Posted by: Christian | June 16, 2008

Fun With Ethnic Maps

Olivier Roy will provide us with today’s caveat:

…all the ethnic maps of Afghanistan are inaccurate.¹

But that being said, here goes:

#1. National Geographic

Ethnic Map Afghanistan

#2. National Geographic B (view larger image)

Ethnic groups map Afghanistan



#3 Ethnolinguistic groups 1972 (view larger)

Afghanistan\'s ethnolinguitic groups map

#4. Ethnolinguistic groups 1982 (view larger)

Afghan ethnic map


#5. Ethnolinguistic groups 1972 (view larger)

Ethnic distribution of Afghanistan map


#6. Communist map 1982 – printed in Poland (view large)

Communist ethnic map of Afghanistan medium


#7 Worst map so far. Good job CNN.

You can click on the links next to the descriptions if the maps here are too small. The files are full size.

What these maps fail to note is that the colored/shaded areas are areas where they believe a particular group predominates, not where it is the exclusive “ethnic” group (although it may be). Also problematic is that Afghanistan has never had a census (the 1979 census was interrupted by…..1979). Equally problematic is that issue of the ethnic shares of the population is extremely controversial. Pashtun nationalists say they are over 60% of the population while their detractors say they are under 40%. I’m sure very few will be happy with the results of the census, the start of which has been postponed until 2010.

The source for these maps? I found them here. At their online source they are generally not credited. But I believe I saw one in a French edited volume on Iran and Afghanistan and the others, which I’ve seen in various Western books/atlases suspiciously resemble some thematic maps I found in some Soviet atlases. Who copied who? I didn’t bother to check the dates at the time.

But then there is the big problem of ethnic categorization in Afghanistan. I’ll save that for another day.

Footnote (1):

Roy, Olivier. 1992. ‘Identity and expression in Northern Afghanistan’, in Jo-AnnGross (ed) Muslims in central Asia: Expressions of Identity and Change. Duke University Press.


  1. Amen! When the practitioners operating in Afghanistan can understand and apply the concept of qawm and the way that identities of all sorts are used and manipulated by individuals as opposed to being fixed categories then the prospects for actually accomplishing something constructive will be greatly increased.

    Unfortunately, the tendency is to define neat boxes and then put Afghans in them and determine behavior and attitudes based on such categorizations. Afghans themselves cannot articulate to foreigners how they manipulate their identities. And more often than not they will translate qawm as “tribe” which doesn’t help much.

  2. Just finding a map of Afghanistan with the right provincial and district boundaries is nigh on impossible, so as for demographic infomormation about the people in those provinces…ha!

  3. Great post… Roy is absolutely right. I deal with these and other maps on a daily basis. It’s a constant struggle…

  4. […] the ethnic maps of Afghanistan are inaccurate”. With that in mind Ghosts of Alexander has fun with a series of such maps. The CNN one is, as GOA says, truly dreadful. Hand me the […]


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