MODES OF SUBSISTENCE
Afghans have developed a number of different strategies to wrest
a living from their difficult, often marginal environment. Some
pastoralist or herdsmen groups live a seasonally nomadic existence
although other herding communities are sedentary. Often groups
combine animal husbandry with agriculture; some rely very little
on livestock. These subsistence patterns are to some extent fluid,
pastoralists often changing their degree of reliance on cultivation,
depending on ecological, economic, and political factors.
Afghanistan has fine pastures permitting a considerable portion
of its population, perhaps 9 percent, to engage in nomadic pastoralism.
This entails annual migrations with large flocks of sheep and
goats from lowland winter settlements, where they sow and reap
crops and live in housing of a fairly permanent nature, to highland
summer pastures located above 1,000 meters; sometimes as high
as 3,500 meters. Here they occupy fixed grazing grounds which
they do not own but on which they have traditional grazing rights.
Sometimes they pay a fee. Other nomadic groups practice various
types of trading. Uniquely adapted to the environment, pastoral
nomads help maintain the nation's ecosystem and contribute substantially
to the national economy.
Estimates of nomadic populations are even more uncertain than
those for settled populations. The figure of 1.5 million given
in many official publications in 1996 is an average of 1970 estimates
which varied from 800,00 to over 2.5 million. Again the wide range
results from differences in definition and from the fact that
changes brought about by displacement and war have yet to be adequately
analyzed. Fully nomadic groups were always rare. Some groups are
semi-nomadic. In their case, a majority of the group moves annually
from summer to winter pastures, while fewer remain behind in permanent
settlements. In semi-sedentary groups, a minority participate
in the migrations.
Nomadic groups are found among the Pushtun, Baluch, Aimaq, Turkmen,
Arab, Uzbek, and Kirghiz; perhaps over 80 percent are Durrani
and Ghilzai Pushtun, Within each of these groups, however, the
nomads form a minority.
Many differences between groups have been described by leading
social scientists noted in the bibliography. Yet a few patterns
may be noted. During the fall and winter, nomadic groups live
in permanent or temporary housing on steppes and plains; in the
spring they move to lush pastures in the central mountains. The
big herds that travel along high mountain trails are composed
largely of sheep, including a highly valuable breed called karakul
or Persian Lamb, a major export. Only 10-40 percent of the herds
are goats because the market price for sheep is usually twice
that of goats.
The flocks belong to single nuclear families from different segments
of subtribes and each household will own an average of about 100
animals. Typically 4-6 households will join together to form herd
units of optimum size consistent with the labor capacities of
individual families and prevailing conditions of the pastures.
Each herd unit is tended by a shepherd, who is paid a share of
the lambs and kids born under his care.
Nuclear households grouped again by tribal segments move along
lower routes more suitable for the heavily laden camels, horses
and donkeys carrying household goods, women, children and the
elderly. These groups, accompanied by smaller numbers of animals
and guarded by fierce mastiff-like herd dogs, follow traditional
routes with little variation, moving only five kilometers or so
a day when travelling through grassy regions, but up to 20 kilometers
a day when the terrain is barren. For some, the migration may
be only a matter of a few kilometers; others move up to 500 kilometers
away from their winter headquarters.
Camp sites seldom include more than 100 single household dwellings;
often no more than five. These portable dwellings are of distinct
shapes, including several variants of the classic rectangular
black goat's hair tent predominately used by Pushtun and Baluch.
The nomads neither move nor live in isolation for they maintain
relationships with both agriculturalists and merchants to whom
they sell pastoral products, mainly live animals, wool, skins
and dairy products, in exchange for agricultural produce, primarily
cereals, household and luxury items, including radios. Poorer
nomadic families may serve farmers as seasonal labor during harvest
periods while richer nomads who extend credit may acquire land
from farmers who, unable to pay their debts, become their tenants.
Nomads also act as disseminators of local news. Large-scale trading,
money lending and casual labor opportunities are often more important
than herding to the eastern Ghilzai whose caravans once reached
deep into India (later Pakistan) as far as what is now Bangladesh,
as well as north to Bokhara, east to China, and west to Iran.
These far-flung migrations which had taken place since the eleventh
century virtually came to a halt after the 1930s when the Soviet
Union and China sealed their borders. They experienced further
curtailment after Pakistan closed its border in 1961 during the
Internally, the effects of increases in population, modernization,
state interventions and abnormal climatic conditions causing market
prices to fall necessitated severe adjustments. For many nomads
by the end of the 1970s their situation deteriorated to such an
extent that they were obliged to settle down. The war exacerbated
these trends. The indiscriminate dropping of mines from helicopters
onto pastures is but one example. Despite this, many nomadic groups
acquired significant political power because of their major roles
in the resistance, particularly in the transportation of arms.
They became one of the best armed groups in Afghanistan.
This laid the ground for potential tensions over settlement rights
in the future as evidenced by controversies between nomadic and
settled groups that arose when nomads occupied land around Khost
because their traditional movement patterns had been disrupted.
In resolving the issue, the Taliban were obliged to sanction the
nomad occupations because of their superior strength.
Other groups have also been forced to abandon their nomadic way
of life. Numbers of nomads have purchased shops in provincial
centers such as Khost and Gardez. A major portion of the Kirghiz
have resettled in Turkey. Among nomadic groups forming part of
refugee populations in Pakistan, few have been able to retain
their flocks and the assistance community has been unable to address
their special needs. Yet, among the refugees there are a few who
have accumulated fabulous riches and live opulently in elite suburbs
of Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi.
Data as of 1997