Who cares about the Kuchi-Hazara conflict, nowadays?
Having lost hope of not witnessing outbursts of Kuchi-Hazara related violence at least for this year, AANâ€™s Fabrizio Foschini reports on the recent conflict in Ghazni province, on the situation in neighbouring areas, and a perceived lack of interest on the matter on part of the government and the mass media.
It looked as if it was almost done, this year. Mid-May, the annualrendez-vousÂ between the Kuchis on their nomadic trail and the sedentary Hazaras, between their mutual economic problems and the unfulfilled promises of the government, had passed smoothly. Apart from a couple of minor incidents at the arrival of the Kuchis in the high valleys of Wardak, both parties appeared committed to avoid the worse, and although the situation remained tense, nothing serious had happened so far.
It is not nice reporting about a conflict like the one which annually sets the Kuchis and the Hazaras of eastern Hazarajat one against each other. The ethnic fault lines that are easily brought up whenever it explodes are so vicious and disruptive, so cheap and demagogic, that one would try and ignore it to the very last. But now, once again, things have gone out of hand, and it is mandatory to raise the gravest concerns about a situation which is deteriorating year by year, although it fails to draw the needed attention from both at a national and international level.
This year, violence hit from quite an unexpected quarter. Instead of Daimirdad and Behsud (I and II) districts of Wardak province, it struck in the huge and remote Nawor district of Ghazni. Although right to the West of the abovementioned districts, Nawor was spared by the conflict in past years. A relatively limited number of nomads move across it every year late in spring compared to the other areas, and there was no history of open conflict among the communities â€“ at least in the last decades – with the consequent trail of blood to further suspicions and hatred among them.
However, the events of last Saturday threaten to build a precedent in their own right. Apparently, a high number of armed individuals (some sources reported more than 150) attacked several Hazara villages between 16Â and 18 June in the Khawat area, the north-eastern part of Nawor district adjoining Daimirdad and Behsud. Violence affected especially Sabzab, where several deaths were reported, their number varying between three and seven, with only one, that of a formerÂ mujahedinÂ commander called Sayyed Ali, officially confirmed as of now. As many as 20 other villages were attacked, and several houses reportedly set ablaze.
The explosion of violence in Ghazni happened while a tense truce prevailed in neighbouring Wardak. There, to preventÂ Â a repetition of the bloody confrontations of last year (see our blog here), agreements had been brokered in early May, when the nomads usually start moving towards the highlands of Hazarajat, between the leaders of the two communities. One such agreement between the people of some villages in Daimirdad and several Kuchi leaders, signed on 4 May by the two parties and the governor of Wardak Halim Fedai stipulated that:
– the Kuchis would be allowed to cross the territory of Daimirdad to reach their pastures in Waras and Panjab districts of Bamian;
– the Kuchis would have to skirt villages as far as possible, keeping to mountain tracks and uninhabited and uncultivated areas, in order to avoid possible conflicts;
– in case of disputes, the conflicting parties would have resorted to all the signatories of the agreement and to the Afghan authorities to find a peaceful solution.
Anyway, as a precaution, part of the residents of Daimirdad evacuated their homes, moving either in the direction of the provincial centre or that of strong positions on the mountains. At the same time, the communities organized a local militia to man check-posts and monitor the movements of the Kuchis.
The latter, in fact, although gathering in increasing numbers in Dasht-e Qutbkhel, and in Tezak and Kajao of Behsud during the last month, never made it through to the higher pastures. Opposition to their further advance seems to come in particular from residents of the inner districts of Hazarajat like Waras and Panjab. These are the ultimate destination of the Kuchis, who, although they have not been able to reach those areas for ten years now, claim to own pastures there, which are now often used or put under cultivation by local Hazaras. An influential political lobby centering on Muhammad Akbari, the leader of a separate faction of Vice-Presidentâ€™s Khaliliâ€™s mainstream Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami, calledÂ Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli-ye Islami-ye AfghanistanÂ (National Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan)Â and a member of the Wolesi Jirga from Bamian province â€“ he is actually from Waras district â€“ was reputed to be against any deal with the Kuchis. And, of course, given the past violence committed by the nomads in Hazarajat and the sensitivity of the issue, this position is easily shifted from the local to the national realms of politics, and find supporters among the Hazaras at large.
