Main minority or indigenous communities: no reliable current data on ethnicity in Afghanistan exists, though surveys have pointed to some rough estimates of the population. However, previous estimates have put the population at Pashtun 42 per cent, Tajik 27 per cent, Hazara 9 per cent, Uzbek 9 per cent, Turkmen 3 per cent, Baluchi 2 per cent and other groups making up the remaining 8 per cent.

Main languages: Dari (Farsi dialect, 50 per cent of the population) Pashtu (35 per cent) [both national languages]. Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) and other minority languages such as Aimaq, Ashkun, Baluchi, Gujari, Hazaragi, Kazaki and Moghili, Pashai, Nuristani and Pamiri (alsana).

Main religions: Islam 99.7 per cent (Sunni 84.7 – 89.7 per cent, Shia 10-15 per cent, and other smaller sects), Sikhism, Hinduism, Judaism.

Afghanistan has not conducted an official census since 1979. After a failed attempt in 2008, another census began in 2013 and was expected to take six years before it would be completed. This recent census process will not include questions on language or ethnicity, for fear that the results will be too politicized and lead to another unsuccessful census. Some of the first results from Bamyan province, where the minority Hazaras are in a majority, put the population figures at less than half of official estimates, leading to accusations of number manipulation.

More than 3.5 million Afghan refugees live outside the country, mainly in Pakistan and Iran. More than 700,000 Afghan refugees returned in 2016, many under considerable pressure from Pakistan. However, Afghanistan’s lack of capacity to absorb large numbers of returnees and the risk that many will end up in a situation of displacement upon arrival has led numbers to drop.  In November 2017, the UN refugee agency UNHCR recorded only 50,000 registered returnees from Pakistan during the first three quarters of the year, compared with 370,000 the year before.   At around the same time, increased civilian casualties led Amnesty International to warn that the EU should stop forcibly returning rejected Afghan asylum-seekers. The number of returns had tripled between 2015 and 2016, with nearly 10,000 having been returned in 2016 alone.  Meanwhile, a study published by the Norwegian Refugee Council in January 2018 concluded that three-quarters of returning refugees ended up in situations of displacement, with 72 per cent having been displaced at least twice.

Afghanistan’s political life has always been dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, who are thought to make up more than a third of the population. Pashtuns are overwhelmingly Sunni with the exception of the Pashtun Turi tribe who are Shi’a.

Significant numbers of the Tajik community are also Sunnis, apart from some Imami Shi’a Tajiks living in western Afghanistan, and the Badakshan Tajiks who are Ismailis.

The majority of ethnic Hazaras are Shi’a (Imami Shi’a) though the Hazaras of Shibar are Ismaili Shi’a with a small minority who are Sunni.

Hazara man in Afghanistan. Credit: Lauras Eye.

There are small Hindu and Sikh communities, estimated in 2016 at about 900 persons, but their numbers are thought to have dropped significantly over the past decades due to emigration. Following the parliamentary rejection of a presidential decree proposing a reserved seat for Hindus and Sikhs in December 2013, political representation of these groups remained limited in 2014. However, in a historic appointment, in May 2014 the previous Afghan government selected a representative from the dwindling Hindu community for the diplomatic rank of ambassador for the first time. Nevertheless, despite managing to secure positions in parliament by appointment, Sikhs and Hindus continue to report being pressured to convert and facing disruptions to funeral and cremation ceremonies by local officials. Socially ostracized, Sikhs living in Kabul reportedly face economic hardship, with many refusing to conduct business with them, but also due to land grabs in areas in which Sikhs have historically resided. In addition to daily economic and social discrimination – sometimes manifesting as physical and verbal abuse – freedom to practise their religion has also been curtailed. Kabul was once home to eight Sikh places of worship or gurdwaras, but only one remains today.

Considerable intermarriage, particularly between the Pashtuns and other groups has somewhat blurred ethnic distinctions among communities. There has also been mixing between Tajiks and later Mongolian and Turkmen migrants, and some between Hazaras and Uzbeks.

