Below is a translation (from Dari to English) of the first three pages of Qadam-ha-ye Awshti.

By Nasrine Gross

(This article is a translation from Dari-Persian, by the author, of section 3 of chapter 3: Current Problems of Reaching Peace and Reconciliation in Afghanistan, in Gross, Nasrine Abou-Bakre, Compiler/Editor, Qadam-ha-ye Awshti wa Massouliat-e Ma Afghan-ha (Steps of Peace and our Responsibility as Afghans), First Edition, Falls Church, VA: Kabultec, 2000)

National identity is that identity which a separate, independent and sovereign country has for defining its people. This identity gives a single dimension to all the inhabitants of a country as one nation. It shows the relationship of social groups to the country and vice-versa. This identity which is higher than social group identities creates the highest loyalty in the people and becomes part of the social thought process of each individual. National identity, which has its own unique characteristics, cannot be created in a vacuum; rather it has to originate from the fundamental beliefs, values, and mores of the society.

Building of a national identity is a comparatively easy task in countries that have simpler social structures, such as Japan. But in countries such as Afghanistan, which are situated at a geographic crossroads and are composed of many diverse social groups, nation building becomes a difficult and sensitive task. The process has several components and several stages of development.

In my view, the Afghan national identity is comprised of four separate identities. These are individual identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, and national identity, forming consecutive steps. In the first step, there is the individual identity. In Afghanistan, the individual is raised by his/her family and the primary values of the individual emanate from the family. Among Afghans, the individual identity is very robust and important, especially among men and older women.

The second step is the religious identity. In Afghanistan, there are several religions and sects and in this respect all of them have been successful. For example, Islam which is the religion of the majority of the people, has taught each Afghan the five pillars of Islam, prepared the individual for the community of Islam, i.e., the society; and trained him/her in the importance of the everlasting world and the unimportance of the temporal world. In this way, Afghans, be they Sunni or Shi’a, have been pious believers and the Islamic aspect of their identity has fully developed.

The third step is the ethnic identity. This identity is the guardian of the history of the social group and teaches the values and relations of the social group to its members. As we all know, Afghanistan includes many ethnicities (qawms) and in this regard, Pashtun-wali, i.e., the oral code of traditions and characteristics of the Pashtun social group is the most famous, most identifiable and most described. But for sure, Tajik-wali, Hazara-wali, Uzbek-wali, etc. also exist. And all these ‘walis’ in a way give rise to the identities that have existed in the historical Afghanistan. At the local and social group level, Afghans know well their own particular identity.

The fourth step is the Afghan national identity, which is over all and is the guardian of the country and nation of Afghanistan. In other words, with this identity, an Afghan must stand with full equilibrium and balance at the cross-section of family, religion and ethnicity; count him/herself a part of the Afghan nation; and consider the country above everyone and above him/herself.

During the peaceful periods, Afghanistan in the twentieth century, especially after independence, was much occupied with building and nurturing this national identity, i.e., the Afghan identity. In a way, the twentieth century Afghanistan can be viewed as a struggle and evolution towards this equilibrium and balance among the four component identities. In my opinion, the major phases of this evolution are: From independence until the Communist take-over (1919-1978), the Jihad period (1978-1992), the Mujaheddeen state (1992-1996) and the period of the Taliban militias (1996-).

From independence until the Communist take-over, in relation to building the Afghan national identity, Afghanistan utilized three important tracks: First, Afghan identity building was being pursued by the central government and was one of its major goals. Second, mass public education created the Afghan identity in the same mold and made it easier to uniformly transport it across the land. Third, the foundation of national identity was built more on the principles of one single social group, i.e., on Pashtun-wali. This Afghan identity building was to a large extent successful, especially in the cities where most education took place and also among many Pashtun tribes who saw more clearly their relationship to the national identity.

At the same time this Afghan identity building also gave rise to a major problem. The other social groups could not sufficiently identify with this national identity because it did not originate from their own social bases. On the contrary, not only did they mentally reject it because they took it as representing the Pashtun identity and therefore as being lorded over, but also they were compelled to deny their own ethnicity and keep it inside themselves. In other words, the relationship and relevance of each ethnicity to the country of Afghanistan and its national identity were not apparent in this Pashtun-wali centered definition of national identity.

