Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
AfghanistanA Cultural and Political History$

Thomas Barfield

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780691145686

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691145686.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of
date: 14 December 2017

People and Places

People and Places

(p.17) Chapter One People and Places

Thomas Barfield

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a basic outline of Afghanistan's land and peoples. It describes how the various tribal and ethnic groups of Afghanistan work, because they have all played key roles in Afghanistan's history and remain vital in understanding current events there. Furthermore, this chapter introduces what Afghans themselves take for granted: their geography, religion, subsistence economy, and architecture, along with the persistent aspects of social organization in which they ground their lives. Finally, the chapter applies ibn Khaldun's classic model of Middle Eastern political organization to Afghanistan, arguing that, far from participating in a single political sphere, Afghanistan has always been two worlds, interacting but unintegrated. Its contrasting patterns of subsistence, social organization, and regional political structures underlie long-standing ethnic and tribal divisions, constituting elements of material life and social organization that have persisted for centuries, even millennia, and setting the framework for daily life as it is ordinarily lived.

Keywords:   Middle Eastern political organization, ibn Khaldun, Afghanistan, Afghan people, social organization, ethnic division, regional political structures, material life, Afghan daily life

Political scientists often give primacy to individuals, political parties, and ideologies in their studies. Those that employ models of “rational choice” assume that individuals always try to maximize their interests or minimize their pain when it comes to making decisions. When people are presented with the same alternatives, they will respond in the same way whether you are in Kansas or Qandahar. Anthropologists are less keen on this approach and its assumptions, not because they believe people to be less rational, but because they are familiar with societies in which group interest regularly trumps individual interest. That is, individuals support decisions made by their group even when such support has negative consequences for themselves. Anthropologists also believe that cost-benefit calculations are shaped by cultural predispositions about what is considered important. In an aristocratic society where honor is the highest ideal, the willingness to die to preserve it strikes observers as noble; in a commercial society where money takes precedence, such behavior is considered lunacy.

Afghanistan, particularly rural Afghanistan, provides an excellent example of a place where tribal and ethnic groups take primacy over the individual. As a result, any student of Afghan politics must become intimately familiar with such groups and their relationships with one another. This chapter outlines them and describes how they work because they have all played key roles in Afghanistan history. They remain vital in understanding current events there. Furthermore, this chapter introduces what Afghans themselves take for granted: their geography, religion, subsistence economy, and architecture, along with the persistent aspects of social organization in which they ground their lives. Whether one traveled to the land of the Hindu Kush when the region was Zoroastrian and Buddhist or after it became thoroughly Islamic, many of these factors would strike an observer as similar over time. Even as new peoples and languages entered the (p.18) region, the continuities remained more profound than the discontinuities. They constitute, as noted in the introduction, what the French historian, Fernand Braudel, classically defined as elements of the longue durée: aspects of material life and social organization that have persisted for centuries, even millennia, and set the framework for daily life as it is ordinarily lived.1 This is the context out of which politics and government emerges in Afghanistan. Though more subject to change, political institutions remain deeply rooted in Afghan cultural values and social organization, which outsiders ignore at their peril.

The Social Context of Tribes and Ethnic Groups

The outstanding social feature of life in Afghanistan is its local tribal or ethnic divisions. People’s primary loyalty is, respectively, to their own kin, village, tribe, or ethnic group, generally glossed as qawm. Afghanistan’s population is divided into a myriad of these groups at the local level. But the term qawm is flexible and expandable, so its reference is contextual depending on who is asking. It therefore applies not only to these smallest units but by extension to the country’s major ethnic groups as well. The most important of these by population are the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Aimaqs, although a number of smaller ethnic groups have regionally important roles (most notably the Nuristanis and Baluch). While a simplified map of these ethnic groups at the national level is useful and orients an outsider to gross patterns, it is also misleading. First, ethnic group definitions are based on multiple criteria that are often locally idiosyncratic. Criteria considered critical in one region may be deemed irrelevant in another. Moreover, two groups in a local context may declare themselves distinct (and even hostile), but also accept as unproblematic a common ethnic label at the regional or national level. Ethnic groups, in this respect, are more descriptive than operational. Thus, the larger the ethnic category being mapped, the less meaning that category will have. It is a mistake to see Afghan ethnic groups as fixed “nationalities” that have some overriding commonality and history that demands political unity. Finally, even when mapped at a fine scale, ethnic boundaries are always problematic on the ground. They frequently overlap in areas with (p.19)

People and Places

Map 2. Distribution of ethnic groups

mixed populations, and hide the crosscutting patterns of intermarriage, bilingualism, and unity through common geography. People of a shared locality (manteqa) may display more solidarity with their immediate neighbors of different ethnicities than they do with coethnics from other parts of the country.

Whether large or small, the varied ethnic groups residing in Afghanistan are all products of history. Since the end of the Bronze Age, if not before, new peoples have arrived (mostly from the north and west), bringing with them new languages and cultural practices. These new groups partially displaced, but more often amalgamated with, older populations in the major river valleys and urban centers. At the same time, Afghanistan’s rugged terrain provided refuge for older groups to maintain their (p.20) distinct ways of life beyond the control of rulers in distant cities. Even today the lofty eastern mountain region of Afghanistan remains a linguist’s paradise where narrow valleys shelter communities speaking a dozen distinct languages, many representing language families that were once widespread but are now otherwise extinct.

Unlike other parts of the world, no group in Afghanistan makes mythical claims of having always been on the same plot of land since creation. Instead one listens gravely to stories of how the ancestors of one group conquered the land and bequeathed it to their descendants. Or how pressure from below pushed people into the mountains, where they could live as they pleased. Or how nomads seeking new pasture and farmers seeking new land were invited (or forcibly deported) by one ruler or another to settle where they live now. Such recounted stories are deeply rooted in the past, but remain such vital memories that they might as well have occurred yesterday. An illiterate man in northern Afghanistan gave me a detailed (and historically accurate) account of the Mongol destruction there while excoriating the memory of that “pure infidel” Chinggis Khan (who he claimed was an Uzbek). He then described a great irrigation system that originally had six major canals, of which only three operated today. “Afghanistan was a much better place then; you should have visited us at that time,” he declared, as if I had just missed this golden age. I agreed, but knew that he was speaking of an age well beyond my own time horizon, since the Mongols had attacked in 1222. But by Afghan standards that was still recent enough to provoke strong emotion; an Uzbek listening to this story vehemently denied that his group had any relationship to the pagan Mongols. Across the border, a Pashtun example of taking the long view was famously expressed by the activist politician Abdul Wali Khan in the 1970s when questioned about his loyalty to Pakistan. He scornfully declared, “I have been a Pakistani for thirty years, a Muslim for fourteen hundred years, and a Pashtun for five thousand years.”2

But what do I mean by the term ethnic identity, and how are ethnic groups in Afghanistan to be distinguished? Following the work of Fredrik Barth, they are most commonly defined as social groups that meet four criteria: they are biologically replicating, share fundamental cultural values, constitute a field of communication and interaction, and are defined through self-definition and definition by others.3 The last criterion is the (p.21) most important because it sets the boundaries of an ethnic group, and it is at the boundaries where we discern the most critical variables that people actually employ to distinguish themselves from others living beside them. The specific cultural content they share or the signs that mark that identity may change, but the group remains distinct as long its members assert (or are forced to accept) an identity that outsiders recognize and respond to. It does not matter whether that group defines itself primarily by descent from a common ancestor, language, religion, cultural practice, place of birth, physical characteristic, or (most commonly) combination of these. Nor does it matter whether their claim of distinction can be empirically validated. Whether rooted in documented history or invented whole cloth, its members (or the people around them) believe that it is true and unchangeable, and act accordingly. There is a practical rule of thumb for sorting out the large number of ethnic groups in Afghanistan: if people identify themselves as the “such and such,” and their neighbors agree that they are the such and such, then they are the such and such.

This practical definition has not stopped scholars from crossing swords over just how fixed and unchanging ethnic identity really is.4 Political scientists in particular tend to see ethnic groups as fixed and primordial, the product of a deep history that produces permanent groups with firm and unchanging boundaries. Conflict between ethnic groups is therefore especially difficult to resolve because the group identity is so inflexible. Anthropologists, on the other hand, are all too prone to argue that ethnicity is only circumstantial, and open to both choice and change, with individuals making strategic decisions on how to define themselves. For them, changing identity often appears to involve little more than picking the costume most appropriate to the situation at hand—a popular fiction that can be rewritten at will. Neither of these perspectives captures the essence of ethnicity in Afghanistan. People do assert that ethnicity is both fixed and historically rooted. All ethnic groups give themselves elaborate histories that stress their unchanging character. Specifically, they deny that an individual or group could change identity.

In practice, however, it is clear that flexibility and the strategic manipulation of identity has and does occur in Afghanistan. Within a tribal group it can be manipulated by changing a significant ancestor in an oral genealogy to reflect social distance. Groups in conflict prune ties to make their (p.22) lineages appear more distant and hence less worthy of cooperation. This can also justify cooperation by incorporating a neighboring group and grafting their genealogy onto one’s own at a higher level—a process that happened frequently enough among Pashtuns to create internal arguments as to which groups were the “true” Pashtuns. An individual or group could also convert to a different religious sect, where membership creates ethnic boundaries. The current distribution of sects in central Afghanistan must have been the product of such a process, even though current residents state that coversion from one sect to another never occurred.5 So another rule of thumb is this: the success in manipulating personal, ethnic, or tribal identity in Afghanistan is inversely related to the degree of public suspicion induced by the change. Like the well-crafted patina on fake antiquities that convinces a buyer they are genuine, a successful social fabrication has the greatest legitimacy when its genuineness appears unquestionable or is at least difficult to challenge.

Ethnic groups in Afghanistan come in two flavors: tribal and nontribal. Tribes are a type of ethnic group that defines its membership through the unilineal descent from a common ancestor, real or assumed. In Afghanistan such descent is through the male line. The Pashtuns are the best example of this, with their ability to link scores of lineages comprising millions of people into a single genealogy backward through time to their founding ancestor. When the common ancestor is not known or is simply assumed to exist, the highest level of organization is a set of clans that assert a relationship with one another as a single group but cannot trace it. This system—characteristic of the Uzbeks, Turkmen, Hazaras, Kirghiz, and Aimaqs—is somewhat easier to manipulate, since it is easier to drop or add clans to the system. While the Turkmen and many Uzbeks maintain detailed lineages within their own clans, there is a tendency over time for these systems to lose their genealogical character, at which point it is only the clan name that is inherited. By contrast, nontribal ethnic groups make no claim of genealogical relationship among their members. The Persian-speaking Tajiks are the largest such nontribal group in Afghanistan. Mostly Sunni by sect, they do not assert a common descent but do maintain a common identity, distinguishing themselves primarily by residence. And, although the Hazaras have a tribal organization internally, externally they (p.23) are defined not by this descent but rather by their common Shia religious faith, Persian language, and reputed Mongol ancestry.

