Dialogue  July-September  2009, Volume 11 No.1


The Socio –Cultural Issues in Afghan Nation-Building


Arpita Basu Roy


Nation-building today is more often the practice of assisting countries overcome conflict and build effective and legitimate political institutions.1 The United Nations has had a significant role in virtually all of the post-Cold War attempts at nation-building, from Cambodia to El Salvador to Bosnia- with supporting roles by other international and regional organizations, states, and nongovernmental organizations2. The UN’s attempts to reconstruct violence-ridden societies as enunciated by Boutros Boutros Ghali3, provides the definitions and strategies for what the UN terms as “peace-building”. In societies like in contemporary Afghanistan, ‘peace-building’ involves a complex process of negotiations, new challenges and opportunities for social transformation. Peace-building comprises of various functions and roles and often necessitates a wide range of sequential activities, proceeding from cease-fire and refugee resettlement to the establishment of a new government and economic reconstruction

     It is necessary that the process of nation-building, democratisation and institution building have to be explored and understood through the lens of the societal cleavages that exist in Afghan society. It also has to take into account the viability of imposing a central form of government in an essentially ‘tribal’ and ‘decentralized’ society and polity. One must understand the structural constraints and historical heritage inhibiting Afghan nation-building. Some argue that it would be surprising if a strong state did emerge as the country is fragmented along ethnic, religious and ideological lines and geographical/topographical constraints. This article is an attempt to look into the complexities, nuances and inter-relation of all these challenges. The attempt is to discuss all these socio-cultural challenges to nation-building under specific but overlapping categories.


The National Idea / The Idea of a Nation

    The national and patriotic idea has remained weak and underdeveloped in Afghanistan, lacking appeal or influence except in a small and unrepresentative educated urban, literate class; whose members are often in important respects culturally cut off from the mass of rural or tribal population. Afghanistan’s rural population lived for most part in remote rural areas and had usually had restricted horizons and limited political consciousness. Afghanistan has never been a nation in the sense of a common people with a shared destiny, but rather a collection of disparate groups joined together by the vagaries of geopolitics. It has been recounted in several scholarly works, how Afghanistan emerged as a state built around the Pashtun tribal structure.4 The Saddozai Popolzai clans of the Durrani tribes formed a great Pushtun confederation and carved out an empire between India and Persia in the mid-eighteenth century. They were followed by the Mohammadzai Barakzai clans, also belonging to the Durrani tribes, in 1818, but it lacked internal cohesion.5

     Antony Hyman argues that, nationalism could not exert its peculiar ideological appeal until the majority of Afghanistan’s population were integrated into the collective life of the society.6 Although modernization of Afghan society had made considerable progress from the 1950s, its impact was restricted almost entirely to the educated elite of Kabul.  Even this small educated class was itself deeply divided along ethnic lines, between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, bitterly resenting the virtual monopoly of power and pretensions of the Pashtun elite. In Kabul and the few other large towns, the elite and urban middle class were subject to a process of Persianization of speech and culture7.

      Despite gaps in the relatively liberal city and the conservative-minded country-side, the political system of Afghanistan has been dominated by a tribal aristocracy. The place of the Mohammadzai family as emirs and later kings of Afghanistan was crucial to the development of nationalism as the monarch was often regarded as a key factor in imbibing national feelings.  For example, Zahir Shah (from 1933 until 1973), was successful in unifying the millions of urban educated as well as rural poor and demonstrated the intimate linkage among “modernization, nationalism and the institutions of the monarchy.”8 There is an inherent sense of the essence of their common culture based on religion and other cultural practices, which has sustained Afghanistan through years of conflict and displacement. A glance at Afghan history affirms an oft-repeated pattern of alternating periods of fission and fusion. Afghans may quarrel happily among themselves, but they stand together and assert their pride in being Afghan when outsiders threaten them. A sense of national identity does exist, elements of divisiveness notwithstanding9. These resilient communities, are strong and quick to recover from any crisis with the ability to withstand hardships, and this is definitely of enormous value in the country’s post–war reconstruction.


