Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Land in Afghanistan: This time, retaking instead of grabbing land?

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon 26 min

When the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) retook power, it started reclaiming state land that had been seized during previous administrations. In October 2022, the IEA established the Land-Grabbing Prevention and Restitution Commission, within the Ministry of Justice, whose purpose is to investigate land-grabbing under the Islamic Republic, restore any state land and prevent it happening in the future. The IEA has also established a special court to which any party with an objection to a decision by the commission can appeal. AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon gives an account of the commission’s work and assesses how much usurped land has so far been reclaimed.

The exclusive Sherpur neighbourhood in Kabul, built in 2003 after Kabul Chief of Police Abdul Bashir Salangi, on the orders of Minister of Defence Qasim Fahim, bulldozed the mud-built houses of poor residents: plots were subsequently distributed largely to their factional comrades from Shura-ye Nizar. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, 2022The exclusive Sherpur neighbourhood in Kabul, built in 2003 after Kabul Chief of Police Abdul Bashir Salangi, on the orders of Minister of Defence Qasim Fahim, bulldozed the mud-built houses of poor residents: plots were subsequently distributed largely to their factional comrades from Shura-ye Nizar. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, 2022

Disputes over land ownership have been a major issue in Afghanistan for decades, helping to fuel the broader conflict since 1978 (for more on this, see this USIP paper). With each turn of the political wheel, a new set of actors took power and could seize or redistribute land, making disputes ever more complex. Many disputes over land are between citizens, and the IEA has said these have to be dealt with by the courts. The commission it has set up deals solely with what the Emirate believes could be usurped state land – and this is also the subject of this report.

This report looks at how the Emirate has dealt with historical state land-grabbing since the takeover. It provides a short historical background to land-grabbing and previous attempts to counter it and then details the legal framework adopted by the newly-created land-grabbing commission and special court and provides an overview of the commission’s work through five case studies in Kabul, Kandahar, Nangrahar, Uruzgan and Helmand provinces.[1]These provinces were chosen for this research for the following reasons: first, they featured many cases of land-grabbing and these, compared to other provinces, had been exposed previously, though … Continue reading To gain granular detail of the commission’s work in these provinces, AAN interviewed 16 people with direct knowledge of the commission’s work (seven face-to-face interviews and nine by phone). The interviewees included journalists, tribal elders and IEA officials.

A short background of land-grabbing

State land comprises forests, ‘protected land’ (ie protected from development by the state or protected by law) and non-irrigated land. Only non-irrigated land can legally be sold or leased by the state, and then only under certain conditions.[2]There are three types of land in Afghanistan – private, public and state. Public land comprises pastures and graveyards. Graveyards cannot be transferred or leased, but ‘common pastureland’ can … Continue reading However, such rules broke down under the Republic and in earlier periods when there was widespread grabbing of state land by senior officials, their close relatives and other influential and powerful figures (see Middle East Institute (MEI) report here). They either took the land for themselves and sold it on to others, or distributed it to clients and supporters, especially to relatives, sympathisers, factional comrades and fellow tribe members, further strengthening their power among their own community and thus their relevance at the national level. The phenomenon was especially common in or around Afghanistan’s cities. In some cases, the land-grabbers made sure to obtain legal documents from the government to show that they had been granted the land legally. This was possible for those holding high office, their relatives or other powerful individuals, who could threaten or bribe officials or give them a share of the land as a reward for the title deeds.

Attempts to reclaim such land were made – or seen to be made – under the Republic. In 2014, the Karzai government established a law which was passed by the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament), determining punishment for the usurpers of land. At that time, members of the Wolesi Jirga and deputy of the commission established for evaluating state and public land in the parliament, Sher Wali Wardak, said that 1.3 million jeribs (226,000 hectares) of state and public land had been usurped by 5,300 people. That number, he said, included members of parliament, ministers and commanders (see media report here). However, the issue appeared to drift – certainly, no reports were published to indicate whether or not any land, or how much, had been reclaimed based on the efforts made by the Wolesi Jirga commission

Two years later, in 2016, the new president, Ashraf Ghani, asserted that “the culture of land usurpation is not accepted by the nation anymore.” He said he had appointed provincial governors, heads of police, municipalities, corps commanders and others whose first and fundamental duty was to prevent land usurpation (see Ghani’s Facebook page here). However, a former government official in Kandahar told AAN that a delegation tasked by Ghani to investigate just one case, the Aino Mena township in that city, just took money from “the owner” (Mahmud Karzai, brother of then former president Hamed Karzai), as a fine for having built on state land – USD 27,00 per jerib. Nothing changed. It was an example of how those who had usurped land could challenge even the power of the president of the Republic.