Afghanistan is still largely a tribal society, divided into many tribes, clans and smaller groups. Considerable variation in the types of terrain and obstacles imposed by high ranking mountains and deserts, account for the country’s marked ethnic and cultural differences.

The country’s population reflects its location with the presence of several national minorities. The main ethnic groups are dispersed throughout the country as follows: Pashtuns, the majority group, are concentrated mainly in the south and south-east but also live all over the state; Tajiks inhabit mainly the north and north-east, and the Kabul region; Hazaras live in the centre (Hazarajat) and in Kabul; Uzbeks in the north; Aimaq in the west; Turkmens in the north; Baluchis in the west and south-west; and Nuristanis in the east.

The Constitution of Afghanistan came into force on 4 January 2004. It recognizes Afghanistan as an Islamic Republic and as an ‘independent, unitary and indivisible state’. The Constitution further gives official recognition to the following ethnic groups: ‘Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkman, Baluch, Pachaie, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahwui and other tribes.’ Pashtu and Dari are recognized as the official languages, but grants ‘third official language’ status to areas where Uzbeki, Turkmeni, Pachaie, Nuristani, Baluchi or Pamiri language speakers are in the majority. All these languages are to be effectively adopted and developed by the government, with publications and broadcasting proposed to be in all the spoken languages of Afghanistan. The educational curriculum, however, is envisaged as being unitary and based on Islam and ‘national culture’. Article 22 contains a basic non-discrimination clause, but it does not specify any conditions on which discrimination may be based.

With regard to religious minorities, it is worth noting that it is the constitutional chapter on ‘The State’ that protects religious freedom rather than the chapter on ‘Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens’. Article 2 recognizes Islam as the state religion and that, ‘followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.’  This sole clause has been called inadequate as there are no provisions of the law that protect the freedom of religion or belief for minorities. Indeed, jurisprudence establishing harsh penalties for blasphemy and apostasy have been used to harass religious minorities. Blasphemy can be punishable by death if committed by a person of sound mind who has reached the age of majority, namely over the age of 18 for males or over the age of 16 for females. The accused is given three days to recant, or otherwise, face death by hanging. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and can be punishable by death. A fatwa issued in 2007 declared practitioners of the Baha’i faith as a blasphemous deviation from Islam.

Updated June 2019

Afghanistan’s brutal conflict shows little sign of abating, with over 3,804 civilians killed and 7,189 injured during 2018. These are the worst figures since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began publishing its casualty figures in 2009. Though all Afghans face the threat of violence, the risks are especially high for many of its ethnic and religious minorities, who have long suffered a history of discrimination that intensified into large-scale persecution during the Taliban’s rule. Although violence along communal lines has reduced since the United States (US)-led removal of the Taliban government in 2001, attacks continue to be perpetrated against certain groups, particularly Shi’a Hazara who – as both a religious and visible ethnic minority – have long been targeted by the Taliban. 

This situation has only worsened with the increasing presence of foreign Islamist groups, such as Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), now operating for a number of years in Afghanistan. Attacks against religious minorities have been on the rise, with numerous recent suicide bombings targeting Hazara public events and institutions, focussing in particular on the predominantly Hazara neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul. These include aattack on a Shi’a shrine in March 2018 claimed by ISIS that resulted in the deaths of 33 people. In August 2018, ISIS targeted a private school, killing 48 mainly Hazara students and injuring 67 others. A further large-scale attack occurred in two stages in September 2018, when an ISIS suicide bomber first targeted the Maiwand Wrestling Club in Kabul, killing up to 30 people. A second suicide bombing followed immediately afterwards, killing 26 more. The Club plays an important role in the lives of many Hazara youths; in a sign of community resilience, it reopened some months later. Mortars were fired at a high-profile memorial gathering in March 2019 commemorating the death of a prominent Hazara leader, who had been killed by the Taliban in 1995. 11 people were killed and over 90 people were wounded. Although the Taliban were initially blamed, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.  

