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Tajiks in Afghanistan

  • Profile

    Though their exact numbers are uncertain and as with other communities are contested, previous estimates have suggested that Tajiks make up around 27 per cent of the population, making them the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan after the Pashtuns. They make up the bulk of Afghanistan’s elite, with considerable accumulated wealth within the community. As a result of this wealth and levels of education, they wield a significant political influence within Afghanistan. Being of Central Asian origin they maintain a kinship with the 7 million ethnic Tajiks who live in the neighbouring Central Asian state of Tajikistan.

    While mainly urban in the pre-Soviet era, living in and around Kabul and the mountainous Badashkshan region in the northeast, they now live in different areas throughout the state though mainly concentrated in northern, northeastern and western Afghanistan. The population of Tajiks in the northeast fluctuated considerably during the Taliban era as the Taliban and opposition forces fought over the control of the territory.

    Historical context

    Most Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, with a minority of Twelver Imami Shi’a in the west around the city of Herat, and speak a form of Dari (Farsi dialect) close to the national language of Iran. They belong to an ethnic group that appears not to have retained memories of their tribal past, which as a result seems lost in ancient times. Instead, unlike the Pashtuns they have no specific social structure, and Afghan Tajik loyalty patterns evolve around the village and family. Interestingly, they appear to have adopted the social and cultural patterns of their neighbours in the regions where they live.

    Targeted as Soviet supporters

    The close links between Tajiks and Afghanistan’s Durani dynasty provided many Tajiks with opportunities to accumulate wealth and access to modern education. However, since they were closely linked to the regime overthrown with Soviet support in 1978, they came under heavy attack during that war. Tajik farms in and around Kabul were shelled, and they were forced to evacuate or to mobilize to defend themselves.  The mobilization led to the formation of several resistance groups, the most prominent of which was that of Ahmed Shah Massoud of Panjshir, who was assassinated shortly before 11 September 2001.

    Tajiks, although influential in Afghan politics, have only ruled Afghanistan for two brief periods, first in 1929 when Habibullah Kalakani ruled Afghanistan for nine months and the second time in 1992 when Burhanuddin Rabbani became President under the Peshawar Accord, and who was subsequently ousted from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. Tajiks are increasingly mobilizing themselves politically, and many are associated with the Jamiat-e Islami party.

    Since then the Tajiks dominated what came to be referred to as the Northern Alliance – the conglomeration of opposition groups fighting the Taliban that the international community recognized as the government of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. During the Taliban regime, Tajiks along with other ethnic groups were suppressed, and many were killed after the Taliban’s takeover of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.

    In 2001, following the 11 September attacks on the US, the US led an international coalition of forces to overthrow the Taliban regime, which had allied itself with al-Qaeda. The coalition cooperated with the Northern Alliance, although it was headed by a non-aligned Pashtun, Hamid Karzai.

    Newfound political dominance

    The political situation of the Tajiks changed radically in 2001 when the US led a coalition in overthrowing the Pashtun-dominated Taliban government. Although led by a Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, the interim government set in place by 2002 was dominated by ethnic Tajiks. Tajiks are unlikely to mount a large-scale rebellion against the state so long as they maintain their level of representation. Nonetheless, Tajiks belonging to armed groups continue to be involved in inter-communal warfare, primarily against Pashtuns. Until the central government is strong enough to contain warlordism, such clashes are likely to continue.

    Tajiks are represented at the national level by a variety of political organizations and parties, though the dominant one continues to be the Jamiat-e Islami. Since no political parties were allowed to participate in the 2005 legislative elections, all candidates ran as individuals. As a result, Tajiks also are represented by Tajiks not aligned to any specific political grouping.

    Current issues

    The Constitution recognizes Tajiks as one of the Afghan national ethnic groups.

    Current grievances among the community centre on the issue of political participation. There appears to be a desire among the political elites within the community for greater involvement not only over Tajik-majority regions but also for a greater stake in the central government. While Tajiks have not engaged in armed rebellion since the overthrow of the Taliban, those belonging to armed groups have maintained a relatively high level of communal conflict with Pashtuns. They also desire greater economic opportunities and are mindful of the discrimination they face in pro-Taliban areas due to their prominent role in ousting the previous regime.

    Many Tajiks, along with other non-Pashtun Afghan minorities, are particularly wary of the inclusion of the Taliban in any peace negotiations and fear the outcome of any compromise with the Taliban, which would likely result in increased discrimination against Tajiks due to their prominent opposition to the Taliban. These concerns were further heightened by the assassination by a Taliban militant of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, in September 2011, who had been heading the High Peace Council in charge of peace negotiations.

    Tajiks have occupied high positions of political power including Ahmad Zia Massoud, the deputy of the Jamiat-e Islami party and who until recently also occupied the role of Ghani’s special representative on reforms and good governance. Commentators worried that his dismissal from the role in April 2017 could lead to the increasing use of ethnicity to rally support, as Massoud had used his role as an ethnic Tajik to mediate disputes between Pashtuns and other minorities.

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