Twenty-First Century Pashtuns: Continuity Amid Catastrophe


It was International Literacy Day, and a group of Afghan cabinet members, lawmakers, foreign dignitaries, teachers and students had assembled in Kabul for an address by President Hamid Karzai. He was expected to announce appointees to his High Peace Council. This was a new, seventy-member body seen by Karzai and his team as an important step towards implementing one of the president’s key election promises: reconciling with the Taliban.

Karzai did not pander to his audience with bromides about progress in the country since the end of Taliban rule in late 2001. Instead, the president began his speech by lamenting the persistent backwardness of Afghanistan, a country where two-thirds of the people cannot read or write. He recalled the memoirs of a Russian doctor who, visiting Kabul during Amir Sher Ali Khan’s reign in the mid-nineteenth century, failed to save the monarch’s ill son, Abdullah Jan.

Afghanistan’s dependence on outsiders was not much different today, Karzai said. He noted that Afghans were collectively spending about $100 million per month to travel to foreign countries to receive better medical care than they could obtain in Afghanistan. ‘Our education and the development of our people remains the same as 130 years ago,’ Karzai somberly told the September 2010, gathering at the formerly German-sponsored Amani High School. Speaking in the Afghan language of Dari,1 Karzai showed no hesitation in blaming foreigners for Afghanistan’s current miseries. ‘First,’ he said, ‘the Soviets came [in the 1980s], claiming that they would turn us into communists. They failed and destroyed us in the process. Then our neighbours came [Pakistan and Iran in the 1990s] and said, “We are going to administer you.”’ That effort also didn’t succeed, the president said.

‘Now,’ he continued, ‘NATO has come here in the name of fighting the war against terrorism. But this war has been going on for ten years and we still don’t know its result.’ Karzai went on to deliver an impassioned appeal to the Taliban, ‘Remember, every bullet you fire hits the heart of this land. And it only benefits the enemy.’ He described the Taliban as his ‘countrymen’, and told the militants that, if they considered themselves Afghans and Muslims, they should not destroy their country just to appease their sponsors in neighbouring Pakistan. ‘Do not kill your people for the interest of others, and do not force the closure of your schools for the interest of others,’ the president said.

Building his speech to an emotional climax, Karzai warned that Afghans risked losing their identity if fighting continued. With tears forming in his eyes, the president said he wanted his people to become educated and self-reliant. Karzai spoke of his desire to see his three-year-old son, Mirwais, grow up and live in Afghanistan instead of in a foreign country where conditions were better.

‘Feel the pain in my heart,’ Karzai said. ‘Oh, people! Please understand me. I am concerned that my own son, Mirwais, could be forced to go abroad.’ He paused for a moment as the crowd broke into applause. ‘I don’t want him to become a foreign citizen. I want him to go to school in Kabul and to be educated in Afghanistan by an Afghan teacher. So he can grow up here, can become a doctor, serve this land and be buried here.’2

The president’s address had come shortly after US intelligence officials were quoted, in a book by the American journalist Bob Woodward, as describing Karzai as ‘manic-depressive’.3 Perhaps to an outsider, the Afghan president’s public display of emotion suggested evidence of this alleged disorder. Inside Afghanistan, however, his words resonated strongly. Afghans are well aware of their troubled history and the role violence has played in bringing them to their current state.

Indeed, a student of the school where Karzai was speaking murdered an Afghan king, Mohammad Nadir Shah, in 1933. All males in the assassin’s adopted Charkhi family had been eliminated by Nadir a year earlier because of their support for Amanullah Khan, the monarch who had abdicated a few years earlier. And fourteen years before Karzai’s speech, outside the presidential palace, the last socialist president of Afghanistan was dragged out of the United Nations compound and hanged by Taliban fighters. Dr.  Mohammad Najibullah’s murder on 27 September 1996 continues to stand as a fearsome symbol of the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

Seen through the lens of Afghan history, the fate of the twice-elected Karzai was itself uncertain. Many Afghan rulers have either been assassinated or forced into exile—casualties of a political culture that has yet to see a peaceful transfer of power. Like Karzai, most Afghan leaders—whether kings, communists or Islamist ideologues—have been ethnic Pashtuns. The fate of these leaders cannot be understood without first understanding the people they tried to govern, sometimes through brute force. In the modern era especially, Pashtun national identity has been intimately tied to the large number of Pashtuns living to the east—brethren who were forcefully separated and occupied by the British, and then bequeathed to Pakistan.

Who are the Pashtuns?