2018 also brought some of the most violent recent attacks by the Taliban against the Hazara community in a dramatic and deadly change in tactics. At the end of October, a sequence of attacks was directed at the largely Hazara-populated Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. Hazarajat has for a number of years represented something of a haven, allowing more girls to attend schools and women to participate in local decision making than in other parts of the country.  The attacks left more than a hundred dead and at least a thousand reportedly displaced to Bamyan, a city 200 miles away. The violence led to protests by Hazaras in numerous towns, calling for greater government protection and a swifter response.  

After contested presidential elections in June 2014, the National Unity Government (NUG) was formed through a deal to share power between the two leading presidential candidates.  In September 2014, Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, was named President and a new chief executive officer position was created for the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Uzbek.  The power-sharing agreement outlined changes to the current system, to evolve from a presidential to a parliamentary system, in order to better facilitate the equal participation of all ethnic groups. Such changes were meant to be made two years after the formation of the NUG but have yet to effectively materialize. A memo leaked in September 2017, suggesting that some ethnic groups were being specifically recruited for Kabul’s anti-riot force while excluding Tajiks, was interpreted by many as a symptom of broader discrimination within the Afghan government. 

Ethnic polarization is growing as political parties are increasingly turning toward rhetoric split on ethnic lines. Ghani is accused of concentrating power in his office, and both he and Abdullah are accused of making political and security appointments on the basis of ethnic and tribal affinity.  In July 2017, a coalition of ethnic minority leaders, including the ethnic Uzbek First Vice President, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Tajik and Hazara politicians, formed the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan, calling on the President to devolve power to cabinet ministries and provinces. Complicating this situation are reports that the Taliban have been expanding outside traditional territories by recruiting from minority groups that are disenchanted by the central government, including Tajiks, Turkmen and Uzbeks, enabling the Taliban’s growth outside of the south and east.  In the past, the Taliban has been comprised of mostly members of the Pashtun community.  

Parliamentary elections were supposed to take place in 2015 but were postponed until October 2018.  The creation of new electronic identification cards, as part of the electoral reform process, led to further disquiet among minority communities, as ethnic identity was included on the cards.  Many feared that identifying as a minority would lead to attacks or other repercussions.  The long-delayed launch in May 2018 was clouded by further discord. The term ‘Afghan’ was rejected by many communities because it traditionally denoted Pashtuns.  

The elections did take place in October 2018 but were marred by incomplete voter rolls and missing ballot papers at many polling stations. Staff were sometimes absent or unfamiliar with the biometric voting equipment that was being introduced. Some polling stations failed to open or opened late. They were opened on the following day, but this meant that some polling stations stored election materials overnight with their seals broken – paving the way for possible abuse. There were reports of casualties, especially in Kunduz in the northeast and Kabul, resulting from Taliban attempts to disrupt the voting. Turnout varied, with participation most marked in cities and towns. For instance, independent observers stated that turnout was ‘massive’ in the Hazara neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul.  

Preliminary results were initially announced at the beginning of 2019, but the final results were only published in May 2019. 24 men and nine women won seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the Afghan parliament’s lower house.  

Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in September 2019. A consultative peace loya jirga, or grand tribal council, gathered in Kabul at the end of April 2019 in order to discuss the peace process with the Taliban. Boycotted by key figures, including chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, it was perceived by many as simply a stage in President Ghani’s forthcoming reelection campaign. However, the gathering was significant in reaffirming the still fragile gains that have been made by the country when it comes to women’s rights and human rights more generally. Of the roughly 3,200 delegates, some 900 women participated; 13 of the 52 working committees were headed by women – a clear step forward in women’s participation.  

Meanwhile, in February 2019, the United States and the Taliban began negotiations in Doha, Qatar to bring about an end the conflict. The Taliban refused to negotiate directly with the Ghani government. The American side is motivated by a desire to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. However, minorities such as the Hazara fear that any deal which gives the Taliban a say in government will lead to a return to the targeted killings and other persecution that they faced before the Taliban were toppled in 2001.  

A continuing problem facing Afghanistan is the deeply entrenched culture of impunity. The government of former President Hamid Karzai adopted a transitional justice plan in December 2006, but no further action was taken and it was essentially quashed by an amnesty law passed by the Afghan parliament in 2007. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) conducted a comprehensive 800-page mapping of war crimes and crimes against humanity which had been committed from 1978 to 2001; however, lack of government support led the AIHRC to withhold its release. 

