Ethnic Identity and Genealogies - Program for Culture and Conflict Studies

Ethnic Identity and Genealogies - Title

Ethnic Identity and Genealogies

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Ethnic Identity and Geneaologies - Content


Tribalism is not a feature of every ethnic group in Afghanistan; and even within tribally organized groups tribalism is a flexible concept that allows variations to exist and changes to occur as kinship groups rise and fall.

The following list should not be considered a definitive list of ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Designations such as "tribe", "clan", "khel", "ethnic group" are often disputed; the following designations should not be construed as definitive. We recognize the complexity of these ethno-linguistic groups, and what we present is general information. For more definitive descriptions of the following groups, please consult these sources:


Historical Leaders

Amir Dost Muhammad Khel

Sardar Sultan Ahmad Khan


Tribes, Clans, and Groups


Ethnic Identity


Ahmadzai (Suleman Khel): Not to be confused with Waziri Ahmadzais, these Ahmadzai are Ghilzais, a subset of the massive Sulieman Khel. Traditionally they controlled the Altimur Pass leading into Southern Paktia, and ranged from Logar to Jalalabad.1 Traditionally a large portion of the tribe was Kuchi and nomadic. As such, they were often regarded as martial in nature. They are greatest in number in Paktia, Paktika, and Khost.2


Andar: A Ghilzai sub-tribe, the Andar had been known for their skill and usage of large karez (underground irrigation systems). More concentrated in Ghazni Province, they have also a significant presence in Paktia. During the 19th century they joined in the Ghilzai revolt and many were summarily sent into internal exile. Somewhat inexplicably, they allied themselves for a time with the Harakat-i Islami, originally a Shi’ite faction, during the anti-Soviet campaign.3


Chamkani: The Chamkani tribe is a small group living in the Chamkani District in northern Paktia. They also belong to the Ghilzai supertribe, and are further divided into the Mada Khel, the Kamzai, the Babu Khel, the Darman Khel, the Sulaiman Khel (not to be confused with the Sulaiman Khel superclan) the Baghiar, and the Hisarak.


Ghilzai: Descended from the third son of Qais, the father of all Pashtuns, the Ghilzai (or Ghalji) trace their lineage through the grand-daughter of Qais. The grand-daughter had the child Ghalzoe out of wed-lock, a point of shame. The Ghilzais believe they have made up for this through their marital traditions. One branch of the Ghilzais, the Hotaki, has given rise to Mullah Omar and much of the Taliban leadership. The Ghilzai themselves have been traditional adversaries of the Duranni, President Karzai’s tribe. There is a traditional Afghan saying: “Badshahi da Duranni; tura da Ghalji”, which translates as “Kingship for the Duranni, but sword for the Ghilzai.” The largest Pashtun grouping, they suffered much during the Soviet invasion, and must be included in any effort to secure and develop Ghazni Province. There are a multitude of sub-tribes and clans within the Ghilzai confederation.


Gujjar: So very little about the Gujjars is known that the mere mention of them sends one scrambling for dust-covered manuscripts of the British Raj. It is thought they were initially encountered by Alexander during his thrust into India, although this and every theory about the Gujjars remains in dispute. They speak a tongue wholly unrelated to any Indo-European language, although many have by now learned local languages for commercial purposes. They roam with their herds, usually of cows, from the high Himalayas in India to the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan (although rarely are they seen in Afghanistan anymore, as Pakistan has hindered their passage through its territory and most preferred to stay within India). Some in India remain Hindu, although further west many are Muslim. Often they can be recognized by their avoidance of others, and their brightly hennaed beards. They are proud, fierce, and loyal. Their traditions are millennia old, and they have preserved them well in the face of great adversity.4 They are somewhat related to Nuristanis, although exactly how is a subject of conjecture. Similar to Nuristanis, some genetic root gives many Gujjars a distinctly European appearance, up to and including blond hair and blue eyes.