As a result of this flawed development, in a way, we told each of the other social groups ‘do not expect much from the Afghan identity, it is not for your group; it is for something new’, but in addition, all of us were left in the dark about each other’s ethnic identities on a national level and did not know who we all were. Because the national identity itself did not have the same level of familiarity for all of us and we could not comprehend it deeply, what it expected from each of us also became confusing. Finally, paying so much attention to the traditions of one social group in creating the national identity gave others resentment towards the chosen social group (the Pashtuns). To this day, this resentment has kept the chosen group in a defensive posture and preoccupied others to waste time in acrimonious behavior instead of worrying about development of their own identity.

I must however add that with the maturation of the educational system and increase in the ranks of the educated group, the national identity in both the monarchy and Prince Daoud’s republic would have gotten stronger and the ethnic problems weaker if the Communist take-over had not taken place.

But the Communist coup began the period of Jihad when the evolution of the Afghan national identity witnessed other developments. In this period, every ethnic/social group of Afghanistan performed its national duty on its own volition and choice. Every martyrdom, every success and every undertaking added new dimensions to their own ethnic identities and clarified them further. Also, because the central government itself was the belligerent and guilty party, that road to reaching national identity lost its good name and instead other avenues opened up to directly reach the national identity. This phenomenon bestowed on all social groups honors that in the past, until the Communist coup belonged to the central government and its national identity. In other words, for the social groups of Afghanistan three things happened: Their own ethnic identity developed more, their claim to the national identity became direct, and their relation to the central government, the old builder and defender of the national identity, diminished.

During the Mujaheddeen state (the Rabbani government), social groups of Afghanistan came into national power for the first time since independence and experienced the taste of central power directly. In this period, social group identities, drunk with their victory in the Jihad, rough and arrogant, emerged individually. However, quickly and clearly it became apparent that separate social groups each with direct claims to the country, alone cannot respond to national needs. In other words, it was not enough that we would be Tajik, or Pashtun or Hazara of Afghanistan; we had to first be Afghan and then Tajik, Pashtun or Hazara, etc. To put it another way, the national identity had to be larger than the sum of the ethnic identities. In my view, this polarity of national and central needs on the one hand and multiple strongly-developed ethnic identities on the other, was one of the reasons that the Mujaheddeen government did not last.

Today, the Taliban militias are pursuing the opposite. The Taliban identity is a single identity, very well defined, totally central and non-ethnic whose most important – – and perhaps only – – component is religion, i.e., doctrine and dogma. The Taliban militias seem to want to change the historic substance of Afghanistan and its national identity. The Taliban identity, for all social groups of Afghanistan including the Pashtuns, seems artificial and transplanted because it is not completely like Pashtun-wali; it is not quite the central government; it doesn’t look like other social groups; and because it is more like Sunni Hanbali than Sunni Hannafi or Shia Ithna Ashari, people cannot distinguish their religion in it either.(1) Let me not be misunderstood, the sacred and compassionate Islam that the pious and God-fearing people of Afghanistan have followed in the last 1300 years is one thing and the Taliban militias’ decrees altogether something else. Also, the courageous Afghanistan-building and Afghanistan-loving Pashtuns are one ethnic group and this group altogether something else. Therefore, the social groups of Afghanistan once more do not see their relationship to this national identity and this central authority. Nor do they comprehend it. So, in the evolution of Afghanistan as an independent and sovereign state, this identity like others before it, is also causing problems.

The foreignness of the Taliban identity has also given an opportunity to all other social identities of Afghanistan to develop further.(2) The ethnic groups have become more interested in their own ethnic identities. For example, if we discard the fanatics, the Pashtuns today feel more (especially in their private conversations) that not only a Pashtun tribe by the name of Taliban does not exist; they also question whether the actions the Taliban militias take in the name of traditions of the Pashtun village, are truly a part of Pashtun-wali or a caricature of it or, in fact, just part of any traditional society. In other words, the Pashtuns who in the past had a well-developed sense of national identity today are paying more attention to their internal ethnic identities (local and tribal). The non-Pashtun groups, who in the past did not feel as much included in the national identity, today feel a much stronger sense of “Afghanness”. Every sacrifice, every loss and every battle further polishes the ethnic identity of each and deepens their relationship with the country and with the national identity, such as those of Badakhshan or Samangan.

And thus the correct – – or incorrect – – evolution of the Afghan national identity still continues and I feel has not yet found its effective structure.