Land was also an issue for the Taleban leadership even before they captured power, as evidenced by it being regulated by two decrees issued by Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada during the insurgency: state land can be leased to the public, he ordered in 2017, while private land must not be seized by the ‘mujahedin’ (Taleban fighters and commanders) or anyone else (ordered in 2019). Following the takeover, Hibatullah’s first two published orders also concerned land. In the first five weeks of Emirate rule, he had ordered an end to the usurpation of state land, which he said had been “the norm” under the “puppet administration.” He also ordered provincial governors “to rigorously prevent the grabbing of Emarati [state] land and hand over usurpers to face sharia law.” 

A month later, in October 2021, he again banned land-grabbing, this time for land whose ownership was unclear. Only the supreme amir, ie himself, the order decreed, “Based on necessity and expediency, can give [such land] to a member (of the Muslim community) as property.” The decree drew a parallel with what it said was the amir’s right to “withdraw from the public coffer [bait ul-maal]” and presumably give money to someone, again because of expediency. Elsewhere in the amir’s body of orders, this is also banned for others. In March 2023, the ban on officials selling land, or transferring land to individuals or corporations, was repeated, unless there was a specific decree from the amir (for the texts of the decrees up to March 2023 and an accompanying report, (see here and here).

The land commission, the special court and their objectives

The supreme leader of the IEA, Sheikh Hibatullah, established the Land Grabbing Prevention and Restitution Commission (in Pashto, de zmako de ghasab de makhniwi aw de ghasab shoyo zmako de istirdad kamesuin) by decree in mid-October 2022. See this report on the Supreme Court website and the text at the end of this report. The commission is headed by the Minister of Justice, with the Ministers of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, Urban Development and Housing and Work and Social Affairs as members. The commission has 11-member delegations in each province (12 members in Kabul), as well as 146 administrative and technical employees. The supreme leader also appointed a court consisting of a judge, mufti (cleric able to give fatwas or religious decisions), head of the court and a clerk (moharir) (see a tweet from the spokesman of the IEA here). He also ratified the draft law that the members of the commission had prepared. The draft law consists of four chapters and 22 articles, in Pashto and Dari languages (see the draft law here and read AAN’s translation of part of it in the Resources section of this website).

When the commission intends to assess any land, according to a journalist who has followed commission proceedings, it first invites community elders to a meeting and speaks to them. It provides them with information about the process and tells them to come along with any kind of ownership documents they have. The commission then sees and assesses the documents. If they are legal, they simply tell the people that the land or property does belong to them and no one else has any business with their land. If someone fails to present legal ownership documents to the commission, it will conclude that the property lacks legal documentation and the person who claims to own it is banned from building on the land or selling it. Anyone breaking this ban is forcefully stopped by the IEA. However, the commission gives people a chance to appeal its decision and submit their case to the special court. The author has seen neither any published number of cases presented to the court nor a breakdown of how many are successfully appealed and how many fail.

According to the Minister of Urban Development and Housing, Hamdullah Nomani, speaking at a gathering on 28 June 2023 to celebrate the achievements of the ministry during the previous year, 80 per cent of land in Afghanistan is owned by people who only have informal documents, which are not acceptable to the courts, based on current rules and regulations. He said eleven kinds of documents were accepted by the IEA and mentioned three – a legal ownership documents issued by the state (sharie qabala), letters of guarantee (de wasiqai khatona) and in some cases, tax receipts (see Pajhwok report here).

As the minister said, ownership of the vast majority of private land is evidenced by a customary document (orfi qabala). This is not an official document, nor is it issued by the state, but by the owner of a plot of land at the time when he or she wants to sell it or transfer its ownership. It is a customary guarantee that the land is theirs. If any third party claims ownership of it through witnesses, documents or other means and goes directly to the buyer to claim ownership and if the land is proven to belong to that third party, the seller of the land would have to give the buyer a refund. Importantly for this report, if a landowner only has an orfi qabala, and the government claims the land, the document is worthless. The commission will insist that the land belongs to the state.

The commission has been working apace. IEA-run newspaper Hewad Daily, quoting Ministry of Justice spokesman Hamid Jahadyar, wrote on 30 May that by that point, the commission “had assessed four million jeribs (800,000 hectares) of land, of which 500,000 jeribs (100,000 hectares) had been identified countrywide and taken and delivered to IEA departments.”

Two months later, on 27 July 2023, the secretary of the commission, Ehsanullah Wasiq, said in the commission’s accountability session (milat ta the zawab wayalo programme) that it had by then evaluated 7,949,721 jeribs (about 1.6 million hectares) of land.[3]This is a programme in which government ministries provide detailed reports of their activities during the previous year. It started during the Ghani administration and the IEA has continued it. Of that, the vast majority – 7,551,343 jeribs (1.5 million hectares) had been identified as state land and 589,499 jeribs (118,000 hectares) had been retaken and registered in the government’s land bank.