Hazara: The Hazara, a distinct ethnic and religious group within the population of Afghanistan, have often been the target of discriminatory and violent repression.  Most likely descended from the Mongols of Genghis Khan, (there is also a strong argument that they are of Eastern Turkic origin), the Hazara are noticeably different in physical appearance when compared to the Pashtun majority.  In terms of religion, the vast majority of the Hazara are of the Shia Muslim faith, again in contrast to the Pashtuns who are Sunni Muslim.  Due to these differences, “the Hazara have experienced discrimination at the hands of the Pashtun-dominated government throughout the history of modern Afghanistan."5 As the traditional underclass of Afghan society, Hazara were exploited and made to work as servants and laborers.  As a result there tends to be an anti-government and anti-Pashtun bias among the Hazara.  In present day Afghanistan, the Hazara are divided geographically into two main groups: the Hazarajat Hazara and those who live outside the Hazarajat.  The Hazarajat is located in the Hindu Kush Mountains in central Afghanistan and is “centered around Bamiyan province and include[s] areas of Ghowr, Uruzgan, Wardak, and Ghazni province."6 The Hazara living outside of the Hazarajat live in and around Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif and Samangan province.  Due to atrocities committed against them by the Taliban, the Hazara by and large are opposed to the Taliban.  In August 1998, the Taliban massacred approximately 4,000 Hazara in Mazara-e-Sharif; this massacre was followed by another the next month when the Taliban killed another 500 Hazara in Bamiyan.  The Hezb-e Wahdat (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan) is an umbrella political organization which commands the support of large numbers of Hazara.  The Hazara are also often at odds with the Kuchi population within the Hazarajat.


Hindus and Sikhs: Hindus and Sikhs have traditionally been prominent among Afghanistan’s mercantile community. Many Sikhs are known for their craftsmanship, and many Hindus for their moneylending. Sikhs especially, due to the Maharaj of Ranjit Singh in the Punjab (1812-1842), captured Peshawar and became intimately aquainted with Pashtun (or Pathan, in Hindi) culture. Traditional greeting for the Hindu is “Namaste” or “Namaskar.” Traditional greeting for the Sikh is “Sat Sri Akal.” For both, thanks is “Dandiyavad.” Very much is “Bahut bahut,” and the honorific is “Ji,” so that thank you very much is “Bahut bahut dandiyavad ji.” Both avoid beef, and Sikhs will also avoid pork. One should never smoke near a Sikh, as it is considered unsociable. According to their religion, Sikhs must at all times have a knife (kirpan) upon their person. Although persecuted under the Taliban and forced to wear identifying badges, Sikhs and Hindus have returned to Afghanistan in significant numbers. Some Hindu and Sikh families have been in Afghanistan for generations.


Jaji (Zazi): Related to the Turis but Sunni in faith, the Jaji are divided into eight wands: Lehwani, Ada Khel, Petla (combined with the Allisemgeh), Husain Khel, Karaia Ahmad Khel, Ahmad Khel (combined with the Bayan Khel), Ali Khel, and the Jamu Khel. Hill men, they are famous for their dances and their war-cries.7 In more recent times, they have supported the likes of Abdul Sayyaf.


Kharoti: The Kharoti clan are the second largest Ghilzai Pashtun tribal group. Generally, they do not cooperate with anti-coalition militias or participate in their activities. Their political stance and support for the government is in part, at least, due to their rivalry with the Suleimankhel and the Waziris.  Notable members of the Kharoti clan include Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Harakat, both of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG).  Overall, however, the Kharoti are not supportive of HIG. Former Paktika provincial governor, Ghulab Mangal, considered the Kharoti among the most reliable of Ghilzai tribal groups.9


Khogiani: Traditionally they have feuded with Shinwari and Ghilzai, and strenuously opposed the British.  They are classified as Karlanri and Hill Tribe Pashtuns.