Sadly, the fight against impunity received a clear setback in April 2019 when the International Criminal Court’s pre-trial chamber turned down the chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s request to investigate. The request had encompassed the crimes of members of the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as the US military and Central Intelligence Agency. After the request was announced in 2017, more than 6,000 people, along with, collectively 1,690 families and 26 villages, came forward and offered their testimonies and support. However, both the Afghan and US governments expressed their vehement disapproval of the request and insistence that they would not cooperate with any investigation. As a result, while noting that the chief prosecutor had provided sufficient evidence to draw the conclusion that potential cases would prove admissible, the judges felt forced to conclude that an investigation would not meet the objectives listed by the victims favouring the investigation and thus ‘at this stage would not serve the interests of justice… 

Many provinces where ethnic minorities are in the majority remain severely underdeveloped. In the province of Bamyan, the traditional homeland of the Hazara, the government proposed to run a power route through the region, as part of an effort to provide electricity from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan (hence its name: TUTAP). When in 2016 the project was rerouted through another province, thousands of Hazaras demonstrated in Kabul. Even though the project would not necessarily have brought much-needed electricity to Bamyan itself, Hazaras saw the change in plans as a reflection of the administration’s continuing neglect of their community. Tragically, this peaceful protest was attacked by a suicide bomber in July 2016, killing approximately 80. 

Nomadic ethnic groups in Afghanistan also have not benefited from changes over the last decade. Some communities, such as Kuchis, have managed to play a key role in post-Taliban politics, but these are mostly settled members of the Kuchi community.  Recently settled or semi-nomadic Kuchis are largely neglected. They report being forcibly settled by the government, having no means to sustain their livelihood in permanent settlements, being denied access to health and education. Most lack birth certificates or identity papers, which are required to access these services. Many Kuchis live in informal settlements on the outskirts of Kabul. 

Local women’s rights organizations have pointed out that – to varying degrees – all sides of the conflict in Afghanistan have had a role in undermining women’s rights. Nevertheless, rights groups have stressed that any peace talks with the Taliban must not undermine the important, if limited, gains that have been made with respect to women’s rights in recent years. Women human rights defenders continue to suffer threats, harassment and intimidation on a daily basis. 

Some minority women, such as the Hazara women, have traditionally enjoyed more freedom in their society than other ethnic groups.  In the post-Taliban period, they have benefited considerably from political and educational reforms.  Shi’a personal laws, however, pose a direct threat to that freedom. Passed in 2009, the Shi’a Personal Status Law striped Shi’a women, many of whom are Hazara, of some of their basic rights enshrined in the Constitution, including allowing a husband to withhold basic sustenance from his wife for not having sex with him, restricting women from working without permission from their husbands, and denying women custody over their children. The law was drafted by a powerful Shi’a cleric and pushed through by conservative Shi’a men, without adequate consultation with Shi’a women or proper regard for their rights. 


Current issues

A key issue for the Hazara community is the general climate of impunity, whereby those who committed atrocities – both past and present – to evade justice. Hazaras also remain concerned about the resurgence of the Taliban, who they feel pose a direct threat to their community. There have also been increasing ethnic tensions and incidents of violent clashes between Hazaras and nomadic Kuchis over access to land in recent years. Due to the severity of their persecution under the Taliban, Hazara leaders have insisted, along with leaders of other minority groups, to be included in all negotiations with the Taliban. 

With the increasing presence of foreign Islamist groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), active in the country for a number of years, attacks against religious minorities have been on the increase.  Being Shi’a and therefore both a religious and a visible ethnic minority, Hazaras are particularly vulnerable.  

