Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

The Study and Understudy of Afghanistan’s Ethnic Groups: What we know – and don’t know

Christian Bleuer 8 min

From voting blocs to the share of power in government ministries to the composition of the insurgency, references to ethnic groups are frequently made in reporting and analysis. Accurate analysis requires a careful look at the complicated social lives and local politics in which members of these ethnic groups operate. But what is actually known about these ethnic groups in terms of their culture, social structure, and political tendencies? AAN guest author Christian Bleuer looks at the scholarly study of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups in western literature and notes the trends and peculiarities of this field of study.

Farmer family in Helmand. "Even for a very important province like this there is surprisingly little work of scholarly standard." Photo: Andy Kelly-Price via Flickr Common Creatives

In early 2010, the United States military tried to gain support against the Taleban by winning over Shinwari ‘tribal leaders’ in eastern Afghanistan, prominent locals whom it believed could influence or command a significant number of people who shared the same ‘tribal’ category as them. The US’s tribal militia strategy was, however, based on a non-scholarly interpretation of ‘tribe’ (itself an extremely problematic concept and translation), and the US military’s experiences with a completely different type of ‘tribal’ social hierarchy in western Iraq. The US military’s most well known tribal program here centred on the Shinwari Pashtuns of eastern Afghanistan. The American military forces in the area signed an agreement with some Shinwari Pashtun ‘elders’ that exchanged economic assistance for their support against the Taleban (see here). The Americans also provided weapons to those who voiced their opposition to the Taleban.

The program was, unsurprisingly to many Afghanistan watchers, an immediate disaster with much infighting and little anti-Taleban action (see here; here; here; and here). Aside from ignoring the advice of many Afghans and outside analysts, the US military also disregarded its own internal studies. An earlier study of Pashtun ‘tribal’ structures by the Afghanistan Research Reachback Center at Fort Leavenworth had summarised the academic consensus on authority and leadership within Pashtun communities, arguing that the ‘tribal’ structures of Pashtun communities are very different from those the US military had experience with in Iraq (see here).

Even without access to this report, the most basic knowledge of the ethnographic literature on Pashtuns would have shown that a broad-based tribal militia programme has no future: there is no authoritative tribal leadership to co-opt in Afghanistan. It was an example of how work produced by anthropologists and other scholars could have helped, in this case the US military, understand better who they were dealing with.

The connection between scholarly literature and policies in Afghanistan

Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and others are often spoken of in very generalised terms and stereotypes of dubious accuracy. A range of actors (journalists, analysts, foreign military, etc) deploy ethnic stereotyping of behaviour or assumed behaviour based on lack of knowledge. For example, a commonly held belief before about 2010 was that the non-Pashtuns in the north would not join the insurgency, then some non-Pashtuns did (see the AAN paper on the northern insurgency). Or there are the appeals for policy makers to take into account ‘Pashtunwali’ by various individuals (1) who have clearly not read the very in-depth scholarly studies on the subject (2). Many political scientists, historians, area studies specialists and other academics often rely on knowledge that is generated at the lowest level by anthropologists, journalists and others.

The available literature on Afghanistan, while neglected, could, potentially, help to inform those who create or implement policy. The knowledge created, in some cases, filters down from scholars to analysts, popular writers and journalists, and then from there onwards to those who consume this, anyone from diplomats, NGO employees to foreign military forces. At other times potentially helpful studies are ignored, inaccessible or unknown to those who could benefit form them.

Assessing the available publications on the ethnic groups

Unfortunately, the problem is wider than merely the literature on Afghanistan being ignored. Often there are no publications in English that can inform policy. What scholarly publications are available, for example, on the communities of Jawzjan or, for that matter, most other Afghan provinces? Next to nothing useful is written on this province and the people there. Even for a very important province such as Helmand – in terms of the Taleban insurgency’s strength – there is surprisingly little work that is of a scholarly standard (3). There are similar problems in the studies on ethnic groups, with many gaps in the literature. The following analysis makes reference to publications in English, French and German and does not take into consideration books and articles in Dari and Pashto. (It also ignores studies on co-ethnic communities outside of Afghanistan, for example on Uzbeks in Uzbekistan). The tool used to assess the availability of studies on Afghanistan’s ethnic groups is the most recent edition of The Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography (here), which covers sources from the late 1950s to the present.