Afghans often assert that ethnic groups are so distinct that they can be identified by their physical appearance alone, which is sometimes true when an individual fits an ethnic stereotype. Still, because of long-standing intermarriage, there is such a wide diversity within any single ethnic group, particularly large ones, that exceptions are as common as the rule. In practice, the belief that ethnic identity can be recognized visually stems as much from cues that men themselves provide through their style of dress (robes and headgear particularly). Women in rural areas often have even more ethnically distinct styles of dress and jewelry, but most never appear before strangers or are anonymously veiled when in public.

Ethnic Groups in Afghanistan

There are dozens of major and minor ethnic groups in Afghanistan, few of which have been well studied.6 Two caveats must be tied to any estimates of their numbers. The first is that statistics in Afghanistan are validated more through repetition than by any data. The second is that partisans of different ethnic groups, even scholarly ones, turn chauvinistic when estimating their own group’s numbers.

No one has ever really agreed on Afghanistan’s population. From the 1970s to 1990s, sixteen million was the most frequently cited figure.* Today it is thirty million. This may or may not be an accurate figure. As a common Pashto saying has it, “God knows; I don’t.” It would be a useful piece of information to have, but promised surveys always seem to have a way of ending before their results become known. This is because population figures by region, let alone by ethnic group, are politically sensitive.

(p.24) Census takers have generally been prohibited from asking about group membership.

In the absence of real data, Pashtun-dominated governments have always asserted that Pashtuns constitute an absolute majority in Afghanistan, although they probably comprise only its largest plurality. More recently, Hazaras have entered the numbers game to make themselves equal to the Tajiks. The Uzbeks have similarly inflated the number of Turkish speakers. And Tajiks are either a larger or smaller part of the total depending on whether they are subdivided by region or included as a single group. If one were to give equal weight to all of these partisan estimates and offer offense to none, it would be safe to say that the five largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan comprise approximately 185 percent of the country’s total population with smaller groups accounting for another 15 percent. This is not a statistic I expect will be validated through repetition, so below I employ the most common ones that add up to 100 percent.

Large Groups


Pashtuns have been the dominant ethnic group in modern Afghanistan since the mid-eighteenth century and currently comprise about 40 percent of the country’s total population. An even larger number of Pashtuns reside on the Pakistan side of the border concentrated in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the northern parts of Baluchistan. Historically, “Afghan” was so synonymous with “Pashtun” that Afghanistan could be equally glossed not only as the “land of the Afghans” but the “land of the Pashtuns” as well. More recently, Afghan has acquired a more national character, especially because this is how the outside world labels its people regardless of ethnic origin. Yet the use of Afghan in this national context is still contested. Some non-Pashtuns argue for the use of “Afghani” (formerly used only to denote the country’s unit of currency) or “Afghanistani” as a national label on the grounds that Afghan still implies Pashtun identity inside the country.

Pashtun-descent groups are composed of lineages (Pashto -zai, “sons of”) that trace their origin to Qais, the putative common ancestor of all (p.25) Pashtuns.7 These lineages unite into larger clans (Pashto -khel), which in turn are grouped in four maximal-descent groups:

  • The Durrani (known earlier as the Abdali) are the descendants from Qais’s first son. In Afghanistan, they are located in the south and southwest. Their major tribal components are divided between the Zirak (Popalzai, Alikozai, Barakzai, and Achakzai,) and the Panjpao (Nurzai, Alizai, and Isaqzai). The most prominent Pashtun tribes in Peshawar, such as the Yusefzai, Shinwari, and Mohmand, also claim descent through this line.

  • The Ghilzais (also called Khalji or Ghalji) are descendants of Qais’ second son, but through his daughter. Located throughout the east they are Afghanistan’s largest Pashtun group, and include tribes such as the Hotaki, Tokhi, Kharoti, Nasiri, Taraki, Sulaiman khel, and Ahmadzai, among others.

  • The Gurghusht are descendants of Qais’s third son. They include tribes such as the Kakar and Musa Khel (bordering the Baluch) and the Safi(in the Kunar region).

  • The Karlanri (often labeled Pathans by the British) are asserted to be descendants of an adopted child of uncertain origin. They straddle the Afghan Pakistan border, but the bulk of their population lies in the NWFP. Their tribal components include the Wardak, Orakzai, Afridi, Wazir, Jaji, Tani, Khattak, Zadran, Mangal, Mahsud, and Khugiani.

In addition to descent, the Pashtuns ideally define themselves by their adherence to a code of conduct, the Pashtunwali, and their ability to speak Pashto. Many Pashtuns by descent who have lived for generations in Persian-speaking towns, though, no longer speak Pashto or conduct themselves according to tribal honor codes. These lapses call their Pashtun identity into question in the eyes of hill tribesmen, but since they also constituted the country’s ruling elite, this opinion has never been shared by Afghan governments or the country’s other ethnic groups. Most rural Pashtuns are subsistence farmers, but a minority of them are nomads. These seasonally migrating pastoralists (kuchi or maldar) do not constitute exclusive descent groups. Among the Durrani, the bulk of them are Nurzai, while the Kharoti and Nasiri have the largest nomadic components among the Ghilzais. (p.26) There are also large migrant Pashtun communities in the north—a product of the Afghan government policies of ethnic transfer begun in the 1880s.


The Tajiks, usually defined as nontribal Persian-speaking Sunni Muslims, constitute about 30 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Of all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Tajiks have the least internal coherence. They traditionally made up the majority of urban residents in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar, but the bulk of their population is spread out over the mountains of the northeast. If asked about their identity, most so-called Tajiks will respond only by giving you their regional affiliation (Badakhshi, Panjshiri, Shomali, Salangi, etc.) or city residence (Kabuli or Herati). Rural Tajiks practice subsistence farming, but those in urban areas have historically been the bedrock of the merchant community, bureaucrats, and educated clergy. Their literacy in Persian, long the regional language of government administration, high culture, and foreign relations, gave them a powerful role no matter who was ruling the country.8


The Hazaras make up about 15 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Their homeland lies in the central range of the Hindu Kush, a region known as Hazarajat. They are Shia Muslims who engage in alpine subsistenceagriculture and livestock breeding. Although their language is a dialect of Persian, the Hazaras are said to descend from the Mongol armies that conquered Iran and often display strong Mongoloid features. They maintained independent control of Hazarajat until the end of the nineteenth century, when Amir Abdur Rahman conquered the region. At that time the Hazaras were victimized and even sold as slaves in Kabul. But this population transfer, reinforced by the later settlement of migrant workers seeking casual employment in the capital, increased their numbers to such an extent that they made up a third of Kabul’s population in the 1970s. As historic victims of prejudice on religious and racial grounds, the Hazaras found social mobility difficult. They ranked at the bottom of Afghanistan’s ethnic hierarchy, and were systematically excluded from almost all government positions and educational opportunities by the Pashtundominated (p.27) governments. They were particular targets of persecution by the Taliban, but most recently achieved parity with other groups under the constitution of 2004, which specifically recognized the legitimacy of Shia legal practices.9

Uzbeks and Turkmen

The Uzbeks and Turkmen make up about 10 percent of the country’s population. They are Sunni Turkish-speaking groups that descend from nomadic tribal confederations that arrived in a series of waves from central Asia. They became politically dominant in the region from about AD 950. The Uzbeks arrived in northern Afghanistan during the sixteenth century as nomadic conquerors, but most later settled in the irrigated valleys or loess steppes, where they became sedentary farmers. The Uzbeks in Afghanistan are an extension of the Uzbek population across the border in Uzbekistan.10 A large number fled from there to Afghanistan following the Russian revolution and later during the Stalinist period.11 The related Turkmen tribes are found in the northwest on the borders with Turkmenistan and Iran. They remained much more nomadic than the Uzbeks, and often raided northern Iran and northern Afghanistan for slaves and other loot until the late nineteenth century, when the Russian conquest of Khiva and Merv ended their autonomy.12 A number of Turkmen groups moved to Afghan territory after this, particularly following the establishment of the Soviet Union. They are closely related to the larger Turkmen populations in Turkmenistan and Iran. The Turkmen play an important economic role because they produce Afghanistan’s famed carpets and karakul sheepskins, both of which are major export earners. Until recently, Turkish speakers were an invisible minority in Afghanistan. They had few representatives in government, and their languages were not taught in schools. During the Soviet war period and the civil war, they regained considerable autonomy and once again became a political force in the north.


The Aimaqs are tribally organized Sunni Muslims who speak Persian but are sometimes said to be of Turkish descent.13 They are the smallest of the regionally important groups, probably about half the size of the neighboring (p.28) Uzbeks and Turkmen. Historically, they occupied the mountainous territory east of Herat and west of Hazarajat, the ancient territory of Ghor. They also occupied some of the steppes and desert lands north and east of Herat. Often known as “Chahar Aimaq” (Four Tribes), their major divisions include the Jamshidi, Firozkohi, Taimani, and Taimuri. The Aimaqs suffered greatly during the wars launched by the Kabul government in the late nineteenth century, and many were dispersed to parts of northern Afghanistan. They probably number about a half-million people, although estimates vary widely. There is even some dispute as to whether they should be considered a set of small groups rather than one larger ethnic group. The term aimaq itself is a generic Turkish idiom for tribe. In rural areas they are seminomadic, with more emphasis on pastoralism than their neighbors.

Smaller Groups

The remaining ethnic groups of Afghanistan are quite diverse, but represent only 3 percent or less of the country’s population. Individually, their populations range from one to two hundred thousand. Some of these groups, however, have had historical significance beyond their numbers. Afghan rulers frequently followed an old political strategy of appointing members of small ethnic minorities to high positions in the government and military. It was believed that they would be more loyal because they had no political base of their own within the larger population and were therefore less likely to betray their masters.