Khostwal: The Khostwal consider themselves Pashtun.10 Primarily found in Khost, the Khostwals occupy a small portion of the Jani Khel District along the Pakistani border. Known as fierce fighters, they had traditionally been at odds with the Waziri tribes to the south, except when they united to raid the Turi (traditionally Shi’ites) to the north. They have traditionally divided themselves into Tor Gundi and Spin Gundi factions.11


Kuchi: Kuchis are nomads. Kuchis are most often Pashtuns, but occasionally may be some non-Pashtun ethnicity, such as Baluch. To be a Kuchi is not who one is, or what one does, but what one is. More than a vocation and less than a race, the Kuchi are more appropriately thought of as a caste of nomadic herdsmen. Their four main animals are sheep, goats, camels and donkeys. They cross boundaries with ease. They have a very high illiteracy rate.12 Involved in a constant and centuries old range war with the Hazara, the Kuchis have moved across Afghanistan and Pakistan for generations. Dispersed and well-traveled, they often receive news from distant relations in far-away provinces relatively quickly. The self-declared “leader” of the Kuchis is one Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai. Partially settled by the king and the following socialist governments, they were strong supporters of the Taliban, both ideologically and pragmatically, as they came into possession of many Hazara lands thanks to the repression of the Shi’ite Hazara by the Taliban. There are estimated to be around three million Kuchi in Afghanistan, with at least 60% remaining fully nomadic, and over 100,000 have been displaced in the South of Afghanistan due to drought in the past few years.13


Mamund: Classified as Eastern or Sarbani Pashtun.14


Mahsood: The Mahsood Tribe, of Pashtun origin, is the second largest tribe in South Waziristan (Wazir being first). The Mahsood (also known as Makhsood) have a traditional dance called the Mahsood Wal Atanrh, originally used as a preparation for war. The dance is conducted with loaded guns in hand, and a beat is created with percussion drums.  Shots are fired into the air to coordinate with the beat.14 The Gomal Highway in South Waziristan has “long been a bone of contention between the Mahsood and Wazir tribes."15


Mangal: A Pashtun Karlanri clan that can be further divided into Miran Khel, Khajuri, Gabar, Marghai, and Kamal Khel subdivisions. They are known for their independent nature and have a history of resisting British forces, central and provincial governments, Soviet forces, and Taliban forces. The latter has left them with a healthy memory of the Taliban and left a strong animosity between the two.16


Muqbil: Cousins of the Zadrans and Mangals, they now reside in Sayid Karam District in Paktia. They can be further divided into five clans: Musa Khel, Sultak, Ahmad Khel, Hasan Khel, and the Bobaki. Little else is known.17


Nuristani Tribes: The Nuristani in Afghanistan primarily live in high elevations in northeast Afghanistan.  They trace their genealogy back to either the Greek forces of Alexander the great or to the tribes of Mecca which rejected Islam.  For centuries the Nuristanis were known as “kafirs,” or infidels (this is still a pejorative term for them).  This has changed as most converted to Islam at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  There are fifteen Nuristani tribes with numerous sub-groups.  Five languages and numerous dialects are spoken by the Nuristani.  They do not have overly positive relations with other Afghans or Pakistanis and a strong animosity toward Arabs. Two of the largest tribes, the Kamozi (or Kam) and the Kushtaz, have had a series of conflicts since the fall of the Taliban. Additionally, for over two decades foreign-funded Wahhabi preachers have been working to convert the tribes to their more hard-line interpretation of Islam. Nuristanis, however, remain protective of their distinctive culture. The tribes speak Dardic languages, often mutually unintelligible. Due to what many Nuristanis claim is Greek blood left over from the mighty armies of Alexander, many Nuristanis have distinctly European features, blue and green eyes, and blond or red hair. Since being conquered by the “Iron Amir” (Abdul Rahman Khan) in 1893, there has been some intermingling with Pashtuns, forced or otherwise. Nuristanis comprise a minority in parts of Kunar. The Kom group of Nuristanis extend down into the Kunar Valley.18


Kata (Western): Occupy the majority of Daulatshai and Alishing districts.  Also reside in parts of Alingar, Mehterlam and Qarghayi districts.  The Kata are a Nuristani tribe which speaks two dialects of Kamakata viri.


Ashtu (Ashku): Also a Nuristani tribe, which with the Kata, live in the districts of Daulatshai and Alishing. 


