Afghanistan’s history since 1880s, as discussed in one of my earlier posts, has not been an idyllic period of harmonious ethnic relationships. With two major population-related issues in need of solving—conducting population registration (issuing electronic ID cards) and enumeration (national census)—the country may reach a breaking point along ethnic lines regardless whether these issues are resolved.

Divisions are present everywhere. For example, the majority of people in the country composed of dozens of ethnic groups speak Dari, Afghanistan’s lingua franca. Yet since 2006, the Afghan Constitution has mandated that the national anthem would be written in the Pashto language, almost exclusively spoken by a single ethnic group. This, it can be argued, is not a symbol of national unity; rather, it illustrates the necessity of delicately balancing sensitive relationships.

Game Changers

Despite the complex ethnic mosaic, since the 18th century only two leaders came from non-Pashtun stock and, unsurprisingly, ruled during the civil wars in 1929 and 1992-1996. For several centuries much of Afghanistan’s population had to accept the reality of having Pashtuns as their rulers.

After 2001, however, conditions drastically changed, which is something that in the context of ethnic politics matters greatly—Afghans, should they choose, can now vote for people from their own ethnic group. This is the sort of empowerment that a new generation of non-Pashtuns in particular is not going to give away.

On September 7th, 2011, I interviewed an Afghan politician and Member of Parliament, Mr. Abdul Latif Pedram, to hear his views on the 2014 transition and the transfer of power to Afghans. As we discussed the national census, Mr. Pedram, a supporter of federalism in Afghanistan on a non-ethnic basis, mentioned that the people from the country’s [non-Pashtun] north have transitioned from the past. Having to deal with thirty years of turmoil has actually presented them with the opportunity for self-empowerment.

He added: “Civil war that may break out post 2014 will be more vicious, because people have more interest in self-empowerment and are more determined and war-experienced. Demographic problem presents a structural dilemma and cannot be ignored, band aided, or diffused in any other aspect unless the issue is addressed head on. Ignoring demographic issues in Afghanistan may add a couple of years of time, but after that it will explode because it was ignored in the first place.

I witnessed the elements of empowerment in Kabul City two days later (Figure 1), when the motorcades of young Tajiks drove the streets commemorating ten years of the assassination of their hero, Ahmad Shah Masooud. Pashtun parts of east Kabul were uncharacteristically quiet that day.


Figure 1. September 9, 2011, in central Kabul City. (Photo by the author.)

Population Registration and the Real Numbers

The process of registering Afghan population via issuing identity cards began in 2010 and is yet to be fully implemented. The goal is to use this opportunity to also indirectly enumerate the country’s actual population, but the process has been stalled for years despite international pressure.

Notoriously corrupt system aside, which slow down everything in Afghanistan, the main problem revolves around what to list on the identity card and what put in the card’s electronic memory in regard to the holder’s nationality [keep in mind that, unlike in the United States, nationality is synonymous with ethnicity in much of Eurasia, rather than with citizenship].

Ongoing Protests

As officials were finally prepared to issue some cards, people began protesting again, as they had done in previous years. The majority of protests this month occurred in predominantly Pashtun-populated southern and eastern provinces (Figure 2). If the word Afghan and Islam are not included on the card’s face, the protesters claimed, they would act accordingly against the process of distributing the identity cards. They also claimed that they have no issues if the tribal or ethnic—terms they use interchangeably—affiliation is in the card’s memory.


Figure 2. Record of protests against electronic identity cards and the provinces with the (estimated) ratio of Pashtun population. In Ghazni, Pashtuns form nearly half the population (the rest are nearly all Hazara), while in Baghlan and Balkh their ratio is much lower. Provinces with over 50 percent are overwhelmingly Pashtun. Source: multiple news agencies.

Non-Pashtuns and their representatives are clear about their views that ethnicity must be included one way or another. Division is also evident among the news agencies and their scale and emphasis of reporting and commenting about the protests, because they, too, cater to specific ethnic audiences.


Distribution of identification cards is the de facto ethnic population enumeration. If the government decides to keep the information undisclosed, that will likely mean that non-Pashtuns hold a higher ratio than previously believed, or that the ratio of Pashtuns is significantly lower than what they would be willing to accept.

This is an important distinction, because the potential for ethnic conflict may develop depending upon which side believes it is being short-changed. Either way, it would be naïve to believe that the usual rhetoric “We are all Afghans [as in citizens of Afghanistan] and are only being divided by the external enemy” will suffice in keeping tensions low. Ethnic groups do not fight for united citizenship; they seek their own territorial preservation and expansion through competition with other ethnic groups.

And tensions are rising. Unlike on September 9, 2011, when I observed the motorcades commemorating the anniversary of Masood’s death in Kabul City, this year’s commemoration resulted in shootings and casualties. It happened when a motorcade from west Kabul City tried to force its way into the Pashtun neighborhood in the east part of town. This is the neighborhood that even the Coalition forces avoided entering, despite its proximity to major bases like Camp Phoenix.

If the issue of population registration does not lead to open conflict, the issue of official population enumeration may act as a trigger to violence. It would be impossible to create satisfactory ethnic quotas in government and economy at the national level (non-Pashtuns versus Pashtuns) let alone at regional and local levels (each group seeking its own goals of securing territory and political representation). Political leaders are aware of that and have tried to avoid conducting a national or a regional-level census. They will not, however, be able to delay the process indefinitely.

Difficult Path

When the journalist Jeffrey E. Stern sought my opinion on this topic for his Foreign Policy article on the 2014 elections, as a cultural geographer, I used a series of examples from Afghanistan and other parts of the world to illustrate the problems associated with the enumeration of ethnically divided populations. Since then the country has continued along that difficult path.

The current system of centralized governance—decision making begins and ends in the capital—is inadequate in preventing the increase in ethnic polarization. Centralized governments are generally fearful of regional aspirations, particularly if such aspirations are products of ethnic politics. They view them as the first steps toward separation and partition, thereby believing that decentralization only increases that process.

On close inspection, Afghanistan hardly seems to be a unified nation; rather, it appears more as a forced conglomeration of distinct peoples residing within a large space, many of them interested only in their local and regional affairs. Uzbeks, for example, could care less about what Pashtuns do in Khost or Kunar provinces. They, however, are well aware of Pashtun affairs in majority-Uzbek Faryab province where the Pashtuns have been living since the late 19th century, when they were sent to reinforce the belief that the north belongs to the south one way or another (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Northern and southern peripheries, separated by vast mountain ranges, gravitate to different areas and different issues.

Wishful Thinking

Throughout the years I have read numerous articles and opinions about what Afghans have to do and what the government has to do. Most recently, the former American ambassadors, who worked in the country around the same time as I did, have expressed similar views and explained why Afghanistan matters.

It is the same old view that ignores reality and assumes that the government composed of polarizing forces and called a national unity government can succeed. When there is real national unity among different peoples no need exists for the creation of an artificial internationally-brokered governing body called national unity.

It is commonplace for ethnic groups to over-emphasize what they want, but do not have.  In Afghanistan’s public discourse, chants of “We are all Afghans!” have been loudly proclaimed for some time.  If this is the government’s mantra, it is easy to understand why public discussions about ethnic individuality are avoided.

Afghanistan’s Continuous Struggle With Itself: The Census and Ethnicity Issue
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