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EXPLAINED: What The Return Of Taliban Means For All The Ethnic Groups In Afghanistan

By: Kenneth Mohanty


Last Updated: August 24, 2021, 17:43 IST

The Taliban leadership has tried to project a more moderate image as they hold negotiations with stakeholders to form the next government in Afghanistan

The Taliban leadership has tried to project a more moderate image as they hold negotiations with stakeholders to form the next government in Afghanistan

Taliban have said they want a united Afghanistan where every community finds a place. But historical realities mean the group will not be taken at face value

Upon their second coming as rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban have professed their intention to craft a regime that is representative of all the ethnic groups in the Muslim-majority country. But the experience that the common Afghan has had of the Taliban’s previous rule has meant that its assurances are regarded with suspicion on the street. Some reports following the Taliban takeover have also served to cement those doubts. Here’s a look at the ethnic composition of Afghanistan and the fault lines that are fuelling worries among minority groups.

How Is The Power Landscape Shaping Up Following The Taliban Return?

The predominantly Pashtun and Sunni Muslim Taliban have sought to project that they are more amenable to reconciliation and building bridges as they prepare to install their government in Afghanistan. The group has been holding talks with multiple stakeholders for putting in place a transitional government. But pockets of resistance have also sprung up.

The Northern Alliance based, as the name suggests in the northern and northeastern tracts of the country, which had held out against the Taliban in their first innings in power during 1996-2001, is again massing together to put up a fresh resistance to the group. Led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik majority Panjshir valley has declared that it will again prevent the Taliban from entering their province.


The elder Massoud, who had the moniker of ‘Lion of Panjshir’, was known as much for his unyielding resistance to the Soviet troops that started in the late 1970s as for refusing to submit to the Taliban who emerged to seize power after the departure of the communist forces. Ahmad Shah was assassinated in an al Qaeda attack days before the Osama bin Laden-led terror group carried out the Sept.11 strikes on US soil, but his Northern Alliance would ally with the US forces and go on to oust the Taliban from power.

In its new avatar, the Northern Alliance has also been joined by Amrullah Saleh, Vice President to Ashraf Ghani, who fled from the presidential palace in Kabul as Taliban fighters arrived at the gates of the Afghan capital. Saleh, also an ethnic Tajik, is said to have gathered around himself what remains of the fighting core of the now defunct Afghan government forces and has sought support for the resistance against the Taliban.

Then there are the Shia Hazaras. Being Shia, they have historically faced persecution in Afghanistan, including from the Taliban. In a worrisome sign, Taliban fighters are recently reported to have blown up the statue of a prominent Hazara militia leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, in Bamiyan, which is regarded as being the unofficial capital of the Hazaras. Mazari was executed by the Taliban in 1995.

What Are The Major Ethnic Groups In Afghanistan?

Article 4 of the 2004 Afghan constitution, which can be regarded as a document now consigned to the past what with the Taliban takeover, says that “The nation of Afghanistan shall be comprised of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek,

Turkmen, Baluch, Pashai, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahui and other tribes".

In fact, a report by the Minority Rights Group International in 1992, when the country was caught in a violent contest for power among its various warlords and militia commanders following the Soviet departure, was entitled, ‘Afghanistan: A Nation of Minorities’. That is because no single ethnic group makes up more than 50 per cent of the Afghan population. While the country has not had a proper census, the Pashtuns are accepted as being the largest group followed by the Tajiks and the Hazaras.

US government data from 2010 says that “the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Pashtun (including Kuchis), comprising 42 per cent of Afghans. The Tajiks are the second-largest ethnic group, at 27 per cent of the population, followed by the Hazaras (9 per cent), Uzbeks (9 per cent), Aimaq (4 per cent), Turkmen (3 per cent), Baluch (2 per cent)".

Which Are The Main Players In The Power Struggle?

Due to their numbers, the key groups in the Afghan power stakes are the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and the Uzbeks.

The Pashtuns are based in the southern and southeastern parts of Afghanistan and also have a presence across the border in northwestern Pakistan, where the core of the Taliban leadership is said to have moved following the US invasion. The Pashtuns — their language is called Pashto — have historically enjoyed a hold on power in the country and the two presidents of the democratically elected government during the US occupation, Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, also belonged to this community.

The Tajiks, who speak Dari, occupy the northern and western parts of the country and have their stronghold in the Panjshir valley. They have featured prominently in Afghan power struggles. Apart from Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, there was Burhanuddin Rabbani, who served as Afghan president from 1992 to 1996 before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Abdullah Abdullah, who has ended second-best in multiple presidential elections and had entered a power-sharing agreement with Ghani after the last of them, in 2019, is of mixed Pashtun-Tajik ethnicity but is widely considered the latter.

The Hazaras are mainly based in central Afghanistan. The group, which speaks a Dari dialect, has historically faced persecution at the hands of Afghan rulers, leading to their perception as “the traditional underclass of Afghan society". But their significant numbers meant that they maintained their stronghold in Bamiyan and also organised their own militia group during the post-Soviet period.

The chief leader of the Uzbeks, the ethnic group that occupies the northern parts of Afghanistan, along its border with Uzbekistan, is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord known for frequently changing sides. During the years of fighting in Afghanistan, Dostum and his militia have sided with the Soviets, crossed over to the mujahideen, and then thrown in their lot with the Northern Alliance. After the Taliban were ousted by US forces, he carved out his own base in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and would go on to become a vice-president during Ghani’s first term as Afghan president.

As the US forces withdrew and the Taliban launched their blitz to overrun the country, Dostum and another militia leader, the Tajik Muhammad Atta Noor, joined hands to back the government forces. But their militias were overpowered by the Taliban and the duo fled as Mazar-i-Sharif fell to the Islamist fighters.

What Has The Taliban Said About The Way Forward?

Experts have pointed out that Afghan society was not riven by ethnic divides but that there is a larger Afghan identity to which all ethnic groups subscribe even though group loyalties have always stayed prominent. The Taliban’s initial rise to power, in the 1990s, had led to fault lines becoming more prominent. The Taliban were led by Pashtun clerics whose goal was not so much to establish their group as the main power bloc inside Afghanistan as pulling the country out of the chaos and lawlessness that had come to reign in the years after the Soviet withdrawal during which ethnic militias fought for control.

However, lacking any experience of running a country and inheriting threats and problems they were ill-equipped to deal with, the Taliban brought in a strict regime governed by a rigid interpretation of Islamic law. Further, the fact that their leadership was predominantly drawn from Pashtun clerics meant that the administration of justice created deep resentment among other ethnic groups, even though the Taliban also earned support for ending the internecine fighting among the various warlords.

However, as they hold talks to set up a new government, the Taliban have declared an amnesty for all who had opposed them and also said that “the Islamic Emirate once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honour and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation".

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen was further quoted by NPR as saying that the group does “not have any kind of discrimination against the Shia people. They are Afghans. They can live in this country peacefully and they can contribute to the reconstruction, prosperity and development of the country".

However, the Taliban will need to back such statements with concrete actions before their assurances about creating a unified Afghan society finds takers among the various ethnic groups in the country.

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first published:August 24, 2021, 17:32 IST
last updated:August 24, 2021, 17:43 IST