Pashai: There is very little useful data on the Pashai, outside of some intense research on their language.  They inhabit Nuristan, parts of Laghman, and northern Nangarhar, seemingly between the Pashtun and Nuristanis.  Many consider themselves Pashtun.  They speak a Dardic language referred to as Pashai.  Often they are associated with or referred to as Kohistani.  The majority of Pashai in Laghman rely on the livestock and timber business.19


Pashtun: The largest single ethnicity of Afghanistan, the Pashtun, and in particular the largest tribe of the Pashtuns, the Ghilzai, formed the backbone of the Taliban movement. Traditionally beholden to the moral code of Pashtunwali (“the way of the Pashtun”), they can easily be deeply offended by breaches of the code and carry the grudge for generations. The Pashtuns are fiercely independent and often view themselves, as the largest ethnicity in the country, as the rightful leaders of Afghanistan. That being said, they suffered much during the Soviet invasion, and must be included in any effort to secure and develop the country. Many of the Pashtuns in Bamyan are Kuchis, nomads who have traditionally been accused of poaching Hazara land, especially during the Taliban era.


Qizilbash: The Qizilbash are an Imami Shia group thought to be descended from Persian “mercenaries and administrators left behind by the Safavid Emperor Nadir Shah Afshar to govern the Afghan provinces."20 After the demise of the Safavid Empire in Afghanistan, the Qizilbash, due to their higher levels of education and experience as administrators, remained influential in the Afghan court and government bureaucracies.  Their Shia faith combined with their disproportionate political influence often resulted in resentment by large portions of the Sunni majority within Afghanistan.21 Also, they were used by the shahs as personal bodyguards and assigned to put down uprisings among the populace, which further alienated them from the Pashtun majority.  Due to the persecution, religious and political, the Qizilbash frequently resorted to the use of taqiyya, the practice of precautionary dissimulation or the adoption of a dual religious identity.  In order to play a role in government and society, the Qizilbash, like other Imami Shia, publicly portrayed themselves as Sunnis or Pashtuns while they privately maintained their Shia faith.22  In present day Afghanistan, the Qizilbash continue to practice taqiyya making it difficult to gain accurate census data.  It appears that they largely reside in urban centers and “tend to be predominantly urban professionals—doctors, teachers, engineers, and lawyers."23


Safi (Safay): Kunar Safis are the largest and most powerful of the province’s Pashtun tribes and live primarily in the Pech Valley region.  The Safis historically have been one of the most dissident tribes in Afghanistan, with a major uprising against the central government in 1945-1946.  The tribe is divided into three clans, the Gorbuz, the Massoud and the Wadir.  The three clans were divided politically during the communist era.  In large part the Wadir Safis were aligned with the communists and served in the government.  Many Safis mujahedin leaders came from the Gorbuz clan.  The Massoud clan, however, was split between both sides.24


Sayyid (Sadat): Claiming descent from the family of the Prophet (PBUH), the Sayyids hold a revered place in Afghanistan. The majority, centered in Balkh and Kunduz in the North and Nangarhar in the East, are Sunni Muslims, but interestingly there are some in Bamiyan Province and else where that adhere to Shi’a Islam. These are often referred to as Sadat, a word that traditionally “in the northern Hejaz area and in British India [was] applied indifferently to the posterity of Hasan and Hussein [the first Shi’ite martyrs], sons of Ali and Grandsons of Mohammad."25


Shinwari: Paktu speakers. History of opposing the British and the central government in Kabul.  A major thorn in the side of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan during the 1880s.  They are classified as Eastern, Sarbani Pashtuns. Their tribal brethren are found much further south, in the Baluchistan area. They are very esteemed, proper Afghans. Historically they have formed alliances with the Mohmand, Safi and Afridi tribes and feuded with the Khogiani.26 The Shinwaris can also be found in the Khyber Agency in Pakistan.


