara are Shi'a Muslims.

The Uzbeks are the dominant people of Northern Afghanistan and are descended from the Central Asian eastern Turks. Their area north of the Hindu Kush is sometimes referred to as Afghan Turkistan. The Uzbeks conquered the area in the early part of the sixteenth century defeating the Timurids. The Uzbeks speak an Altaic language which is related to the Eastern Turkic branch of languages. Additionally, there are also Turkmans who have their own language. They have light skin and are predominantly farmers and breeders, known for the Karakul sheep and an exceptional breed of horse. The Republic of Uzbekistan is just north of this region, and during the 1920's many Uzbeks migrated into northern Afghanistan to avoid the Soviets attempts to stamp out their customs and Sunni Muslim religious beliefs.

The Aimak peoples inhabit the Northwest section of Afghanistan, including the region of Herat, near the borders with Turkmenistan and Iran. The tribes of the Aimak account for approximately 4% of the total population of Afghanistan and count among the Dari speakers of the nation though among the twenty or so clans a variety of dialects are spoken. The Aimaks consist of four principal tribes who were unified around 1600 AD: the Taimani, the Ferozkhoi, the Jamshidi and the Hazara. Because the Hazara are Shi'a Muslims, they are counted separate from the Aimak who are Sunni Muslims. The other three tribes were Timurid Turko-Mongolic herder groups. The tribal confederation of Chahar Aimak (chahar meaning four in Persian) broke up in the nineteenth century.

To the north of the Hindu Kush, on the steppes near the Amu Darya, in the extreme northeast Vakhan Corridor, live the Kyrgyz people. This mountainous area offers little in the way of agriculture. The Kyrgyz speak an Eastern Turkic language by tradition, but they also speak Dari. All of the Turkic people, those who speak languages considered subfamilies of the Altaic languages, are descendants of large tribes believed to have originated in Central Asia. In the 13th century, the Kyrgyz migrated south although they were not recognized as a distinct ethnic group until the15th century. The Kyrgyz practice Sunni Islam. This is traditionally a nomadic people who herd yaks. The men wear large, soft leather boots, cloaks tied with a belt, turbans, while the women wear leggings under brightly colored long dresses.

The Turkmans inhabit the northwestern part of Afghanistan. While the majority of Turkmen now have their own nation, Turkmenistan, which was created due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan is home to a significant number of members of this ethnicity, though still a small minority of the total national population. The word turkman means "made from light." Afghanistan's Turkmen community is known for being industrious and peace loving. Like the Uzbeks, they are light-skinned and many have their own language. Trade routes connecting the Caucasus to the Central Asia and Iran over the Caspian Sea passed through the original Turkmen lands, but conflicts throughout history, most recently with Russia, caused a good number to leave their native lands and settle elsewhere. The Turkmen people were greatly assimilated into the Ottoman tradition not by force, as was the Ottoman's usual tactic, but rather through purchase of Turkmen lands and marriage.

The Nuristani inhabit the Hindu Kush mountain area in Northeast Afghanistan, the north-eastern part of the province of Nangarhar. Nuristan means "Land of Light" and was given to their territory when they adopted Islam in 1885. The Nuristani speak Kafiri (or Nuristani), which belongs to the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European language family. The Afghans conquered and converted Nuristan in 1895 under the leadership of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan. Predominantly Sunni Muslims, the Nuristani have a clan organization and are an agricultural people. The landscape of the 5,000 square mile Nuristani territory consists of both mountainous and forested regions mostly accessible only by foot trails. Narrow mountain valleys are used to grow wheat, barley, peas and maize. In lower areas grapes and mulberries are grown. The Nuristani also raise goats, some cattle and a few sheep in the upper, wider valleys. Their appearance is more Mediterranean like their neighbors, the Pashtuns and Tajiks.

The Pamiri live in territories bordering on Pakistan and Tajikistan. The Pamir territory played a key role during in the “Great Game” between the Russian and British Empires in 1813 to 1907. The region was once again of strategic importance for Soviet Union when it served as the primary supply route of Soviet military operations in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. This area was first referred to as the "roof of the world" by the Persians who were awed by the mountains that are over 6,000 meters in many zones. The Soviets were not the first to use the treacherous region for material transport. In the Roman times the Silk Road went over the passes of southwestern Pamir, along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Ancient graffiti, tombs, archeological digsites have been found to testify to the history of this area. The Pamir region was split when parts were divided between the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925 and Afghanistan. The left banks of the Roshan, the Shighnan and the Vakhan were given to Afghanistan while the right banks were kept by the Soviets. The major Pamiri groups are Wakhi (Ismaili Shia), Parachi and Ormuri and all speak archaic Dari (Avestan) dialects including Wakhi, Xikzik, Yazqulami, Ishkashim, and Shugni Rushani.

A still smaller group, the Qizilbash, are the descendants of the Afshar guard of Nader Shah Afshari, believed to have been brought to Afghanistan in order to govern certain territories. Ahmad Shah Durrani favored the Qizilbash, creating some conflict between them and the Pashtuns. The people of this group speak Dari. The Qizilbash ruled Persia for two centuries in Iran until they spilled over into Afghan territory. Approximately 50,000 Qizilbash live in Afghanistan and are historically Shi'a Muslim. The Qizilbash have a tradition of being among the more literate groups and, therefore, were frequently members of the professional and governmental society. Nadir Shah Afshar directly preceded Ahmad Shah Durrani, who became the first Amir of Afghanistan in 1747. They are principally an urban people with greatest numbers in Kabul, but with significant settlement also in Ghazni, Kandahar and several other towns. The word Qizilbash is a Turkic word for redhead, so named because during the Saffavid dynastic period they wore red turbans.

Other groups in Afghanistan include the Waziris, the Mahsuds, the Shinwaris, Yusufzais, Afridis and Mohmands. Ethnicity is certainly one way Afghans identify themselves, but Afghans also can identify with their compatriots via linguistic and religious traditions, as well as through common occupations. Some historians believe that the word Afghan is an archaid Turkic word meaning "between," referring to Afghanistan's geographic position linking so many diverse and powerful empires throughout history. If that is so, the name Afghan holds a powerful message. Afghans cannot afford to have just one identity; each individual must be a bridge between the many cultures that make up Afghanistan.