Nuristanis and Pashai

The Nuristanis live in the mountains northeast of Kabul, where they inhabit isolated valleys.14 Until the late nineteenth century they were independent, maintaining their own polytheistic religion and a distinctive culture based on goats and cattle as well as terraced agriculture. Forcibly converted to Islam after the conquest in 1895, the descendants of those who were moved to Kabul later became a critical part of the government and military in spite of their small numbers. Their languages are unrelated to (p.29) any others in Afghanistan, and the population shows a high rate of blondism (a characteristic associated in legend with the conquest of Alexander the Great). Nuristani is an example of an imposed ethnonym, since internally the Nuristanis are divided into a number of distinct tribes that occupy separate valleys and speak different languages. The Pashais are culturally similar to their immediate neighbors in Nuristan, but maintain their own identity and adopted Islam earlier.15


The Qizilbash originally made up the Shiite Turkish military units that helped to found the Afghan state during the turmoil of the mid-eighteenth century. They played a vital political role as defenders of the Afghan state against tribal revolts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Today they are a Persian-speaking urban population, key in government and trade. As Shias, they were distinct from the Sunni population, but they did not suffer from the severe discrimination inflicted on the Hazaras because of their long incorporation into the Kabul elite.


The Baluch are located south of the Pashtuns in the desert. They are extensions of much larger populations found in Iran and Pakistan. The Baluch have their own language, Baluchi, which (like Pashto) is related to Persian. On their ethnic border with Pashtun areas many Baluch speak Pashto, and the distinction between Baluch and Pashtun rests primarily on political allegiance to Baluch khans rather than language or descent. They are mostly pastoral nomads in Afghanistan. In the past they often made ends meet by raiding villages; today the Baluch are still renowned as smugglers linking Iran and India.


The Arabs of Afghanistan claim descent from the Arabian armies that conquered central Asia in the eighth century, but none of these groups still speak Arabic as a native language. They are now Persian speakers, and in (p.30) the north they are bilingual in Uzbeki as well. They have a tradition of pastoralism, yet one that is well integrated into market production. These Arabs are frequently confused with sayyids (descendants of the Prophet), but they claim no such descent for themselves, and sayyids (representatives of which can be found among a variety of ethnic groups) reject any kinship with them. The Arabs have been relatively invisible in Afghanistan’s ethnic politics. In part this is because culturally and linguistically, they have assimilated into the regional culture.16


Russian ethnographers have misleadingly referred to all the Ismaili groups inhabiting the headwaters of the Oxus River (Darya Panj) on both sides of the border as the “mountain Tajiks” or “Pamir Tajiks”—a tradition still followed in neighboring Tajikistan. As non-Sunnis speaking their own languages, however, they are not considered Tajiks in Afghanistan and often have antagonistic relations with their Persian-speaking Sunni neighbors in Badakhshan. They tend to identify themselves by valley, each of which has its own language, such as Wakhi, Shugni, or Roshani. There is a striking cultural difference between those Pamiris living in Tajikistan—who received infrastructure development and high levels of education under Soviet rule—and those on the Afghan side—who are largely illiterate and engage in subsistence agriculture.17

And Yes, Even Smaller Groups

Jugis and Jats

In Afghanistan, there are a variety of endogamous itinerant communities, which engage in specialized crafts (such as sieve and knife making or haircutting), or are peddlers and providers of exotic services (monkey and snake trainers or prostitution). Attributed with foreign (generally Indian) origins, their communities are typically labeled Jugis and Jats, a gloss similar to the use of “gypsy” in Europe. They reject such labels and use more specific terms (Shaykh Mohammad and Ghorbat), but all share a common marginal social status in Afghan society.18

(p.31) Kirghiz

The Kirghiz are the smallest of the Turkic groups in Afghanistan. Numbering less than a thousand people today, they are pastoral nomads inhabiting the Wakhan corridor, and are related to larger Kirghiz populations residing in the Pamir range of Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, and Chinese Xinjiang. Their strategic location on “the roof of the world” has given them a political significance well beyond their numbers in this remote territory.19


Afghanistan has only a tiny non-Muslim population, consisting of perhaps ten to twenty thousand Sikhs and Hindus long resident in Kabul and a few other cities. They were particularly important historically in Afghanistan’s international trade and still play a large role in the currency market. Until the mid-twentieth century Afghanistan had small but old Jewish communities in Kabul, Herat, and the cities of the north. Most Afghan Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, and the older members who stayed behind died off, so the community has now disappeared.

Ways of Living

One of the earliest sociological definitions of “culture” described it as the “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”20 This holistic aspect has inspired anthropologists to stress the interconnections among these elements and not simply run a checklist on each society they encounter. Here I will sketch what the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu has called a “habitus,” the ingrained patterns of apprehending the world and interacting with it.21 In the realm of the power of ideas, the two most significant are conceptions of group identity (explored above) and the cultural framework of Islam. But people also exist in a material world that encompasses how they live their lives on a daily basis and the built environments they inhabit. This material habitus is as unremarkable to Afghans as it is distinct to outsiders. Indeed, it is so taken (p.32) for granted that it is invisible, even when of critical importance. This is not surprising. Anyone who has experienced living in another culture soon realizes that the things that most struck them as unique and remarkable on first encounter quite quickly recede into the commonplace, everyday, and unremarkable with the passing of time. The human psyche seems to be hardwired into fixating on the exceptional while passing over the conventional.* Accounts of outsiders (like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or Mountstuart Elphinstone’s Kingdom of Caubul) retain their value centuries after they were written precisely because they cogently analyzed what their interlocutors took as boringly self-evident.

Rural Economy

Afghanistan is a land of small villages, which traditionally accounted for about 80 percent of the population, spread out over a territory the size of France (or Texas, if you prefer). The practice of subsistence farming and pastoralism has always given these villages considerable autonomy. Although agricultural practices and crops vary from region to region, the national economy is based on rural production with no modern industries. Cities, although always politically dominant historically, constituted no greater percentage of the country’s population than did the country’s nomads (about one million each before 1978). The population throughout the first three-quarters of the twentieth century was about twelve million—a figure first estimated by the British in 1912 and reconfirmed in an unpublished Afghan census in 1974. This lack of growth is simple to explain. Afghanistan had a demographic profile typical of a premodern society in which a high birthrate was matched by a high death rate. In part because of higher growth rates among refugee populations that have returned to Afghanistan, the country’s current estimated population of twenty-five to thirty million is now significantly larger, although neighboring Pakistan (p.33) and Iran showed much higher rates of growth over the same period. As part of a war-induced urbanization that began with the Soviet invasion, cities and towns also now house a much greater percentage of the population. Before 1978 Kabul had about a population of a half million, and today is home to between three and four million.

Until only a couple centuries ago the vast majority of the world’s people everywhere engaged in agriculture, mostly of a subsistence variety. In only the past century and a half, this formerly pervasive economic activity has been reduced to a specialty in industrial societies involving less than 2 percent of the population. But people still eat, and given growing rates of obesity worldwide, they eat much more and do much less physical work than when most everyone was a farmer. A corollary of this fact is that few readers of this book are likely to be familiar with the world of subsistence agricultural production that their immediate ancestors took for granted. Worse, wealthy residents of Europe and the United States are now prone to idealize it as “closer to nature”—and to boot, organic. So another set of caveats and fair warnings are noted below.

On the negative side: Subsistence agriculture in Afghanistan involves an almost-unimaginable daily life of toil, where one gets up at dawn because there is light and goes to sleep soon after dark because there is not. Such a physically demanding life makes people appear a lot older than they really are—that is, if they even survive long enough to look old. Rural Afghanistan has some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. The seasonality of work is based on men plowing, sowing, harvesting, threshing, and then milling grain. The bulk of this will be set aside for a family’s use, not sold on the market. Women spend most of their time doing basic tasks, such as getting water, making wood fires and meals from scratch, taking care of children, and engaging in household management, sometimes also combined with craft production. This work is done through human and animal labor because machines are rare, and electricity or piped water are rarer. There is the communal labor of cleaning irrigation channels and repairing any damage wrought by floods. There are heated disputes about the distribution of water when shortages occur, and the sometimes deadlier arguments over property boundaries. After all, just by plowing one extra furrow into your neighbor’s land each year and moving (p.34) the boundary marker a little, you can make a lot of their land your own in a decade. People kill neighbors over such issues. And farmers who do not have irrigation and rely on rain-fed fields are at the mercy of the weather. A good rain or snowfall produces a bumper crop; if there is no rain or snow, there may be a famine. Being a nomad isn’t any easier either, even though they insist it is a better way of life than farming. A nomad will extol the virtues of sheep that reproduce geometrically while wheatfields remain fixed—a Malthusian road to pastoral wealth. But then after listing incidents of early blizzards, epidemics, droughts, thefts, and other disasters that can cut a flock in half overnight, the nomad will tell you the best strategy is to use sheep profits to buy irrigated land because “land never dies.” When I once opined that perhaps the Afghan government should help its pastoralists through price supports as is done in other countries, a shepherd laughed and retorted sarcastically that “here, when the price of sheep gets too low, we eat them.”

On the positive side: Subsistence agriculture provides its practitioners with a degree of autonomy unknown in a market economy. Prices for grain may fluctuate widely and often severely, but since farmers first set aside grain for their own consumption, such swings have less impact than in urban areas. From seed to wheat to flour to bread, every aspect of production remains at the household or village level. What they cannot produce themselves, farmers buy from local merchants and artisans, often by growing some cash crops, selling domestic animals, or engaging in craft production. But maximizing cash income is not their goal; they sell just enough to buy the items they need to consume. Similarly, after they satisfy their subsistence needs, they stop working. As the nineteenth-century Russian economist Alexander Chayanov documented among peasants there, given a choice between producing more or working less, subsistence farmers opt to work less (see the baseline of daily toil above).22 It is a world of reciprocal obligations where hired domestic laborers are for all practical purposes incorporated into the extended household. Sharecroppers are generally neighbors of the landlords from whom they rent the land they farm. Such a robust structure can weather major economic and political disruptions that would collapse more complex systems. To those who wonder how the Afghans survived the recent decades of war and political disorder in better shape than other places in the world, look to this strategy of production to (p.35) meet basic economic needs, and the tight network of family and social ties that draw people together as well as protect them.

