Alternative names: Pashtuns, Pashtouns, Pakhtuns, Afghans
Location: North and West Frontier Province, Baluchistan and elsewhere in Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan
Population: Pakistan 12 million (est., not including refugees); Afghanistan 6.5 million (est., including refugees in exile in Pakistan)
% of population: Pakistan 13%; Afghanistan 50% (of pre-war population)
Religion: Sunni Muslim (Hanifi school)
Language: Pashtu

The Pathans (most of whom identify themselves as “Afghans”) are the main inhabitants of the mountainous areas straddling the present Pakistan/Afghanistan border, presently occupying one quarter to one third of Afghanistan’s territory, and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. The Pathans are speakers of Pashtu, an Indo-European language, in one of its two major dialects, Pashto (Pushto) or Pakhto (Pukhto); the “soft” Persian-influenced and “hard” dialects spoken in the south-west and north-east of the area respectively.

The many Pathan tribes fall into three divisions: the Western Afghans, Persian-influenced and often Persian-speaking and settled mainly in Afghanistan (such as the Durranis and Ghilzaris); the Eastern Afghans, Indian-influenced and mainly settled in the trans-Indus plains of Pakistan, such as the Yusufzais; and between these two the highlanders of the tribal belt, sometimes considered the “true” Pathans such as the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Afridis, Mohmands, Bangash, Orakzai and others.

Background and history

The precise origins of the Pathans are impossible to establish and they are almost certainly an amalgam of the various peoples who have passed through the area from both the east and west. The Pathans occupied a strategic position astride the highway between Central Asia and the Punjab plain, thus leading the sixteenth century Mogul emperors of India to attempt to subjugate the Pathan tribes of the frontier. They largely failed in this as did many others who followed them including the Durrani kings in Kabul, the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh and the British in India.

The British annexed the trans-Indus area in 1849 thus facilitating the cultural divide between the Eastern Afghans and the highlander Pathans who waged a long and bitter struggle to retain their autonomy; a division which was later formalized in the Durand Line which became (and remains) the border between Afghanistan and British India (Pakistan). At first the British were prepared to tolerate a degree of tribal independence beyond the settled areas but after the Second Afghan War (1878-80) there was a shift in policy which, by the beginning of the twentieth century, resulted in an extensive military presence and road construction. In 1901 the area was designated as the North West Frontier Province and Tribal Territories ruled directly from Delhi. There was fierce Pathan opposition to this encroachment and a number of major tribal rebellions against the British, the most serious occurring in Waziristan in 1936-38.

The Pathans played a major, though rather anomalous, role in the struggle for Indian independence, when Abdul Gaffar Khan, the “frontier Gandhi”, founded a Pathan nationalist organization, the Khundai-Kidmatgars (also known as the Red-Shirts) formally aligned with the Indian National Congress against the British. It remained the most popular political movement in the NWFP until the eve of independence when Hindu-Muslim violence made a secular stand impossible and the Muslim League became the leader of most of the Pathan masses. There was an attempt by Ghaffar Khan to put forward the idea of an independent Pathan state (“Pashtunistan”), but after a British supervised referendum in June 1947, in which voters were given the choice of joining either India or Pakistan (but not independence or union with Afghanistan), there was a 99% vote in favour of Pakistan.


There are an estimated 12 million Pashtu-speaking people in Pakistan, most of whom live in the plains, and a minority of 2.2 million (18%) in the highlands of the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Substantial numbers are also found in Baluchistan (25% of the population) and migration to urban areas means that there are probably over one million Pathans living in greater Karachi. They are the second largest ethnic community in Pakistan (after the Punjabis) and are in no immediate danger of being reduced to a minority in their homeland. As with most of the Pakistani population they are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. Pathans have been relatively successful in preserving intact traditional cultural values and forms of social organization based upon fragmented but decentralized clans in which values of male individuality and equality are valued above all else and leaders compete for followers. Pathan society is essentially anarchic and this has meant that it has been difficult to build up the idea of a Pathan identity above that of tribal loyalties.

