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Home >>  Culture & Conflict Studies  >>  Balkh Province

Balkh Province

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Ustad Atta Noor Mohammad
Source: New York TImes 2010
Balkh District Map

Provincial Overview (PDF)

In the News

  • Balkh Governor: Pakistan Supports Insurgents in the North, Tolo News, August 11, 2011:
    “Governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor in an exclusive interview with TOLO News said that Pakistan has increased it support to Haqqani group, Uzbekistan Islamist Party, Gulbuddin's Islamist Party and other terrorist organisations in the north of the country.”

Balkh province is located in northern Afghanistan and is known for its fertile land and high potential in the agricultural sector. Mazar-i-Sharif, located in Balkh, is Afghanistan’s fourth largest city and by far the most important urban center of the northern region.  Given the relative security and political stability in Balkh, development and construction projects like irrigation rehabilitation has occurred over the past five years.  A substantial amount of almond and apricot orchards have been planted and maintained since the irrigation overhaul began.

Balkh has a tradition of high educational standards and has a comparatively high literacy, also for women, and Balkh is home to several universities including Balkh University, the second largest university in Afghanistan.

Balkh is ethnically diverse, including substantial Tajik, Hazara, Pashtuns, Arab, Uzbek, Turkomen, and Sunni Hazara (Kawshi) communities.  The current governor, Ustad Atta Noor Mohammad, is a Tajik with a concentrated political power-base in Balkh and served as the provincial head since 2004. Although largely secure, recent insurgent incursions into Balkh are increasing, and Taliban affiliated insurgent fronts are gaining momentum in the northeast (Baghlan-Kunduz corridor) and the northwest (Badghis-Faryab corridor).

Taliban Shadow Governor: Mauluvi Raz Haider – He is said to be twenty-six years old and born in Qalai-Joy village, Feyzabad district, Jawzjan province .He conducted an Interview with Al Samud in 2009 (Dari interview).

Human Terrain

Uzbek: The Uzbek people of Afghanistan are found north of the Hindu Kush in Afghan Turkistan. In Afghanistan, they number approximately 1.6 million and comprise around 27% of the population of Kunduz Province. The presence of the Uzbek people in this region was facilitated by the frequent invasion of Central Asian Turks throughout history. Uzbeks are the most populous Turkish group in Afghanistan and are recognizable by their broad, flat faces and lighter skin when compared to the Pashtuns. They are historically farmers and stockmen, breeding the karakul sheep and an excellent type of Turkman horse. Their kinsmen reside in the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. Many Uzbeks fled into northern Afghanistan in the 1920s to escape the suppression when the Soviet government was trying to stamp out their customs and Moslem religion.[1] Uzbek militias represent one piece of a perennially complicated security puzzle within Northern Afghanistan.

Tajiks: Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan after the Pashtuns and comprise between 25-30% of the population. . The Tajiks in Afghanistan tend to live in settled communities as opposed to a nomadic lifestyle. Pashtuns refer to them as Farsiwan, or speakers of Farsi, the lingua franca of Afghanistan (50% of Afghanistan speaks Farsi, as opposed to only 35% for Pashtu). Between the Tajiks and Pashtuns there has been significant animosity in recent years. Forming the backbone of the Northern Alliance, they also have a base in the nation of Tajikistan. They held out fiercely against the Taliban. Most Tajik are Sunni Muslims, but a few are Shi’a. Tajiks made up the majority of the Northern Alliance, both in terms of membership and leadership. Tribal ties have largely broken down among the Tajiks; therefore, social organization is defined primarily by geography. Despite their lack of cohesiveness the Tajiks are often brought together due to the perceived common threat posed by the Pashtuns.[2] Currently, Tajik warlords vie for control of illicit opium and arms transport with competing Uzbek, and Ismaili militias throughout the Northern provinces. Tajik Tree (PDF)