Settlement Patterns

Settlement patterns in Afghanistan can be divided into three basic types: rural villages, nomadic encampments, and towns. There is a close link among them. Villages depend on towns to supply them with manufactured goods, and the wealth of the towns depends on the surplus that their hinterlands provide. Nowhere is this clearer than on “bazaar day,” a once or twice weekly event during which the people of the countryside swarm into town to buy or sell, or just to experience the crowd. Sleepy towns that on other days of the week do not seem to justify the scores of shops lining their unpaved streets are on these days bustling with mercantile activity, with the caravansaries full of parked donkeys, and the teahouses overflowing with people eager for news and gossip. Nomads camped on uncultivated land away from towns and villages, by contrast, seem to live in a world of their own. But this is an illusion. In spite of their migrations and mobile tents, nomads travel by regular routes, and have close economic connections with towns in their winter areas and rural villages in their summer areas. In many parts of the country they also own land, so the distinction between nomad and villager is not a strict one.

The wide-ranging cultural diversity in Afghanistan can be seen in the amazing variety of building types found there. One study documented forty-four distinct types of nomadic, transhumant, and sedentary structures in rural areas.23 This wide variety of tents, huts, yurts, flat and curved roofs, stone or mud walls, single buildings, and village complexes is large because it all evolved to meet a range of geographic conditions, climatic variations, and inherited cultural traditions. Each building type is specialized and refined in a way that maintains an equilibrium between the physical context and cultural needs. More remarkably to outsiders, buildings in rural areas are constructed by their inhabitants, not specialists, and they make use of the most common materials at hand. The adaptation of materials to the sites is such that they often appear to be an organic part of the landscape rather than intruders.

(p.36) Villages

Villages follow a number of settlement patterns depending on the availability of water and the need for defense. The key distinction in agriculture is whether the land is irrigated (abi) or unirrigated (lalmi). Except for the mountain and foothill regions that depend on unirrigated agriculture, most villages are sited in relation to an irrigation network of jui or channels. In large valleys, these may depend on a barrage or dam system that diverts river water in the main canals, from which it is then moved by gravity to smaller channels and finally to the fields. In mountainous areas, small streams may be diverted at high elevations for use by the villages below. In the western and southern parts of Afghanistan a system of underground conduits (qanat or karez) are also employed, but these require a large capital investment and need more maintenance than other systems. In all of these cases, the villages are located on the least fertile areas so that little agricultural land is lost. Village houses on the plains are usually surrounded by three-to four-meter-high mud walls. Indeed in those villages of the qala houses (see figure 1 and 2), walls are an integral part of the structure itself and are designed to serve as fortresses as well as houses.

Another house type found in the area from Herat to Tashqurghan employs domed roofs, while in most other parts of Afghanistan village houses use flat roofs. Typically square or rectangular in plan, they make use of sun-dried clay brick as their main building material. In the treeless high mountain areas, stone replaces mud, and in forested Nuristan the extensive use of wooden beams, frames, and columns creates a style of architecture unique to the region.

Village life is based on households working small plots of land, usually owned by an individual household. Tenant farming has always been far less prevalent in Afghanistan than in neighboring Iran or Pakistan. Wheat is the basic crop throughout the country. In irrigated lowland regions rice, cotton, melons, and citrus fruit are also grown. Most highland agriculture is unirrigated, with wheat the preferred crop at lower altitudes and barley the preferred one at higher elevations. Large tracts of land are plowed and sown in anticipation that a good snowfall or spring rains will produce a good crop. Highland villages tend to be smaller in population than those in the lowland areas. Mountain villages also irrigate groves of trees to produce (p.37)

People and Places

Fig. 1. A high-prestige qala, measured in meters.

Source: Albert Szabo and Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture. Austin, 1991: University of Texas Press, p. 188.

crops such as mulberries, stone fruit, and nuts. Livestock, mostly cows and goats, are an important component of the economy, but mountain villagers must limit their numbers to those that can be stall fed through the winter. The livestock is moved to available pasture in the summer. To facilitate this, people establish special summer villages (ailoq) or, particularly in central Afghanistan, make use of portable huts that provide seasonal dwellings. (p.38)

People and Places

Fig. 2. A farm village qala, measured in meters.

Source: Albert Szabo and Thomas Barfield, An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture. Austin, 1991: University of Texas Press, p. 164.

Pastoral Nomads

Raising livestock is the primary occupation of nomadic pastoralists in Afghanistan, who by some estimates number more than a million people.24 These nomads take advantage of seasonally changing pastures, spending the winter in the lowlands and the summers in the mountains. They raise sheep and use camels to transport their baggage. The map of nomadic (p.39)

People and Places

Map 3. Nomadic migration routes

migrations shows that nomads move toward the highlands of the Hindu Kush in the center of the country or the northeast toward the highland pastures of Badakhshan. Most of the nomads involved in these long-range migrations are Pashtuns, who use black goat-hair tents. Nomads from the Uzbek, Turkmen, or Kirghiz groups normally move their animals only short distances, often moving from winter pastures in the valleys to spring and summer pastures on the steppes and nearby foothills. They live in yurts. A few groups also engage in the caravan trade. All are dependent on the sale of animals, cheese, clarified butter, dried yogurt, wool, or skins to urban markets for cash, with which they then buy wheat. Wheat bread is the main food even of nomads in Afghanistan.

(p.40) Towns

Towns act as centers of trade, where agricultural and pastoral products are exchanged for manufactured goods. Local artisans produce many of the items that are essential for village and nomadic life. Town populations are diverse, including members of many different ethnic groups. In the winter especially, young men from mountain villages will seek temporary work in the towns, returning home in time to help with the new agricultural season. Other migrants settle to form ethnic communities within an urban setting. Because of this, no matter how remote a village may seem, it often has links to regional urban centers. Towns are also centers of government administration, but links between officials there and more rural villagers have traditionally been brittle. While frequently more elaborate in towns, house forms employ the same type of construction techniques as do those in the villages. Like their village counterparts, urban houses are normally surrounded by high walls so that little detail of domestic architecture is visible from the street. In large cities multistoried buildings are common, based on multiples of the same construction type.


It perhaps goes without saying that Afghanistan is a Muslim country, mostly Sunni (85 percent) with a minority (15 percent) of Shias and Ismailis. While today it seems that every book on Afghanistan has “Islam” somewhere in the title or subtitle, earlier works did not. Some suggest this is evidence that past researchers underestimated the significance of Islam in the country, deceived by the values of the small secular elite in Kabul.25 I would argue that a different dynamic was at work, and that it is relevant to this day. Afghanistan is an example of an older form of Islamic society in which religion is not an ideology but remains an all-encompassing way of life. If earlier investigators did not give Islam priority, it was because they took its overwhelming importance too much for granted and therefore in little need of explication. Today, by contrast, there is an intense focus on Islam, but one largely limited to its political guise—a perspective that flattens the distinctions between Afghanistan and other Muslim societies.

(p.41) When religion is a way of life, it permeates all aspects of everyday social relations, and nothing is separate from it. This is the state of Islam in Afghanistan. Its influence is ever present in people’s everyday conversations, business transactions, dispute resolutions, and moral judgments. There is no relationship, whether political, economic, or social, that is not validated by religion. Hard bargaining can be brought to a smooth end by a simple prayer that blesses and sanctifies the final agreement. Similarly, disputing parties that refuse to give any ground (because it might show weakness) can be moved to compromise when a mediator asks for it “in the name of God.” Who can refuse a request like that?

In such a society it is impossible to separate religion from politics because the two are so closely intertwined. It is therefore hard for most Afghans to even conceive of the separation of religion and government because in their minds the two are so intrinsically linked. It would be like asking a fish to separate itself from the water it swims in.* Indeed, because Islam is so much a part of everyday life, the declaration of an “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” in the constitution of 2004 provoked neither discussion nor concern. This was because the Afghan view of an Islamic government is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is a government composed of good Muslims, not one empowered to impose a particular religious or political agenda.26

In Afghanistan, this intrinsic Islamic identity is also fused with a strong cultural identity. Issues of identity politics and cultural practice that spark debate in other Islamic countries, which originated in their experiences of a colonial past, mass education, urbanization, rapid economic changes, and mass mobilization through explicitly political parties, have had little resonance in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was never a colony. It has low levels of literacy and an economy that is still overwhelmingly agrarian. Kinship and ethnic ties have always trumped political relations based on ideologies. Afghanistan is a place where the concept of Islamic politics is little debated, but only because its people assume there can be any be no other type.

(p.42) Few peoples in the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pashtuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent. Convinced they are natural-born Muslims, Afghans cede precedence to no one in matters of religion. They refused to take doctrinal advice from foreign Salafis, who claimed they had a superior vision of Islam, coming as they did from the Islam’s Arabian heartland. Instead, even under the Taliban, Afghans continued to bedeck graves commemorating martyrs with poles and flags, tied cloth swatches to sacred trees, made pilgrimages to the shrines of saints reputed to cure illnesses or help women conceive, and placed magical charms on their children and valuable domestic animals to ward off the evil eye. Afghans responded to any criticism of these practices by arguing that since there are no purer or stronger believers in Islam than themselves, their customs must be consistent with Islam. Otherwise they would not practice them. Islamic Sufiorders (Nakhshbanidya and Chisti particularly) are also well established in the country and give a mystic turn to what sometimes appears to be an austere faith.


Afghanistan’s physical geography has had a profound impact on the country’s history and culture. The complex set of mountains that lie at the heart of the country is one of the most obvious features. They are worth discussing in some detail because they set the limits on agriculture by altitude and determine the water available for irrigation through the river systems that flow from them. Specific river systems and their watersheds have also sus (p.43)

People and Places

Map 4. Afghanistan’s regions

tained Afghanistan’s distinct regions: Herat in the west, Qandahar in the south, Mazar-i-sharif (Balkh) in the north, and the Kabul-Peshawar axis in the east. These regions (and Afghanistan itself) are part of the larger cultural-historical unit of Turko-Persia that encompasses the entire Iranian plateau.