Suleimankhel (Sulimankhel): One of the largest Ghilzai subtribes. According to Ghulab Mangal, former governor of Paktika Province, the Suleimankhel provide the majority of recruits for the Taliban in the province.  As a result, the level of Anti-Coalition Militia activities remain high in areas dominated by Suleimankhel. The bias of some sub-tribes toward the Taliban in part may be explained by their proximity to the Pakistan border and the influx of insurgents and the radical politics.  They have been allied with the Hotaki in the past, and their traditional rivals include the Karoti.27 Principal sub-divisions of the Suleimankhel include the Alizai, Sulemanzai, and Jalalzai.  Other sub-divisions include the Alikhel, the Nizamkhel, and the Shakhel. It is interesting to note that the Alikhel sub-tribe, which primarily lives in the northwest of Paktika, has been more cooperative with the central government and coalition forces.  The Nizamkhel and Shakhel also remain more supportive of the government, which may be explained in part by their rivalry with the Jalalzai.28


Tajik: Occupy same areas, generally, as the Ghilzai Pashtun. Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan after the Pashtuns and comprise between 25-30% of the population. The Tajiks in Afghanistan tend to live in settled communities as opposed to a nomadic lifestyle. Pashtuns refer to them as Farsiwan, or speakers of Farsi, the lingua franca of Afghanistan (50% of Afghanistan speaks Farsi, as opposed to only 35% for Pashtu). Between the Tajiks and Pashtuns there has been significant animosity in recent years. Forming the backbone of the Northern Alliance, they also have a base in the nation of Tajikistan. They held out fiercely against the Taliban. Most Tajik are Sunni Muslims, but a few are Shi’a. Tajiks made up the majority of the Northern Alliance, both in terms of membership and leadership. Tribal ties have largely broken down among the Tajiks; therefore, social organization is defined primarily by geography. Despite their lack of cohesiveness the Tajiks are often brought together due to the perceived common threat posed by the Pashtuns.29


Tatar: The first Central Asian Muslims to come under the Russian yoke, Tatars still retain their own republic within the Russian Federation. During the colonial era they were often used as spies and guides for Russian and later Soviet efforts, and are renowned for their commercial prowess. In Afghanistan, many of the Tatars settled after either trying to escape the Russians, or as traders. In Bamiyan, they are primarily found in Sheber District.


Utmanzai: The Utmanzais represent the smaller, northern branch of the Waziri tribe, the larger faction being the Ahmadzai Waziris. Primarily located within the Pakistani Tribal Agency of North Waziristan across the Durand Line, the Utmanzai are known for their independent spirit, proficiency at smuggling, and the difficulty of their native terrain. Falling under the great Karlanri supertribe, they are hill people.


Wardak Pashtun: Some leaders of the Wardak Pashtun were notorious for their opposition to the British in 1879-1880.  The Wardak tribe is subdivided in the Mayar, Mirkehl (which may be the same as the Amir Khel), and the Nuri.30 There is some disagreement whether the Wardaks are Karlanri or Ghilzai Pashtun.  Most evidence suggests they are Karlanri.  Currently several Wardak Pashtuns hold important posts in the central government, including the Ministry of Defense (General Abdur Rahim Wardak), the Ministry of Information, Culture and Youth (Abdul Karim Khoram), and the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs.  It is also important to note that “several Islamic radicals emerged from Wardak who helped to promote and implement Taliban’s conservative interpretation of Islam."31


Waziri: Pashtun tribe, primarily located in Pakistan.  The Waziris in Paktika, Khost, and Paktia live across from the Waziris on the Pakistan side of the border.  According to the State Department PRT Political Officer, the Waziris are “divided and extremely fractious [and] play both sides of the fence.”  It is assumed that the Waziris supply a significant number of recruits to anti-coalition militias.32 In Pakistan, North and South Waziristan have been the scenes of very fierce fighting between the Pakistani army and tribal elements, resulting in late 2006 in a brief peace between the two, generally seen as a climb-down by the Pakistani government. The Ahmadzai Waziris live in the South Waziristan Tribal Agency in Pakistan abutting Paktika, and the less numerous Utmanzai Waziris live in the North Waziristan Tribal Agency bordering Paktika and Khost.

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Material contained herein is made available for the purpose of peer review and discussion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.  Most of the content available on this website was updated as of March 2017.