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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 13:53 GMT
Analysis: Afghanistan's tribal groups
Refugees from Hazara community listen to the evening news in Pakistan
The Hazara people have suffered racial discrimination
Daniel Lak

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country, traditionally run as a loosely knit federation with central governments in Kabul having minimal authority.

No group has a majority of the population, but the largest community, the Pashtun, have long controlled events in peacetime and war.

The Shia Muslim Hazara people form the second largest group in the country. Next come Tajiks and Uzbeks, with much smaller groups of Turkmen, Kyrgyz and many others making up the mosaic called Afghanistan.

Historians don't agree on the exact meaning of the world "Afghan". Some believe it's an archaic Turkic word meaning "between" - a reference to the country's position between India and central Asia.

Power vacuum

Others say Afghan is simply an ancient word for the Pashtun tribes. No-one knows for sure.

The current situation in Afghanistan is yet another threat to the country's ethnic and geographical unity.

The power vacuum, the intention of neighbouring states and mistrust bred by 23 years of almost constant war all contribute to this.

Hazara refugee women in Quetta, Pakistan
Ethnic Hazaras comprise 20% of Afghanistan's population
As a thousand-strong Hazara force marches on Kabul to protect what remains of its ethnic group in the capital, the very real grievances of the Shia minority in Afghanistan are coming to the fore.

Shia's suffer religious discrimination from hard-line Sunnis - most recently the Taleban who probably have the blood of thousands of Hazaras on their hands.

In the Hazara homeland, Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, the Taleban burnt, raped, plundered and pillaged - driven by religious and ethnic hatreds.

In Kabul, some Hazaras eventually joined the Taleban cabinet, which muted urban hatreds somewhat although there had often been brutal fighting against Shia Hizb-i-Wahadat guerrilla group in the south-west of the capital.

Mass graves

It is not just the Taleban who have shed Hazara blood. The leading component of the Northern Alliance, forces built up by the late Ahmed Shah Masood, a Tajik, fought Hizb-i-Wahadat at various times in the mid-1990s.

Hazara civilians said mass graves uncovered in their neighbourhoods were from massacres carried out by Masood's forces.

Pashtuns, an estimated 40% of the Afghan population, have also suffered from discrimination. This was not in their own tribal heartlands in the south of the country - problems have been experienced by Pashtun families moved forcibly to the north more than 100 years ago by an Afghan king trying to inject more of his tribe's influence into a largely Tajik and Uzbek region.

Lately, the ethnic massacres of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, 1998 and possibly at the moment have reportedly targeted Pashtuns.

Many may have been Taleban members or supporters. Some, probably, were not.

The Tajik people of north eastern Afghanistan have always formed an important part of the Afghan administrative elite.

Panjshiris' suffering

The late Ahmed Shah Masood was from the Tajik heartland of Panjshir Valley - indeed, Panjshiris, light-skinned, sandy-haired and often green-eyed, are a distinctive sub-ethnic group themselves.

This meant that they often suffered badly under the Taleban. Like the Mongolian-looking Hazaras, the Panjshiris could not hide their origins.

Uzbeks, led by the northern warlord, General Rashid Dostum, are the descendants of the nomad tribes of Central Asia. Many non-Uzbek Afghans unfairly regard members of this ethnic group as former Communists.

Partly, this is because General Dostum fought alongside occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s before switching sides in 1992. Also, many Soviet troops came from Uzbekistan.


Turkmen, a tiny group from the remote northwest, have suffered some similar problems but not on any scale.

The Kyrgyz herdsmen of the far north-east, Nuristanis from the southeast and more than a dozen others all complete this complex, volatile yet abiding mosaic.

This may be a troubled and challenging time for the people of Afghanistan but no-one expects the country to break apart like former Yugoslavia.

What can't be ruled out is a period of prolonged instability where ethnic warlords set up fiefdoms, yet another challenge to face this ancient, proud and battered land.


Political uncertainty






See also:

15 Nov 01 | South Asia
10 Oct 01 | South Asia
16 Oct 01 | South Asia
11 Oct 01 | Middle East
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19 Sep 01 | South Asia
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