Mountains and Rivers

When the Indian tectonic plate slammed into Asia millions of years ago, it raised up an arc of mountain ranges that are among the highest in the world. Afghanistan lies within the most eastern sector of this arc. The main (p.44) ranges include the Paropamisus, which extends eastward from Herat and merges into the mighty Hindu Kush rising north of Kabul. The Hindu Kush in turn merges with the edge of the Pamir and Karakoram ranges in the far northeast. Because these mountains are still growing, the area experiences frequent and sometimes-severe earthquakes. Although Afghanistan’s mountain regions are only sparsely populated, they are the country’s key geographic feature because their height and location determine wind and precipitation patterns, temperature, vegetation, and the flow of snow-fed rivers. The central mountains bisect Afghanistan and catch the precipitation from the Indian subcontinent to the southeast as the monsoon winds exhaust themselves. This makes eastern Afghanistan the wettest part of the country and the only place where natural forests are found. The drier winds from inland Eurasia are blocked by the north wall of the Hindu Kush and Pamir chains. Precipitation falls mostly as snow at the higher elevations. The deserts of the southwest receive little precipitation and constitute a major dry belt swept by seasonal winds that blow for months on end. The most important mountain resource is its snowpack.

Rapid altitude changes give the land great ecological diversity over surprisingly short linear distances because the warm and cold areas of Afghanistan are determined largely by altitude. You can escape the freezing winter snows and winds of Kabul by taking only a three-hour drive east through the Silk Gorge to Jalalabad, where oranges are being harvested. You can escape the humid summer heat in marshy Kunduz, where temperatures often exceed forty degrees Celsius, by moving to the mountains of Badakhshan. But while the lowland regions are also warmer, in a mountainous country like Afghanistan, lowland is a truly relative term and defined by the local context. The grape-growing area of Parwan north of Kabul and the grain belt in Logar River valley to Kabul’s south are relatively high in comparison to Qandahar or Herat, but both are low in relation to Hazarajat or Badakhshan. Traders take advantage of these differences by moving both highland and lowland products to city bazaars, giving these markets a diversity that is unrivaled in neighboring countries. In the mountains, alpine farmers typically exploit elevation differences by spending three seasons in a lower-altitude main village situated within a protected valley surrounded by their well-tended orchards and fields. In the (p.45) summer as the snow melts, they move to a high-altitude village or camp with huts on the mountain slopes that tower above them to graze their cows and goats. Similarly, migrating pastoral nomads use the same principle over much longer distances. They pack their tents on camels, and migrate with their sheep and goats to mountain pastures that lie between three and four thousand meters in elevation in order to escape the summer heat and burned pastures of the plains. They return during August to avoid the onset of snows, which fall early in the highlands, and seek shelter in the warmer lowlands for the winter. Before the creation of Pakistan, Afghan nomads would migrate as far as the plains of India to spend the winter.

The mountainous central massif at the center of Afghanistan is rugged and discourages easy travel. Even today, the lack of drivable roads makes these areas difficult to access. Villages are cut off from the rest of the country for large parts of the year when winter snows block the passes or just make travel dangerous. Such regions appear, and often are, out of touch with the rest of Afghanistan, let alone the rest of the world. Who, other than the people who live there, would even think of venturing into such a high, trackless maze? Yet for millennia people have moved in and out of these mountains regularly. These regions provide migrant laborers, mostly young men, who leave their resource-poor villages for seasonal work in the lowland valleys or cities. Some venture even further to neighboring countries and beyond for work. Distant mountain villages therefore often have ties to the wider world through local families that have settled elsewhere but maintain strong ties to their natal villages, or more directly by sending remittances though complex trade networks to support their families with resources from abroad. Alessandro Monsutti has shown that the remote Hazarajat survived a drought in the late 1990s that would have otherwise created widespread famine through hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign remittances, which pulled up the economy.27

What has been more historically significant, however, is that while the mountain peoples live in a world dominated by problems of basic subsistence, many of the routes through the mountains have been conduits of international trade that have consistently brought outsiders and high levels of culture through these regions. Like a high-voltage electricity line, these routes run through such regions not because they have an intrinsic value in (p.46) themselves but because they link regions with resources that do. As a consequence, they serve as economic and cultural interfaces between different worlds. This influence rubs off economically, culturally, and politically.

The highlands separate the country’s distinctive regions north and south of the Paropamisus and Hindu Kush. The former had strong ties to the trans–Oxus River valleys and steppes to the north in central Asia, and the latter to India and Iran. Movement between these areas exploited a series of passes that pierced the Hindu Kush, the two most important of which historically were the Shibar Pass through Bamiyan and the Khawak Pass through the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. (They were superseded by a drivable road built through the Salang Pass in 1964.) The old northeastern caravan route through Wakhan in the Pamirs, called the roof of the world in Persian, led into the western deserts of Turkistan with direct connections to China. A lower set of passes led from Afghanistan to India, including the famous Khyber Pass from Kabul and Jalalabad to Peshawar and the Bolan Pass from Qandahar to Quetta. These passes were well-known historically, and were well-traveled international byways of commerce. They were already old when the Silk Route caravans were young, bringing exotic goods, people, and beliefs into some of the region’s remotest areas. The royal blue lapis lazuli found in five-thousand-year-old Sumerian tombs and inlaid into the three-thousand-year-old gold mummy case of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen comes only from a single high mountain mine in Badakhshan. And along these routes centuries later Buddhism moved from India to China using Afghanistan as a key transmitter. Nothing reinforces this evidence of these international connections more than the long-abandoned remains of the massive Buddhist monastic complex in the Bamiyan Valley dating from the third to sixth centuries. Here, in a remote mountain valley at the center of the north-south routes crossing the Hindu Kush, stood the world’s tallest carved Buddhas until the Taliban destroyed them. Later the beautifully tiled minaret of Jam, the tallest in the Islamic world, would be erected to the west by the Ghorid kings in the tenth century along the now little-used highland mountain track that linked their kingdom to Kabul and Herat.

Afghanistan’s river systems all begin in the mountains, and their degree of flow depends entirely on the amount of snowpack there and how fast it melts. These rivers make irrigated agriculture possible throughout most of (p.47) the country as they drain from the central mountains north to Balkh, south to Qandahar, east to Kabul, and west to Herat. But do not mistake the long blue lines on the map as evidence of easy access to the country or a way to ship bulk cargo. In fact, do not mistake most of them for year-round rivers. At least half of Afghanistan’s rivers that burst their banks at flood stages barely trickle at other times of the year. Worse for trade and communication, all of Afghanistan’s rivers (with the exception of the Kabul River) lie within the interior drainage basin of central Eurasia. This means that none of them reach the ocean. Instead of being a link to the outside world, following Afghanistan’s rivers will eventually lead you nowhere. Most of the northern rivers fail even to reach the Amu drainage but are instead wrung dry for irrigation by a string of cities from Tashqurghan to Balkh to Maimana on the northern plain. Those that do reach the Amu from the northeast continue on, but only into the isolated and ever-shrinking Aral Sea. The great Helmand River and its tributaries end up in the desert marshes of Seistan on the Iranian border, squeezed between the Registan (“Land of Sand”) on one side and the Dasht-i-Margo (“Waterless Plain of Death”) on the other. And the Kabul River, which does connect with the Indus River just east of Peshawar in Pakistan, descends through so many deep gorges at such a rapid rate that its tributaries are suitable only for white-water rafting—a sport currently unknown to the Afghans. Rivers in Afghanistan therefore do not connect the country to the outside world or facilitate trade. Should you wish to cross the rivers by boat rather than ford them, at best you will find a few hand-pulled ferry boats (if you are lucky) or rafts lashed to inflated goatskins (if you are not). For this reason, rulers who built bridges were thought of kindly.

Regions That Persist over Time

Afghanistan has not always existed within its present historical boundaries, or for that matter existed at all as a single entity. Its international borders are arbitrary and divide communities that continue to see themselves as one. They also include people and places that at other times and under different political orders had only limited connections to today’s Afghanistan. Of course, the same could be said more cuttingly of Afghanistan’s (p.48) northern neighbors in central Asia, whose boundaries and ethnic character were bequeathed by Joseph Stalin. And an even greater historic wrong, in the eyes of the Afghans, was the imposition in 1893 of the Durand Line, which split the region’s Pashtun population between British India and Afghanistan. For this reason no Afghan government (royalist, republican, socialist, Islamist, or democratic) has ever accepted the border between it and the NWFP of Pakistan as truly legitimate. Thus it distorts reality to use the modern nation-state as a fixed unit of historical analysis, particularly when its boundaries are projected into the past. Afghanistan, the land of the Hindu Kush, does have an ancient history, but its current form is only one of its many incarnations.

What has continually existed are Afghanistan’s main regional components. These, like toy Lego blocks, have been fitted together in many different ways over the course of time, but each block has always remained recognizable as such. Sometimes they were provinces within world empires, like that of the ancient Persians in the fifth century BC who united everything from Egypt and the Mediterranean coast to the India’s Punjab. Sometimes they were themselves the centers of regional empires, like those established by the Kushans (in the second century) or Ghaznavids (during the tenth to eleventh centuries). Sometimes, as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were the contested and bloody frontiers of rival regional empires: the Uzbeks in central Asia, the Safavids in Iran, and the Mughals in India. And for many periods they were either independent kingdoms, ungoverned by any central power at all, or autonomous principalities that paid tribute and homage to a political center but remained locally autonomous in all other ways, including the right to raise revenue and troops.

Today’s Afghanistan has four of these basic regional building blocks. They can be most easily identified by their ancient urban centers: Herat in the west, Qandahar in the south, Balkh (Mazar-i-sharif) in the north, and Kabul in the east. Peshawar and the NWFP constitute a fifth region, Afghanistan’s phantom limb that was bequeathed to Pakistan when the British departed. Each of these regions dominates well-irrigated plains or river valleys that produce great agricultural surpluses, and have supported urban life for millennia. All had their own fluctuating frontiers in terms of how much of their adjacent mountain, steppe, and desert hinterland they controlled. But each survives and reemerges as a distinct region no matter the (p.49) changes in political organization, arrivals of new populations or religions, or attempts to impose larger and more uniform identities on them.

Herat and the West

Herat is a city with ancient roots located in the lowlands of western Afghanistan along the Iranian border. It is 920 meters in elevation and lies in an arid zone that experiences hot currents of air in the summer, a season known as the “Wind of 120 days.” Herat was the capital of Areia in the Persian Empire and has remained one of the region’s key urban centers since that time. Both the name of the city and region are derived from the main river that supports irrigated agriculture, the Harirud, as it leaves the mountains and enters the Herat-Farah lowlands. Villages are also irrigated by the use of the karez (also known as qanat), a system of constructed underground water conduits that tap the water table of the foothills and bring it down to the lowlands. A karez system requires continual maintenance, yet makes it possible to farm beyond the range of the river valleys and reduces the amount of water lost to evaporation.