These statistics represent the bare bones of the commission’s work so far. To better understand the impact of its judgements, AAN has conducted five provincial case studies.

Houses on the slopes above Kabul built on state land. In old city below, much of which was destroyed in the 1990s civil war, land grabbing and informal development has taken place, largely on private land. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini, 2012
Houses on the slopes above Kabul built on state land. In the Old City below, much of which was destroyed in the 1990s civil war, land grabbing and informal development has taken place, largely on private land. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini, 2012

Provincial Case Studies

Kabul

In terms of cost and quality, Kabul holds the first position in the usurpation of land in Afghanistan. Ten square metres of land in Sherpur, the upmarket neighbourhood in the heart of the capital, is worth more than hundreds of jeribs of land grabbed in Marja or Nad Ali districts of Helmand or any other province.

Land-grabbing began early in the capital. In 2003, armed police, led by Kabul Chief of Police Abdul Bashir Salangi, and acting on the orders of then Minister of Defence, Marshall Muhammad Qasim Fahim, violently and suddenly levelled the homes of people living in Sherpur. The land belonged to the ministry, but as Joanna Nathan, writing for the Middle East Institute (MEI), described, the residents had been there for decades and were given no opportunity to argue their case or indeed pack up their belongings. All of those directly involved in the destruction (ie minister, police chief and most of the police) belonged to the group which had captured Kabul in 2001, the Shura-ye Nizar network within Jamiat-e Islami. The minister then handed out plots of land to commanders, cabinet ministers and other well-connected individuals, most of them Shura-ye Nizar comrades or other powerful figures in the government. Two Shura-ye Nizar commanders received multiple plots, according to MEI. For a list of those receiving plots compiled by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), published by MEI and with added biographical information from AAN, see the end of this report.

There were only three high-profile state officials who publicly criticised the move, then Minister of Finance, Ashraf Ghani, who also refused a plot, head of the AIHRC, Sima Samar, and AIHRC employee Nader Naderi. Beneficiaries defended taking the land. For example, as reported by MEI, Education Minister Yunus Qanuni claimed the land-grabbing was legal because the Ministry of Defence owned the land and could distribute it as it wished. Central Bank governor (later Finance Minister) and head of the Afghan Millat party, Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi told journalists he was entitled to the land and denounced anyone who dared criticise the process as participating in “political terrorism.” Nathan ended her report:

The Sherpur evictions were a seminal event in puncturing the enormous hope that had surrounded the 2001 intervention. The resulting mansions serve as monuments to the powerlessness of ordinary Afghans and a daily reminder to Kabulis of the impunity of the new administration and international inaction.

The table below lists the people who received plots of land in Sherpur, originally published by MEI and sourced to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Details in the status column have been amended by AAN: information from the AIHRC, via MEI, is in plain text; information added by AAN is in italics.

Recipients of Land in Sherpur, 2003

No.NameStatusNumber of plots
1Anwar ul-Haq AhadiGovernor of the Afghanistan Bank, Afghan Millat party leader1
2Habiba SarabiMinister of Women’s Affairs1
3Khaleq FazelChair of Evaluation and Review Commission on State Industries1
4Marshal Qasim FahimMinister of Defence, Shura-ye Nizar1
5Muhammad Yunus QanuniMinister of Education, Shura-ye Nizar1
6Kabul Mayor’s Deputies [sic]Khaled, finance office for the late Shura-ye Nizar leader Ahmad Shah Massud during the ‘Resistance’ (Tajik from Mazar-e Sharif)1
7Hamid SeddiqiHead of Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Employee of former King’s Office1
8Hedayatullah DayaniEmployee of former King’s Office1
9MalikPossibly General Malik, who led the rebellion against General Dostum, allowing the Taleban into Mazar-e Sharif in 1997 and subsequently oversaw the murder of thousands of Taleban fighters.1
10Haji Muhammad MohaqeqMinister of Planning, Hezb-e Wahdat1
11Baba JanCommander, former PDPA, then Shura-ye Nizar1
12Haji AlmasCommander, Hezb-e Islami1
13Amanullah GuzarCommander, latterly Shura-ye Nizar8
14Abdul RahimMinister of Justice, Shura-ye Nizar6
15Halim Khan 1
16Shakir KargarMinister of Water & Power, Jombesh-e Meli1
17Baba JalandarCommander, Shura-ye Nizar1
18Gul HaidarCommander, Shura-ye Nizar, head of security southeast zone (Loya Paktia)1
19Commander GadaShura-ye Nizar1
20General Momen’s familyJombesh-e Meli, although close to Shura-ye Nizar, died in 1994.1
21Gul Agha SherzaiMinister of Urban Development, commander in Kandahar1
22Haji Ferozi055 Corps Commander1
23Haji KatibMinistry of Defence Employee1
24MuradiDirector of Planning, Kabul Municipality1
25Bismillah Khan              Deputy Defence Minister, Shura-ye Nizar1
26General Aziz 1
27JegdalikMayor of Kabul, Shura-ye Nizar1
28Haji Qadir’s familyMinister of Public Works, Hezb-e Islami Khales, assassinated in July 20021
29Dr Taj MuhammadMinister of the Interior, married to the niece of his predecessor, Yunis Qanuni (from Shura-ye Nizar)1
Details of the recipients in the status column have been amended by AAN: information from the AIHRC, via MEI, is in plain text; information added by AAN is in italics.

