The Kuchi & Hazara Land Dispute Conflicts – An Endless Struggle for Land Ownership

By: Nastrat Esmaty

Afghan author, Nasrat Esmaty, explores the different dimensions of the land dispute and conflict between the Hazaras, a minority ethnic group, and Pashtun Kuchis, nomadic pastoralists, in Afghanistan. The land dispute between the two groups has erupted sporadically for almost a century and caused bloodshed and several conflicts amongst the two groups. Unlike the existing literature, which suggests that both the dispute and conflict have roots mostly due to resources, the author analyses it from the perspective of identity or ethnic conflict, and has tried to present a fresh perspective at not only understanding but also resolving the conflict.

Different regimes have dealt with the grievances and issues of both groups temporarily with questionable fairness (Rassul, 2010). However, more importantly, the main causes of the dispute and conflict have remained unaddressed (Wily, 2004). Both the Hazaras and Kuchis are of importance politically, socially and economically in Afghanistan, which will be discussed thoroughly in the next section. Informed research on the nature of the dispute and conflict that delivers long-term solutions is critically required to permanently address the concerns of the two groups, the Afghan government and the International Community (ibid). As such, looking at the Hazara-Kuchi conflict in such depth is beyond the scope of this paper. However, this paper will pinpoint the key causes of the dispute and conflict.

A brief history of the conflict will put the causes and associated factors of the dispute and conflict into historical perspective. In an effort to expand his realm, Afghan monarch Amir Abdul Rahman Khan (1880 – 1901) sent an army of 30,000 to 40,000 into the Hazarajat (Wardak, Bamyan, Ghazni and Ghor provinces) to subjugate the Hazaras (Wily, 2009). Khan had cited the “irreligiousness” of the Hazaras based on their Shiite beliefs as the reason (ibid). Upon victory, Khan snatched Hazara lands and gifted them to Kuchis, who had partaken prominently in Khan’s Jihad (ibid). With the passage of time, the Kuchis also purchased some Hazara land (Rassul, 2010). The Kuchis’ domination of Hazarajat continued until 1919 when Khan’s grandson, Amanullah Khan, was enthroned. Amanullah Khan reinstated the Hazaras’ land and only recognized the Kuchis’ user-rights of the pastureland (Wily, 2009).

The subsequent monarchs and regimes that came into power acknowledged Amanullah Khan’s decision and their oversight minimized conflicts until the communist regime took over in 1978 (ibid). From the rule of the communist regime in 1979 to the ensuing Islamic regime of the Mujahideen until the Taliban came into power in 1996, the Hazaras enjoyed unprecedented power by forming pro-Mujahideen ethnic political parties and arming themselves against the Soviet regime (Ibrahimi, 2012).  As a result, the Hazara warlords would not allow Kuchis to access the latter’s land or pastureland in the Hazarajat for the following 20 years (1979 – 1998) (ibid). The Hazaras even distributed the Kuchis’ purchased land among their kin or followers (Rassul, 2010).  When the Taliban occupied Bamyan in 1998, Naim Koochi, a Kuchi and a Taliban fighter, retaliated by ransacking Hazara homes and lands (Wily, 2004).

After the establishment of the Karzai-led regime, the Hazaras achieved great political clout while the Kuchis’ political representation also increased (Katzman, 2013).  When the Kuchis ventured into the pasturelands in Behsud I, Behsud II and Daimirdad districts of Wardak province, a violent conflict erupted twice between the two groups in 2008 and 2009 ((Rassul, 2010 and Land Info, 2012). President Hamid Karzai assigned two separate commissions to resolve and report on the conflict on both occasions (ibid). The commissions, however, only made perfunctory attempts at solving the conflict and prescribed temporary and kneejerk measures to end the conflict (Rassul, 2010). Based on evaluation of a Kuchi’s testimony recorded by Rassul, the commissions sought ambiguous and short-lived measures that only temporarily ended the conflict (ibid). It may be fair to conclude that the government has failed to commit to a mechanism to thoroughly understand the problems of each group and end violence.

As a result, this paper is aiming at answering the following question: What are the causes, and associated factors to the Hazara-Kuchi dispute and conflict?  The current literature suggests that it is a battle for resources – land and pastureland to be precise. However, based on the analysis of the aforementioned history and the ethnic exploitation by political elites from both sides, which will be discussed in the identity subsection, this paper argues that it is a struggle for the survival of identity and then resource domination. The author also sees poor land tenure and the government’s contemplation of Kuchi settlement as peripheral issues to the dispute and conflict that hinder the prospect of any long-term resolution.

Kuchi AfghanistanIdentity for Afghans is an amalgamation of religious beliefs (Sunni or Shiite) and ethnicity (Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek…) (Monsutti, 2012). Since Afghanistan has been at war for more than four decades, ethnic groups have formed both intra- and inter-ethnic identities. In other words, every ethnic group has an understanding of who they are amongst themselves and other ethnic groups whom they either share good or bad rapport with based on their affable or antagonistic history (Simonsen, 2004). In the Hazara-Kuchi dispute and conflict, the antagonistic history between them spanning from the late 19th century till the present day revolves around how they see themselves as a group against one another (ibid). One of the backlashes of not addressing identity factors is that the Hazaras always associate the Kuchis with the Taliban because of their Pashtun connections while Kuchis still doubt the religious correctness of Hazaras (Wily, 2009). The recent political achievements have turned Hazaras from a minority group to the third ethnic “majority group” in the country (Simonsen, 2004). On the other hand, Kuchis have solidified their identity and claims after the Afghan government’s Kuchi recognition and allotment of ten seats in the National Assembly (Tapper, 2008).The Hazaras and Kuchis see fighting against one other as the struggle for survival of self and ethnic identity (Monsutti, 2012). The Afghan government is subconsciously playing a major role in the conflict and ‘ethnicization of Afghanistan’ as it is distributing the cabinet ministries, governorships (provincial and district), municipalities, police commanderships and other political appointees based on ethnic population (ibid). Such political treatment has resulted in dividing the ethnic groups into voting blocs and the birth of ethnic elites, who use ethnicity to further their political agenda, in Afghanistan (ibid). Moreover, it has incentivized identification and relation to ethnic groups and fighting for ethnic causes more than national causes (ibid).

