MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Ethnic Tatars have lived for centuries in what is now the territory of Afghanistan. But they were never officially recognized among the dozens of ethnic and linguistic groups in the country.
That changed this month when the National Statistics Office of Afghanistan registered Tatar as a distinct ethnicity. The landmark move will allow Tatars to document their ethnicity on new biometric national identification cards.
The Turkic-speaking ethnic Tatars hope the distinction will help their efforts to gain official recognition under Afghanistan's Constitution and revive their mother tongue, which most members of the community in Afghanistan no longer speak.
Tatars trace their roots in Afghanistan back about 800 years after the region was conquered by Mongol emperor Genghis Khan.
Tatars are considered the modern-day descendants of nomads who joined the Golden Horde -- a khanate of the Mongol Empire founded in the 13th century by Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan.
Today, the predominately Muslim Tatar community is spread across China, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia. The highest concentration of Tatars is found in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan.
Afghanistan’s Constitution officially recognizes 14 ethnic groups. They include Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Baloch, Pashayi, Nuristani, Aimaq, Kyrgyz, Qizilbash, Gujar, and Brahwui.
But there is no mention of Tatars, who are predominately Sunni Muslim. Sunnis account for some 85 percent of the Afghan population.
Zabihullah Tatar, head of the Kabul-based Afghan Tatar Cultural Foundation, says there are various reasons why ethnic Tatars in Afghanistan have been largely forgotten over the centuries.
"We Afghan Tatars have forgotten our language because of geography and environmental influences,” he says, adding that ethnic Tatars adopted the languages spoken in the parts of Afghanistan where they settled.
That has included Pashto and Dari, the two main languages in the country, as well as Turkic languages like Uzbek and Turkmen.
Tatar also says members of the community are scattered across 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, with the highest concentration to the north of the Hindu Kush Mountains in the provinces of Samangan and Balkh.
“We are a minority,” says Abdullah Mohammadi, the only ethnic Tatar lawmaker in Afghanistan's parliament. “But even in areas we have settled, we are a minority. With such low numbers, we couldn’t keep our culture over the centuries.”
Most ethnic Tatars also live in remote rural of the mountainous country, with many working in agriculture.
Mohammadi says those factors have deprived the community of political representation and recognition.
The decision by the National Statistics Office to recognize Tatar as a distinct ethnicity was welcomed by the community. But community leaders say it is only a first step.
“Some Tatars have been categorized as ethnic Tajiks, others as ethnic Uzbeks, Hazaras, or Pashtuns,” says Samardin Tatar, an ethnic Tatar from Balkh Province.
“We want to be recognized as Tatar under the Constitution,” he says. “That is the next step for us.”
Community leaders estimate there are up to 100,000 ethnic Tatars in Afghanistan.
Exact figures on the size of the country’s various ethnic groups are unavailable, largely because an accurate census has never been conducted in Afghanistan.
The last attempt, in the late 1970s, was never completed. Repeated calls for a new census have never been realized.
Disputed sample censuses dating back to the 1970s estimate the Pashtun population at just over 40 percent, followed by ethnic Tajiks at less than 30 percent with Hazaras and Uzbeks at around 10 percent. Various smaller minorities account for the rest of the population.
Those figures are an important issue because the estimates have been used to determine political representation.
Ethnic Tatars have sought to increase the community’s cultural presence in Afghanistan.
The community has five social and cultural organizations registered with the Information and Culture Ministry.
Kamaluddin Tatar, the head of the Tatar Social Organization in Kabul, says the community also publishes a magazine called the Voice of Tatar. But the publication is in the Dari language.
Tatar says the community’s goal is to revive their native language.
In recent years, ethnic Tatar leaders have established cultural ties with the Russia-based World Tatar Congress and Russia's Republic of Tatarstan.
The World Tatar Congress helped launch an online Tatar-language training course for Afghan Tatars on March 15.
“Tatarstan is helping Afghan Tatars by providing language learning classes,” Zabihullah Tatar says. “We have also asked them for some education scholarships for our young people to study there.”
“Our ties [with Russia] are only cultural,” he says. “We are Afghans and Afghanistan is our country.”
The goal, he says, is to open the first Tatar-language school in Afghanistan.
“This can be the start of the revival of our language," says parliamentary deputy Mohammadi.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar contributed to this report.