Kinship, Qawm, Tribe and Gender Roles

      Being a patrilineal society, Afghans generally identify themselves as part of an extended patrilineal family where the sons inherit the property of the father and continue to work on it in common. Such large undivided families represent the ideal of most cultural groups, although in fact the nuclear family is the most typical of modern societies. Since property in such society is held and inherited only by agnatic kin, clusters of such agnatic kin form close alliances to defend or expand the patrimony but also risk splitting over antagonistic factions over its management or division. Affinal kinship relations are, on the other hand, important mechanisms for mobilizing alies. But in societies where polygamy is practiced, it can create tremendous complexities. Ideal form of marriage includes arrangements where agnatic cousins marry their children to each other or exchange sisters whereby bride wealth remains within the lineage and also strengthens relations between the families.10

      The traditional gender roles have developed within the structure of marriage and family. The most important duty of a man is to support and protect his family. His honour requires him to defend and control those elements collectively known as namus: zan, zar, zamin (woman, gold and land). Zamin includes both land owned by the family and the homeland of a broader kinship group - tribe or lineage. Men thus see women as the repository of their honour. Any sign of sexual misconduct is seen as a threat to the honour and strength of the family and the punishment may range from ostracism to death. The social customs through which male control is expressed are pardah and chadri. Some women especially in the Islamic movement, contest the reading of these customs as signs of male domination and reinterpret them as signs of female self-determination within Islam11. There is also a division of labour where women’s work apart from food-processing, child rearing, cooking and other household activity range from carpet weaving to felt making or for some agricultural family revolves around working in the fields.

     The family in Afghanistan shades off into larger groupings based on kinship and other components of identity based on kinship and it is common to describe this phenomenon by calling Afghanistan a tribal society. In rural areas (atraf) the district administration interact with the population indirectly, through officially appointed representatives (called malik or arbab) of units called qawm. Qawm is sometimes translated as tribe, but in reality refers to any form of solidarity or asabiyya. Qawm identity might be based on kinship, residence or occupation. Afghans are conscious of belonging to a larger entity which takes the form of more or less endogenous community or solidarity group (the qawm), whether its sociological base is either the tribe, clan, professional group (qawm of the mullah or barbers), caste (bari or Nuristani), religious group (Sayyad), ethnic group (Munjani), village community or simply an extended family.12 While the state claims authority over society within a territory, a tribe claims jurisdiction over a set of persons bound by kinship relations.13


Social Cleavages

   Afghanistan was always divided into distinctive communal, ethnolinguistic, and religious groups. Moreover, these groups possessed a social system that emphasized loyalty to the local social group (qawm) rather than a higher-order abstraction like the state. The geographical barrier set by the Hindu Kush Mountains created a barrier between Kabul and the rural areas and retarded the development of centralized political institutions, which could only expand in power at the expense of local loyalities.14


The Language Factor

      The several ethnic groups of Afghanistan (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Baluchis, Pashais, Nuristanis, Aymaqs Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujurs, Brahwuis and even Arabs) speak different languages. Besides Pashto (used by the Pashtuns) and Dari (Afghan Persian) which are official languages, Uzbeki, Turkmen, Pashai, Nuristani and Pamiri (alsana) are also spoken by the corresponding ethnic groups.

