A new report by AAN, ‘The Social Wandering of the Afghan Kuchis,’ explores both the transformations that Afghan nomads have undergone in recent decades and their current, changing position in Afghan society. Decades of insecurity, drought and economic competition have led an increasing number of Kuchis to settle close to urban centers. There, they have commonly confronted poverty, a lack of access to facilities and services and tense competition with other communities. At the same time, in other rural parts of the country Kuchis, who are still nomadic, and sedentary villagers have clashed in violent confrontations. The establishment of representative government institutions, specifically for Kuchis, has not been very instrumental in resolving any of these issues. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini explains why in a brief interview.
First of all, can you tell us why you picked this topic? And what can you tell us about the Kuchi community and their position within the overall conflict situation in Afghanistan?
Well, when Kuchis feature in the Afghan media, it is almost always in connection to protests, conflict or land disputes. I wanted to understand what made them feature so prominently and what was behind it.
In terms of the position of the Kuchis, many Kuchi groups find themselves directly affected by the political insurgency, either because of their geographic location in the South or the East, or because of their vulnerable social position, or both. More generally, Kuchis have seen their migratory habits disrupted by the decades of conflict; together with the prolonged drought and unfavourable economic trends, this has contributed to the sedentarisation of a considerable proportion of the Kuchis. Those who still migrate seasonally with their flocks, on the other hand, suffer from the current insecurity and the presence of armed groups in rural areas.
Estimates of the number of Kuchis in Afghanistan vary considerably, depending on the source. The most reliable survey is the National Multi-Sectoral Assessment on Kuchis that was carried out in 2005, which puts their number at around 2.5 million. This includes a percentage of settled Kuchis. There are Kuchis in most of Afghanistan’s provinces, although historically they had a stronger presence in some areas, and there has now been a strong and more recent trend to settle or gravitate around urban centres. In terms of ethnicity, most Kuchis are Pashtuns, with smaller groups of mainly Baluch, Turkmen and Arabs.
How were Kuchis traditionally perceived in Afghan society? Your report is also about how their identity has changed in recent years, what can you tell us about that?
In the past, nomads certainly constituted a rural community far removed from modernisation or access to education, but they were relatively well-off in economic terms and they were not stigmatised as backward. Nowadays, however, many Afghans living in urban areas only hear about Kuchis in terms of conflicts and disputes. When they encounter the Kuchis who have settled near the cities and who are often forced to do so in very poor conditions, they associate them with poor sanitation, joblessness and a lack of education. And there is some resentment with regard to the constitution of a separate electoral constituency for the Kuchis, which is sometimes considered by politicians from other communities as a controversial, ethnically-driven move on the part of the government.
Did the recent political mobilisation of the Kuchis lead to a better standard of life?
Judging by the poor living conditions of many Kuchis, and by the continuing instances of conflicts and disputes involving them, I would say not enough. Elements of their political and economic elites do mobilise their fellow Kuchis for protest purposes, but often they seem more interested in asserting their role as mediators or in being recognised by the government as patrons of the Kuchi community. Their focus is often more on obtaining localised privileges for themselves and their direct supporters in order to ensure their loyalty, rather than on pursuing coherent and long-term policies that could benefit all Kuchis.
What do you foresee in the near future for the Kuchis? Will the trend towards settling down continue? And what are the chances that the political leaders, who are now mostly focused on personal patronage networks, may evolve into more democratic representatives for the Kuchis?
Dealing with the problems that affect the migratory lifestyle of the Kuchis, whether they are economic, security-related or environmental, would require several major changes: an end to the conflict situation in Afghanistan, the defusing of localised communal rifts between the nomads and some sedentary groups, in particular the Hazaras, and a big effort on the part of the government to support Kuchi livelihoods and modes of production in the face of competition from imported products. But a more immediate concern, I think, is to in the first place improve the conditions of settlement for those Kuchis who cannot cope with the nomadic lifestyle anymore. This must not be done through the mediation of the usual powerbrokers, be they businessmen or politicians, but through state institutions, in a non-partisan and fair way.
The problem of fair and effective political representation is, of course, not peculiar to the Kuchis in contemporary Afghanistan. Substantial improvements will happen only when, on one hand, citizens, who are fragmented in groups and constituencies shaped by personal patronage networks, are able to stop depending mainly on the redistributive abilities of their political leaders in order to survive, and when, on the other hand, political leaders are no longer valued mainly on the basis of the number of their clients and their ability to raise or quell disturbances.
The full report can be downloaded here.
The executive summary can be found here.
To listen to the podcast of a more extensive interview with Fabrizio Foschini go here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020