What is most remarkable in the study of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups is the disparity in who gets studied and who does not. A great example of an ethnic group overrepresented in the scholarly literature is the Nuristanis (who are more accurately a group of people speaking a variety of Nuristani languages and with varying cultures who often get lumped together). The total Nuristani population of Afghanistan is between about 125,000 and 300,000 (estimates vary). Despite its small size, there are 19 monographs (books and doctoral dissertations) and 32 scholarly articles dedicated to the study of Nuristanis and their culture – the vast majority being based on fieldwork from before 2001. Compare the Nuristanis, then, to the Tajiks of Afghanistan. The Tajiks, even when narrowly defined (4), are the second largest group in the country, comprising an estimated population of over 8.5 million. However, there are only two monographs (both of them doctoral dissertations) and 12 scholarly articles published.

Within ethnic groups there can also be disparities. Take, for example, studies on the Pashtuns. A quick look at the books, articles and dissertations reveals a disparity in the altitude of the case studies. Scholars have shown a clear preference for studying Pashtuns in the mountains. There is a lack of studies on Pashtun communities in the urban areas and fertile valleys whose communities actually make up the bulk of the Pashtun population.

Furthermore, the tendency to study Pashtun nomads is out of all proportion to their share in the population. The rural bias is seen across the study of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Clearly, the urban population of Afghanistan holds little fascination for scholars who worked on ethnographies. Instead, there is a strong preference for studying those who live on the ‘periphery’: mountain communities, nomads, rural villagers, and marginalised groups that exist at the edge of society.

For those who have historically been marginalised (and who often continue to be so), there is a relative wealth of studies. Afghanistan’s Hazaras are representative of this trend (15 monographs, 17 articles). In comparison, the Uzbeks (who have fared far better than the Hazaras throughout Afghan history) have only five monographs dedicated to them – and they are notable for their scholarly weakness, brevity and superficial quality compared with the detailed Hazara monographs.

For even the smallest communities in Afghanistan there are detailed ethnographies available, including studies on Pashai, Kyrgyz, Wakhi, Arabs, Jat (including Ghorbat and Sheikh Mohammadi), and Ismailis. The point here is not to argue that the groups that have been studied do not merit that study, it is rather that those groups who have not been adequately studied comprise the large bulk of Afghanistan. The resulting gap in knowledge makes it difficult to analyse Afghanistan’s society, politics and conflicts. The problems produced by this ignorance, as exemplified by the failed Pashtun tribal militia programme mentioned above, are numerous.

Explaining the disparity in the study of ethnic groups

From the early 1960s to the present, anthropologists have produced most of the most valuable studies that help us to understand Afghanistan. Anthropology has, until recently, abandoned the study of the dominant group or the majority to historians, sociologists, economists and political scientists. For example, knowledge of the lives of white suburban Americans is all-important for understanding how America functions – but here sociologists, economists and political consultants are the strongest, while anthropologists are quite weak (in terms of volume of publications). In contrast, the literature on minorities and marginalised groups in America is quite strong in anthropology. These tendencies very likely came into play, also, in Afghanistan. An anthropologist who arrived in Afghanistan during the 1960s or 1970s likely had very little interest in staying in Kabul, as opposed to traveling to a far-flung fieldwork site.

Within the study of Pashtuns there are several other factors that come into play. One is the ground-breaking work of Fredrik Barth on the Pashtuns of Swat Valley in Pakistan (5). His work was hugely influential within anthropology (and beyond), and it is likely that many of those anthropologists who studied Pashtuns after him were lead to do so after reading his work. As for the Tajiks, their not being ‘tribal,’ nomadic, or seriously marginalised has made them of less interest to scholars. For other groups, explanations are harder to come by. Travel to border areas with the Soviet Union was discouraged during the peak years of field studies in Afghanistan which may explain the lack of studies on Turkmens. Uzbeks, inhabiting the lowlands of northern Afghanistan, were probably understudied for the same reason as the Pashtun valley communities of Helmand and Kandahar: flat geography, sweltering heat at a low elevation, a minimum of travel or migration, and the total lack of any romanticised images of these communities made them unappealing subjects to most scholars.