Suicide bombings targeting Hazara public events and institutions have taken place with increasing regularity, most of which have been claimed by groups stating allegiance with ISIS. Most of these attacks have targeted the predominantly Hazara neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in western KabulThese include, in July 2016, the killing of 85 people at a peaceful protest comprised of mostly Hazaras. It was the deadliest attack on civilians since 2002 and targeted the Hazara on the basis of their Shi’a religious identity. Other attacks include a December 2017 bombing of the Tebyan cultural centre, a Shi’a cultural institution, that left at least 41 dead and another 80 injured. An assault in March 2018 resulted in the deaths of 33 people. The attack occurred at the prominent Shi’a Sakhi shrine on Nowruz, the Persian New Year that Is celebrated by the Hazara community. In August 2018, ISIS targeted a private school, killing 48 mainly Hazara students and injuring 67 others. They were studying for their university entrance exams at the time.  A further large-scale attack occurred in September 2018, when an ISIS suicide bomber first targeted the Maiwand Wrestling Club in Kabul, killing up to 30 people. A second suicide bombing followed immediately afterwards, killing 26 more, including emergency services, police and journalists who had gathered at the site. The Club is also located in Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul and figures prominently in the lives of many young Hazara men. As a sign of community resilience, it reopened some months later. 

Mortars were fired at a high-profile memorial gathering in March 2019 commemorating the death of a significant Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, who had been killed by the Taliban in 1995. The attack again targeted Dasht-e-Barchi; 11 people were killed and over 90 people were wounded. Although the Taliban were initially blamed, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. 

The Taliban too has been responsible for kidnappings of Hazaras, particularly on remote highways, with some of the victims killed while others have been held for ransom. But 2018 also brought some of the most violent attacks by the Taliban in a dramatic and deadly change in tactics. At the end of October, a sequence of attacks was directed at the largely Hazara-populated Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan – first in Khas Uruzgan and then in Jaghori and Malistan districtsHazarajat has for a number of years represented something of a haven, marked by less violence than elsewhere in the country and thus encouraging more girls to attend schools and women to participate in local decision making than in other parts of the country.  The attacks left more than a hundred dead and at least a thousand displaced to Bamyan, a city 200 miles away. The violence led to protests by Hazaras in numerous towns, calling for greater government protection and a swifter response.  

Hazara women have traditionally enjoyed more freedom in their society than other ethnic groups.  In the post-Taliban period, they have benefited considerably from political and educational reforms.   Yet the influence of Shi’a personal laws has threatened that freedom.  In 2009 the controversial Shi’a Personal Status Law was passed, stripping Shi’a women, many of whom are Hazara, of some of their basic rights enshrined in the Constitution, including allowing a husband to withhold basic sustenance from his wife for not having sex with him, restricting women from working without permission from their husbands, and denying women custody over their children. The law was reportedly drafted by a powerful Shi’a cleric and pushed through by conservative Shi’a community leaders, who did not adequately consult or protect the rights of Shi’a women. 

Poverty and insecurity drive many Hazaras to migrate to cities such as Kabul. However, the journey to Kabul from Hazarajat in the centre of the country has proven dangerous. The main roadway between the two areas – dubbed ‘Death Road’ – has been the site of kidnappings and other deadly Taliban attacks on Hazaras in recent years. As a result, having successfully arrived in Kabul, Hazaras have often been unable or afraid to return to their previous homes. This violence on the main roadway has further isolated and thereby stalled the development of Hazarajat, which requires labour and materials from Kabul to build facilities such as schools and clinics. Both these factors have contributed to the high numbers of Hazara currently residing in Kabul, with many concentrated in one overcrowded area, the largely Hazara Kabul district of Dasht-e Barchi. Although life in Kabul is relatively improved for Hazaras since 2001, they have continued to occupy lower-status jobs and face harsh discrimination, including in access to facilities and provision of essential services. As noted above, Dasht-e Barchi has also become a highly visible target, vulnerable to attacks especially by groups affiliated to ISIS.  


Afghanistan is a landlocked, arid, mountainous and sparsely populated country, with an area of 647,500 square kilometres, bordered by Iran to the west, Pakistan to the south and east, the People’s Republic of China to the far north-east and the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north-east.


