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Largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

The Pushtun, sometimes also referred to as Pathans or Pakhtuns, make up between 38 and 45 percent of the population of Afghanistan, and since the beginning of the nineteenth century have comprised the ruling elite of the country. Although Pushtuns live in most parts of Afghanistan, they are concentrated in the southeast, especially along the border with Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, where several million more Pushtun also live.

The language spoken by Pushtun, usually called Pushto, is distantly related to Persian and belongs to the Iranian family of languages. Pushto, along with Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, is an official language of Afghanistan. There are no words in Pushto that refer exclusively to a "lineage," in which descent is demonstrated, or a "clan," in which descent is merely assumed; the suffixes -zai and -khel, added to names of males to imply descent from them, can mean either "lineage" or "clan." The ambiguity is very useful in practice. Instead of allowing genealogy to dictate their behavior, the Pushtun can manipulate their tables of organization so as to change the significance of levels of segmentation, to the extent of incorporating totally alien groups within their genealogical fold. The critical variable in determining whether a group belongs is the exchange of women in marriage.

Durrani, Ghilzai, and Karlanri have been for the last two hundred years the names of the major groups of Pushtun clans. Symbolically, the unity of the Pushtun is expressed through their adherence to Pushtunwali, the ideal code of behavior, stressing honor, hospitality, and revenge; it is also a customary system of mediation that includes provisions for settling disputes ranging from theft to homicide.


Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

ashraf ghani
updated by eric hooglund