Tribalism is not a feature of every ethnic group in Afghanistan;
and even within tribally organized groups tribalism is a flexible
concept that allows variations to exist and changes to occur as
kinship groups rise and fall.
Tribal identity which merges with ethnicity rests on unified
genealogies consisting of descendants of a common male ancestor
whose name often provides the name of the group. Internal divisions
consist of the descendants of intermediate descendants of the
original founder. Thus an entire tribe may descend from a man
ten or more generations in the past. Smaller segmentary patrilineages
composed of great-grandsons and grandsons form units of residence
and strong personal loyalty.
Although preferred marriages for males are to father's brother's
daughters, genealogies reflect political, economic and social
alliances outside strict descent lines. Typically, it is men from
dominant groups who will seek to marry with females outside their
own ethnic group.
The Pushtun represent the largest tribal entities in Afghanistan;
among them tribal institutions are strongest within the Ghilzai.
Common characteristics of Pushtun tribal organization ideally
feature egalitarianism, democratic decision-making through councils
called jirgah at which individual members have the right
to express themselves freely, and certain corporate responsibilities
such as revenge. Revenge, for instance, may be taken on any member
of an offending tribe, although liability is usually greater for
those most closely related to the accused. The essentially decentralized
independent communities within tribal subsections conduct both
internal and external affairs according to the tribal code of
conduct called Pushtunwali (see Pushtun, this ch.).
The aristocratic elites who lead subdivisions, rise to their
positions primarily through personal charisma, patronage, and
leadership abilities rather than by primogeniture, which is not
recognized in Muslim law, or any type of prescribed hereditary
rights. Tribal organization is therefore acephalous or without
a paramount chief. And the measure of their power differs. Heads
of nomadic tribal groups, for instance, act principally as spokesmen,
but have no right to make decisions binding on others.
The absence of recognized principles governing the assumption
of leadership allows for intense competition. Rivalries within
and between tribal segments and between tribes and subtribes consequently
have always existed. It is these internecine feuds that have earned
the Pushtun their reputation as an unruly and warlike people.
Nonetheless, when outside forces threaten, the Pushtun are equally
reputed for their ability to forge formidable alliances, among
themselves and with other ethnic groups.
Both internal as well as intergroup conflicts are most often
rooted in matters of personal and group honour, personal enmities,
family dissensions concerning brides and property, struggles for
material possession, access to resources, territorial integrity
and extensions of power, rather than in intrinsic attitudes of
Many contentious struggles raged about the creation of the nation-state.
Although Ahmad Shah Durrani set the stage for Pushtun dominance,
his successors lacked both his personal charisma and his leadership
abilities. His son, Timur Shah (1772-1783), further compounded
the problem by leaving behind 23 sons born of wives from ten different
tribes without designating a successor. Similarly, the next charismatic
leader to consolidate the area, Amir Dost Mohammad (1834-38; 1842-63),
left 20 sons to fight for the throne. Violent episodes involving
individual quests for power characterized much of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries.
With the advent of Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901), a grandson
of Amir Dost Mohammad, the situation changed dramatically. Amir
Abdur Rahman utilized his powerful personality in combination
with adroit politics and judicious use of financial subsidies
and weaponry provided by the British. To further his ambition
to establish a centralized state under his authoritarian control,
he created the first standing army and relied heavily on the support
of his own Mohammadzai section of the Barakzai Durrani, to whom
he granted annual allowances. Thus he raised the Mohammadzai to
a privileged group and reduced the power of the tribal Sardars.
At his death in 1901 he was succeeded by his son without the usual
State institution building was met with periodic open revolts
such as that of the eastern Pushtun which ended the rule of King
Amanullah in 1929. King Nadir (1929-1933) restored the preeminence
of central Mohammadzai control with tribal assistance. The 1978
coup d'etat deposed the Mohammadzai and the Soviet-Afghan War
introduced political parties which brought new leadership patterns
into being, altering tribal structures and reshaping ethnic identities.
Traditional segmentation has not disappeared, but it is now being
expressed through new political structures.
Data as of 1997