Pathans (pətänzˈ) [key], group of seminomadic peoples consisting of more than 60 tribes, numbering more than 26 million in Pakistan and more than 11 million in Afghanistan, where they form the dominate ethnic group (historically known as Afghans and now typically as Pashtuns). Pathans are Muslims and speak Pashto (or Pushtu). They are also known as Pashtuns, Pushtuns, Pakhtuns, and Pakhtoons.
Historically, Pathans have been noted as fierce fighters, and throughout history they have offered strong resistance to invaders. The British attempted to subdue the Pathans in a series of punitive expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th cent. but were finally forced to offer them a semiautonomous area (see Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) between the border of British India and that of Afghanistan.
After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the new nation annexed the Pathan border regions, and a Pathan independence movement, called the Redshirts, was born. In the early 1950s, Afghanistan supported Pathan ambitions for the creation of an independent Pushtunistan (also called Pakhtunistan or Pakhtoonistan) in the border areas of West Pakistan. Several border clashes and ruptures of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan ensued. In the early 1970s thousands of armed Pathans pressed for increased autonomy within Pakistan, even demanding independence after the secession of Bangladesh (East Pakistan). The Taliban of Afghanistan, and more recently, the so-called Pakistani Taliban are mainly Pathan-based movements. Many Pakistani Pathans no longer live in the regions bordering Afghanistan; there are sizable Pathan populations in Pakistan's major cities, especially in Karachi.
See O. K. Caroe, The Pathans, 550 B.C.–A.D. 1957 (1958, repr. 1965); J. W. Spain, People of the Khyber (1963), The Pathan Borderland (1963), and The Way of the Pathans (2d ed. 1973).