The usurpation of state land in and around Kabul has been a constant of the past two decades, said AAN analyst, Fabrizio Foschini, who has followed the issue closely. He says, however, that its forms changed over time.

From the more brazen grabs of state lands such as in Sherpur in the early years of the Republic, land appropriation schemes evolved, coming to involve ‘land development firms’ usually linked to powerful government officials or the hijacking of government housing projects meant for specific categories (civil servants, returnees, etc).

In other cases, it was the plight of specific dispossessed groups, such as the Kuchi nomads, that provided the excuse for occupying state land: political patrons emerged who helped the landless settlers secure their squats around the capital in exchange for support at elections or in other mobilisations meant to increase their own relevance as powerbrokers, while also extracting economic dividends from the allocation of the plots thus conceded by the government.

Calls for the government to do something about land-grabbing were futile because, most of the time, it was members of the government, senior figures in the armed forces and politicians – or their relatives – who were doing the land-grabbing. Another such example was the brother of the Second Vice President, Abdul Karim Khalili, Haji Nabi. According to a 2013 report from Radio Liberty, he acquired 50 jeribs (10 hectares) of state land belonging to the Ministry of Defence in the north of Kabul and built a township, called Omid-e Sabz on that land. The report also said that he usurped more than one thousand jeribs (200 hectares) on the slopes of Koh-e Korukh, (Korukh Mountain) in the neighbourhood of Omid-e Sabz.

Reclamation of land in Kabul by the IEA began by the municipality soon after the takeover, before the land-grabbing commission was set up. For example, a road in the Spin Kali area of Khushal Khan, located in district five, was taken back by the municipality. The road leads from Khushal Khan towards Dast-e Barchi and joins the ring road in the Dar-ul-Aman area. AAN saw that a 40-metre-wide road was being asphalted and some houses that had been built on the road or on its brink had been completely or partially destroyed by the government. One resident, Sayed Khan, said the road had been built during Daud Khan’s era (1973-78) and, over the years, people had encroached on it with their house-building. He said officials from the Republic had also tried to reclaim the road, but “the people refused to return this part of the road to the government.” He said IEA officials had also come and asked people to present their legal ownership documents. When they could not, he said the officials gave them only a three-day deadline and, on the fourth day, came with different kinds of vehicles and bulldozers and started razing the houses or parts of them, to the ground. Sayed said the government had not reassured the people with promises of alternative places to live.

However, after hearing different accounts of what had happened, it became clear to the author that the situation of landowners varied: some had legal documents and others did not, but all had seen parts of their houses destroyed. Two people living on what had been agricultural land said the officials had promised to compensate them. Another man, who was busy repairing the parts of his home that had been destroyed, said the amount of compensation had yet to be specified by the IEA.

The same road also connects to Chaharahi-ye Qambar and then on to Kotal-eKhair Khana in district 17, where hundreds of houses have been destroyed by Kabul municipality since the IEA takeover to fit in with the government’s master plan for the capital. In the area from Chaharahi-ye Shaheed to Qasaba in district 15, 450 houses were also razed (see YouTube video reports by Afghanistan Map here and Kabul Show here).

 On 10 June, Pajhwork reported, quoting the municipality, that 100 jeribs (20 hectares) of land had been retaken from usurpers and that according to the city plan, the land would return to a green area and a road was planned to be constructed through the area as well (see Pajhwok report here).

