Who are the Afghans?

Google Questions

Originally published 7-17-02

Mr. Canfield is a professor of political anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

No Afghans participated in the actions of September 11 and only one kind of"Afghan," the Taliban, have any connection with Osama bin Laden (the presumed mastermind). And the Taliban actually are not typical"Afghans" anyway.

Afghanistan, apparently a crucial target of the United States forces, is notoriously diverse. Almost two dozen language groups exist in that country, divided religiously several ways -- among Sunni, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims, along with a few historically accepted Hindus (and now a tiny group of Christian converts from Islam, most of them fearful and secretive). Moreover, among the Muslims there are several orientations toward Islam and even several kinds of Islamic radicalism. Even so, scarcely any Muslim in Afghanistan would have approved of the actions of September 11.

As it happens, most Afghans' commitment to Islam has never been particularly shrill, perhaps because, unlike any other Muslim country, Afghanistan was never under sustained colonial domination. The places where radical Islamic ideologies developed were elsewhere, notably Egypt and South Asia, which were long subject to European control. The radical Islam that now exists in Afghanistan, in various forms, was imported during the anti-Soviet struggle of the 1980s. And the Islam of the notorious Taliban is even something else, a creation of special circumstances after the Soviet-Afghan war.

In this brief space I would like to note that the Afghan peoples are by no means representative of the radical Muslim elements that participated in the September 11 actions. We have to identify those who are radical and distinguish them from the ordinary"Afghan" peoples who are strikingly different from the Taliban and from the Afghan-Arabs represented by Osama bin Laden. Briefly, some clarification:


The term in its original sense refers to a particular ethnic type, who are otherwise known as"Pushtun" or (in Pakistan)"Pathan." These"true" Afghans traditionally speak Pushtu (Pashto) and at least in many rural areas are organized tribally. The Afghan tribes have historically had various relations to the central government, in some cases as loyal subjects, in others as recalcitrant tribes. But because the country has historically been dominated by Afghans (Pushtuns), the elite of the country have typically been of Afghan extraction.

Some of the peoples in Afghanistan have resented and resisted Pushtun domination and prefer to call themselves by the their ethnic and linguistic identities ("Hazara,""Uzbek,""Tajik," etc.) in order to distinguish themselves from the Pushtun. They sometimes nevertheless identify themselves as"Afghans" to people (like most Americans) who know little about internal Afghanistan affairs.

In fact the term"Afghan" in its broader sense has been promoted as the name for every citizen in the country by the Pushtun-dominated government. In practice people from many backgrounds have identified with the emerging state of Afghanistan; whatever was their language at home they used Persian as the language of public interaction, as Persian (to be precise, a dialect of Persian that the Afghanistan government began to call"Dari" in the 1960s) has long been the language of bureaucracy and public affairs. Every"Afghan" in this sense knows Persian but sometimes the non-Pushtun populations are referred to as"Persian speaking" populations to distinguish them from the Pushtun, a distinction that became particularly relevent when the country began to fracture into these two main elements in the 1990s.


This term of course means"holy warriors" and was claimed, especially after 1980, by those people who opposed the Afghan Communist government and its Soviet sponsors. There were many mujahedin organizations but seven of them were supported officially by Pakistan and the American CIA, who also tried, with only moderate success, to orchestrate the resistance activities against the communist regimes. The mujahedin were able to compel the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989 and eventually to bring down the Afghan Communist government in 1992. But between between 1992 and 1996 they fought fiercely among themselves over control of the city of Kabul; also elsewhere in the country they carved the landscape into their own respective fiefdoms, effecting a widespread collapse of social order.


The Taliban arose in the context of that disorder. Because of their early successes they were embraced by several kinds of interests -- local, regional, commercial, international. They are the products of the madrassas, Islamic schools that were set up among the Afghan refugees during the war. Most of the schools were small and taught by local mullahs, but they were a useful escape from the refugee camps as they provided food and lodging for the boys that their own families could scarcely muster. The Taliban are mostly Pushtun and generally they have little understanding of the other groups in the country; in truth, they know nothing about the history of Afghanistan, even of the recent Soviet-Afghan conflict. Because they were centered on (mostly Arab supported) religious schools and dormitories, the Taliban ("students") had a different understanding of the world from their families in the refugee camps. Ahmad Rashid calls them"orphans" of the war whose essential anchorage was the"puritan Islam" taught them in their mosque schools. Most of the Taliban now dispersed around the country speak only Pushtu and Urdu -- an indication that in fact they are (at least culturally) Pakistanis, not Afghans in any traditional sense.


During the anti-Soviet movement many Arabs, among them Osama bin Laden, joined the mujahedin resistance. They were accepted among the Pushtun parties, especially those favored by the Pakistanis and Saudis, but were rebuffed by the Persian speaking parties of the north. In the 1990s many of them, trained for war, dispersed into other parts of the Arab world where they became active in radical movements. In the last few years, however, as the Taliban have been fighting what is left of the mujahedin, now known as the Northern Alliance, many Arab-Afghans have become allied with the Taliban. These Arab-Afghans are the only elements in the country that have any affinity with or commitment to the desire to destroy Western society and culture. It remains to be seen which, if any, of them were involved in the actions on September 11.

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More Comments:

d'angelo - 10/27/2003

terrorism sucks

Ray Wilbur - 9/22/2001

Sent to me by Dr. Ralph Goodell.
More people need more informed background on
Afghanistan, as you article provides.
As a combat veteran I am very uneasy
about President Bush's facile reference to
"War." There must be a better way.
Again, thanks! Ray Wilbur