Turkmen: Turkmen are another Sunni Turkic-speaking group whose language has close affinities with modern Turkish. They are of aquiline Mongoloid stock. The Afghan Turkmen population in the 1990s was estimated at around 200,000. Turkmen also reside north of the Amu Darya in Turkmenistan. The original Turkmen groups came from east of the Caspian Sea into northwestern Afghanistan at various periods, particularly after the end of the nineteenth century when the Russians moved into their territory. They established settlements from Balkh Province to Herat Province, where they are now concentrated; smaller groups settled in the northwest portions of Kunduz Province. Others came in considerable numbers as a result of the failure of the Basmachi revolts against the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. Turkmen tribes, of which there are twelve major groups in Afghanistan, base their structure on genealogies traced through the male line. Senior members wield considerable authority. Formerly a nomadic and warlike people feared for their lightening raids on caravans, Turkmen in Afghanistan are farmer-herdsmen and important contributors to the economy. They brought karakul sheep to Afghanistan and are also renowned makers of carpets, which, with karakul pelts, are major hard currency export commodities. Turkmen jewelry is also highly prized.

Hazara: Most likely descended from the Mongols of Genghis Khan, (there is also a strong argument that they are of Eastern Turkic origin), the Hazara are noticeably different in physical appearance when compared to the Pashtun majority. In terms of religion, the vast majority of the Hazara are of the Shia Muslim faith, again in contrast to the Pashtuns who are Sunni Muslim. Due to these differences, “the Hazara have experienced discrimination at the hands of the Pashtun-dominated government throughout the history of modern Afghanistan.”[3] As the traditional underclass of Afghan society, Hazara were exploited and made to work as servants and laborers. As a result, there tends to be an anti-government and anti-Pashtun bias among the Hazara. In present day Afghanistan, the Hazara are divided geographically into two main groups: the Hazarajat Hazara and those who live outside the Hazarajat. The Hazarajat is located in the Hindu Kush Mountains in central Afghanistan and is “centered on Bamiyan province and include[s] areas of Ghor, Uruzgan, Wardak, and Ghazni province.”[4] The Hazara living outside of the Hazarajat live in and around Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Samangan province. Due to atrocities committed against them by the Taliban, the Hazara by and large are opposed to the Taliban. In August 1998, the Taliban massacred approximately 4,000 Hazara in Mazara-e Sharif; this massacre was followed by another the next month when the Taliban killed another 500 Hazara in Bamiyan. The Hezb-e Wahdat (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan) is an umbrella political organization which commands the support of large numbers of Hazara. The Hazara are also often at odds with the Kuchi population within the Hazarajat. Hazara Tree (PDF)

Tatars:  The Tatars, a group of Turkic people most of them live in Republic of Tatarstan of the Russian Federation, around the Volga River in Russia. Large ethnic Diasporas are Central Asian and Caucasus of the former Soviet Union, Turkey and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, many of the Tatars settled after either trying to escape the Russians, or as traders. Majority are Sunni Muslims.

See the table on Tatar tribal genealogy at http://www.nps.edu/Programs/CCS/Docs/Tribal%20Trees/Tatar.pdf

Primary Political Parties

Jumbish-i-Milli Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Movement of Afghanistan): General Abdul Rashid Dostum controls  a political party called Jumbish-i-Milli Islami (National Islamic Movement) which is a core of Jabhe-ye-Motahed-e-Milli. He claims to have a strong support in up to eight provinces in the north of the country, including Samanagn province, predominantly populated by ethnic Uzbeks.  Dostum’s major power base is in Uzbek enclaves in the northern provinces of Jowzjan, Balkh, Faryab, and Samangan. Dostum’s headquarters is located in Jowzjan’s capital, Shiberghan. In the past, Dostum held various official positions (deputy defense minister, a special adviser on security and military affairs, President Karzai's representative in the north) until the relations between President Karzi and General Dostum deteriorated.

Jabhe-ye-Motahed-e-Milli (the United National Front):The largest opposition block built by General Dostum and aimed against President Karzai. Burhanuddin Rabbani and the late Ahmad Shah Massoud’s closest advisers joined Dostum in his demands to change the presidential system into parliamentary, to negotiate with armed groups and to recognize the Durand line. On August 27 of 2008 the Front in a statement urged the neighboring countries, members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and members of NATO alliance to hold a crisis meeting on Afghanistan.