    The 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan, introduced with the “New Democracy”, named two official languages, Pashto and Dari, the name given to Afghan Farsi or Persian.15. However Dari remained the lingua franca of the country as a whole. Language was to remain a deeply contentious and divisive issue. An official drive to make Pashto more viable as a national language by creating one standard language instead of numerous regional dialects led to the creation in 1937 of a Pashto Academy known as the Pashto Tolaney.16But the state-led drive failed to make Pashto, in any real sense, a competitor to Persian. Another reason for Pashto failing to rise upto the standards of Dari lay in the fact that not only was it difficult to learn compared to the simplicity of Persian (Dari) grammer, but also general animosity felt against the Pashtun political dominance and a clear sense of cultural superiority expressed by members of the Tajik, Turkic and other non-Pashtun groups. Repeated attempt by the state to foster the growth and spread of Pashto, however abjectly failed.17

     In the draft Constitution of 2004, only Pashto and Dari were recognised as official languages of the State. The final version made concessions to other languages as well by adding: “The Turkic languages (Uzbeki and Turkmen), Baluchi, Pashai, Nuristani and Pamiri (alsana) are official language in areas where the majority speaks them. Thus, Article 16 provides for a three-language formula wherever necessary. In the draft Constitution, the national anthem was to be in Pashto. However, in the final version, names of all ethnic groups have also been added to the national anthem besides ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Article 20).18


Major Ethnic Groups

     Afghanistan has often been described as a tribal confederation, comprising of multi-racial groups and nationalities. The dominant group, both in economic and numerical terms, is the Pashtuns. Concentrated in the South and the South–east but settled in most regions, the Pashtuns constitute around 38 percent of the total Afghan population. The Tajiks, the second largest nationality, is estimated to constitute 25 percent of the total population and is concentrated around Kabul, the Panjsher Valley and the Badakhshan province. Apart from these two nationalities there are a large number of smaller groups such as the Hazaras (19 percent), Uzbeks (6 percent), other minor ethnic groups like Aimaqs, Farsiwans, Heratis, Turkmens, Brahuis, Baluchs and Nuristanis (around 12 percent)19. Among the tribally organized communities are the Pahtuns, Hazaras, Aimaqs, Nuristanis and the Baluchs. The non-tribal communities include the mountain Tajiks, Uzbeks,Turkmens, Farsiwans and Kohistanis. All these groups maintain their own distinctive culture and sense of identity20.


Islam and other religious identities

     The Islam in Afghanistan is part of an entire civilization and the source of universal values and ethics that give life a transcendent meaning.21Apart from tens of thousands of Hindus and Sikhs, and a small minority of Armenian Christians and Jews in the major cities, all other Afghans are Muslims. Muslims are roughly 99 percent of the total population and around 85 percent of the Muslims are Sunnis of the Hanafi School. Most of the rest, including the Hazaras, the Qizilbash and some Farsiwans, are Imami (twelver) Shi’a’ia, as are the Wakhis of the Wakhan Corridor.

      In any review of nationalism in Afghanistan, it is important to study the role of Islam in Afghan society as legitimizer of authority, and at times rebellion too – under successive rulers. Although from outside, Afghans, may appear as a remarkably homogeneous group, even if they did form a distinct social group, there is a basic divide between the Sunni Muslim majority following the Hanafi rite and substantial Shi’a Muslim minorities – mainly Imami Shi’a (Twelvers), but also Ismailis. The Sufi tariqas and their pirs (hereditary saints) have and retain today a wide following, and tribal custom is more important in many spheres of life than Shari’a law.22 Although Islam dominates, there are multiple interpretations in varying degrees that have merged with local traditions.

    In principle, the Shi’a faith is more unified and hierarchical than Sunnism. Religious dignitaries among the Shi’s enjoy extremely high prestige and influence because they either claimed descent from the Prophet (Saddad) and/ or because of their reputation for learning or pilgrimage to holy shrines like Mashhad, Nejaf and Kerbala. The social and political significance of the Sadad in Imami Hazara society was so great that Kopecky (1982) goes as far as to say that it is not the Hazaras who integrate the Sadad population but rather the Sadad who manage to unite continually contending the divisive kin groups and tribes of the Hazaras, and other Imami groups, into a political unit. 23

