August 31, 2021

Pashtun (and Afghan) ethnogenesis, forged between Iranian and Indian empires; And regional variation in Pashtun cultural leadership

I really want to get to the discovery that the Pashtuns and the Pashto language are yet another case study for my model outlined in this post about ethnogenesis and the evolution of a standard dialect, in the context of imperial dynamics. But before that, I have to review the relevant history, since it is poorly known compared to the Romans, British, Russians, and so on. This review will look at two scales — the overall group subject to external pressures, who unite their countrymen against expanding outsiders; and which sub-group among them are the leaders (rather than followers) in the formation of a new culture.

We'll start with the most recent set of long-term external expansions against what is today Afghanistan. This excludes the Soviet and American imperial occupations, neither of which lasted more than a few decades, and whose occupiers returned to the other side of the world afterward, rather than remain nearby as a looming, lurking menace. These occupations have been strong enough to unite Afghans around the Taliban, but I don't see it going further to an expansionist Afghan empire.

But not so long ago, there were two separate expanding empires on either side of what's now Afghanistan: the Safavid Empire from the west in Iran, and the Mughal Empire from the east in India. Iran occupied parts of western Afghanistan, and India occupied parts of eastern Afghanistan. Those empires' life-spans were nearly identical, lasting from roughly 1500 to 1750. However, pressure from the east was stronger than from the west. Safavid Iran was primarily occupied with their north and west — the Russian Empire, the Caucasus, and the Ottoman Empire — not so much their south and east (tribal Afghanistan).

The Mughals in India were more determined to expand to their north and west, into Afghanistan and northern Pakistan (both homelands of the Pashtuns). In addition to the Mughals, the Marathas and the Sikhs were expanding to the northwest in South Asia. And when the British Empire took over India, they drove more heavily to the north and west than to the east, fighting three Anglo-Afghan Wars.

Aside from the more intense pressure from India, that region was also more of a meta-ethnic frontier. Although the Mughals were Muslim, the Marathas were Hindu, the Sikhs were Sikh, and the British were Christian. Safavid Iran and its successors were entirely Muslim. Linguistically, Pashto is closer to Persian / Farsi than to the Indo-Aryan languages of India like Hindi / Urdu, and for awhile a dialect of Persian (Dari) was the elite courtly language of the Pashtuns. Outside of the Pashtuns, other Afghan ethnic groups closer to Iran and Tajikistan also speak Persian or the closely related Tajik, not a language closer to Hindi / Uru.

This heightened cultural divide on the eastern part of Afghanistan is matched by a heightened geographical divide, the Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas. "Hindu Kush" means "Hindu-killer," which shows who the Afghans have been more preoccupied with among their neighbors. The geography of western Afghanistan goes seamlessly into eastern Iran, and there is no morbid nickname for the border like "Persian-killer".

Right through today, Afghanistan and its people still see their main regional antagonists coming from India rather than Iran.

The founders of the Durrani Empire hailed from a region squeezed between the Safavid and Mughal empires, but which had remained free of either's invasion — Kandahar, which lies in the south of Afghanistan, not very far east or west, and lies in the southwest region of the Pashtun lands (which extend south and east into Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, but not very far west or north along the border with Iran or Central Asia).

Just before the empire, the Hotak dynasty arose within the Kandahar region in the early 1700s, and expanded westward to the Iranian capital at Isfahan. However, this dynasty did not even last 30 years, and did not unite the surrounding peoples behind it. This is another example of the Iranians being more of a distraction in the eyes of Pashtuns and Afghans — the Hotaks did not get endless loyalty for taking on Iran, when they should have taken on India.

Although the founder of the Afghan Empire, Ahmad Shah Durrani, kept the capital at Kandahar in the mid-1700s, his son moved it to the north and east to Kabul, with the winter capital being Peshawar (today in Pakistan) further to the east. This represented a reconquest of eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, as the Mughals had occupied it during their northwestward push out of India.

Kabul remained the capital of the Empire, the reduced Emirate that replaced it, and the Kingdom that followed. Even today we see a repeat of this pattern, where the Taliban originated in Kandahar, and have steadily advanced toward Kabul, where they will administer the nation.

To summarize, the intense Mughal pressure from the south and east made the Pashtuns the group whose rising asabiya would unite the nation (and later expand into an empire). Their homeland is right along that border, whereas the other ethnicities (Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik, etc.) lie further to the north and west, and their homelands were not so heavily threatened by the Mughal expansion. But even within the Pashtun homeland, the greatest threat came from the east, as the Mughals invaded through the Hindu Kush in order to occupy Kabul.

Unlike some empires, the Durrani founders did not make their home city the capital of the unified nation / empire. The Romans stayed in Rome while they united the Italian peninsula against the Celtic and Carthaginian incursions. The Durrani leaders moving from Kandahar to Kabul is like if the Romans relocated their capital permanently northward in the Po Valley, which the Celts had already occupied for awhile. Or as though the Castilians, after driving southward to reconquer Iberia from the Moors, had relocated their capital from Madrid further south in Seville, which the Moors had been occupying for centuries.

So, when looking at Pashtun or broader Afghan ethnogenesis, it's not so much about where the leaders came from originally, since they did not remain there more than a generation. Rather, it's about where they were residing for most of the time — where all of the ethnogenetic action was going on, along the meta-ethnic frontier with the Mughals, Marathas, Sikhs, and British. That is, in eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan (i.e., the northeastern region of Pashtun lands, far from Kandahar in the southwest of the Pashtun lands).

Through today, Kabul is not only the political capital but also the cultural capital of Afghanistan — not Kandahar, where the founding tribe of the modern nation hailed from before relocating. Kabul and the nearby Pakistani city of Peshawar are the cultural centers for music, literature, and cinema in the Pashto language. Lying on the intense meta-ethnic frontier with various expanding states from India, the residents of northeastern Pashtunistan — regardless of where their ancestors came from — have had the most intense asabiya. It is their cultural identity that sets the standard for the rest of the Pashtuns.

In the next post, we'll see how this has changed the evolution of the Pashto language, which fits into a broader project of mine about how the rise of a standard dialect reflects which sub-group has been the leader of the overall group's rising asabiya and ethnogenesis.

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