Culturally and politically, Herat has long been tied into the Iranian world as one of the major cities of Khorasan. It owed its importance both to its agricultural productivity and its advantageous location for international trade. It was a junction city that linked the Iranian plateau to China via the central Asian silk routes. Herat was also a key city in Indian trade. Goods moved along the relatively flat route that ran south of the Hindu Kush to Qandahar and from there to India. In medieval times Herat was reputed to be home to a million people before the Mongols destroyed the city and depopulated the region in 1222. The region’s productive potential was so high, however, that Herat eventually overcame even this disaster and in the fifteenth century served as an imperial capital of the Timurid Empire. During this period Herat was a center of art and literature, particularly renowned for its production of Persian miniature paintings and poetry. By the eighteenth century Herat had declined in status, but remained a crucial provincial city in the Iranian Safavid state on the frontier with the Uzbek khanates to its north.

Herat’s population has always been predominantly Persian speaking, and composed of a mixture of Sunni and Shia elements. Herat claimed regional sovereignty over the various Sunni Aimaq tribes that lived in the (p.50) mountains to the east in Ghor and on the steppes to the north in Badghis. On its southern flank, it also had a substantial Abdali (Durrani) Pashtun population, which by the eighteenth century had become politically dominant. For this reason, Herat was one of the core principalities of the Durrani Empire and the Afghan state. Its governor was always a powerful member of the royal dynasty. Kabul’s control of its western region was often tenuous, though, and the Persians besieged Herat many times in the nineteenth century in hopes of reclaiming the city. Only the active intervention by the British raj (which viewed Herat as the main western gateway to India) prevented the Iranian Qajar dynasty from attaining this goal and preserved Afghan rule in the west.

Qandahar and the South

Qandahar is southern Afghanistan’s dominant city and has been its regional political center for more than five centuries. It lies in Afghanistan’s southern desert, but has thrived as a rich agricultural zone because it tapped the waters of the Helmand River and its tributaries, particularly the Argandab River. The ancient Persians called the region Arachosia after the name of that river. In ancient and medieval times Seistan, at the end of the Helmand’s drainage, rivaled Qandahar in importance, but then declined to insignificance when its irrigation system failed. Like Herat, Qandahar expanded the range of irrigated land by using both river water and karez systems. In addition to its bumper harvest of wheat, the region was well-known for its fruit crops, especially its grapes and pomegranates. It grew cotton as a cash crop and more recently has been the center of opium production. At an altitude of a thousand meters, it has warm winters and hot summers. For such a large region the south’s population is relatively small because so much of the surrounding area is a desert that can be used only by nomads on a seasonal basis. It had the lowest population density of the country’s main regions in the 1950s: seven people per square kilometer versus twenty-two per square kilometer in the north, thirty-six in the east, and ten in the west.28

In early periods Qandahar was a constant bone of contention between empires based in Iran and those based in India. Its political affiliation shifted between them regularly. It was a key trade center, serving as the (p.51) junction for goods in transit from India that had earlier passed through Kabul on their way west, and more directly as a direct link to Sind via the Bolan Pass and Quetta. Qandahar is the center of the Durrani (Abdali) Pashtun tribal confederation population, which extends from there to Herat. It borders the rival Ghilzai Pashtun tribal confederation, which had in an earlier era dominated Qandahar until it was displaced north toward Ghazni and Gardez. Qandahar’s Pashtun identity became politically significant after Ahmad Shah Durrani established a Durrani Pashtun dynasty there in 1747—a dynasty that ruled Afghanistan until 1978. Although the capital was moved to Kabul at his death, Qandahar remained the most important of its principalities. It is the only one of the country’s four largest cities where Pashtuns constituted the majority of the urban population and Pashto is the dominant language.

Balkh and the North

Balkh, the “mother of cities” as the Arabs called it, is one of the oldest urban centers in the world. The capital of ancient Bactria, it was reputed to be the home of Zoroaster and the richest of all the provinces in the Persian Empire. Sitting on the northern plains at an altitude of 380 meters between the Hindu Kush and the Amu River, Balkh’s climate is semiarid with cool winters and hot summers. The many rivers that flow out of the mountains and onto the loess steppes provide abundant water for irrigation. In some areas water is plentiful enough to sustain the crops of rice, cotton, and melons (kharbuza). In addition, the loess foothills support extensive unirrigated agriculture (lalmi), which produces great harvests of wheat and barley when the rains fall. The surrounding steppes also support vast herds of sheep, and the region is still renowned for its fine breed of horses, which were exported south to India in earlier times.

Balkh was the dominant city on the northern plains for millennia, although the outlying districts of Maimana on the west and Kunduz (Qataghan) on the east were often administratively autonomous. Today Balkh is just an impressive set of ruins, having been displaced by nearby Mazar-i-sharif in the nineteenth century as the region’s major city. But Mazar still plays the same dominant role in the north as did Balkh, and as the site of Afghanistan’s major Islamic shrine, attracts a large number of pilgrims. (p.52) Balkh’s location north of the Hindu Kush put it outside the normal south Asian political sphere. It took a high degree of military and political power to control the northern plains from capitals based south of the Hindu Kush, so when that power weakened for any reason the north was the first region to be lost. By contrast, it was far easier to dominate the region from nearby Bukhara and Samarqand in central Asia—a connection that was later reinforced by the shared Turkish ethnicity among rulers there. Over the course of the past thousand years so many waves of Turkish-speaking nomads arrived in the region that it became known as Turkistan. Yet these immigrants (who became the Uzbeks and Turkmen of today) did not so much displace the older Persian population as merge with it. Persian remained the language of the cities and the valley populations, reinforced by Tajik and Hazara migrants from the mountains.

Kabul and the East

Eastern Afghanistan, with Kabul at its center, is the heart of the Afghan state. The eastern region encompasses the drainage basin for the Kabul River and its tributaries as well as the area around Gardez and Ghazni to the south. From ancient times, the area has been the strategic link to the passes through the Hindu Kush to its north and the passes to India to its east. It was the region’s location rather than its intrinsic wealth that made it a center of political power. Because of its higher altitude (Kabul at eighteen hundred meters, Ghazni at twenty-two hundred meters, and Gardez at twenty-three hundred meters), the east has cool summers and cold winters. One unusual aspect of the east has been the close connection and incorporation of the cities in the highlands with counterparts in the semitropical lowlands. This pattern is similar to that seen in the Andes of South America, where as part of a “vertical archipelago,” a single state exploited a variety of different ecological zones created by rapid altitude changes.29 The upland districts that are over fifteen hundred meters in elevation have cold winters, and agriculture there supports wheat, barley, grapes, and trees yielding fruits and nuts. The lower valleys like Laghman and Jalalabad that are under a thousand meters are warm throughout the year, and produce wet rice and citrus crops. The variation in climate is most visible during the winter, when oranges grown in Jalalabad flood the snowy streets of Kabul. (p.53) This vertical archipelago strategy is also seen in the characteristic use of dual capitals on a seasonal basis. The Afghan state first rotated its administrative capital between Kabul and Peshawar. When Peshawar was lost to the Sikhs in the early nineteenth century, Jalalabad (at 620 meters) became the winter capital. In this Afghans were following a well-established precedent. The ancient Kushans, for example, had major cities in both the highlands (Kapisa) and lowlands (Taxila), and the Mughal governor of the region moved annually to Kabul in the summer from Peshawar.

Eastern Afghanistan has historically had both the highest regional population densities in the country—four times that found in the south and twice that found in the northern plains—and the largest percentage of its country’s population—30 percent.30 Kabul also has closer connections with the higher mountain villages bordering the agricultural valleys than does Qandahar, Herat, or Balkh, since they lie so much closer. In modern times Kabul has been Afghanistan’s leading city, with two and a half to three times the population of any other city in the county. Kabul and the east are also the most ethnically diverse parts of the country because they sit on an ethnic fracture zone. The plains north of Kabul and the city itself are home territory to the Tajiks; the lands south and east are home to the Ghilzai Pashtuns. Hazaras inhabit many sections of the city in substantial numbers, since their mountain homeland lies directly to the west. Kabul also has minority populations such as the Qizilbash and Nuristanis. With its current population approaching four million, it remains the most important urban center in the country.

Peshawar and the NWFP

Peshawar is Janus-faced. Sitting at the eastern end of the Khyber Pass and west of the Indus River, travelers coming down from Kabul feel they have now truly entered south Asia. By contrast, travelers arriving in the opposite direction from Lahore or Delhi believe they have entered the first frontier city of central Asia. Closely connected to Kabul as its historic winter capital for many centuries, the city fell from Afghan control when it was lost to the Sikhs in 1834. It became part of the British raj when it defeated the Sikhs. Residents of Peshawar are mostly Pashtun, but those living in the city or on its surrounding fertile plains have always been subject (p.54) to regional governments. The more famous Pashtun tribes living in the mountain valleys above the Peshawar have never been answerable to these governments. They cross the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan without papers, openly carry guns, and refuse to recognize the Durand Line as a border. Many Afghans still believe that the region should have rightfully reverted to them when the British left, as Hong Kong reverted to China. This view, though perhaps not well grounded legally, has remained a long-standing irritant in terms of Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan. This predisposition was bolstered after many millions of Afghans sought refuge there during the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war. Although the city is never likely to return to Afghan control, the status of the tribes in the NWFP that were never incorporated under British direct rule and previously owed some allegiance to the amirs in Kabul remains an issue fraught with difficulty. The territory may have been severed from Afghanistan long ago, but Afghans still sense the pain of its absence. In light of my earlier caution not to project today’s national boundaries into the past, a land that has more Pashtuns than Afghanistan itself, and that has played such a large (and continuing) role in Afghan politics, deserves some recognition.

