Afghanistan has a weak sense of national identity because of sharp ethnic differences that have historically erupted into violence and simmer beneath the surface even during times and places of apparent tranquility.
The largest ethnic group, Pashtuns, dominate the southern part of the country and encircle the Hazara people of central Afghanistan. In the north, there are three significant ethnic groups—Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turcoman—that are tied to the dominant cultures of the bordering Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The Baluch, a smaller ethnic group, is concentrated in the southwestern corner of Afghanistan. The country is almost exclusively Muslim, with about 80 percent Sunni and 20 percent Shi’a. The Shi’a minorities include the Ismailis in the northeast and the ethnic Hazara, who have been historically marginalized politically and economically.
The Pashtun have been dominant ethnic group in recent Afghan history and many convey a sense of entitlement when it comes to national leadership roles. The “old Taliban,” which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, were largely but not exclusively Pashtun. The cultural diversity of Afghanistan is also evident in the TV stations, which cater largely to specific ethnic audiences.
In a recent political science class, I was discussing ethnic differences with my students. I related an experience shortly before I arrived in Kabul while talking with some former students from Afghanistan attending the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I was seeking their advice on what to expect in their homeland and at one point I asked their ethnic backgrounds. Their answers included Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik, and Pashtun. “But we are first Afghan,” one explained, as several heads nodded in agreement.
“Is that how you see yourself, as Afghans first?” I asked my students. Silence. I waited. Then one student explained, “The reason they said that in Bishkek is because they were not in Afghanistan.” A native of Afghanistan who spent many years abroad later told me that ethnic tensions constitute the “minefield” of Afghan politics