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Pashtun Traditions versus Western Perceptions

Leo Karrer

1. The Pashtun Element in Afghan Society

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1.1. Ethnic composition of Afghanistan

1Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country with an estimated population of about 30 million (World Fact Book, 2012). Current numbers suggest that roughly 42 per cent of Afghans consider themselves Pashtun, whereas the rest of the population is constituted of Tajik Sunni Persian-speakers (27 per cent), the Shiite Hazara (also Persian-speakers, but of another, presumably Mongol ethnicity, at 9 per cent), Uzbeks (9 per cent), as well as Turkmens, Nuristanis, Baluch and others. Pashtuns live in the South and East of Afghanistan, where they occupy the Afghan part of the ‘Pashtun belt’, where the two most important Pashtun cities, Kandahar and Jalalabad, are located. The Persian-speaking ethnic groups, as well as the Turkic minorities, live in the central and northern parts of the country. Though Kabul is traditionally a Persian-speaking city, it is now populated by members of all ethnic groups.

1.2. The Pashtun ethnic group

  • 1  The only exception was Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik usurper, whose short reign lasted for most of (...)

2It is important to emphasise the importance of Pashtun culture in Afghan society, even if ‘modern’ Afghanistan is keen to demonstrate (both to itself and the outside world) its multi-ethnic self-image. Pashtuns have traditionally dominated Afghanistan, so the extent that the term ‘Afghan’ was originally used as a synonym of ‘Pashtun’. Afghan emirs (referred to as ‘kings’ or ‘shahs’ since 1926) have all been members of the (Pashtun) Durrani ‘tribe’, whose geographical heartland surrounds the city of Kandahar.1 This Pashtun element is essential to understanding Afghanistan’s history, including the last fifteen years period, dominated by the rise, fall and steady resilience of the Taliban movement. The latter is, of course, perceived as an extremist movement belonging to the totalitarian end of the spectrum of political Islam, but reducing the Taliban simply to its religious driving forces would be shortsighted. Indeed, Pashtun nationalism is a key element of the Taliban movement (Sinno, 2008). Though this fact is well known, it is comparatively unacknowledged by global media coverage, whose main focus is factors that overlap with Al-Qaida, such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘backwardness’, thus amalgamating the two in the common perception.

3The Pashto language belongs to the Eastern subgroup of the Iranian subfamily of the Indo-European language family. It is believed to be the mother tongue of approximately 50 million people (Ethnologue, 2009). Although precise censuses are not available – and in spite of both the numerous native Pashto speakers whose ancestry is largely multi-ethnic (inter-ethnic marriage is frequent in the region) and non-Pashto speakers claiming Pashtun heritage – this number is likely to be a reasonable approximation of the size of the Pashtun ethnic group. Roughly two-thirds of Pashtuns live in Pakistan (known as ‘Pukhtuns’ or ‘Pathans’), where they constitute an important minority (15-20 per cent). One-third of Pashtuns live in Afghanistan, where they often claim to constitute the national majority, although data suggests that though they are the strongest group, they do not make up 50 per cent of the population. The remaining Pashtuns are dispersed in a wide diaspora, with communities in the United Arab Emirates (constituting a cheap source of labour), India and various Western countries (Monsutti, 2009).

1.3. Elements of Pashtun tradition

4This section provides a short overview of some of the main features of Pashtun traditions. It would go beyond the scope of this paper to give a more complete picture. Correspondingly, the traditions are discussed with respect to their relevance to cross-cultural interaction and especially negotiation. Some of these features, such as the ‘tribal’ element, remain very much specific to the Pashtuns. Others, such as the jirga, influence Afghanistan to an extent that they may be seen as a ‘national institution’ (Wardak, 2003). Pashtun traditions are emulated, at least to some degree, by the non-Pashtun ethnic groups of Afghanistan (Carter and Connor, 1989).


  • 2 According to the German scholar Bernt Glatzer (d. 2009), this stereotype was first formulated by Am (...)
  • 3  For a detailed explanation of this concept see Geller, 2008.

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