The location of Afghanistan astride the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and central Asia has enticed conquerors throughout history

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Afghans have developed a number of different strategies to wrest a living from their difficult, often marginal environment. Some pastoralist or herdsmen groups live a seasonally nomadic existence although other herding communities are sedentary. Often groups combine animal husbandry with agriculture; some rely very little on livestock. These subsistence patterns are to some extent fluid, pastoralists often changing their degree of reliance on cultivation, depending on ecological, economic, and political factors.


Afghanistan has fine pastures permitting a considerable portion of its population, perhaps 9 percent, to engage in nomadic pastoralism. This entails annual migrations with large flocks of sheep and goats from lowland winter settlements, where they sow and reap crops and live in housing of a fairly permanent nature, to highland summer pastures located above 1,000 meters; sometimes as high as 3,500 meters. Here they occupy fixed grazing grounds which they do not own but on which they have traditional grazing rights. Sometimes they pay a fee. Other nomadic groups practice various types of trading. Uniquely adapted to the environment, pastoral nomads help maintain the nation's ecosystem and contribute substantially to the national economy.

Estimates of nomadic populations are even more uncertain than those for settled populations. The figure of 1.5 million given in many official publications in 1996 is an average of 1970 estimates which varied from 800,00 to over 2.5 million. Again the wide range results from differences in definition and from the fact that changes brought about by displacement and war have yet to be adequately analyzed. Fully nomadic groups were always rare. Some groups are semi-nomadic. In their case, a majority of the group moves annually from summer to winter pastures, while fewer remain behind in permanent settlements. In semi-sedentary groups, a minority participate in the migrations.

Nomadic groups are found among the Pushtun, Baluch, Aimaq, Turkmen, Arab, Uzbek, and Kirghiz; perhaps over 80 percent are Durrani and Ghilzai Pushtun, Within each of these groups, however, the nomads form a minority.

Many differences between groups have been described by leading social scientists noted in the bibliography. Yet a few patterns may be noted. During the fall and winter, nomadic groups live in permanent or temporary housing on steppes and plains; in the spring they move to lush pastures in the central mountains. The big herds that travel along high mountain trails are composed largely of sheep, including a highly valuable breed called karakul or Persian Lamb, a major export. Only 10-40 percent of the herds are goats because the market price for sheep is usually twice that of goats.

The flocks belong to single nuclear families from different segments of subtribes and each household will own an average of about 100 animals. Typically 4-6 households will join together to form herd units of optimum size consistent with the labor capacities of individual families and prevailing conditions of the pastures. Each herd unit is tended by a shepherd, who is paid a share of the lambs and kids born under his care.

Nuclear households grouped again by tribal segments move along lower routes more suitable for the heavily laden camels, horses and donkeys carrying household goods, women, children and the elderly. These groups, accompanied by smaller numbers of animals and guarded by fierce mastiff-like herd dogs, follow traditional routes with little variation, moving only five kilometers or so a day when travelling through grassy regions, but up to 20 kilometers a day when the terrain is barren. For some, the migration may be only a matter of a few kilometers; others move up to 500 kilometers away from their winter headquarters.

Camp sites seldom include more than 100 single household dwellings; often no more than five. These portable dwellings are of distinct shapes, including several variants of the classic rectangular black goat's hair tent predominately used by Pushtun and Baluch.

The nomads neither move nor live in isolation for they maintain relationships with both agriculturalists and merchants to whom they sell pastoral products, mainly live animals, wool, skins and dairy products, in exchange for agricultural produce, primarily cereals, household and luxury items, including radios. Poorer nomadic families may serve farmers as seasonal labor during harvest periods while richer nomads who extend credit may acquire land from farmers who, unable to pay their debts, become their tenants. Nomads also act as disseminators of local news. Large-scale trading, money lending and casual labor opportunities are often more important than herding to the eastern Ghilzai whose caravans once reached deep into India (later Pakistan) as far as what is now Bangladesh, as well as north to Bokhara, east to China, and west to Iran. These far-flung migrations which had taken place since the eleventh century virtually came to a halt after the 1930s when the Soviet Union and China sealed their borders. They experienced further curtailment after Pakistan closed its border in 1961 during the Pushtunistan dispute.