As stated before, land or resource is the second source of dispute and conflict. Both the Hazaras and Kuchis need land for survival as land is a valuable commodity. Kuchis need to access the pasturelands of Wardak province and Hazarajat, in general, so that their livestock of mostly sheep and goats can survive, nurture and grow in numbers (Ferdinand, 2006). On the other hand, the Hazaras believe that the Kuchis should not use their pastureland (freely) as the latter were awarded their lands unfairly (Wily, 2009). The other problem that indirectly affects the dispute and prolongs both the dispute and conflict is poor land tenure (ibid). The Afghanistan government has never registered all of its land (ibid). As a result, the powerful warlords and civil servants have usurped (or tried to usurp) public land, especially pastureland, and appropriated it for cultivation and/or other personal use (ibid). The indetermination of pastureland boundaries and its public or communal use is amongst other ambiguities that has been caused by poor land tenure (ibid). Lastly, the Afghan government’s stance to settling Kuchis as an option indicates the lack of appreciation and understanding of Kuchi lifestyle and their economic contribution to the nascent Afghan economy (Wily, 2009 and Barfield, 2004).

In conclusion, the dispute and conflict have roots in identity and resource while land tenure ambiguities and treating the notion of settling and sedentarising Kuchis as a solution serve as peripheral issues.  The base of the dispute and conflict was laid when the Hazaras’ ethnicity and religious beliefs were targeted to occupy Hazarajat. Today, the same identity is used as a tool to turn down the possibility of a peaceful resolution, which if carried out from bottom-up may produce favourable results (de Weijer, 2005b). The only difference is that in the 1880’s a Pashtun leader used it as an instrument for his expansionist ambitions while today the Hazara political elites have embraced the Pashtun leader’s instrument as “innocent victims” and are using it against the Kuchis to further their own political ambitions and survival. Using identity as an instrument, the Hazara political elites create a bubble of myths and fears that causes Hazaras to fear committing to put an end to the dispute and conflict. On the other hand, the Kuchi elites treat Hazarajat as the booty their forefathers were awarded for fighting a “holy war” against the Hazaras. They consider the use of Hazarajat lands as their God-given right and can instigate conflicts for as long as there is no peaceful and permanent settlement. In a nutshell, at the core of it, the dispute and conflict is armed and fought with faith, which has shaped into an integral part of both the Hazara and Kuchi identities.

When a Kuchi political elite makes 2 million USD from a conflict he loses nothing in, he has little to gain from the permanent resolution of the dispute and conflict and risks the loss of the future opportunities of pocketing 2 million USD. Also, the Hazara political elites maintain their heroic status by standing against the Kuchis. In such circumstances, there is little hope and room for any peaceful settlement between the two group from a top-down approach (Land Info, 2012 and Foschini, 2011).  Based on how the political elites take advantage of the dispute and conflict, one conclusion can be drawn that it is them who spread the intangible factors of myths, fears and threats more than they exist. The tangible (or resource) factor of the conflict is genuine. Land is a rare and expensive commodity for both groups because of their high poverty rates and needs. The average Hazaras and Kuchis are the ones who are in the receiving end of suffering in the dispute and conflict. Since the conflicts are staged in Hazarajat, the Hazaras lose their property, assets and family members while the Kuchis lose family members and denied access to their pastureland and purchased land, which is part of their lifestyle and identity. Both groups have realized that their political elites are taking advantage of their plight. This realization can, therefore, be worked on for a bottom-up dispute and conflict resolution.

On the other hand, the ambiguities in definition of land titles, use and boundaries create a legal vacuum that hinders the prospects of a dispute resolution even if both parties put their identity issues aside. The existence of different and multiple documents and accounts of ownership make the resolution even more challenging. Moreover, when the government assigns itself the ownership status of the pastureland, it makes the government an interested party in the dispute and conflict when ideally the government should be playing the role of a trustee. The ownership status can lead the way for commercialization, usurpation and agricultural use of the pastureland, which Afghanistan has experienced.

Afghanistan is not alone in not comprehending the nomadic/Kuchi lifestyle. However, if Afghanistan, which has a large Kuchi population, decides to sedentarise Kuchis, it will be acting on its ignorance and changing the three century-old lifestyle, is unconstitutional as it violates their civil liberties and freedom promised in the constitution. Moreover, it labels them as a liability that needs to be taken care of when they are actually an asset and have the potential of contributing productively to the economy (Barfield, 2004). While sedentarising Kuchis may settle the worries of Hazaras, it will be unacceptable to the Kuchis and will result in Kuchi resentment and lack of support for the government.

More importantly, if the dispute, the conflict, issues and grievances of both sides are not studied thoroughly and responded to accordingly and justly, the Government of Afghanistan may witness the eruption of recurrent violence (Wily, 2009). Afghanistan has already seen the aftermath of neglecting minority groups in the destructive inter-ethnic conflict that destroyed Kabul (Goodson, 2001). Since two major events, namely the presidential and parliamentary elections and the withdrawal of NATO and other international forces, are taking place in 2014, the dispute and conflict between the Hazaras and Kuchis is very fragile, disorderly and costly to remain unresolved. Lastly, the author would like to suggest an in-depth study on Kuchi identity and a further and in-depth field research on the issues that this paper has touched upon.

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