Afghanistan’s modern history has been one of conflict and civil war. The country’s first Constitution was drafted in 1923. However, the constitutional monarchy that was introduced in 1964 came to an end with the overthrow of King Zahir Shah by the then Prime Minister (later President) Mohammad Daoud in a coup in 1973. President Daoud was himself overthrown by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a small Marxist-Leninist party which took power in a coup supported by the Soviet Union in April 1978.  However, PDPA’s ideology was rejected provoking resistance. This led to a civil war, which intensified after the entry of Soviet troops in December 1979.

The Soviet invasion resulted in the establishment of a communist regime in Kabul and ushered in years of further conflict which persisted until the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from the country in 1989, following the Geneva Accords of 1988. As reported in documents submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly, the Soviet occupation was characterized by an arbitrary rule. During the occupation, the United States began to covertly and overtly support opposition to the regime which consisted of armed Islamist groups, through military and financial aid to fight against the Soviet and Afghan governmental forces. Regional powers including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia each supported their own factional groups, as ethnic awareness and consequent tensions mounted.

According to UN reports, during the Soviet occupation, the country suffered serious damage, particularly in the intellectual sphere thereby damaging the foundation for the future. Torture was the most frequently used tool of the regime. Massive summary executions regularly took place and when, in September 1979, the President of the time, Nur Mohammed Taraki, was ousted by his deputy, Hafizullah Amin, a list of 12,000 persons who had been executed in prison was posted on the walls of the Ministry of the Interior.

Post-Soviet invasion

After the withdrawal of Soviet forces in February 1989, a civil war commenced between the Soviet-supported government of President Mohammad Najibullah and the various Afghan factions supported by the US and known as the Mujahadin (holy war fighters), who had fought against the Soviet troops until their withdrawal. But with the departure of the common enemy, differences submerged during the war re-emerged and Mujahadin groups began to fight among themselves.

The civil conflict rapidly acquired an ethnic dimension as people from various localities fled their homes, changing the population dynamics of the state. As a result, the population of various localities fluctuated in the numbers of one or other ethnic group. Under intense pressure, the Najibullah’s regime finally collapsed when Abdul Rashid Dostum (an army general under the Soviets) and his Uzbek militia switched allegiance from the Kabul regime to the Mujahidin, who entered Kabul in April 1992.

The end of the communist regime yielded the discovery of three common graves, at Pol-i-charkhi in the suburbs of Kabul next to the central prison, and in the provinces of Bamyan and Herat. The government was convinced that further investigations would reveal other such mass graves. The occupation and ensuing war led to more than 1 million deaths and forced 6 million people out of a total population of 16 million to seek exile in neighbouring countries. Further 2 million persons were internally displaced, several tens of thousands were disabled by anti-personnel mines, and the number of orphans and other persons left without families ran into the tens of thousands.

The UN offered to mediate in this conflict between various factions of the Mujahadin, proposing a peace plan, although this effort collapsed in April 1992. One result of the UN’s efforts was the transfer of power to the Mujahadin faction representing the Tajiks from the north, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, who became President of Afghanistan in July 1992. President Rabbani’s government was supported by Ahmad Shah Masoud, a former guerrilla commander and prominent Tajik representative. Strong opposition was mounted by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e Islami faction of the Mujahadin, which represented the Pashtun population.

Violent attacks also occurred between the Hazara opposition Hizb-e Wahdat and Mujahadin leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittehad-i-Islami. Some of the other parties joined the fighting, leading Hizb-e Wahdat to attack Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami positions.  Rabbani’s chief commander Massoud launched retaliatory artillery attacks on Hizb-e Wahdat, killing many Hazaras. Amnesty International subsequently reported the killing of unarmed civilians and rape of Hazara women. In February 1993, hundreds of Hazara residents in the Afshar district of West Kabul were massacred by government forces under Rabbani and Massoud, joined by Ittehad-i-Islami.

This civil war between the various Afghan factions caused untold misery in the state. While many people sought to rebuild their lives, thousands of refugees also arrived from the borders. There were severe abuses of human rights. Between April 1992 and August 1994, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 13,500 people were killed and 80,000 wounded in Kabul alone. It was estimated that more children under the age of five died of disease in Afghanistan than in any other country during that period.

As in most conflicts, women and children were among those worst affected by the civil war. Strict purdah meant that many women spent most of their lives in seclusion, and cultural norms further limited their access to health services, education and training. With family structures broken, and men killed or absent, Afghan women took on heavy additional burdens, often including sole responsibility for children and disabled relatives.

Mujahidin in power

The incoming Mujahidin government inherited merely the symbols, not the instrumentalities of a state. The army was also fragmented, leading to different groups claiming power across the country. The conflict between the resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who occupied the centre of Kabul, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the leader of Pakistan-backed Hezb-e Islami escalated and continued until 1996.

During this time the education and health infrastructure of the state were severely undermined. UNICEF reported more than 1.5 million children died from malnutrition and lack of healthcare. Afghans of all ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds were the primary victims of this war, though more than 3 million refugees subsequently returned to the country through the government’s involvement in two tripartite agreements, with Pakistan and UNHCR, and with Iran and UNHCR respectively.

Taliban rule

From 1994, Pakistan supported the ‘anti-modernist’ militia known as Taliban. The word ‘taliban’ signifies ‘students’ with the professed initial ideology of the movement geared towards making its members closer followers of the Qur’an. Disillusioned with the continued instability, former Mujahidin coalesced around a new leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, originally from Qandahar. The Taliban were constituted overwhelmingly of Pashtuns and recruited students from Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan. Non-Afghan radicals also joined the Taliban. The Deobandi movement was founded in 1867 in India and started out as a revivalist Islamic movement, but is now seen as orthodox and ultra-conservative. Their madrassas, or Islamic schools, are run in many countries around the world.

Effective on the battlefield, the Taliban quickly gained ground. In 1995, they took control of the western city of Herat, thereby cutting strategic supply links between Iran and the government in Kabul. In September 1996, Massoud was forced to retreat from Kabul, and the Taliban took control. In 1997, the Taliban named the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and set about enforcing a harsh vision of Islam in areas under their control. Taliban policies severely restricted the movement and dress of women, as well as required men to grow beards and refrain from Western clothing; enforcement was through the notorious Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – including through the application of corporal punishment. Massoud reconstituted the opposition Northern Alliance with the northern Panjshir Valley as his base.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden, the leader of the extremist al-Qaeda movement, had returned to Afghanistan and developed close ties with Mullah Omar. Al-Qaeda fighters fought alongside Taliban. Originally from Saudi Arabia, bin Laden had previously fought with the Mujahidin.  In the wake of a-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US on 11 September 2001, Afghanistan found itself bearing the brunt of US government retaliation. The Taliban, accused of sheltering the instigators of the attacks, collapsed in the face of a sustained US-led bombing campaign of the country. Despite the assassination of Massoud by suicide bombers posing as journalists just a couple of days before the 11 September attacks, the Northern Alliance forces entered and recaptured Kabul with US support.

Bonn Agreement

The initial steps towards rebuilding the country were taken through the signing of a peace agreement – the Bonn Agreement signed between various factions in Bonn, Germany in December 2001. The internationally brokered agreement sought to create a governance structure for Afghanistan after the demise of the Taliban. The agreement sought to put in place transitional institutions pending the establishment of permanent government institutions.

This created the Afghanistan Interim Authority (AIA) and an emergency Loya Jirga (or ‘grand assembly’), which were given the mandate to decide upon an Afghanistan Translational Authority (ATA). A constitutional Loya Jirga consisting of representatives of the various ethnic groups within the state was held within 18 months of the establishment of the ATA, in order to adopt a new Constitution. Hamid Karzai served initially as interim leader and then as elected President from December 2001 to September 2014.

A new Afghan National Army was created through presidential decree. This army recruited across the ethnic divides as a symbol of the transitional authority’s commitment to ethnically balanced institutions under civilian control. During this period an effective police force was also established.

Despite the introduction of some element of democracy in Afghanistan the country continued to be plagued by violence and insecurity, including as a result of retaliatory Taliban attacks.

Refugee and internal displacement

Afghanistan’s problems intensified with the rapid return of many Afghan refugees who had left the state during decades of war. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that almost 2 million refugees returned to Afghanistan from abroad in 2002 alone while 700,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) moved back to their places of origin. This figure subsequently dropped in the following years as the heightened security tensions and the destitute conditions led to further displacement.

Continued challenges and the resurgence of the Taliban

Growing international opposition to the continued involvement of NATO troops in Afghanistan, as well as increasing insecurity in many parts of the country, resulted in the announcement of a temporary surge in US troops after the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009, followed by a steady withdrawal of forces in the years that followed until the formal end of NATO operations in December 2014.

Tensions surrounding issues of ‘identity’ in Afghanistan came to the fore during the 2014 election, which saw the politicization of identity along predominantly ethnic lines. Although Ashraf Ghani, the eventual victor, avoided using his tribal name for official purposes in the wake of his election, during the campaign his identity was mobilized in efforts to appeal to Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun voters. Meanwhile, Ghani’s first vice president, former Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum – who fled the country in May 2017 following accusations of the torture and rape of a political opponent – at the time warned minority Uzbek and Turkmen tribes in Baghlan province they would be considered ‘traitors’ if they did not vote for Ghani. However, the election also provided an opportunity for minorities to challenge Afghanistan’s hierarchical political system, with Hazaras playing a particularly prominent role in the election – a reflection of their improved status over the last decade. Although the Hazara vote was split, the majority of voters lent their support to Abdullah Abdullah – who is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity but is identified with the latter – and who represented a vote for change in the eyes of many.

During this period, however, the root problems of corruption, ethnic division and exclusion failed to be addressed. Continued violence, particularly for minorities such as Hazaras, persisted as Taliban militants appeared to gain in strength. This period, from 2015 onwards, saw the first incidents by ISIS-affiliated groups as well, with attacks targeted against security forces, officials and also minorities.


In terms of the relations between the different ethnic groups within the state, it can be stated that the Pashtuns have largely dominated Afghan politics though other ethnic groups, notably the Tajiks, have, at various stages of history also maintained a strong political influence. Many attribute the worsening of ethnic relations and the emerging tensions between the groups to the Afghan-Soviet war which is said to have changed society significantly.

Jurisprudence concerning blasphemy and apostasy has been used to harass religious minorities. Blasphemy can be punishable by death if committed by a male over the age of 18 or a female over the age of 16, ‘who is of sound mind’. The accused is given three days to recant, or otherwise, face death by hanging. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and can be punishable by death. Although there have not been any recent prosecutions, representatives of minority communities state that the fact that the provisions exist mean that they are hesitant to express their faiths publicly. Individuals who convert from Islam are particularly fearful of retribution by both the government and their families.  A fatwa issued in 2007 declared the Baha’i faith a blasphemous deviation from Islam.

Article 84 of the Constitution mandates that women should hold 50 percent of the seats in the House of Elders (upper house) and Article 83 requires each of the 34 provinces to send two female delegates to the House of the People (lower house). The 2010 parliamentary elections saw 27.7 percent of the seats held by women, more than ever before; the percentage of women members of parliament has remained steady since then.

The situation for many women in Afghanistan has improved significantly over the last decade, with an increase in female access to education, women’s representation in parliament, armed and police forces and civil society. However, there are many women who have still not been given the opportunity to garner a full understanding of their rights, and freedom of expression among women (for instance on issues concerning women’s issues and free choice of dress) remains minimal in more rural areas given the extent of intimidation by armed factions and political or religious leaders.

The law on the elimination of violence against women was passed by Presidential Decree in 2009. But even as of 2017, it had not yet been approved by parliament, which is necessary in order to enshrine its status in Afghan law.  In 2016, some members of parliament were advocating changes that threatened to undermine the law, including to remove provisions related to women’s shelters, minimum age of marriage, and punishments for domestic assault.  Use and implementation of the law lags behind. While violence against women and girls is increasingly being catalogued and reported, the law is rarely applied. The law does not have any provisions for the potential intersectional discrimination faced by minority women and does not mention ethnicity or religious identity.

Minority based and advocacy organisations

Sources and further reading


Afghan Aid

Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)

Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Improving Afghan Lives Through Research

Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC)

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)


Hazara Network

World Hazara Council