A valid question is what new stage of development this evolution will reach in the twenty-first century. Will the social groups that make up the geographic Afghanistan be able to harmonize with the national identity their own individual identities each with its unique prides such that they would become an effective foundation for a legitimate, independent and sovereign Afghanistan? Or, will these sacrifices that all Afghan social groups including the Pashtuns have made during these last twenty years in the name of love for Afghanistan be no more than a deep thirst for a mirage?

It is not yet known how in the long run, the Taliban militias’ movement will result in the positive evolution of the national identity. Can the Taliban militias’ movement create the desired balance between thus-far conflicting pull of national identity and ethnic identity? Or, will the tyranny and dictates of the Taliban militias, create from all Afghans a crude, insensitive and illogical group totally anti-Afghanness, void of past and nil in the future?

Two other points regarding the evolution of an Afghan national identity are worthy of note here: First, outside the social and ethnic issues, the Afghan Jihad also gave rise to a generation who has a different mentality and whose national identity has been melded from a different route and a different level. Today, this generation, in spite of large reserves of energy, is emotionally an orphan and a gypsy. At the same time, the uniquely Afghan abilities of the generation that best understands the national identity of the pre-Communist coup, i.e., the educated class, are wasting in the Diaspora. At present, these two groups are locked in an anomistic, alienated relationship much like cocks in fight. Although time is unfortunately getting short, it remains to be seen whether this new labor-able Jihad generation and this Afghan old-hands generation can mix with each other such that it would be beneficial and useful to the continuation and correct evolution of the national identity.

Secondly, the social groups of Afghanistan, be they tribal or non-tribal, also have internal difficulties on the road to the national identity. For example, the two largest social groups, the Pashtuns and the Tajiks, each has vertical and horizontal differences in themselves. The Tajiks because they are dispersed and local, have horizontal differences among themselves. Perhaps their being of localities gives them differences that create more steps in the formation of the national identity. In other words, what is the difference between a Panjshiri Tajik identity and a Takhari Tajik identity? Should a Tajik be first both of these two and then an Afghan? In relation to the national identity, how has their being of a locality affected their identity, thought processes and hence their actions? What is in a Kabuli Tajik which separates him/her from a Herati Tajik? What brings them together? And which one should they be first? Among the Pashtuns (as in other tribal peoples of Afghanistan) there exist both horizontal and vertical differences. For example, the Pashtuns have several structures below the tribe level and several structures parallel to each other that would give the goal of reaching a national identity several other steps. What is the difference between a Barekzai identity and a Popalzai identity from the horizontal and among an Ahmadzai identity, a Zurmat identity and a Durrani identity from the vertical? In other words, what characteristics differentiate an Ahmadzai from a Durrani? And does a Pashtun have to be all of these identities and then an Afghan? Which one should he be first? If we count these difficulties in all the social groups, we might reach the Forty Steps of Kandahar or the Seventy-Two nations of Hafiz! What a task!

And, how important are these relationships and characteristics for our life today? It is apparent that the answer is very important for building the Afghan national identity. Not only has not finding the solution impeded our progress, but also it has nearly defeated our ability to stand up to the machinations of the outside world. In our beloved and singular homeland, building an effective and representative national identity has created one of our problems.

(1). In fact, the Taliban militias may be the greatest threat to the Pashtun-wali and Pashtun identity of Afghanistan. The two phrases ‘I am first a Muslim’ and ‘I don’t have a qawm’ which slogan-like come out of the mouth of many Taliban militias are very much against the traditional and historical Pashtun-wali as practiced in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns have always been Muslims; we have not heard of Jewish, Hindu or Christian Afghan Pashtuns. So, to state this obvious fact betrays the outsider. By the same token, Pashtuns always belong to a tribe or to one of its structures (qawm) and by way of introducing themselves properly they usually mention their qawm affiliation, often in the introductory sentences of a salutation. So, to deny one’s qawm is also a non-Pashtun behavior that belies the outsider. I do not have much information on the Pashtun-wali of the non-Afghan Pashtuns or their support for the Taliban militias’ brand of Pashtun-wali.
(2). Regardless of what we now know to be the truth, the Taliban militias since early on have had aspects so reminiscent of other foreign occupiers with bankrupt ideologies, that the already-tested Afghans unquestioningly recognize them as an outside element. These are: Fascism in most areas of governance, a global tendency that transcends borders, creating society around doctrine, denial of diversity, and open reliance on one foreign country, in this case, Pakistan.

Nasrine Gross is an Afghan American writer and women’s rights activist.
Her email is, tel 703-536-6471, website:

Navigate This Section