Afghanistan is home to five major ethnic groups and nine smaller ones. Being a mountainous land at the crossroads of empires, Afghanistan was historically settled by various people and nations. Today each group practises its own distinct culture and generally lives in different parts of the country while mingling in the cities. Though they might all be seen as ‘Afghans’ to outsiders, within the country ethnic divisions predominate.
Pashtuns make up 42% of the country. They are represented in both the urban elite and the rural poor. After the British invasion of Afghanistan, the Pashtun homeland was split in two. As a result, over 500,000 also live in neighbouring Pakistan, mainly in the mountainous border region. Sunni Muslims since the 9th century, Pashtuns live in a tribal society where clan loyalty is paramount. Rural Pashtuns still wear traditional clothing and follow an honour system called ‘Pashtunwali’. Pashto, their native language, is an Indo-European tongue related to Persian. Many also speak Persian (Dari) and Urdu.
Tajiks are a Persian speaking people indigenous to Central Asia. They are 27% of Afghanistan and the majority in neighbouring Tajikstan. The 19th-century Russian invasion of Central Asia cut their homeland in two as the British did the Pashtuns. Tajiks were highly represented in the ‘Northern Alliance’ who fought the Taliban. Also known as ‘East Persians’, Tajiks descend from the settled Persian communities of Afghanistan, in contrast to the traditionally pastoral Pashtuns. Unlike the Persians of Iran, they are mainly Sunni Muslim.
Hazaras are 9% of Afghanistan and hail from its mountainous centre. Though they speak Persian, Hazaras descend from 13th century Mongol invaders and their appearance is distinctly more East Asian than other Afghans. Being Shia Muslims in a Sunni dominated state, Hazaras face severe discrimination. The Taliban massacred thousands of Hazara between 1996 and 2001.
Uzbeks, at 9% of the population, descend from the Uzbek Khanate, a 11th-century Turkic state. In the ‘Great Game’ of the 1800s, the British-backed Pashtuns seized land from the Russian-backed Uzbeks and made it Afghan. Many Uzbeks supported Afghanistan’s Communist government against the Mujahideen in the 1970s. Neighboring Uzbekistan is named after them. The Uzbek language is of the Karluk Turkic branch.
Nomadic peoples of Afghanistan include the Turkmens, Aimaqs and Balochs. The Nuristani people (above) are unique in their light featured appearance. They claim descent from Greek soldiers who settled the region when Alexander the Great conquered Bactria in the 300s BC, though most scholars believe the Nuristanis are indigenous to the region.