AAN also visited Tarakhel township, located around 30 kilometres northeast of Kabul, in Bagrami district of Kabul province. According to residents, the township had been built in the era of Hamid Karzai, most probably in 2007, on around 35,800 jeribs (7,160 hectares) of land. They said Karzai had granted this land to Mullah Tarakhel Muhammadi, an MP in the Republic. The land was then divided between Mullah Tarakhel and Haji Monjai, a tribal elder not from Tarakhel’s tribe, but another important political actor and like Mullah Tarakhel with a jihadi background with Hezb-e Islami. These two men then distributed the land to the people of their clans and they, in turn, sold it on to different people from different provinces who built houses there. The township has a large bazaar with many shops and markets. The previous government also built some schools in the township, but not enough to meet the requirements of the residents in terms of basic education.

One of those who bought land and built a house in the township, Nur Khan, who is originally from Sayed Karam district of Paktia province, told AAN that an IEA official from Kabul municipality (whether with the commission, or not, he did not say) had come to the township and spoken to the people and to Mullah Tarakhel himself. He said they surveyed the land and found the plot was not bigger than the limit stated in the document that Karzai had given to Tarakhel.

Nur said the officials then said the width of the streets in the document was 12 metresand there were places specified for parks, schools, mosques and clinics, but none of these appeared on the ground. “The officials then told the people that [from now on] all construction work was banned and no one could buy or sell the land.”

Another resident, who is from the Tarakhel clan, Sharbat Khan, however, said that if a person had the approval of an NGO to carry out construction, the IEA would allow the building to go ahead. He said a Norwegian NGO had given some people around 300-500 USD to make a shelter. Pajhwok news agency reported on 26 October that a ‘credible source’ had revealed to it that Mullah Tarakhel had been summoned by the commission and arrested (see Pajhwok report here).

An IEA official, who wished to remain unnamed, told AAN that Tarakhel had been ordered by the Minister of Justice to vacate his house, but he had not. He said the minister had him arrested and sentenced him to one week of detention. Even though his time was completed, the official said, Tarakhel’s detention was lengthened for 10 more days. Mullah Tarakhel’s brother, Musa Khan, said in a video posted on Facebook on 8 November that he had emptied Mullah Tarakhel’s home, his guest house and madrasa on the order of the Minister of Justice. In the video, he requested the minister to release his brother. The official said that Tarakhel was then released

The process of identifying and reclaiming state land is also underway in the Omide Sabz township. According to a report from the Afghan Voice Agency (AVA) from February 2023, the commission, in its initial deliberations, had declared that the township was built on state land. As to the even more valuable Sherpur land, it has not yet been reported whether or not the IEA has begun to look into it. High-profile Taleban are now living in some houses, like those of two former vice presidents, brother of Ahmad Shah Massud, Ahmad Zia Massudand Jombish-e Melli leader, Abdul Rashid Dostum. However, the IEA official told AAN that the commission would discuss Sherpur soon. He said the IEA had established a commission to investigate all the homes of people who had left Afghanistan (evacuated in August 2021), including in Sherpur and asked those who had moved into the houses – mostly Taleban – to leave or pay rent into a special bank account which, if the house is proved to have been legitimately owned, will be transferred into the owner’s personal account.

The official also said they would be discussing other neighbourhoods, “in PD [police district] 17, the townships of Tilayi, Safa, Zakirin, and in Sar-e Kotal-e Khair Khana, where Amanullah Guzar usurped land [and also] Dasht-e Champtala, taken by commanders related to [leader of mujahedin faction, Ettihad-e Islami and later MP, Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf] and to the Hazara ethnic group [sic] and in Mullah Ezat’s township in PD 5, and in Khushal Khan Mena, Kampani, Kart-e Mamurin, Afshar, Mirwais Maid and other [neighbourhoods].”

In the summer, at its accountability session, the commission’s secretary, Ehsanullah Wasiq, said the fate of about 41,972 jeribs (8,394hectares) of usurped land in Kabul had been sent to a special court for its final decision. It has apparently decided in the state’s favour, given the recent announcement of a new law ratified by the supreme leader of the IEA. It said that “41,970 jeribs of land in PDs 8, 16, 17, 20 and 21 of Kabul city have been declared as state land and the Ministries of Agriculture, Hajj and Awqaf, and Information and Culture ordered to rent the land out on lease to their current owners, according to sharia principles.” The new decree says reclaimed state land in Kabul will be leased out to its ‘current owners’, but does not mention what would happen to the land that had changed hands several times.

