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Assessment for Pashtuns in Afghanistan

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Pashtuns in Afghanistan, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 17 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Afghanistan Facts
Area:    6,522,250 sq. km.
Capital:    Kabul
Total Population:    24,782,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Pashtuns have a high risk for continued rebellion. They are geographically concentrated, have multiple militant organizations with standing militias, and do not feel they are adequately represented in the current government. Furthermore, the Afghan government remains weak and unable to exert control over extensive areas of territory. Pashtuns also resent the continued presence of U.S. military personnel in the country.

Pashtun protest will likely continue at a moderate level. Until the government is able to protect Pashtuns from communal attacks and disarm militias of rival Pashtun warlords, Pashtuns are likely to continue protesting their lack of security. Additionally, one can expect continued protests over a perceived lack of representation in the central government. However, it is unlikely that more than moderate protest will occur, as much of the Pashtun organizational capacity is engaged in violent, rather than nonviolent, behavior.

Analytic Summary

The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising approximately 38 percent of the country's population. They are currently and historically the dominant political group in Afghanistan. Most Pashtuns speak Pashto (although some in Kabul speak Dari like most other groups in Afghanistan) and are primarily Sunni Muslim, although there are a few Twelver Shi`i (LANG = 1, ETHDIFXX = 3).

Pashtun political life is dominated by tribal and subtribal loyalties and divisions which frequently contribute to intracommunal conflict. The mujahedin groups of the 1980s and 1990s were often divided along tribal lines, and fell to fighting each other and the militias of other ethnic groups once the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Intracommunal fighting was somewhat controlled by the harsh repression of the Taliban regime. However, with the installation of the Karzai government in 2001, intracommunal fighting between rival warlords has again flared up (FCC4S02 = 5).

Pashtuns are concentrated in a semicircular area following the Afghan border in the south and southeastern parts of the country. Enclaves of Pashtuns live scattered among other ethnic groups in much of the rest of the country, especially in the northern regions and in the western interior due to the resettlement policies of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901.

In 1994, a dominantly Pashtun group calling itself the Taliban arose in the southern city of Kandahar. The group, led by religious students who had studied in Pakistan (talib means student) and backed by Pakistan, quickly started scoring military successes. By 1996, they had taken the capital Kabul and soon controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan's territory. In areas under their control, the Taliban instituted Shari`a law and strictly enforced their interpretation of Sunni doctrine. Women were virtually banned from the public sphere, and men had restrictions placed on their behavior and appearance as well.

Following the 2001 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda, the U.S. led a coalition of forces to overthrow the Taliban, which sheltered the al-Qaeda leadership. By early 2002, the Taliban was replaced with an interim government led by Pashtun Hamid Karzai. Pashtuns are represented in the new government by President Hamid Karzai; however, the interim government was heavily Tajik and Uzbek, and Pashtuns were not represented in proportion to their share of the population (ECDIS02-03 = 3, POLDIS02-03 = 3). Pashtun's primary grievances relate to increased representation in the central government, the continued presence of U.S. forces in the country, and protection from other communal groups.

Compared to other groups in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns suffer relatively little demographic stress, although they have been adversely affected by a drought since 1997. Furthermore, from 2001 to 2003, large numbers of Pashtun fled to northern Pakistan while simultaneously Pashtun refugees were returning to Pashtun areas.

Pashtuns are represented by a variety of political organizations and armed groups, including Ittehad-e Islami, the Secret Army of Muslim Mujahedin, and Hizb-e Islami. Pashtuns are also represented by prominent individuals who are not affiliated to particular political organizations. Finally, numerous Pashtun warlords maintain standing militias.

Pashtuns have engaged in moderate levels of protest since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban regime (PROT01-03 = 3), primarily over issues of security and representation. Pashtuns have also engaged in violence against the Karzai admininistration (REB02 = 2, REB03 = 4). Pashtuns are continue to be involved in intercommunal conflict with Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.


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