Hezb-e Wahdat-e Eslami-ye Afghanistan  (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan): Hezb-e Wahdat-e Eslami-ye Afghanistan began as a Shi’a umbrella party led by Abdul Ali Mazari.  Abdul Ali Mazari died under mysterious circumstances while in custody of the Taliban.  During the Soviet invasion the party received support from Iran.  The party “remains the primary political force among the Hazara.”   During the period of Taliban rule, the party held on to the Hazarajat against the attempted blockade by the Taliban.  It is currently led by Mohammad Karim Khalili, who is currently the Second Vice President to Hamid Karzai.  For a time Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq was the military leader of the party under the political leadership of Khalili.  Mohaqeq and Khalili had a falling out, however, over Mohaqeq’s decision to run for president without the official approval of the party.  Subsequently, Mohaqeq split away and formed his own party, Hezb-e Wahdat-e Eslami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan.  The original Wahdat party has begun to lose influence and support among the Hazara, in part because of the pull of Mohaqeq’s new party and likely because Khalili’s position as Second Vice President distracts from his efforts to look after the needs of the Hazara.

Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society of Afghanistan):
Led by Bahadruddin Rabbani, Jamiat-e-Islami became the dominant political resistance party in northeastern Afghanistan. In 1980, Jamiat was the second most popular resistance front and enjoyed strong support from the Tajik communities of Badakshan, the Panjshir Valley and Herat Province in the west.    Ahmad Massoud, Ismail Khan, Mullah Naqibullah and Zabibullah,  all influential Jamiat military commanders, would help galvanize Jamiat into one of the most formidable resistance movements of the Soviet-Afghan war. The failure of the Soviet Army to pacify the Panjshir Valley despite seven massive military offensives against the region between 1980 and 1984 solidified Ahmad Shah as a legendary commander and helped preserve popular support for Jamiat throughout the region. In general, Jamiat is considered to be a moderate Islamist movement that drew recruits from those educated in government schools (both religious and secular) and among the ulema (in the north) and the naqshbandi Sufi order found throughout the north. Although multiple ethnic groups including Pashtuns formed comprised Jamiat, it is most commonly referred to be dominated by Tajiks from the northeast.

Supervisory Council of the North (SCN):
 In 1984, top resistance commanders operating the northern provinces of Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh and Kunduz formed a council under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud.  The Supervisory Council of the North became an integrated military unit comprised of both political and security components and posed the greatest threat to the communist occupation of Afghanistan in the north. Although many of the SCN leaders were affiliates of Rabbani’s Jamiat-e-Islami, the SCN established deep ties with local communities and ran its affairs independently from the Jamiat leadership based in Pakistan.  Many former SCN commanders and fighters continue to exert influence and power at various levels throughout the Northern provinces.

Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HiG):
Mujahideen party active since the Soviet invasion; led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. HiG was famous for its shifting loyalties, and was the favorite party of Pakistan’s ISI until the rise of the Taliban. Former members continue to wield considerable influence. Thus far, HiG has been actively opposed to US-led and Afghan national forces. Hekmatyar is a Kharoti Ghilzai and, therefore, less influential than the much more respected and powerful Khugianis, such as Haji Din Mohammad and Anwarul Haq Mohammad.However, Hekmatyar did succeed in penetrating northern communities including Tajik communities in Badghis province and parts of Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz which have since become active in anti-government activities.

1. The Afghan Network: Ethnic Group Profiles, The Turkish Groups of Afghanistan. Available at http://www.afghan-network.net/Ethnic-Groups/uzbeks-turkmen.html (accessed July 24, 2008)
2. 2007 CIA World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html (accessed June 28, 2007).
US State Department Afghanistan Culture and Ethnic Studies, 2004.
4.US State Department Afghanistan Culture and Ethnic Studies, 2004.
5.World Culture Encyclopedia: Africa/Middle East, Pashai. Available at http://www.everyculture.com/Africa-Middle-East/Pashai.html (accessed August 26, 2008
6.Afghan Meli Tolena: US and the Warlords in Afghanistan. Available at: http://afghanmelitolena.com/html/warlords.html(accessed July 28, 2008)

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To contact us about our program: ccsinfo@nps.edu | Last Updated: 15 November 2011.