Informal settlements in Kabul were estimated in 2017 to account for around 70 per cent of the built-up areas in the capital (see p20. of this 2017 study of Kabul), with the assumption that that proportion would have grown since. AAN analyst Fabrizio Foschini writes:

Most of the land on which these houses were built did not feature in the master plan and was originally state land. That includes everything from shantytowns erected by IDPs to well-off residential projects, built by land developers connected to Republic-era political powerbrokers. Nowadays, the total area of Kabul city is estimated at over 1,020 km2 (510,000 jeribs). Taking into consideration only the built-up areas of the city, assessed in 2019 to be around 35 per cent of the total, the amount of grabbed state land in the capital looks bound to exceed by far the 42,000 jeribs (84 km2) that the IEA has so far declared as usurped.[4]Foschini adds: Built-up areas, at 35 per cent of the total, are at an all-time high due to in-fill (they were 20 per cent in 2000). As of 2019, the rest consisted of barren land (53%), vegetation … Continue reading

AAN raised the issue of the new law, which turns former owners into tenants, with residents who are living on land declared as state-owned in PD 8 (Kart-e Naw, Rahman Mena, Shah-e Shahid, Qalacha and Beni Hesar), PD16 (Microrayon One, Qala-ye Zaman Khan, Deh Khodaidad, Alukhel, Bagrami, Sharak-e Khorasan and Shahrak-e Cement Khana), PD17 (Bustan-e Kabul, Chamtala, Bagh-e Aref Khan) and PD21 (Hudkhel and Deh Khodaidad), and Tarakhel township. It appears that the court’s decision and decree has yet to be shared with the local people. If this became the pattern nationwide, it could represent a new income stream for the government and the effective and ongoing transfer of resources from private households to the state.

Butkhak on the eastern periphery of Kabul has witnessed massive unplanned urban growth since this photo was taken in 2010. The land was partly state, partly privately-owned land, as well as pastureland, rights to which were claimed by local Pashtun tribes. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini.
Butkhak on the eastern periphery of Kabul has witnessed massive unplanned urban growth since this photo was taken in 2010. The land was partly state, partly privately-owned land, as well as pastureland, rights to which were claimed by local Pashtun tribes. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini

Helmand

In Helmand province, land-grabbing took place in the era of Hamid Karzai. Self-appointed police chief of Helmand province in 2001 Abdul Rahman Jan, grabbed a reported 20,000 jeribs (4,000 hectares) of government land in the districts of Nad Ali, Marja and Nawzad in the same year. He then settled members of his clan on this land (see AAN report here). A resident of Marja district told AAN that the Taleban had themselves also distributed non-irrigated land in Marja district well before the takeover. Residents use the term dashti simi (desert areas) for this land, as it was not part of the green, canal-irrigated areas of Nad Ali district, which was distributed to people during Zahir Shah’s reign. The resident believed the people to whom the land had more recently been distributed belonged to the Taleban or were pro-IEA, with each family considered eligible for 15 jeribs because a member had been martyred while fighting in Taleban ranks – they included children of fathers who had been killed – or were Taleban fighters. He said the distribution had taken place by issuing a small piece of paper as an order (amr) but that, after the takeover, no more land had been distributed or given to the people (see also AAN’s report about the sale and distribution of state land by the Taleban during the Republic here). The interviewee said that sometime after the takeover, the IEA had takenback any land whose new owners had failed to fertilise and was still fallow, but had not reclaimed land from those who had improved and were actively using it.

A source in the IEA, who had received a document giving him ownership of 15 jeribs of land in Marja district before the takeover, but had yet to receive the land, told AAN that he and many others he knew had been denied land after the takeover. He said the document he had received had been signed by Mawlawi Yaqub, the current defence minister, who was then a deputy leader. He was not willing to discuss or speculate about the reason behind the refusal, as he saw it, to honour the order. However, another source in Helmand said that some commanders of the IEA had been involved in the distribution and the refusal might be because there had been corruption in the distribution. Another interviewee said that, before the takeover, the Taleban had distributed land in Nad Ali and Nawzad districts as well as Marja.

So far, the IEA has not reclaimed the land distributed by Abdul Rahman Jan in Nad Ali, Marja and Nawzad districts or that distributed by the Taleban in Nad Ali and Nawzad districts. However, the interviewee in Marja said there were rumours that the IEA would seek to reclaim it.

Uruzgan

The pattern of land-grabbing in Uruzgan province is different from other provinces because, interviewees told AAN, in a district like Dehrawud, state land was taken directly by local people, rather than being grabbed by a powerful individual and then sold, leased, or districted by him (or rarely her).

Pajhwok, an Afghan news agency, reported that the commission had taken around one thousand jeribs (200 hectares) of land back from the residents in the Jono area of Dehrawud district. It said that some houses and agricultural fields had been destroyed by the government and the residents forcefully displaced from their houses. The report quoted the spokesman of the security headquarters, Mullah Bashir, saying that the local people had been found to have grabbed state land and following the special court’s decision, the authorities had warned the people to leave the area, but they had not moved (see Pajhwok report here).