Internally, the effects of increases in population, modernization, state interventions and abnormal climatic conditions causing market prices to fall necessitated severe adjustments. For many nomads by the end of the 1970s their situation deteriorated to such an extent that they were obliged to settle down. The war exacerbated these trends. The indiscriminate dropping of mines from helicopters onto pastures is but one example. Despite this, many nomadic groups acquired significant political power because of their major roles in the resistance, particularly in the transportation of arms. They became one of the best armed groups in Afghanistan.

This laid the ground for potential tensions over settlement rights in the future as evidenced by controversies between nomadic and settled groups that arose when nomads occupied land around Khost because their traditional movement patterns had been disrupted. In resolving the issue, the Taliban were obliged to sanction the nomad occupations because of their superior strength.

Other groups have also been forced to abandon their nomadic way of life. Numbers of nomads have purchased shops in provincial centers such as Khost and Gardez. A major portion of the Kirghiz have resettled in Turkey. Among nomadic groups forming part of

refugee populations in Pakistan, few have been able to retain their flocks and the assistance community has been unable to address their special needs. Yet, among the refugees there are a few who have accumulated fabulous riches and live opulently in elite suburbs of Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi.

Mixed Subsistence Patterns

Mixtures of pastoralism with limited migration and agriculture are very common. In all ethnic groups there are fully sedentary villages with semi-sedentary elements, such as short vertical summer migrations into the hills to graze flocks or harvest grains and melons. The picture does not remain static as the degrees of agricultural versus pastoralist strategies increases during difficult times, such as periods of drought, because of disease, or the inability to repay debts. Poorer nomads can become sedentary because they lose their flocks. On the other hand, wealthy nomads who invest in land may eventually prefer to settle in order to manage their holdings.

Sedentary populations can also take up elements of pastoralism and generate new semi-nomadic units. Farmers practicing a mixed subsistence tend to invest surpluses in enlarging their flocks which may soon overgraze lands surrounding the irrigated oases around settlements if they are not kept moving. Agriculturists with relatively large herds will therefore assign nomadic pastoralist duties to younger brothers who in time may elect to remain nomadic and relinquish land inheritance in favor of increased livestock. A new nomad family is thus born, although the process may take more than one generation.

Former nomads may also return to nomadism if, after being forced through poverty to give up herding, they manage to earn enough to start another herd. Pastoral nomadism and sedentary agriculture, therefore, are not necessarily permanent adaptations and vary in any given place at any given time.

Agricultural subsistence patterns differ with the terrain. The majority of cultivators own their own land. Holdings are typically small and there are relatively few landowners with hugh estates. But in all areas water is the most important determining factor and must be carefully managed. Because of the scarcity of water, only 10-12 percent of the surface of Afghanistan is cultivated, and of this only one-quarter is irrigated. The rest depends on vulnerable rain-fed dry farming known as lalmi. Ingenious indigenous water technologies are practiced throughout the country, including hand dug underground water channel systems called karez. These carry water for many miles from the base of mountains to fields on the plains.

Agriculture and animal husbandry engage about 60 percent of the workforce and all producers, whether nomads or farmers, are tied to a market economy. In addition, the industries that began to develop after the 1930s and later in the 1960s were largely based on agricultural and pastoral products. During the war, the improved road system that was to facilitate access to markets was destroyed and the industrial complexes were stripped of machinery.

Rural-urban migration increased measurably as the road system improved and industrial complexes near cities proliferated. Urban expansion brought in new architectural styles and building materials; prefab cement apartment blocks required adjustments in living styles. Still, despite monumental jumps in urban populations nowhere were slums evident.

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