As in the case of Baluchistan, the NWFP is economically weak, especially compared to the Punjab. What little industry exists is concentrated in the regional capital, Peshawar, and outsiders exercise disproportionate influence. Economic development is generally welcomed but some tribal leaders have attempted to impede road construction as this would erode their own autonomy. Large amounts of opium are produced in Pathan areas and are an important economic factor; the government of Zia ul-Haq attempted a massive crackdown on opium production and consumption without much success. There has also been severe class conflict between landlords and tenants among Swat Pathans.

Many aspects of British policy towards the Pathans continued in post-independence Pakistan. Although the princely states of the NWFP area were abolished there continue to be 11 designated tribal areas comprising the FATA which remain primarily under central administration. These are, however, only a small part of the total Pathan population. These tribal areas retain a fair amount of ethnic autonomy; central and provincial laws generally do not apply and they are ruled by customary laws and the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The British made special efforts to recruit and retain Pathans in the military and they continue to be disproportionately represented, although most tend to come from the two districts of Kohat and Mardan.

In the immediate post-independence period a policy of “benign neglect” was followed, but under Ayub Khan (1958-69) authority was centralized and West Pakistan was amalgamated into one unit which resulted in minority disaffection. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-77) reconstituted the provinces and guaranteed their autonomy in the 1973 constitution; but in practice, power was centralized even more than previously. This continued after Bhutto was overthrown by Zia ul-Huq who ruled for 11 years before his death in a plane crash, allegedly a result of sabotage. The Zia government was initially wary of asserting its influence in the NWFP but the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan led to increased attempts to control the tribal areas, most notably in 1985-86, with regard to heroin and arms smuggling. The large numbers of refugees from Afghanistan (largely Pashtuns) also helped to destabilize the area. Over three million Afghan refugees came to Pakistan of which 75% were in the NWFP, with a special impact on FATA, where one out of three of the population were refugees. Apart from humanitarian and economic considerations the refugees posed a security dilemma as Afghan resistance groups operated from Pakistan and Mujahidin fighters moved freely across the border, while there were attacks on Afghan refugees, allegedly by agents of the Afghan government. Pathan opposition leaders were active in the formation of the Sindhi-Baluch-Pashtun Front in 1985, although this later broke apart and the opposition National Awami Party was formed in 1986.

The situation again changed with the election of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), under Benazir Bhutto, to central government in November 1988. In the NWFP no one party won a majority in the provincial assembly although the PPP was the largest single party and entered into a coalition with the ANP under Abdul Wali Khan, the son of Abdul Gaffar Khan (who had died in 1988 aged 99), but the alliance has been a shaky one and there have been considerable differences between the coalition partners on various issues, including the policy towards Afghanistan. However, in January 1989, 10 members of the opposition Islamic National Alliance formed a “democracy group” to support the government and thus for the time being ended opposition attempts to topple the provincial government. The NWFP has not, however, seen the large-scale ethnic violence which has affected Sind province although some observers see possibilities for renewed Pathan nationalism for “Pashtunistan”.


The Pashtuns (Pathans) are the largest single ethnic group and the dominant political group in Afghanistan, probably comprising about one half of the population. Most are sedentary or semi-sedentary farmers and perhaps two million or more are nomads. Afghanistan is still largely a tribal society, divided into many tribes, clans and other sub-divisions and to a large extent the internal politics of Afghanistan is the intra-tribal politics of the Pashtuns. This has been the case since the time of the indigenous Durrani dynasty established in Kabul in 1747 and there have been conflicts between (western) Durrani and (eastern) Ghilzai Pashtuns and between Pashtuns and the Tajiks, Uzbeks or other people north of the Hindu Kush. The Durranis initially ruled over most of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan but lost territory in the external attempts to control or destroy them, notably in the adoption of the Durrand Line of 1893. This demarcated the border between Afghanistan and British India and marked the Durrani’s loss of Baluchistan and the division of the Pathan/Pashtun peoples roughly in half (although the hill tribes paid little heed to the official boundary). Attempts to impose modernization, for example by King Amanullah (1919-29), or the Marxist coup of 1978 and subsequent Soviet military intervention, have been strongly resisted by large parts of Pashtun tribal society. The war itself has produced a large-scale refugee exodus from Afghanistan and the vast majority of the over three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan are Pathans/Pashtuns from eastern Afghanistan. There are Pashtuns on both sides of the ideological divide; President Najibullah and others in the present Marxist-oriented Afghan government are detribalized Pashtuns.

(See also Baluchis)