Since the 2nd millennium BC, cities in the region now inhabited by Pashtuns have seen invasions and migrations, including by Ancient Indian peoples, Ancient Iranian peoples, the Medes, Persians and Ancient Macedonians in antiquity, Kushans, Hephthalites, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and others.

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With estimates as high as 7 million, the city of Karachi in Sindh, Pakistan has the largest Pashtun population in the world.

The exact figure remains uncertain in Afghanistan, which is also affected by the 1.3 million or more Afghan refugees that remain in Pakistan, a majority of which are Pashtuns. A cumulative population assessment suggests a total of around 49 million individuals all across the world.

During the Delhi Sultanate era, the 15th–16th century Lodi dynasty briefly replaced the preexisting rulers in North India until Babur completely deposed the Lodi dynasty.

Other Pashtuns fought the Safavids and Mughals before obtaining an independent state in the early 18th century, The Barakzai dynasty played a vital role during the Great Game from the 19th century to the 20th century as they were caught between the imperialist designs of the British and Russian empires.

Despite this, many people still identify themselves with various clans.

The tribal system has several levels of organisation: the tribe, tabar, is divided into kinship groups called khels, in turn divided into smaller groups (pllarina or plarganey), each consisting of several extended families called kahols.

The vast majority of the Pashtuns are found in the traditional Pashtun homeland, located in an area south of the Amu Darya in Afghanistan, and west of the Indus River in Pakistan, which includes Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the northern part of Balochistan Province.

Additional Pashtun communities are located in western and northern Afghanistan, the Gilgit–Baltistan and Kashmir regions, and northwestern Punjab province (Mianwali and Attock), Pakistan.

Important metropolitan centres of Pashtun culture include Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, Peshawar, and Quetta.