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Uzbeks and Turkmens in Afghanistan

  • Profile

    Though their exact number is uncertain and as with other communities are contested, previous estimates have suggested that Uzbeks (9 per cent) and Turkmen (3 per cent) make up a total of around 12 per cent of the population, Both Uzbeks and Turkmen live in the northern part of Afghanistan. In origin, Turkmen, also called Turcoman, Turkman or Turkomen, come from the Turkic-speaking tribes that emerged from Oghuz Khan, back in the seventh and eight centuries. Turkmen are Sunni Muslim of Hanafi tradition and are closely related to the people of modern Türkiye to the west, and identical to the majority Muslim population of their Central Asian kin state across the border to the north. Originally a purely tribal society, they have, in the more recent years adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle.

    Uzbeks are also a Turkic-speaking ethnic group. They are believed to have emerged in Central Asia in the third century BCE, and some claim to be possible descendants of Genghis Khan. They indicate Turkic ancestry and are, in the vast majority, Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi tradition, which reflects a primarily cultural rather than religious identity. Their language is Uzbek and although it is their own Turkish dialect, it is closely related to the one spoken by the Uyghur Muslim minority of Xinjiang, China.

    Uzbeks and Turkmen have tribal identities that still largely define the structures within their respective societies, and this is reflected both in their social as well as political life. Both groups have had an influence on Afghan culture mainly through sport and music.

    Economic status

    Turkmen and Uzbeks occupy the greatest share of Afghanistan’s arable land in the north, and are mostly farmers by occupation, growing grain and vegetables. In addition, they produce crafts and animal by-products that bring considerable supplementary income to their communities. Cotton production has also added significantly to the wealth of these two groups. However, a very important part of their economy and fame is based on the making of carpets, which is mainly considered women’s work. Because of their relative prosperity, Uzbeks and Turkmen have not been dependent on the central government and have not made a concerted effort to garner political influence in the past. However, the economy of northern Afghanistan was badly damaged by the Taliban conquest of 1998. The consequences of this were not only subjugation and repression, but importantly also resulted in the closure of the border with Uzbekistan by the Uzbek government resulting in significant loss of trade, and thereby reduction in the socio-economic independence of the groups.

    Historical context

    The Turkmen of Afghanistan originate from amongst the Turkic tribes of Central Asia who arrived in Afghanistan as refugees in the 1920s and 1930s along with many thousands of Uzbeks, to escape repression by the Soviet Union because of their participation in the unsuccessful Basmachi Revolt. Generally, the population in the region is not a product of recent immigration but of the way borders were drawn between the Republics during the early Soviet period.

    In order to quell Pashtun dominance, the Soviets, during their occupation of Afghanistan adopted a divide and rule policy, especially in the northern areas where Uzbeks had a significant presence. This was relatively effective in stemming the influence of Pashtuns, who were the main resistance against them in Kabul. In keeping with their policy, Uzbeks and to a lesser extent Turkmen were given a degree of autonomy and trained to fight against the Mujahidin in case of attack. For the first time in the history of Afghanistan, except during periods of anarchy and rebellion, Uzbeks along with Tajiks and Hazaras exercised full administrative and political autonomy.

    Political representation

    After the Soviet withdrawal, during the civil war in Afghanistan, Uzbeks, along with Hazaras and Tajiks actively sought adequate political representation at the centre, whilst retaining the form of autonomy they had become accustomed to, in their respective areas. Uzbeks did not have their own political organization until General Abdul Rashid Dostum defected from the Najibullah regime and, with his control over the northern provinces, became a self-appointed spokesman for the rights of Uzbeks in Afghanistan.

    In contrast to Uzbeks, Turkmen sought to avoid confrontation by remaining neutral throughout the decades of conflict in Afghanistan. As a result, they had no powerful leaders or warlords to represent them politically during and in the aftermath of the civil war and the modern rebuilding process. Accordingly, they remained apart from the social and political mainstream of Afghanistan. They have been historically excluded from decision-making processes and ignored by the ruling class. They have had no representation to uphold their rights and have never generally been properly represented in the overall administration structures.

    Current issues

    In the Constitution, both Uzbeki and Turkmani are granted status of ‘third official language’ along with some other minority languages and both communities are given recognition as ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

    Uzbeks were part of the Northern Alliance, which fought against the Taliban regime. Thus, after the fall of the Taliban, Uzbeks have gained even more influence in the military and political life of Afghanistan.

    Recently, the Taliban has started to recruit more heavily from ethnic minorities, expanding their territories in the north.  Ethnic Turkmen and Uzbeks have been recruited from the northwestern Faryab province and northern Jowzjan province, in particular. Qari Salahuddin Ayubi, an ethnic Uzbek, was the Taliban’s ‘shadow governor’ in Faryab, but was later killed by a NATO airstrike in 2015.  The sense of discontent with the central government and sentiment that it cannot provide adequate protection is driving at least some members of minorities to the Taliban. In other cases, the lack of protection from the central government has driven Turkmen to form new militias instead, to fight off the renewed advance of the Taliban.

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