KABUL, Afghanistan–Afghanistan is a multiethnic society with 14 recognized groups.Differing in tradition, language and region, the groups have not always been peaceful. As the last NATO forces leave the nation, the groups must now unite under a single flag.
The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising 42 percent of the population. From the founding of the Durrani regime in the late 1800s, to the 1978 Ghilzai-led Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, it has dominated Afghan politics. Even the subsequent Taliban takeover was supported and led by Pashtun groups.
Today’s Pashtuns are nomadic farmers living south of the Hindu Kush. Their language, called Pashto, is unique. Knowledge of Dari is not uncommon, but by no means required in Pashtun regions.
Ideals and social responsibilities are kept in the unwritten Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of living. It stresses the importance of hospitality and family honor. A Minority Rights Group survey found that these, as well as protecting one’s female family members and of one’s guests, are the highest valued duties. Most Pashtuns are Sunni Muslim. Still, in the few instances in which Sharia law and the Pashtunwali conflict, the latter takes precedent.
Despite a common language, occupation and religion, Pashtun society is far from united. There are distinct tribes, the Durrani and Ghilzai being the largest among them.
With a population of 4.5 million, the Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group living in Afghanistan. Tajiks usually refrain from making ethnic or tribal associations and prefer to identify themselves by region. Generally speaking, they identify themselves as Tajik only when living among a very different group; among Pashtuns, for example.
Most Tajik people are farmers or fisherman. Tajik areas are known for the quality of the fruits and nuts they produce. There have been several Tajik officials of note in recent years. From 1992 to 1996, a Tajik man named Burhanuddin Rabbani even served as president.
Historically, the Hazara people have farmed in the central, mountainous region of Afghanistan. Because of the isolated region, they have named the area Hazarajat, land of the Hazaras. The Hazara people are descendants of migrants from Xiajiang, China. Their language, called Hazaragi, is Persian-like with a Mongolian influence. Unlike most Afghans, Hazaras have Asian features. They are Shia Muslim. Historically, these differences have not been respected.
Most of Afghanistan’s 1.3 million Uzbek people live with the Tajiks in the north. Farmers and herders, they are also known as successful businessmen and artisans. In the 1990s, Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has controlled most anti-Taliban forces and power-centers in northern provinces. Now he’s a vice-presidential candidate. Uzbek society is strongly patriarchal. Communal power is given to male leaders called begs, arabs or khans. Most people are Sunni Muslim and speak Uzbeki and Dari. Though they often live in different residential quarters, Uzbeks and Tajiks coexist peacefully. Uzbek and Tajik marriages are widely accepted.
The Aimaqs, the Baluchs, the Turkmen, have the fifth, sixth and seventh largest populations. Seven other groups have their own histories and cultures. Tensions between them are ever-present.
Ethnic Divides Fracture the Country
A recent scandal erupted when a Pashtun general called Pashtun people the “rulers” and “real inhabitants” of Afghanistan. President Karzai, ethnically Pashtun himself, had the man arrested. The television show that broadcasted the report was publicly chastised.
The older generation, government officials in particular, remember the bloody civil war of the 1990s and do not wish to repeat it. But it is in the same circles that problems are perpetuated. Securing fair representation for every group has been nearly impossible. Representation in the Council of Elders and Council of the People is roughly proportional to the population of each group. This leaves some groups woefully short on power.
People of Hazara decent were once the predominant population in the country. But half of the Hazara population is said to have been massacred in the first Pashtun empire. Redistribution of Hazara lands and heavy taxes has disadvantaged the group for over one hundred years. While Hazaras made strides in finding socio-economic equality in the 60s and 70s, discrimination is by no means gone.‘Proportionally represented’ in the current government, many Hazaras feel inadequate consideration is given to Hazarajat needs. Infrastructure there is particularly bad. There are few paved roads, few schools and few doctors. Across the country there are reports of corruption. Universities and job openings are often allotted to certain numbers of certain groups. Letters of recommendation or bribes for high-ranking officials are sure to secure a spot. The opportunity for further schooling or career advancement is often left to those with connections.
Meanwhile, the issuing of National Identification Cards has launched a new debate. Afghans,who take special pride in their cultural background, want their ethnicity listed on the I.Ds. Others feel that doing so would be even more discriminatory – that all Afghans are Afghans, regardless of ethnicity. Specifying ethnicity, they say, would detract from that unity.
Ethnic divisions in Afghanistan have fractured the nation for decades, but poverty has torn it apart. Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world. War-ravaged and struggling, it has been left vulnerable to any political influence offering support: The Soviet Union in 1980s, the Taliban in the 90s and now the United States.
A wealthier Afghanistan will still face its divided population, but there will be less discontent to spark violence. It will be stronger, and a strong Afghanistan will bear up under the challenge.
– Olivia Kostreva