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Afghanistan Table of Contents



Hindus and Sikhs live mostly in urban centers throughout Afghanistan. They are merchants and moneylenders. In 1978 they numbered about 30,000. Many left in 1992, but are slowly returning to such cities as Ghazni and Jalalabad. The Jewish community of Kabul is totally depleted. One family remains in 1996 to care for the synagogue which partially remains in an area otherwise pulverized.

Interethnic Relations

Afghanistan's ethnic mosaic has no precise boundaries; nor is its national culture uniform. Few of its ethnic groups are indigenous; few maintain racial homogeneity. Many zones overlap and interactions broadened as the economic infrastructure improved and educational opportunities widened.

Resentment rising out of wars and conquests remains long after the power of conquerors dissipates. This is true with regard to the Uzbeks. The distrust and discrimination between Hazara and Pushtun set during late nineteenth century confrontations is still abundantly present. The causes of prejudice against the Qizilbash go back to the eighteenth century.

Kabul's political policies also had long-term effects in aggravating ethnic tensions. This is most evident in the successive movements of thousands of Pushtun into the northern areas, beginning with the forced relocations of Amir Abdur Rahman's Pushtun opponents in the late nineteenth century and again employed as late as 1947-1949 following revolts among the Safi Pushtun in eastern Afghanistan. Competition with local populations occasioned considerable stress.

Equally significant were the effects of successful land reclamation projects, beginning in the 1930s, which offered attractive incentives to new settlers. These invariably favored the Pushtun over local populations. The land settlement schemes in the Hilmand in the southwest, begun in 1910 and massively extended after 1946, were similarly disruptive. Settlers from all parts of Afghanistan were recruited into this predominantly Pushtun and Baluch area, creating new tensions not only among the new disparate groups, but also among new and old Pushtun groups.

Local conflicts in all areas, within all groups, most often erupt over disputes concerning property or access to resources, whether it be land, water, money, business or government opportunities, bridewealth or inheritance. Naturally evolving demographic pressures accompanied by competition form the basis of other conflicts. Also, the tendency of past governments to initiate policies enhancing Pushtun prominence, increased the traditional Pushtun military and numerical dominance which allowed them to assert their will over other ethnic groups and maintain their status as the nation's most prestigious group.

Thus, there have always been tensions between groups, from petty squabbles to feuds lasting for generations, rising from a variety of causes but rarely from intrinsic attitudes of ethnic discrimination. Considering the disparate and volatile ingredients that exist, Afghanistan's history records remarkably few internal explosions that are specifically focussed on ethnicity.

During the Soviet-Afghan War, the shared goals of the mujahidin--opposition to nonbelieving atheist invaders and group solidarity--were reminiscent of familial, tribal, and ethnic group construction. As such, the appeal of the mujahidin was a strong and familiar rallying cry and source of solidarity for Afghans in their struggle for national liberation.

Afghan ethnic identities emerged more clearly during the Soviet-Afghan War. Five groups could be easily distinguished: Tajik, including all Sunni Dari speakers; Hazara; Uzbek; Durrani Pushtun; Ghilzai Pushtun and Eastern Pushtun. Fighting among Afghans in the years following the fall of Najibullah's government in 1992 exceeded levels of violence experienced even during the wars of Amir Abdur Rahman against the Hazara and the Nuristani between 1891 and 1896. Some would say that these conflicts are evidence that Afghan society must now be fragmented between groups identified by religious, ethnic, or regional labels. There is no doubt that the Soviet-Afghan War severely disturbed the delicate social infrastructure constructed over many centuries, yet according to many Afghans the present turmoil is driven more by political greed and external interference than by ethnic, religious or regional considerations. While traditional structures were not equitable for all Afghan citizens, they did permit extended periods of civic stability. Even in the mid-1990s, there was ample evidence in a number of areas outside the present arenas of conflict to suggest that a return to the old order could occur.

Elements of material culture are used by all ethnic groups to build pride and a sense of social superiority, particularly in mixed ethnic zones. The Nuristani are the most unique in dress, diet and architecture. In other areas distinctions have softened over the years as the improved infrastructure encouraged greater mobility.

The most striking differences are noted in dress, particularly in headgear. Turbans are characteristic of the Pashtun. The shape of caps, round, conical or peaked, their material and decoration are distinctive indicators between and within many groups. Chapan, loose sometimes quilted coats of cotton or silk with stripes of varied colors to indicate specific regions, are worn in the north; pattu, shawls, are preferred in the south. For women, color, the width of the skirt, and the type of embroidery are meaningful distinctions.

Diet also changes from group to group, although bread and tea are dietary staples everywhere. Some bread is round, some oval; some prefer black tea, others green. The Uzbek include many pasta dishes in their cuisine. Dwellings of sedentary groups, mostly made from pressed mud or sun-dried brick, may be domed or flat-roofed, modestly enclosed behind walls or hidden within towering fortress-like enclosures, although open villages do exist in the Hazarajat. Tents used by the nomads vary in shape, material and structure from group to group.

Each group uses folktales to reinforce the uniqueness and superiority of the one over the other, as well as to describe their individual ideals.

Data as of 1997

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Afghanistan Table of Contents