However, it seems that this year the interest aroused by the issue is limited. The report that as many as 26 villages had been burnt down, even if possibly exaggerated, would have constituted a major piece of news in any country, Afghanistan included â€“ at least until a few months back. Now, almost none of the major media channels picked up the news, which were mainly reproduced by Hazara websites.
The Kuchi-Hazara conflict in fact seems to have lost importance. It has becomeÂ kamrangÂ (â€˜dimâ€™, in local parlance) in front of the big issues of today, like the strategic agreement with the US and the peace talks with the Taleban. The government has been promising a solution to the Kuchi problem for years now, saying that lands (variously located in Logar, Kunar or elsewhere) would be allottedÂ Â to the nomads to help them settling down, without sensible results. More on the short-term, a governmental commission sent earlier this year to Wardak apparently failed to broker a comprehensive agreement.
There is thus the possibility that the sudden attack in Nawor has been carried out to draw government attention to the issue, to pressurise for a solution or at least to get the usual, annual â€˜cool downâ€™ bribe from the state. The Kuchi leaders could have either organized it actively themselves or have let the worse happen, without restraining anymore hard-line elements among them, or those who cooperate with the Taleban.
The extent of the presence of the latter among the nomads is one of the bones of contention in the current public debate. Provincial authorities and Ghazni MPs claim that the attackers were no Kuchis at all, but Taleban in disguise. Given that all the MPs from Ghazni are Hazaras, this may be a sensible position to avoid an ethnic confrontation, but it is one which actually would entail a stronger reaction from the security forces than a mere interposition between the warring parties. Local residents of Nawor, in turn, reported the presence of Taleban, even of foreign fighters (Waziris, or anyway Pakistani Pashtuns) but also identified real Kuchis among the attackers, and stated that the nomads and the Taleban cooperated: the former would burn the houses while the latter were more interested in destroying telecommunication towers in the area. Whatever the truth, it would make sense for both groups to try and exploit the presence of the other: for the Kuchis to score a military point in their competition with the Hazaras, and to gain the attention of the government; for the Taleban to be able to carry on their intimidations under the cover of a â€˜communitarianâ€™ issue and extend their presence into the few areas of Ghazni untouched by violence until now. The Taleban could also be tempted to exploit the real potential of â€˜ethnicâ€™ conflict in Ghazni – already hinted at last year by the uneasiness over the electoral results which saw all the elected MPs stem from the Hazara community (an expected development, as the Pashtun areas are largely under the control of the insurgency and no vote took place there) â€“ for the purpose of creating unrest if not attaining wider support among local Pashtuns.
Reports about the extent of the conflict may be exaggerated, but the threat it represents is growing bigger every year. The inactivity of the government itself should constitute a matter of concern. Notwithstanding an influx of police from neighbouring districts, the situation in Nawor remains problematic, and even more so that of the neighbouring districts of Wardak, where armed mobilization on both sides can easily escalate into clashes(*). After the experience of several years, localsâ€™ complaints that the Kuchis are heavily armed and ready to wage war – or that the Taleban provide them with military help â€“ cannot be dismissed easily.
Last year this was a conflict that caused casualties in the order of dozens, at least 150 houses burnt down, and more than 2000 displaced families, many of them fleeing as far as Kabul and returning to their villages only after months, with the consequent loss of the yearâ€™s harvest and further impoverishment. This is not the kind of issue a state should be allowed to forget in the name of less substantial, but more fashionable, subjects.
(*) The first armed incidents have in fact been reported from Behsud. Some local elders from Daimirdad interviewed by AAN however are still hopeful that the situation will not deteriorate. Apparently the government has also been promising or actually paying the Kuchi leaders a big sum to defuse the tension and relocate elsewhere.