The current situation in Afghanistan studies

Field studies inside Afghanistan ended almost entirely in 1978-79 with the coming of revolution and war. There have been massive changes in Afghan society since then (social, economic, cultural, etc) and many of the existing studies are snapshots in time of an aspect of culture than may no longer exist (for example, in many cases prominent ‘traditional’ community leaders have been pushed aside by armed commanders, politicians and businessmen). Unfortunately, little has been done to update our knowledge. Anthropology and academia have also undergone large changes in the last three and a half decades. Those scholars who have carried out fieldwork in Afghanistan since 2001 are representative of this change. Classical ethnography has fallen out of favour over the last 30 years (6). Urban studies in Afghanistan are now increasingly common. Sociologists and political scientists (previously rare) have recently made some valuable contributions. It is clear that Afghanistan studies are no longer the domain of the anthropologist, historian or the area studies specialist.

Some changes are welcome (a variety of perspectives from various academic disciplines are now available (7)), while other changes are less welcome (some of the newer studies are indecipherable even for fellow scholars). The attention paid to Afghanistan within academia has had its ups and downs since 2001. In many cases, the work produced by some academics was non-scholarly advocacy work. Furthermore, the clear majority of publications are studies that criticise the international forces and the development programmes in Afghanistan, as opposed to studies that generate knowledge about Afghan society (a secondary consideration in most studies).

In other cases, scholars were employed to carry out studies that were confined to the parameters set by the donor or organization they worked for. Truly independent fieldwork in Afghanistan has not been as common in the last decade as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the current security situation and the difficulties in securing research funds, it is likely that the research of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups will only get worse. That means the gaps in the literature will not be filled, at least not in the near future. So analysts are very often working without the benefit of good background material. Analysts whose work informs diplomats, military leaders and those who work in development must take into account – and acknowledge – the serious gaps in knowledge when they research and publish. The disparities and the dated nature of the studies that inform us of the dynamics within and between the various ethnic groups of Afghanistan are a serious and continuing problem.


(1) For two prominent and widely read sources, see: ‘Pushtunwali: Honour among them’, The Economist (19 December 2006); Major Jim Gant, ‘One Tribe at a Time,’ (Nine Sisters Imports, Inc., Los Angeles, 2009)

(2) For a comprehensive list of scholarly work on Pashtunwali, see the sources in the footnotes to this AAN publication: Lutz Rzehak, ‘Doing Pashto: Pashtunwali as the ideal of honourable behaviour and tribal life Among the Pashtuns’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 2011. To this I would add a study that, in a less direct manner, addresses the legal code often referred to as Pashtunwali (i.e., tsale customary laws and practices). See: Alef-Shah Zadran’s, Socioeconomic and Legal-Political Processes in a Pashtun Village, Southeastern Afghanistan (PhD Diss. State University of New York at Buffalo, 1977).

(3) Mike Martin’s recently published oral history, An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 1978-2012 (Oxford University Press, 2014), is a welcome addition. However, given the importance of this province, it is disappointing to note the very few quality publications that analyse local politics and social structures here. The existing studies mostly focus on opium cultivation or on the foreign military forces here.

(4) The ‘boundaries’ of the Tajik ethnic group are quite loose, and some include Farsiwan, Qizilbash and Aimaqs as Tajiks.

(5) Fredrik Barth, Political leadership among Swat Pathans (London, The Athlone Press 1959).

(6) This is not to say that anthropologists are not producing valuable studies. Good recent examples of this is are: Noah Coburn, Bazaar Politics Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town (Stanford University Press, 2011); Alessandro Monsutti, War and Migration: Social Networks and Economic Strategies of the Hazaras of Afghanistan (New York & London, Routledge 2005); Magnus Marsden and B.D. Hopkins, Fragments of the Afghan Frontier (New York, Columbia University Press 2011); Canfield, Robert L. and Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek (editors), Ethnicity, Authority, and Power in Central Asia: New Games Great and Small (New York, Routledge 2010). For a general study by an anthropologist, see: Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton University Press 2010).

(7) A good example here is a study which de-emphasises culture in its analysis: Abdulkader Sinno, Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond (Cornell University Press, 2009).


research policies provinces Hazara Pashtuns ethnic groups Tajiks scholarly literature


Christian Bleuer

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