Ethnic Groups in Afghanistan

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the ethnic groups of Afghanistan, a large land-locked nation in South Asia. There are many ethnic groups in this populous country, so we'll focus on the three largest.

Ethnic Groups in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a large country in South Asia and is home to many different ethnic groups. It is a little bit smaller than the U.S. state of Texas and is bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Of the 30 million people living there, the dominant religion is Muslim, with about 99.7% of the country's population identifying as such.

Afghanistan is a large and populous country with many different ethnic groups. In this lesson, though, we'll focus on the three largest ethnic groups.

Note: Because of ongoing conflict, updated statistics on ethnic groups in the country and their exact numbers have been difficult to maintain. The subject of ethnicity is quite sensitive and therefore finding definitive numbers can be difficult. So for now, let's talk about the history and culture of some of the biggest ethnic groups in the country.


The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan as they make up roughly half of its population. The Pashtun are organized into tribes based on social division like religion or kinship lines. The Pashtun are made up of about sixty different tribes, each with their own territory in the country and are considered politically powerful.

The Pashtun are largely Sunni Muslims, (the religion of Islam is divided into Sunni Muslims and Shi'a Muslims). Culturally, honor is very important to the Pashtun and things like family and property are highly valued and defended. The Pashtun live mostly in the south and east of the country and for the most part members of this group speak a unique language called Pashto.

The invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 caused many Afghans to flee, many of whom were Pashtun. The Pashtun are economically disadvantaged and often live in harsh conditions without access to things like running water or adequate shelter.


Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and most of the country's elites belong to this group. Most Tajiks in Afghanistan are practicing Sunni Muslims, like the Pashtun. Most speak a language similar to Farsi, which is the most common language in Iran. Historically, Tajiks mainly lived in the urban centers of Afghanistan but more recently have spread out to other areas.

Like the Pashtun, the Tajiks are politically powerful due to their considerable wealth (relative to many in the country) and their higher levels of education. Recently, Tajiks have engaged in struggle for greater political participation in the government of Afghanistan, although they were recognized as an official ethnic group by the constitution in 2014.


The third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Hazara. In the past, this group was actually the largest in the country. However, after facing brutal violence and ethnic cleansing, or large scale expulsion of an ethnic group, their numbers were dramatically reduced. Today, many Hazara continue to face discrimination and persecution as the result of ongoing conflict in the country.

A gathering of Hazara in Afghanistan

For the most part, the Hazara live in the mountainous region of central Afghanistan. Religiously, most Hazara identify as Shi'a Muslims, making them a minority in the country.. The Hazara speak a language known as Hazagari, which comes form a Persian dialect.

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