A local journalist said that many people had grabbed the land in the Jono area and made gardens and houses on it, under the pretence that because it bordered their land, it was theirs. He said the residents had failed to present ownership documents.

This local journalist also said that after the destruction and taking back state land, the people of that area had come together and protested in reaction to the step taken by the government. The protest ended without a result.

So far, AAN’s interviewee said, 20,000 jeribs (4,000 hectares) of state land had been taken back by the IEA in Dehrawud district.

Residents of Aino Mena in Kandahar city stand near a swimming pool at their home. The Islamic Emirate is now investigating whether Mahmud Karzai, brother of the then president, Hamed Karzai, acquired the land legally before construction of the exclusive township began in 2003. Photo: Massoud Hossaini/AFP, 2013
Residents of Aino Mena in Kandahar city stand near a swimming pool at their home. The Islamic Emirate is now investigating whether Mahmud Karzai, brother of then-president Hamed Karzai, acquired the land legally before beginning construction of the exclusive township in 2003. Photo: Massoud Hossaini/AFP, 2013

Kandahar

The most high-profile dispute over land ownership in this province is over the land on which the exclusive Aino Mena township in district 11 of Kandahar city was built. This is some of the most valuable land in Kandahar and the construction of houses, parks and buildings providing services on it, laid out to a regular and well-made plan, has further lent value to the location. However, questions remain as to its legal ownership: Was the state land legally purchased by Mahmud Karzai, brother of then president Hamid Karzai, before construction began in 2003? Did the then governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, sell it, and if so, did he do so legally? Do the people who live there and purchased homes have a right to their property? Both of the Karzai brothers stayed in Afghanistan after the fall of the Republic, meaning the IEA cannot just confiscate the land as they might if the brothers, like other senior politicians, had fled in 2021.

When the township was in its initial phases of construction, the Taleban sought to dissuade individuals interested in buying the land by contacting a local media outlet, but the matter was kept quiet and their warning was not reported back then.[5]When the project of this township was in its initial stage, most probably in 2008, this author was sitting in the office of a local reporter. The local reporter received a call from the Taleban, … Continue reading

Around ten months ago, Mahmud Karzai was reported to have been banned from travelling outside the country (see Azadi Radio report here). He told the media that the Minister of Justice had asked him to stay in the country because of differences between him, as head of the township, and his deputy, Abul Hamid Helmandi. Mahmud Karzai said the minister had said that his (Mahmud’s) signature might be needed during any division of the property. The two men are also head and deputy head of AFCO, the company responsible for building and other related activities of Aino Mena, which was set up in 2002 (see Tolo News report here).

An engineer from Kandahar city, Khan Muhammad, told AAN that two different issues were at play. First, there were indeed differences between Karzai and his deputy, but these had been resolved. Second, Khan said, Mahmud Karzai had been found to have grabbed 1,300 jeribs of state land neighbouring Aino Mena and the IEA has already taken this back. AAN was unable to find a written report on this. However, a source in the IEA confirmed that this land had been retaken.

On 27 July 2023, the secretary of the Land Grabbing Prevention and Restitution Commission, Ehsanullah Wasiq, spoke about Aino Mena in the government’s accountability programme, although without mentioning Mahmud Karzai by name. He said the land had been sold by then governor Gul Agha Sherzai, to “the ones” who had built a township on the land, adding, “Whether the land was sold in a legal way (sharei tariqa), or not, or the land is considered the property of those who bought it, or not, the issue has been submitted to the special court and the special court will make [a] decision about it in the next days.” So far, however, no reports have been released as any Special Court decision.

In late May 2023, the IEA said it had clarified ownership of 1,500 jeribs of land in Shakur Karez area near the Amir Lalai hotel in Daman district, next to the Kabul-Kandahar highway, as belonging to the state. Theycirculated a video showing their officials razing down the walls of illegal buildings. Dozens of IEA officials are seen in the video destroying the walls, shouting while pushing the walls to collapse (see a video report here).

A source in Kandahar told AAN that the person had bought an amount of land and usurped an equal amount of state land neighbouring his newly acquired land. The source said the government had destroyed a house built on the land and drills (deep wells, locally called, barma). He said that the usurper then reclaimed the land in the court and alleged that his land was forcefully taken from him.

The densely farmed and densely populated province of Nangrahar where state-land promised to returnees from Pakistan and teachers never reached its intended recipients, but was grabbed instead, while leased state land of the Nangrahar Canal was illegally sold on. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini, 2011.
The densely farmed and densely populated province of Nangrahar where state-land promised to returnees from Pakistan and teachers never reached its intended recipients, but was grabbed instead, while leased state land of the Nangrahar Canal was illegally sold on. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini, 2011.

