The Hazaras speak Farsi and are mostly Shi'i Muslims (primarily Twelver Shi'i, some Ismaili Shi'is), yet there are also some Sunni Muslim Hazaras. They settled in Afghanistan at least as far back as the 13th century. Hazaras have always lived on the edge of economic survival. As a result of Pashtun expansionism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries which was fueled by Sunni prejudices against the Shi'i (thus attracting the help of the mostly Sunni Tajiks and Uzbeks) the Hazaras were driven to the barren dry mountains of central Afghanistan (the Hazarajat) where they live today separated into nine regionally distinct enclaves. The Hazaras are primarily sedentary farmers practicing some ancillary herding. Many Hazaras also migrated to the major towns, particularly Kabul where they occupied the lowest economic rungs. It is perhaps this economic deprivation which caused the Hazaras and other Shi'i to organize politically during the 1960s and 1970s and concentrate on gaining political autonomy for themselves during the Soviet occupation. During the Soviet occupation, the Soviets abandoned any pretense of controlling the region. During this time, the Hazaras engaged in a violent civil war.
From its founding in 1747 by Ahmad Shah, Afghanistan has traditionally been dominated by the Pashtuns, who before 1978 (the date of the last reliable census in Afghanistan) constituted a 47% minority in the country. However, as a result of the 1979 Soviet invasion the population distribution in Afghanistan has changed. About 85% of the 6.2 million Afghani refugees who fled to Iran and Pakistan due to the invasion and the war that followed it are Pashtuns. This, accordingly, lowered the percentage of Pashtuns in Afghanistan's population and raised the percentages of the country's other ethnic groups until the mid-1990s when many of the refugees returned. This raised the percentage of Hazaras in Afghanistan from 8% in 1978 to 14% in 1987. The Hazaras now constitute about 9% of Afghanistan's population.
The Soviet invasion of December 1979 has been the major determining factor in Afghanistan's ethnic relations since that point in time. The Hazaras were among those who fought against the Communist government and they succeeded in liberating much of their homeland early on in the civil war. During the 1980s, they reached an agreement with the government in Kabul that in exchange for not attacking the government, the Hazaras were allowed to live relatively independent lives. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 has only affected the power relations among the country's various factions but has not changed the fact that they are in constant competition with each other. However, the population shift that occurred during the 1980s has weakened the Pashtuns and allowed other ethnic groups to become more involved in the country's government.
Thus, the civil war is a mixed blessing; it puts the Hazaras in physical jeopardy (along with the rest of the Afghan population) but it makes them useful as allies. Once the civil war ends, it is likely that the Hazaras will again be shut out of power and suffer from religiously fueled discrimination and lose the independence that they gained in their war with the former Communist government.