Pashtuns are identified by several related names. ‘Afghan’, which denotes a citizen of Afghanistan in the juridical sense, is interchangeable with ‘Pashtun’. Many Pashtuns in north-western Pakistan are very much conscious of their ethnic identity and still identify themselves in official documents as ‘Afghan’—a practice that originated in the raj. ‘Pathan’, a corruption of the native ‘Pakhtun’ used in the subcontinent, identified the Pashtuns in British colonial ethnography. This term of usage has been declining.4

Many Pashtun leaders and intellectuals view their people as among the most maligned of the twenty-first century. This is because their lands have been transformed into a staging ground for a global conflict that has entangled some of the world’s most powerful regular and private armies. But little attention is paid to understanding the modern Pashtun, in his own environment. Most contemporary journalistic and scholarly accounts of the instability gripping the Afghan and Pakistan borderlands have sought to demonstrate that violent Islamic extremism, including support for the Taliban and related groups, is either rooted in Pashtun history and culture, or finds willing hosts among Pashtun communities on either side of the Durand Line.5

Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist strikes inside the United States, Pashtun communities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have paid a heavy price for such erroneous descriptions. A vast majority of Pashtuns have almost become mere adjuncts, watching from the sidelines as the local and foreign Islamist extremists and the outsiders who came to fight them fundamentally alter the existing order through violence.

While accurate current census data is lacking, it can be estimated that at least forty million—and perhaps as many as fifty million—Pashtuns live in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pashtuns are estimated to constitute nearly half of Afghanistan’s population of 25.5 million. They are Pakistan’s largest minority, making up about 15–20 per cent of the country’s 174 million citizens in 2010.6 The original Pashtun homeland was situated between the Hindu Kush mountains in central Afghanistan and the Indus River that bisects Pakistan, but Pashtun communities are now scattered over a vast territory. In northern Afghanistan, the Pashtun population extends to the Amu Darya (Oxus River) border with Central Asia, where Pashtun communities have grown substantially over the past century.7 The southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, on the Arabian Sea, is today home to one of the region’s largest urban Pashtun populations, the result of massive economic migration. Some four million Pashtuns live among Karachi’s twenty million people.8

For at least the past six centuries, Pashtun history has been shaped by war, invasion and endemic local violence. These ordeals have shown that the Pashtun identity is resilient. While former nemeses such as the Mughals exist today only in history books, the Pashtuns have survived to constitute a nation in the archetypal sense. But Pashtuns, as a whole, have never been fully integrated into a single empire, state or political system—though they have formed empires of their own. Twentieth-century Afghanistan, before the Soviet invasion, was a Pashtun-dominated state where the elite attempted to advance a cosmopolitan national identity and culture. The alpine highlands of Swat in north-western Pakistan were a modern Pashtun princely state before the region’s accession to Pakistan in 1947 and its administrative absorption into Pakistan in 1969. Ironically, the historic pattern of political instability and outside interference in the region has helped to preserve and reinforce the tribal nature of Pashtun society, particularly in the countryside, where most Pashtuns live.

The Great Tribal Maze

Elaborate genealogies have been woven around Qais Abdul Rashid (Abdur Rashid), who is assumed to be the primal ancestor of all Pashtuns.9 Pashtun genealogies originated in seventeenth-century Mughal courts and were written by court scribe Naematullah. These genealogies eventually found their way to British colonial ethnographies and are sometimes mentioned in modern books on the region. Their only relevance today is that they sketch a very rough chart of the relationship of different tribes to each other, or different lineages within tribes.10

Under the prevailing classifications, Pashtuns are divided into four main tribal groupings: the Sarbani, Bhittani (Bitan), Ghurghust and Karlani. The first three were considered to be the sons of Qais, while the fourth, Karlani, was an adopted son. The Sarbanis are divided into two branches: the Sharkbun and the Kharshbun. The most significant tribes of this branch today are the Sherani, the Tareen, the Urmer (an adopted tribe), the Durranis,11 Khalils, Mohmands, Daudzai, Chamkanis, Yousafzai, Shinwari, Kasi and Tarkalani.

The second branch, the Bhittani, consists of the Bhittanis, Niazis, the Lodhis, Marwats, Babars, Gandapurs and Kundis, and the Ghilzai confederacy. The Ghilzais are one of the largest nomadic populations in the world, known for their seasonal migratory herders called kuchis. The Hotak, Sulaiman Khel, Kharoti, Ali Khel, Nasar and Taraki are the main Ghilzai tribes.12

The Ghurghust branch includes the Kakar, Mando Khel, Musa Khel and Panri tribes, who inhabit districts of Balochistan Province in Pakistan. The Safi and Gadun (Jadun) tribes are found in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the Tribal Areas and in eastern Afghanistan.

The fourth major grouping was little known to Mughal scribes. The Karlani preserve aspects of pristine tribal organisation, supplemented by intricate traditional laws. Its members live today on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Karlani include some of the most famous Pashtun tribes, among them the Afridis, the Khattaks, Mangal, Zadran, Muqbil, Zazi (Jaji), Bangash, Mehsud (Maseed), Orakzai, Khugiani, Daur, Bannuchi, Wardak, Turi and Wazirs.13 This great tribal maze makes the Pashtuns the world’s largest tribally organised society.


This is an excerpt from The Pashtuns: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan by Abubakar Siddique.

The book released today!

You could get it here:


The Penguin India Blog

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