VIEWPOINT • Spring 2002

Merging Varying Ethnic Types and Religious Sects to Create a New Afghan State

by Robert Canfield

Robert L. Canfield, Professor of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences

The United States has an interest in the establishment of a viable government in Afghanistan because it cannot allow the country to become a haven again for anti-Western movements like Al Qaeda. But to be so established the new government has to be conceived and constituted by Afghans, and endorsed and supported by popularly based political elements around the country. Inevitably, it will face staggering challenges after the foreign powers withdraw.

Those of us who study the country often emphasize the typical "fault lines" in the country, based on ethnicity, Islamic sect, and so on, but in fact the active, viable political coalitions in the country—those "influencial political elements" whose suppport will be necessary—are rarely simple reflections of these broad social distinctions; rather, they are circumstantially constituted and variable. This is because those "fault lines" are merely idealized notions of fraternity—grounds for fellowship, friendship, and trust—that may be invoked as necessary. In many specific contexts, however, those lines don't coincide, so individuals must decide which ground of loyalty they should invoke in particular situations. Here, I note some important ideals of fraternity that influence how actual coalitions form, based on kinship, religion, and nationhood.

The fraternity of kinship: ethnic types and “tribes”

People assume a fraternity on the basis of their kinship—in broad terms as members of ethnic types, in narrower terms as members of "tribes."

Almost two dozen ethnic and linguistic types reside in Afghanistan. The most prominent are the Afghans, otherwise known as "Pushtuns" or (in Pakistan) "Pathans." These "true" Afghans traditionally speak Pushtu (Pashto); in many rural areas they are organized "tribally." The Afghan government has always claimed that Pushtuns number more than half the population, but other estimates suggest they constitute barely 40 percent. The non-Pushtun groups include such other ethnic types as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and "Farsiwans" (Persian speakers in the western part of the country, also classified as Tajiks). These groups sometimes are referred to as "Persian-speaking populations" to distinguish them from the Pushtun—a distinction that became particularly keen when the country began to fracture along these lines in the 1990s. (The term can be misleading because the Pushtun elite are also essentially Persianized; Afghan Persian, "Dari," has long been the traditional language of administration and bureaucracy.)

Often Afghans are described as "tribal," but the term needs clarification. It applies best to how the Pushtuns organize, for they are notable for forming broad coalitions based on kinship (reckoned through males). Because many tribes in Afghanistan share common resources—pasturage, for instance—they maintain close ties that can quickly be mustered in a crisis, which means they have military potential.

Afghan tribes have historically enjoyed various relations to the central government, sometimes as loyal subjects, sometimes as rebels. In its nascent period (late 19th century), the government treated the Pushtun tribes differently: Some of them (the troublesome ones) it uprooted and situated elsewhere, and some it made special deals with in exchange for their promise of conscripts as needed. As the government gained strength, it tended to treat all the tribes more consistently, in theory claiming the right to final adjudication of affairs among the tribes. Within Afghanistan, tribal law was only active in areas where, and in times when, the state was weak. There is no recognized "tribal territory" in Afghanistan as there is in Pakistan.

The fraternity of religion: sects and Islamic groups

Most of the Muslim peoples of Afghanistan are Sunni (the religious affiliation of most Muslims elsewhere), but a sizable minority are Shia Muslims (who share the same tradition as most Iranians), and a small number are Ismailis (who venerate the Aga Khan). The connection between ethnic type and religious sect is not perfect but close: Most Pushtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks are Sunni; most Hazaras and Farsiwans are Shia. The historic animosity between the Hazaras and Pushtun is partly sectarian: In the fighting between the Hazaras and the (Pushtun) Taliban, the brutalities on both sides reflected long-established animosities. The destruction of the ancient statues of Buddha in Bamian may have been an attempt to insult the local Hazara populations.

The Afghanistan peoples are generally sincere Muslims, but for most of them—the Pushtuns of the eastern frontier excepted—Islam has not served as an anti-Western ideology. The country was never under sustained colonial domination, unlike any other Muslim population in the world. The Pushtuns of the east, however, were situated for many generations on the frontier of the British empire, which may have skewed them toward a kind of religious xenophobia. In the 19th century, warrior bands rallied by religious figures arose many times, proclaiming zeal for Islam against the British. More than a century later the Taliban educated in the same region arose with a similar rejection of the non-Muslim world.

On the other hand, the Islamism espoused by the leaders of the anti-Soviet movement in the 1980s was something different, assimilating the ideals of certain Egyptian and South Asian thinkers for whom Islam was an idiom of refusal.

The fraternity of Afghan citizenship

With the rise of the state in the late 19th century, the small group of educated persons who constituted and enabled the state began to identify with a new conception of loyalty and fraternity, the "nation." With the burgeoning of the national education system after the 1950s, the body of young people interested in the development of the country was vastly enlarged. These people were aggressively involved in attempts to develop the country in the 1960s; among them were some women who became prominent and influencial. As these progressives matured, they debated how best to accomplish the task of development. The debates hardened in the 1960s and 1970s and eventually led to two coups d'état, the latter being the Communist coup of 1978.

But the "nation-oriented elite" was small. Ordinary populations in the country—overwhelmingly rural—had little concept of an Afghan nation, much less of national fraternity. So when resentment against the Communists arose, many of these rural populations drew upon traditional idioms of fraternity to organize their opposition to the Communists. The fighting eventually displaced many of the nation-oriented elite: Some were killed, and some fled the country; others were marginalized by a new body of leaders that emerged. These were commanders and politico-military figures—individuals heading the anti-Communist war organizations. Commanders crafted fighting groups in their local contexts, appealing to the fraternal relations of kinship and common faith. The most prominent politico-military figures enjoyed their strategic positions by virtue of support from the outside powers, Pakistan and the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. These elements drew upon an unfamiliar Islamism to give their cause a moral aura.

With the collapse of the Taliban, the dispersed nation-oriented elite—or in many cases their offspring—have in 2002 re-entered the picture, taking a prominent place in the attempts to develop a new government. This includes progressive women, many of whom have been actively concerned about the plight of the perhaps 4 million women—one-sixth of the population—who are widows. Several hundred of them have drafted a "Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women," which calls for a return to the rights granted to women in the Constitution of 1965.

The process of forming a government brings two very different types of Afghans together: the warlords whose strength, apart from brute force, has been cobbled together by appeals to kinship and religion; and the nation-oriented elite who have been more closely tied to the foreign powers demanding a viable government. If the new state is to succeed, these two elements must act in concert. To ensure the process, the United States may have to stay a good while.

Robert L. Canfield, professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, is an expert on Afghanistan.