Turko-Persia: Fixing Afghanistan’s Place in the World

Afghanistan always seems to find itself included only as the tail end of any area studies map. Is it the southernmost part of central Asia, the westernmost part of south Asia, or the easternmost edge of the Middle East? Whatever the choice, it will be regretfully noted that the inclusion of Afghanistan is problematic. In fact, Afghanistan is an integral and central part of Turko-Persia both culturally and geographically.31 Geographically, Turko-Persia is that large area of highland Asia stretching east from Anatolia and the Zagros Mountains through the Iranian plateau to the Indian Plains. Its northern limits are the Caucasus in the west and the Eurasian steppe at the Syr Darya River in the east; its southern border runs through arid Baluchistan to the sea. It was the heartland of the ancient Persian Empire, and that foundation still shapes the region. While it is overwhelmingly Muslim today, its cultural ethos and continuities are far older. Indeed, (p.55) the easiest way to draw this region’s cultural boundaries is to include only those peoples who recognize and celebrate the pre-Islamic Nauruz holiday, which marks the beginning of the Persian New Year at the spring equinox, and exclude those (like the Arabs) who have never heard of this holiday. So strong is this Nauruz tradition that neither the Islamic revolution in Iran nor the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was ever able to enforce a ban on its celebration.

Linguistically Turko-Persia, as its name implies, is dominated by Persian and Turkish speakers, who are often intermixed and bilingual. It is a region in which culture, history, ways of living, languages, and political interactions have a strong commonality. This has been particularly noted by many travelers who have moved out of south Asia or the Arab world and found themselves in a new cultural landscape where the similarities are stronger than the differences. Coming up from India, Olaf Caroe declared:

Again and again, when moving in what may be called the Iranian world, I have been struck by the conviction that the influence of Persia over all these lands is a much deeper, older thing than anything which springs from Islam. … There is indeed a sense in which all the uplands in Asia from the Tigris to the Indus is one country. The spirit of Persia has breathed over it, bringing an awareness of one background, one culture, one way of expression, a unity of spirit felt as far away as Peshawar and Quetta. He who has caught that breath has won to the heart of a mystery, and he will not forget.32

One aspect that Caroe perhaps neglects is the profound impact made by the large-scale immigration of Turkish peoples into the region over the past thousand years and their establishment of powerful dynasties there. So close was the fusion that a proverb even arose declaring that “a hat without a head is like a Turk without a Tajik.”33 At the height of their political and military power in the sixteenth century, empires based on this tradition dominated the Muslim world: Ottomans in Turkey, the Safavids in Iran, the Uzbeks in central Asia, and the Mughals in India. Boundaries imposed by Western powers later severed Turko-Persia into a Russian-dominated central Asia, a British-dominated south Asia, and (after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire) a mindless grab bag labeled the Middle East. The last was really just a gloss for the Arab world—a prejudice (p.56) that relegated the Turks and Persians to the margins of the margins. This has begun to change with new political and economic relations between the ex-Soviet central Asian states, Iran, and Afghanistan, as well as subnational regions such as the NWFP, Baluchistan, and Kurdistan. Turko-Persia is back, and Afghanistan is a part of it.

Ibn Khaldun and Afghanistan

Regions and ethnic groups aside, there is a more profound binary division that is strongly marked in Afghanistan: the dichotomy between what the medieval Arab social historian ibn Khaldun labeled “desert civilization” and “sedentary civilization” in his Muqaddimah, or introduction, to a universal history that he began writing in 1375.34 Desert civilizations were those human communities based on subsistence agriculture or pastoralism that organized themselves along kinship lines under conditions of low population density. They were located in geographically marginal areas, which proved difficult for outsiders to dominate effectively or that did not repay the cost of doing so. The specific examples he cited included desert nomads (camel-raising Bedouins), steppe nomads (Turks), and mountain villagers (Kurds and Berbers). Sedentary civilizations were those human communities based on surplus agricultural production that sustained dense populations and created complex economies. They were located in broad river valleys and irrigated plains, which allowed for the emergence of nucleated villages and cities. Such communities were organized on the basis of residency, but were divided by class and occupational structures with a considerable division of labor. They were centers of learning and high culture as well as markets for regional trade and international commerce. In filling a blank map, the communities at the margins overspread the greatest geographic space, but the people concentrated in the limited areas of irrigated agriculture or in urban centers equaled or exceeded them in numbers. More significantly, the sedentary areas controlled the region’s productive capital and produced the bulk of its wealth.

The two systems were not sealed off from each other. On the contrary, they had intense interactions and close connections, particularly because of population movements. Ibn Khaldun contended that desert civilizations (p.57) must have predated sedentary ones because they were less complex socially and simpler economically—a supposition confirmed by modern archaeology. Once cities arose, however, there was a constant population flow from the marginal subsistence areas in the mountains, deserts, and steppes toward the cities and irrigated valleys. By contrast, city residents showed no desire to take up the harder and more austere life of the desert nomad or mountain villager. The push factor in this equation was demographic: the healthier periphery produced more people than its limited subsistence base could support. The pull factor was cultural and economic: city life has always been more appealing than that found in mountain villages or nomad camps. Cities and productive agricultural lands provided opportunities to indulge in normally unavailable luxuries for the rich and powerful, while the poor were attracted by the constant demand for new workers. In fact, this population flow was essential to the survival of premodern cities because their death rates exceeded their birthrates. Urban centers could not maintain a stable population (let alone grow) without a constant influx of migrants. Over time, this could lead to what amounted to a wholesale population replacement. The disappearance of the Sumerian as a living language in ancient Mesopotamia was a product of the constant influx of Akkadian speakers from the countryside. But the reverse also was true because of the cultural power of city life was so strong. Immigrants drawn from many disparate groups of people adopted the lingua franca of the cities that they moved to and lost their own native tongues over the course of a few generations.

Desert Civilization

Economic Structure

In a subsistence economy nearly everyone produces the same things, so there are no great differences in standards of living or much internal trade. In desert civilization, therefore, the chief might eat and drink more than an ordinary person, but it is the same food and drink. Wealth is measured in terms of property (land and livestock particularly) rather than money. This was underscored for me by a nomad trader who showed me the goods that he had brought into the mountains to trade with Tajik villagers. I (p.58) commented that his could not be much of a business because these villagers had no money. He rebuked me, saying, “Just because people have no money does not mean they are poor. Here they have livestock.” He explained that villagers had goats with so little local value that they were eager to barter them for his imported goods. As an example, the trader showed me a box containing a half-dozen unbreakable tea glasses he had purchased for one hundred afghanis in a city bazaar that he would barter for a goat valued in the village at five hundred afghanis. I apologized and told the trader that this was indeed a good return, but he only laughed and remarked that I had missed the real profit in his trade. When his own flocks returned to the lowlands, each Tajik goat would then be worth fifteen hundred afghanis in the local bazaar, meaning that his initial hundred afghani investment would yield a fourteen hundred afghani profit per animal.

In the absence of a money economy, people support themselves at a basic level. When surplus comes their way they invest in relationships. Hospitality, communal feasts, gift giving, and other forms of redistribution raise the status of the givers, and it is this social esteem or fame that is more cherished than money. Leaders gain and retain power through their ability to give to the group in some fashion. Bedouin poetry in particular praises the sheikh who is so lavish with his hospitality that he keeps nothing for himself. But such a subsistence economic base provides little basis for class differentiation, economic specialization, or capital accumulation. If societies rooted in subsistence economies often seem timeless and unchanging, it is because their replication remains trapped within such narrow limits.

Social and Political Structures

Desert civilizations had specific social attributes. The most important of these was their strong group solidarity based on kinship and descent. This generated ‘asabiya, or group feeling, which bound all members of a social group together when facing the outside world. In such a system, the group interest trumps individual interest to such an extent that loyalty to the group supersedes everything else. Positive acts by any member of the group redounded to the group’s benefit; any shame likewise tarnished the reputation (p.59) of the group as a whole. More significantly, attacks or slights against an individual were met with a collective response. Take crime as an example. One did not seek justice through government institutions (which often did not exist) but by mobilizing the kin group to seek retribution or compensation. If one man murdered another, the murdered man’s kin were collectively obligated to seek blood revenge. Similarly the murderer’s kin were collectively responsible for his act (and might even be targets in revenge killings), even though they had no direct role in it. If compensation were agreed on to end the threat of revenge, the whole group was liable for its payment. Not only did overt acts such as assault, murder, or theft demand a collective response, so did threats to a group’s honor and reputation. In Afghanistan, it is the Pashtuns who are the best example of this system through the Pashtunwali, a code of principles thoroughly rooted in the primacy of maintaining honor and reputation. The military advantage of this solidarity was particularly evident in times of conflict. When such groups entered into battle, they were renowned as fierce fighters because individuals would rather die than shame themselves in front of their kin by running away. Life would not be worth living afterward if they did. Of course, the group itself could decide to run away (and usually did) if the odds turned against them, but they retreated together. That was only good tactics, and there was no honor to be lost in deciding to fight another day when victory was more certain.

This strong group solidarity was undermined by a number of structural political weaknesses, however. The first was that these descent or locality groups were necessarily of small size. Second, because such groups had a strong cultural predisposition toward equality, it was difficult for a leader to consolidate power. In such a system every man and every group could at least imagine the possibility of becoming dominant, and resented being placed in a subordinate position. Anyone in a leadership position was therefore plagued by jealous rivals who would be happy to replace him or at least throw obstacles in his way if they could not. This pattern was so ubiquitous among close relatives in Afghanistan that it acquired a specific term in Pashto: tarburwali (the rivalry of agnatic cousins). Third, even if a man succeeded in surmounting this rivalry, the position of leader itself was structurally weak. It lacked the right of command and so depended on the ability to persuade others to follow. It was thus tough being a chief of a (p.60) people whom you had to cajole into action and where criticism by rivals was constant. For this reason, ibn Khaldun noted, religious leaders were often more successful than tribal ones in uniting large groups. Coming from outside the system and calling on God’s authority, they could better circumvent tribal rivalries.35

Sedentary Civilization


Sedentary civilization has luxury as its defining characteristic. This luxury is the product of a complex division of labor where money trumps kinship. In cities, everything one needs or wants is obtained with money, and so kinship ties atrophy. Five hundred years later and half a world away from ibn Khaldun’s medieval Islamic cities, Adam Smith made the same point more broadly, observing

that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.36

Cities also supported a wide range of locally produced and imported foods, goods, and services that ranged from the utilitarian to the extravagant. Many of these products were vital to the survival of even distant rural communities. These communities’ need for goods that they could not produce for themselves forced subsistence mountain villagers and nomads into dependency relations with urban markets. As ibn Khaldun explained, “While (the Bedouins) need the cities for their necessities of life, the urban population needs (the Bedouins) [only] for conveniences and luxuries. … They must be active on the behalf of their interests and obey them whenever (the cities) ask and demand obedience from them.”37

(p.61) I experienced an example of this at firsthand with the salt trade in the mountainous province of Badakhshan in the 1970s. Although I had thought the summer nomad encampments were self-sufficient, in fact they continually sent donkey and horse caravans to the distant provincial capital of Faizabad to buy salt because it was a necessary dietary supplement for their grazing sheep. Since the local mountain villagers had cows and goats, they also made the same buying trip for salt as did the nomads, but purchased cloth, metal tools, sugar, and tea as well. Villagers were therefore keen to sell surplus wheat to the visiting nomads for the cash they would need for these purchases. It was clear that geographic isolation did not imply economic isolation.

