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Tribal Governance

By Steven Elsbury.

Ethnic Groups

Afghanistan is a country whose tribal structure has a very interesting, complicated and active dynamic. There are a number of different major tribes, all of which have a different level of effect on the lives of their members as well as a different level of interaction with the national government of the country. But to begin with “tribe” is a word that might need definition for further discussion. A tribe is, “any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc.”

In Afghanistan it is very difficult to have clearly defined ethnic groups with distinguishable physical characteristics as there are so many contributing factors. There are little or no physical characteristics that are shared by one tribe or another and in addition there may be a multitude of smaller customs shared by a larger group of people. Afghanistan's rugged terrain can also make this difficult as people of the same tribe may have divided themselves into much smaller groups due to isolation.(Griffin) In addition tribalism is not a concept that is strictly adhered to by all ethnic groups and is by nature a very loose concept that allows many variations to exist (Blood).

Afghanistan is home to a few major tribes or ethnic groups. Some large ethnic groups include the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Wakhi (mountain Tajik), Hazaras and Kirghiz. The Pashtuns are the largest and possess the most political influence and are also the most tribally organized. Most differences come from differences in language or religious sect but there are overlaps and gray areas allowing for some uncertainty as to what group some people may belong to.(Griffin) Tribes however almost never take action as a whole because of this and because of the fact that tribal influence is generally only effective for local settings.

Tribal Structure

The basis of tribal organization and allegiance is genealogy through the father. Tribes can trace their lineage back to a single man often 10 or more generations back. However, smaller units form for a basis of stronger personal loyalty and have a much stronger influence on the individual. Tribal organization is very loose and changes with each small patrilineal group but for the most part they share a few common characteristics. Egalitarianism with a democratic decision-making process is very uniform.(Blood)

For the most part every male has the right to attend, present an opinion, and vote in the decision-making councils (jirgah or shora). Jirga generally have no chairmen and members will sit in a circle to preserve a sense of equality. Decisions must be reached through consensus and do not end until consensus has been reached or it has been agreed that it won't be reached. Once a decision has been reached, that decision is binding for everyone involved. Jirga usually occur only when there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Shora differ in that they are slightly more representative, there is a more permanent membership, and meetings are at regular intervals. There is little or no chosen representation except to very large tribal gatherings (provincial or all-tribe) that have very seldom occured except in times of great need. (Glatzer 271-272)

Every sub-section of the tribe will have different small customs but share these ideals. These sub-sections have rather loose leadership. Their leaders have very little actual power and are generally merely spokesmen and the tribe as a whole has no one official leader because of this. Leadership is not hereditary as the Muslim religion does not recognize it, leaders are therefore chosen on their individual qualities. As a result there is often a large upheaval after a leader steps down or loses favor, giving the Afghans a warlike reputation. Conflicts amongst people or groups are usually personal or group honor, family dissensions, struggles for material possession, resources and territory or power struggles rather than ethnic discrimination. (Blood)

Tribes have varying degrees of localization or territorial ownership. Some small sub-sections will own a portion of land whereas other sub-sections will be spread out across a large area and have little or no identifiable territories. If there is land under tribal ownership then being a member of the tribe guarantees access to the lands. That means that if a tribal member sells his tribal land he keeps the right to buy it back if he ever has the resources and the desire. In addition tribes will have community lands and areas for instance pastures and forests that every member has an equal right to utilize. Tribes that have a definable area like this have the ability to make decisions concerning it in the community councils. (Glatzer 272)

Sometimes tribal sub-sections will retain a standing militia of sorts and mililitias can be called as needed by jirgas. Militias are made up of younger men (usually unmarried) that cannot participate in jirga. Jirga also have the responsibility of determining revenge for wrongs against people or the community. The jirga or shora have accepted authority and there are penalties to ignoring their decisions. The classical punishment is having the offenders house burn down and the most extreme is expulsion from the tribe and tribal land.(Glatzer 273).

Tribal Interaction with National Issues

Tribal matters and government generally are very separate from the national government. There have been times in Afghanistan's history in which people have used tribal affiliations to gain political power and to create a nation-state of some sort but they have been for the most part short lived governments. In early national governments there were several instances of mistaken succession where the leader rose to power and then failed to name a successor from his many sons. After which there were violent upheavals and struggles for power, in which case a new charismatic leader would seize the opportunity and rise to power. (Blood) In most cases when a leader would rise to power by using tribal affiliations, the very structure of the tribal system would keep the tribe out of the affairs of the resulting nation-state. Tribal structure is very genealogical and dictates that your strongest allegiance should be owed to those most closely related to you. Therefore as a leader rises in power he loses the strongest tribal allegiances the wider the influence he seeks to earn. Therefore once leaders gain national control they lose touch with their tribal roots and have to create organizations in government to form the same purpose. Because of this, powerful candidates end up losing the support that gained them their leadership and either lose their power to the next contestant or their regime simply loses control and the country falls into anarchy waiting for the next ambitious and charismatic candidate. (Glatzer 277)

This pattern doesn't mean that the tribal structure has no political effect, it just means that the national governments do not rely on tribal structures to be an extension of their government. In general the tribal system merely operates on the local level untouched by the national entities. The tribal structure now is much less common but not completely gone. In the arena of national politics the same sectionalism and segmentation is accomplished through new political methods. However in general the family ideal of the tribal system still holds true. Afghans are motivated to fight first for their close family, then their tribe going farther and farther back through generations of a common ancestor and are even motivated on major basis of religion or religious sect since the Sunnis or Shias have common goals as well as the Muslims in general.(Glatzer 280) “If afghans were not fighting the soldiers of another country they would be fighting each other.” But at the same time Afghans have a remarkable tendency to form allegiances when necessary, whether to defend themselves or to accomplish something important.(Griffin)

Works Cited

Blood,Peter R., ed. Afghanistan: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 2001.

Glatzer, Bernt. "Chapter 10 The Pashtun Tribal System." Concept of Tribal Society. By Deepak Kumar. Behera and George Pfeffer. New Delhi: Concept Pub., 2002. 265-82. Print.

Griffin, Luke. "Afghanistan Country Study." Paul V. Galvin Library - Home. Illinois Institute of Technology, 14 Jan. 2002. Web. 28 Sept. 2011. <>.