Afghanistan Land Conflicts Pit Nomads Against Villagers, Power Brokers Against Each Other

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February 2013 | News Feature by Viola Gienger February 21, 2013

Many of the clearest risks of conflict, violence and instability around the world have received widespread media attention. But a variety of other risks and threats have been smoldering quietly. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) is engaged in a variety of peacebuilding and conflict management efforts in many of the countries where these lesser-known risks are emerging. In a series of articles, the Institute examines some of these “sleeper risks” through the analytical lens of USIP experts. | Read more about USIP’s series on sleeper risks

Beneath the ongoing war between the NATO-backed Afghan government forces and the Taliban, a whole other set of conflicts sizzles and occasionally bursts into flame. Pastoral nomads grazing their herds clash with villagers, and 10 people die. Or, the government establishes a commission to thwart illegal land grabs and powerful opponents caught in the net cry fowl.

The often-fierce disputes boil down to one thing – the land under their feet.

Conflicts over land are widespread in Afghanistan after decades of war, failed governance, population displacement and agricultural mismanagement. Warlords, insurgents, and government authorities continue to take advantage of the chaos to seize property they want. Even land given for a school becomes the subject of fierce disputes.

Such clashes, political or otherwise, are intensifying as all sides wrestle for power in advance of the presidential elections next year and the exit of most U.S.-led coalition military forces by the end of 2014.

“That’s going to be the next big conflict in Afghanistan,” said Barmak Pazhwak, a USIP senior program officer who previously worked for the United Nations Development Program as senior international adviser to Afghanistan’s Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. “This is a very risky thing because the conflict will be all over the country and will be really unmanageable.”

The origins of land conflicts in Afghanistan are manifold. They include population growth, government corruption, repeated division of property from one generation to the next, and residents returning to land they once abandoned to flee violence, according to an April 2009 report by the nonprofit Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, which has conducted other research on the subject with support from USIP.

In one case in October 2011, it took the threat of military action by a provincial governor in eastern Afghanistan to diffuse a standoff over land between heavily armed fighters from two branches of the Pashtun Shinwari tribe, according to a news report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In Afghanistan’s central highlands, clashes break out regularly in spring between ethnic Pashtun herders known as Kuchis and local ethnic Hazaras when the nomads come in to graze their herds, according to a May 2010 article published by the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Last November, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting revealed the case of a school in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan that was battling to reclaim a piece of property, saying relatives of a local political figure had usurped it to build homes.

Just last month, TOLO News in Afghanistan reported that three powerful figures in the northern Balkh Province were disputing allegations of land grabs and embezzlement lodged by a government anti-corruption office. Evidence had been forwarded to the Attorney General’s office for possible prosecution.

“People would say that land conflicts have increased in the last 10 years, not decreased,” said Erica Gaston, a senior program officer in USIP’s Rule of Law Center of Innovation, which is working with local organizations, government officials, village elders and religious leaders on dispute resolution processes. Disputes over property ownership are the most common type of case to come up.

The vast majority of land owners don’t have proper documentation, and maps of property ownership dating to the 1970s cover only about seven percent of property. So a typical western-style legal system doesn’t work, and local programs are needed to resolve disputes and address issues such as the phenomenon of informal settlements that have grown up in and around cities like Kabul and Jalalabad as rural populations migrated to urban areas. In many parts of the country, officials are still arguing over who will be in charge of regulating, tracking and managing land ownership, never mind carrying out any kind of mapping or registration process.

“Clear ownership rights – or at least processes for resolving ownership rights -- are the basic building blocks for any other kind of rights protection or societal development. In Afghanistan these basic questions have not been resolved, which frequently leads to conflict,” Gaston said. “There is no part of land management that isn’t a problem.”

In addition to work on the ground, USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding teaches related courses.

“In rare cases, land may be a primary cause of conflict,” according to the description of one such course, conducted in December in conjunction with the International Organization for Migration, the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development. “More often it is a tinderbox of discontent caused by long-standing tenure insecurity and inequities, easily ignited by the flames of violence.”

The Afghan government began another effort at reviewing the laws last year, but most proposals failed to address some of the most central weaknesses of the provisions, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit said in an October report based on research supported by USIP. “We need a broader political willingness to develop a policy or an approach to resolve the issues,” said Shahmahmood Miakhel, USIP’s country director for Afghanistan.