     Islam has served at times as a unifying force against foreign, non-Muslim invaders, but it has never been cohesive enough to unite all the Pashtuns and other ethnicities of Afghanistan. Some scholars regard Pan-Islamism as an attractive ideology, stronger at times with anti-colonialist fervour. The contemporary phenomenon of “political Islam” in Afghanistan arguably has a basis in the traditional role of Sufism and the influence in society of the most prominent pirs (“saints”), together with the constant allure for the Afghans of the concept of jihad and martyrdom. Afghanistan’s contemporary Islamic movement has cohered around a new Islamic paradigm focusing on the concept of the state and legitimacy of power.24


Regional differences

    Regional differences and regional identities often create deep cleavages manifest in the social attitudes and national politics. In Afghanistan, Pashtuns traditionally have resided in a large semicircular area following the Afghan border from north of the Darya ye Morgab east and southward to just north of 35° latitude. Enclaves of Pashtuns live scattered among other ethnic groups in much of the rest of the country, particularly in the northern regions and in the western interior owing to Amir Abdur Rahman’s policy of Pashtun resettlement.25

    The Tajiks are also numerous. A problem in discussing this ethnic group lies in the tendency of some non-Tajik groups to classify anyone who speaks Dari as a member of this group. Some also categorize any urbanite who has become “detribalized” as Tajik. This is particularly true for Kabulis. Tajiks generally live in the west in the area around Herat, in the northwest interior, and (primarily) in the northeast of the country, although not in the Wakhan Corridor. Tajiks speak Dari and Tajik dialects of Dari. Some Tajiks are Sunni, while others (particularly those in the north of the country) are Ismaili.

    Farsiwans (or Persians) are also Dari speaking. They live in western Afghanistan near the Iranian border. Farsiwans, like the majority of Iranians, are Twelver Shi’a. Qizilbash are remnants of the old Iranian presence. They are Twelver Shi’a and some use taqfyya to pass as Sunni. They are a very small group found in Afghan urban centres but are, of course, Dari speakers.

      Hazaras speak a dialect of Dari and live primarily in central Afghanistan. Among Hazaras are members of every Muslim religious sect in the country: Ismaili, Twelver Shi’a, and Sunni. Altaic languages are also represented in the country by speakers of Turkic languages. The Uzbeks are Sunni who speak Uzbek, a Turkic dialect. Turkic languages are not in the same family as Indo-European languages (such as Dari and Pashtu). Uzbeks live in a large semicircular area roughly following Afghanistan’s northern borders, from Faryab Province almost to Feyzabad. Turkmen are another Sunni Turkic speaking group found scattered throughout the northernmost portion of Afghanistan along the Soviet border.

      The Kirghiz are also Turkic speaking and, until recently, lived in the Pamir mountains of the Wakhan Corridor. The Kirghiz lived in the high mountain valleys of this region, while another ethnic group, the Wakhi, occupied lowland areas. The Kirghiz are Sunnis. The neighboring Wakhi, or Mountain Tajik, are speakers of Iranian dialects. They are often Ismaili but, according to Dupree, some Wakhi Twelver Shi’as and Sunnis also exist.26 They generally live in the same regions as the Kirghiz but at lower altitudes.

     Nuristanis are Sunni who speak dialects of Dari and often also Pashtu. They live in the Konarha, Nangarhar, Laghman, and Parvan areas of eastern Afghanistan. Nuristan, the area where the Nuristanis live, was the scene of the first armed opposition to the Khalq government. Arabs are a Sunni group living in northeastern Afghanistan, primarily “in an arc extending from Maimana to Kunduz.” Here they speak a dialect of Farsi that is mixed with Uzbek vocabulary. Some scholars report that Arabic speaking Arab communities exist in the area of Balkh.27

      The civil war in Afghanistan (1992-1996) after the Soviet withdrawal led to the different regions drifting apart. The neighbouring states supported their respective warlords, politically, militarily and financially. The warlords, in turn, developed closer connections with these states than other parts of Afghanistan. This also had economic consequences as Barnett Rubin has shown that the different regions of Afghanistan were tied into the economic systems of the neighbouring states, while internal trade almost came to a standstill. 28