The division of labor and surplus production also supported centers of learning and artistic production. While one might find Sufimystics in remote regions, centers of orthodox Islamic education were always urban based. These centers were financed through government patronage, but also by private donations of money, irrigated land, and urban property to pious foundations, the revenue from which supported shrines and schools along with the members of the clergy that ran them.38 These institutions served as bastions of power for orthodox religious sects. Heterodox sects, by contrast, tended to thrive in the marginal areas beyond the control of status quo institutions. It is no accident that the core Shia and Ismaili populations in Sunni-dominated Afghanistan are found in its most remote mountain regions, or that older pagan groups survived here until a century ago. Indeed, one scholar has suggested that this is a reoccurring pattern: whatever tradition the center holds as orthodox, the mountainous margins will set themselves off against it.39 When Bamiyan was Buddhist, monks in the valley undoubtedly complained about the unholy heresies being expounded in the highlands around them.

Social and Political Structures

Two defining social characteristics of sedentary civilization are identification by residence (not kinship) and hierarchical divisions based on class. It is a world of strangers who are economically dependent on one another in all aspects of daily life, but have no reason to interact socially. People may boast of having a particularly prestigious bloodline, yet such descent groups cannot survive intact in a world where the individual interests (p.62) supersede group interests. More important, social rank had less to do with ancestors than the control of wealth. Signs of class inequality are ever present in dress, food, and housing. In fact, in this setting we are no longer dealing with undifferentiated commonalities ranked on a scale of more versus less. Here we experience differences in kind so large that no single generality can encompass them. We stop talking about food and explore the realm of cuisine in which members of different classes have different diets. Similarly, social status can be distinguished immediately by dress, some types of which may be legally mandated or prohibited to make their distinctions binding. Women in sedentary civilization are much more commonly veiled and secluded than their sisters in the countryside because they do no work outside the household.

The political strengths of sedentary civilization lay in its centralization, higher degree of wealth, and larger size. Political leaders had “royal authority,” as Ibn Khaldun put it: the ability to issue commands with the expectation that they would be obeyed.40 Unlike desert chieftains, rulers here were not consensus builders or redistributors of wealth but rather acquisitive autocrats. They secured their power by accumulating wealth for themselves and the state on a grand scale, through various forms of taxation, control of trade or markets, and the large-scale ownership of productive land. Such wealth was necessary because it undergirded centralized authority. It paid for a government bureaucracy composed of appointed subordinates who carried out the ruler’s commands with a police force behind them. Punishment awaited those who refused to pay taxes or had the temerity to ignore a decree. Perhaps most crucially, the revenue paid for an army that protected the state from invasion from without and against rebellion from within. Such military forces in the medieval Islamic world consisted of paid mercenaries or slave soldiers. While ibn Khaldun takes this as a given, it is a significant departure from Western history. Although mercenary forces were never absent, the ancient Greek polis (city-state), Alexander the Great, or the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire all recruited soldiers from their own people, and frequently made military service an obligation of citizenship (or a way to obtain it). Even in feudal Europe, the nobility justified its dominance of society based on their obligation to provide military service as mounted knights, and they were expected to fight in battle themselves. In the Islamic world, such mass participation in warfare (p.63) was characteristic only of desert civilization. Warfare by states was in the hands of military professionals, who were the often unruly but paid servants of the state, not the ordinary inhabitants of any class.

This very complexity, hierarchy, and wealth created political weaknesses as well as strengths. Urban and peasant populations were not as tough as the people from the margins, physically or mentally. A structure of centralized political authority where officials could easily abuse their authority and accumulate personal wealth tended to spawn corruption. This weakened the state by siphoning off its revenue and alienating the population. But perhaps most significantly these populations were uninvolved with government. As its passive inhabitants it mattered little to them who the ruler was, and hence concepts of patriotism, citizenship, or indeed any sense of political obligation to the state was almost entirely absent. This usually proved a fatal weakness because the wealth of cities served as magnets for attacks by poor but militarily powerful desert civilization peoples, particularly the camel-riding Bedouins and the horse-riding Turkish nomads. Ibn Khaldun remarked that most of the ruling dynasties in the medieval Islamic world had their origins within such groups, which formerly lived at the margins of powerful regional states and empires. Taking advantage of periodic military weakness and economic decline within sedentary states, they made themselves masters of societies far more complex than those in which they were born. In the process, peoples from the margins regularly established themselves as the ruling elite in those regions that they conquered and then settled.

Beyond Ethnicity and Region

The division of marginal areas in Afghanistan into mountain, steppe, and desert zones creates a pattern similar to that seen in north Africa or the Arab Near East, but the order of their importance is different. In this region, it was the Turko-Mongolian horse-riding nomads from the north who played the dominant political role historically—one that they did not lose until the rise of the Pashtuns in the mid-eighteenth century. Mountain peoples also played a larger role than elsewhere in the Islamic world. These include the Aimaqs in the Paropamisus, the Hazaras in the center of (p.64) the country, the Tajiks in the northeastern mountains, the Pashtuns in the mountainous regions straddling the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the small yet culturally distinctive linguistic groups in Nuristan and the Pamirs. By contrast, Afghanistan’s indigenous nomads played an insignificant role, and unlike Arab Bedouins, they did not form exclusive tribal or ethnic groups. In particular, the Pashtun nomads in the south and east shared common descent groups with other Pashtuns who were sedentary, as did the much smaller number of Baluch in the deserts of the south.

Even now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ibn Khaldun’s model can be applied directly and fruitfully to Afghanistan. Although not untouched by the economic and social changes that have fundamentally transformed or even eliminated desert civilization communities in other parts of the Near East, north Africa, or central Asia, Afghanistan remains a place that ibn Khaldun would easily recognize. Its rural economy remains largely subsistence based, and its road and communication infrastructure only minimally developed. Once leaving the few main highways, especially in the mountainous areas, you quickly encounter a world in which people move only on horseback, on foot, or by riding donkeys. They measure travel time in days, not hours. Wherever your destination, these people will cheerfully tell you that the place is dur nist (“not far”) so as not to disappoint you, even though it will still take all day or more to get there. These are people whose goal in agriculture is to feed themselves and their families, not to produce crops for the market. Although hospitable, they draw the boundaries of community tightly and distrust strangers. Differences in wealth, rank, and status are minimal when compared to those on the plains or in the cities. Most important, these communities are still beyond the direct control of a weak Afghan central government in Kabul. What power that state had gained in the century prior to the Communist coup of 1978 was then lost in the quarter century of war that followed.

Ibn Khaldun would also be familiar with the cultural tensions between the people of the plains and cities and those who inhabited the country’s mountains, deserts, and steppes. To city people, those in the hinterlands are more barbarian than civilized. Who (except perhaps an anthropologist like myself) would live with such people voluntarily? As a foreigner, I was often more comfortable dealing with nomads and villagers than some of (p.65) my urban Afghan acquaintances. I at least respected their culture, which most city people (particularly educated ones) either held in contempt or feared. In return, people in the hinterlands viewed city dwellers as weak willed and corrupt. And people in the countryside had little good to say about the political elite in the capital, regardless of their ethnic origin. Yet one of the most interesting things about this divide, unlike so many others in Afghanistan, was that it could be crossed by individuals. People migrating to the cities who may have been steeped in rural values found these traditions impossible to maintain in an urban setting. Or perhaps it would be safer to say that their children found it impossible to do so.

In light of this, the traditional stress on ethnicity and region as the most significant divisions in Afghanistan needs some nuance. Important though they are, these values assume a commonality that is deceptive and even false. Members of different ethnic groups living together in cities or irrigated valleys often have more in common with each other than they do with coethnics who reside in completely different economic and social worlds. The urbanized Pashtun in Qandahar or a Tajik in Kabul experiences a political, occupational, and cultural milieu far removed from their fellow Pashtuns or Tajiks inhabiting remote mountainous Uruzghan or Badakhshan. In cities, money is more important than kinship, the circles of acquaintanceship are larger, and the levels of education are higher. On first sight, the harsh restrictions that the Taliban imposed on daily life in Kabul (no music, no games or kite flying, and required beards and prayers) appear rooted solely in their severe vision of Islam. But beneath the surface lay an older and deeper conflict that ibn Khaldun would have understood. The Taliban’s hatred of the residents of Kabul, and the Kabul people’s contempt and fear of the Taliban, had less to do with Islam than it did with the long-standing clash of values between luxury-loving urbanites and the puritanical rural villagers who had come to wield power over them. As ibn Khaldun also observed, though, if these mountain puritans saw themselves as closer to being good in a moral sense than were city people, it was only because their rural life offered far fewer opportunities for corruption. And having power and wealth in an urban setting could always be counted on to change that equation over time.


(*) The choice of this figure is instructive. In the early 1970s the Afghan government had claimed a population of twenty million—a figure that the United Nations used to calculate per capita poverty and aid. When a census found that there were only twelve million people in the country, the United Nations threatened to reduce its aid drastically. A typically Afghan solution was found by splitting the difference: each side gave four million to come to a compromise figure of sixteen million—a number invariably cited for the next twenty years.

(8.) Despite their importance, there has never been a published ethnography on any of the many Tajik communities in Afghanistan.

(13.) Janata 1975.

(*) The bane of historians are those local accounts that excitingly proclaim “the famine was so severe that a seer of wheat cost fifty kaldars!” but never report the ordinary price of wheat. These accounts simply assume that everyone already knows this, along with how much a seer weighs and a kaldar is worth.

(*) Such a pervasive role for religion was also characteristic of Christianity in medieval Europe, where questions of salvation took precedence over more material concerns. Since the rise of the modern West was characterized by the retreat of religion as the dominant influence in society, it now takes a leap of imagination to appreciate a society in which religion still plays that culturally dominating role.

(35.) Ibid., 125, 155.

(38.) For an excellent study of such an institution in Afghanistan, see McChesney 1991.