Originally posted December 2012

Afghanistan is the “land of the Afghans.” But “Afghan” has, as one knows, a double meaning: citizen of Afghanistan, and member of the Pashtun ethnic group. As the Afghan anthropologist Nazif Shahrani has written, Afghanistan was, and somehow still is, a “Pashtun-dominated nation-state” whose founding hero was Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880-1901).[1] During his reign, the Amir arrogated to himself the task of modernizing the Afghan state and building the nation, the unification and centralization of the first being, in his view, the precondition and the prerequisite for the second. To him, unification meant conquest of non-Pashtun as well as Pashtun people and territories. Hazaras, Kafirs, Ghilzais, inhabitants of northeast of Afghanistan, and other dissenters were deemed enemies of the state and crushed pitilessly.

Seventy years later, Daoud, the first President of the Afghan Republic (1973-1978) intensified the establishment of an Afghan (Pashtun) state, aiming at cultural and linguistic homogenization as the precondition for Afghan unity. Daoud thus made the learning of Pashto an obligation for all state employees and government officials; prohibited the use of ethnic surnames and ethnonymes, with the exception of those referring to Pashtun tribes; and put an end to a modest plurilinguism on the national radio instituted under his predecessor. In this way, Daoudian nationalism tended to fuse together Afghan citizenship and Pashtun identity. Yet, the population of Afghanistan is a complex entity of peoples of diverse origins, languages, religions, and cultures. It forms what has been referred to since the 1930s, and since the use of the word “ethnic group” by Western authors, as a multiethnic state.[2]

One of the first ethnographic maps of Afghanistan, published in 1955 in Sovetskaya Etnografiya, shows 16 ethnic groups. A more recent German publication on the subject lists 54 ethnic names.[3] The linguistic diversity is also noticeable; linguists list no fewer than about 30 different languages, divided into Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Turkish, Mongol, Semitic, and Dravidian groups.[4]

Up to the Marxist coup of Sawr in 1978, as well as under the Monarchy and under the Daoud Republic, the multiethnic nature of the country and even the very existence of ethnic groups had always been a taboo question for the Afghan government. Up to 1978, official documents and reports, censuses, and constitutions overshadowed systematically the Afghan pluralistic reality and recognized only a linguistic duality in official use: Pashto and Dari. According to the 1964 (Articles 1 and 3) and 1977 (Articles 20 and 21) Constitutions, “Afghanistan is a unitary and indivisible state,” and “the word Afghan applies to each and every individual of the nation of Afghanistan.”

Indeed, the authorities had an obsessive fear of what could endanger the formation, or the myth, of a unified nation. This is why precise figures on ethnic groups and precise statistics on spoken languages are so difficult to find.

When the Marxist coup broke in 1978, as Crews and Tarzi write in their introduction, the non-Pashtun populations had “grown more assertive in expressing their group identities and in demanding political rights, both for administrative and cultural autonomy and for a stake in Afghan politics at the national level.”[5] The trend toward expressing minority identities becomes more marked with the weakening of the central authority. But already since the Soviet Revolution, the model of the Soviet Central Asian Republics based on “independent nationalities” was increasingly a reference to the ethnic groups of the north of Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, the Communist regime changed the policy of its predecessors and recognized the ethnic pluralism and the existence of nationalities (mellat). Among the different points mentioned in the “Programme of action of PDPA,” the most significant was the “[b]asic solution of the national question in the country on the basis of equality and brotherhood, without any discrimination and with due consideration of the interests, wishes and rights of all the nationalities, tribes and ethnic groups including Pashtoons, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmen, Baluchs, Nuristanis, etc.,” but “with deep respect to the role and importance of the Pashtoon tribes in the history of our country and in defending the borders of the country …”[6]

By decree Kabul made official the existence of eight nationalities based on the Soviet model. The nationalities in question were those above named, plus the Pashais. They each were bestowed with a national language, established with the help of Soviet linguists, and endowed with “cultural” rights (i.e., textbooks, publications, and radio programs). The bimonthly magazine Afghanistan Today, published in English, had a regular rubric entitled “Fraternal nationalities.” They were, however, nationalities without a territory, because of the impossibility to delimit spatially the entities made up from dispersed ethnic groups. No political autonomy was envisaged by the Kabul regime, nor was anything resembling a federalist state structure.[7]

When the mujahidin entered Kabul in the spring of 1992, they did not favor this pluralist orientation. Yet, Article 8 of the 1992 draft Constitution of the Islamic State of Afghanistan states: “Pashtu and Dari of all the languages of the country will be the official languages […]. Other languages spoken in the country will be used in publications, media and learning of languages and literatures in their respective regions.” At that time, the subsequent factions and territorial divisions were: Afghanistan-Jumbesh (essentially Uzbek) in the north, Hazarajat with the Hezb-e Wahdat in the center, Jamiat and the Northern Alliance of Massoud and Rabbani in the northeast, which seemed to echo the defunct policy of nationalities. They represented and represent still an ideological lever which is not without strength and appeal. As we have previously written: “Moreover, the interest in nationalities has brought many inhabitants of Afghanistan to redefine their identity above the tribal or local level, and has led small groups to consider their integration into a broader unit.”[8]

Today, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, adopted by the Loya Jirga on January 4, 2004, states explicitly in Article 4, §3 that: “The nation of Afghanistan is comprised of the following ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Baluch, Pashai, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahwui and others.” The New Afghan National Anthem, written by the poet Abdul Bari Jehan, also lists in verse 14 ethnic groups living in Afghanistan (Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are not mentioned).

During the 2009 presidential elections, no candidate developed his program under an ethnic label. If the different ethnic groups demand neither political autonomy nor their incorporation into a neighboring country, and all consider themselves as part of Afghanistan, they nonetheless want to be recognized as distinct cultural and social entities.


[1]. Nazif Shahrani, “Taliban and Talibanism in Historical Perspective,” in Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi, eds., The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 162.

[2]. René Dollot, L’Afghanistan (Paris: Payot, 1937), p. 47.

[3]. Erwin Orywal, Die Ethnischen Gruppen Afghanistans (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 1986), pp. 18-19. See also Pierre Centlivres, “La nouvelle carte ethnique de l’Afghanistan,” Les Nouvelles d’Afghanistan 47 (1990), pp. 4-11.

[4]. Rawan Farhadi, “Die Sprachen von Afghanistan,” Zentralasiatische Studien (Wiesbaden) Vol. 3 (1969), pp. 414-416.

[5]. Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi, eds., The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[6]. Quoted from Afghanistan Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3 (1982), pp. 91-92.

[7]. See Pierre Centlivres, “Les groupes ethniques et les ‘nationalités’ dans la crise afghane,” in Riccardo Bocco and Mohammad-Reza Djalili, eds., Moyen-Orient: migrations, démocratisation, médiations (Geneva and Paris: PUF, 1994), pp. 161-170; and “Tribus, ethnies et nation en Afghanistan,” in Hosham Dawod, ed., Tribus et pouvoirs en terre d’islam (Paris: Armand Colin, 2004), pp. 115-143.

[8]. Pierre Centlivres and Micheline Centlivres-Demont, “State, National Awareness and Levels of Identity in Afghanistan from Monarchy to Islamic State,” Central Asian Survey, Vol. 19, Nos. 3-4 (2000), pp. 419-428.