   Both scholarly and policy approaches to contemporary civil conflict have been dominated by the part played by identity issues. Another concern has been with the alleged erosion of moral and civic virtues by what is seen as an upsurge of irrational, criminal behaviour, if not of entire communities, then of social substrata who have taken control of them. Societal cleavages between competing ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional and economic groups frequently cause or exacerbate fragmentation, undercutting the concept of the nation and thereby posing a huge challenge to reconstruction and other aspects of peace-building. Therefore there are certain hard-to-solve dilemmas in Afghan nation-buiding process. At best the peace-building process underway can address issues like ethnic hatreds by promoting rule of law and criminal justice, and building institutions to substitute local rule with guided good governance.




1. Michael Barnett, “Nation Building ’s New Face,” International Organization, Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring 2002, p.98.

2. Ibid. p.98.

3. The former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali clearly provided the vision and direction for peace buiding in his 1992 document, An Agenda for Peace, prepared at the request of the Security Council.

4. Ashraf Ghani, “Islam and State-building in Afghanistan,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1978, pp.269-284, and Olivier Roy, Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War, Darwin Press, Princeton, 1995.

5.  Larry Goodson, “The Fragmentation of Culture in Afghanistan,” Alif: Journal of Comparitive Poetics, No. 18, Post-Colonial Discourse in South Asia, 1998, p.271.

6. Antony Hyman, “Nationalism in Afghanistan,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2, Special Issue: Nationalism and the colonial legacy in the Midddle East and Central Asia, May 2002, pp.299-315.

7. Frederick Barth (ed.), Pathan Identity and its Maintenance in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, Little, Brown, Boston, 1969.

8. Anthony Hyman, “Nationalism in Afghanistan,” Op. Cit., p.300.

9. Nancy Hatch Dupree, “Cultural Heritage and National Identity in Afghanistan,” Third World Quarterly, Vol.23, No 5, October 2002, pp.977-989.

10. Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, pp.23-24.

11. Ibid., p.24.

12. Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986, p.12.

13. Rob Hager, ‘state, tribe and empire in Afghan inter-polity relations” in Richard Tapper (ed.), The conflict of tribe and state in Iran and Afghanistan, Croom Helm, St. Martin’s Press, London and Canberra, 1983.

14. Larry Goodson, Op. Cit., pp.269-289.

15. The name “Dari” has been adopted and insisted on as a correct term essentially to differentiate the Afghan form of Persian from that of Iran.

16. Anthony Hyman, “Nationalism in Afghanistan,” Op. Cit., p.300.

17. Ibid., p.301.

18. The Constitution of Afghanistan, 3 January 2004.

19. Anthony Hyman, Afghanistan under Soviet Domination, 1964-83, Macmillan, London, 1984.

20. Arpita Basu Roy, Afghanistan, Towards a Viable State, Hope India and Greewich Millenium, Delhi and London, 2002, p.13.

21. Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, Op. Cit., pp.38-39.

22. Anthony Hyman, “Nationalism in Afghanistan,” Op. Cit., p.311.

23. Asta Olesen, Islam and Politics in Afghanistan, Curzon, Richmond, Surrey, 1995, pp.53-54.

24. Ibid., pp.227-255.

25. M. Nazif Shahrani, “The future of the state and the structure of community governance in Afghanistan,” in William Maley (ed.), Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taleban, Hurst and Company, London, 1998. Especially for his view on how strong dynastic states were built by destroying self-governing communities.

26. Louis Dupree, Afghanistan, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1980. (First edition 1973)

27. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/afghanistan/intro.htm.

28. Conrad Schetter, “The Bazaar Economy of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Approach,” in Christine Noelle Karimi, Conard Schetter, Reinhard Schlagintweit (eds.), Afghanistan: A Country Without a State, Vanguard, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad 2002, pp.129-30.


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati