This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.
Defining ethnic identity is a difficult task. This is true for Central Asia as for any other place in the world. The fact that, for earlier periods of history, the Central Asian records—both native ones and foreign—used a great variety of terms for human ethnicity in Turkic Central Asia populations, does not make it any easier. It is largely unclear, which of the tribal groups or early statehoods correspond to a contemporary understanding of ethnicity.
Anthropological scholarship on Central Asia has, by contrast, stressed the rather vague and floating categories that people in the region used to define themselves and others. According to this view, the creation of ethnic groups was largely a product of more or less artificial engineering during Soviet times. Before that, local communities and extended kin groups, regularly reshuffled and redefined in history, were of much greater importance for people’s identification and alliances than language or assumed genetic ties.
While there is some truth in that, the picture is more complex. In particular, among the Turkic-speaking groups in the region, a steady process of consolidation set in following the decline of the Mongol Empire, resulting in the emergence of the contemporary ethnic groups out of earlier configurations. The underlying concepts of attachment and self-understanding vary, however, and can be distinguished in two different modes, roughly corresponding to the nomadic-sedentary divide. While among the former, the idea of patrilineal descent, or a genealogical model, is at the bottom of internal divisions as well as external demarcation, in the oases the prime criterion is proximity and shared culture, or a territorial model of ethnic identity.
Processes of ethnic demarcation were, indeed, greatly accelerated during the Soviet period and its aftermath. Today, we observe a hasty search across the region, for national identities, that, while following lines of Soviet ethnicity concepts, fundamentally changed their understanding as well as their inter-ethnic and majority-minority relations. This is still a very open and dynamic process leading to new (inter-)ethnic constellations and political power relations.
With an estimated thirty million or more in Pakistan, twelve million in Afghanistan, and perhaps a million or more in a global diaspora, Pashtuns or Pukhtuns comprise a complex ethno-linguistic population with a rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities. Historic and literary references to communities that have been thought to identify “Afghans” date to the 10th century and, according to the source and scholar consulted, many centuries earlier. The assumption of any uniquely “Pashtun” identity as equivalent to the diverse “Afghan” cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that evolved over centuries has obfuscated a full understanding of the emergence of distinct regional Pashtun ethno-linguistic communities and the origins of frequently studied cultural idioms. Millions of Pashtuns have lived in close and daily contact with many other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluch, Punjabis, etc.), and color-coded maps of ethnic homelands in Afghanistan and Pakistan are best seen as guides to often complex social geographies rather than absolute markers of ethnically pure settlement areas.
For perhaps a thousand years, Pashtuns and regional forefathers have circulated within imperial and merchant networks connected by Silk Road pathways, Persian and north Indian trade routes, and Indian Ocean sea lanes. Pashtuns sought livelihoods as horse traders, military entrepreneurs, agrarian pioneers, and regional rulers in the northern, eastern, and Deccan regions of India. An Afghan state with variable territorial claims consolidated after 1747. Leading Pashtun clans from around Kandahar and the eastern districts took positions in the dynasties that soon ruled from Kabul and core provinces.
Pashtuns between the Oxus and Indus rivers adapted to, avoided, and served 18th- and 19th-century Russian and British imperial economic and political forces. In the high European “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghan territories were framed by treaty-negotiated boundaries. Never colonized, Afghanistan became economically dependent on British–India subsidies and linkages. Into the mid-20th century, Afghanistan’s Pashtun political dynasties and Islamic and political activists on both sides of the British-Indian Durand Line offered leadership and alternative visions of the future to anticolonial and Muslim nationalists, including those in British India.
In recent decades, core Pashtun homelands and diasporic communities have fully experienced the disruptions and violence that followed the partition of British India in 1947, postcolonial “national” consolidation, conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Cold War alliances and conflict, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and civil war. Like others, Pashtun lives were shaped by the transnational dynamics of economic globalization, urbanization, migration, and the international crises that traumatized the world after September 11, 2001.