Nangrahar

Nangrahar might be one of the most complicated provinces in terms of land-grabbing, not only because of the variety of ways in which state land was grabbed, but also the sheer amount – 485,000 jeribs (97,000 hectares), according to the Agriculture Department of this province, (as reported by the state-owned Hewad newspaper).

For example, land in two townships, intended for returnees coming back from Pakistan and teachers, was usurped. 3,000 plots out of the 8,000 allocated for returnees in Chamtala township in Surkhrod district were stolen in 2008, as reported by AAN in this 2012 report. As we also reported, in Sheikh Misri township, on the border between Surkhrod and Chaparhar districts, teachers and returnees who had been given ownership documents in 2005 were unable to obtain their plots. The returnees had protested in Jalalabad city, but failed to receive the promised land. Powerbrokers sold the land, and the returnees and teachers never received their land. A local journalist in Nangrahar, who wished to remain unnamed, told AAN that some land was allocated to the teachers in the Kama district and in the Gamberi desert, but the plots were never given because, he said, the area’s residents said they owned the land.

The returnees settled in two camps, Form Ada Camp and Kabul Camp. However, according to the journalist, the commission has warned them to leave the camps because it says they were built on state land and the returnees have usurped it.

There is also land in Nangrahar that was usurped and then sold on. The IEA has asked these new owners to come along with documents to prove the ownership. For example, a tribal elder who, along with other people of his clan, had bought land in the Sayyaf Family township in Surkhrod district was summoned by IEA officials. He told AAN the officials had asked them to present any kind of document they had to prove their ownership. When they presented only the documents of the land which they had bought from the brother of a leading senator (both brothers still live in the country), he said, the officials did not accept them. “We finally told the IEA that we’d bought the land from that mentioned person and that he had taken money from us several times by sending police or his bodyguards when we had built houses there.” The tribal elders said the person told the commission, “I was a paid representative of a well-known jihadi leader and was just obeying his orders.” The tribal elder said, “The IEA then jailed him for a few days.” The elder said it was still unknown to them what the IEA would do with their issue.

Amid the process of retaking state land, a delegation of the commission visited a township in the area near to Sayyaf Family township in Surkhrod district and discovered that the township, which was built on 3,648 jeribs (730 hectares) of state land, had been sold by one tribal elder Haji Gul Meran to another, Sabawoon, without any legal documentation.

The IEA officials warned the residents not to do any kind of construction work in the township and to avoid selling and buying houses and land. The report, published on the Ministry of Justice website, did not provide any other information (see the report on the Ministry of Justice website here).

There were also other kinds of land-grabbing in Nangrahar. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) leased out around 14,000 jeribs (2,800 hectares) of the Nangrahar Canal land to private investors. The leases ran for 90 years. However, the investors then divided the land into residential plots and sold them to people – an illegal act. AAN quoted a provincial council member, in its 2012 report, saying the investors “told the buyers: for 90 years the state cannot say anything to you, and after that, who knows.” However, a new government has demanded answers. The journalist we interviewed told AAN that so far, 2,000 jeribs (400 hectares) of canal land had been repossessed by the IEA and that efforts to recover more were ongoing.

Conclusion

Reactions to the reclaiming of state land, in Kabul at least, seem largely to depend on who is speaking. Generally, it appears to be welcomed. People think the government should take back land from anyone who has usurped it. However, those who bought land, sometimes after it had changed hands several times, argue differently: the IEA should hold the big land-grabbers accountable, but not the poor people who subsequently bought it.

Those who have bought land and possess only orfi qabalas (customary ownership documents) have said they were always ready to pay some amount towards the cost of the land to the government. In this scenario, they would receive legal documents of landownership and the government would get thousands of millions of afghanis. The new law does, in some conditional cases, give the option to take money from the current owners and issue them legal documents. However, so far, those people who bought state land have not been informed whether this will be possible or whether, instead, as the law appears to imply, they will have to pay rent for the homes they thought were their own. Being transformed from homeowner to tenant would be hard.

During the Republic, any decision made by the government against the ‘the people’ could be challenged, especially if a person or group had a connection with high-ranking officials or powerful politicians. However, now, everyone thinks that the IEA has banned protests and who would dare violate the Emirate’s law?

Grabbing of state land under the Republic was rampant and widespread. Most of the major land-grabbers are long gone, but they have left a mess of disputes behind, which the IEA will find difficult to resolve without alienating those who thought they had become landowners and will now be dispossessed. Those now former landowners will also be looking particularly closely at what happens in a neighbourhood like Sherpur, in Kabul, where some high-profile members of the IEA are now living, having taken over villas there. There is one other issue that may prove troublesome. The amir has reserved to himself the right to distribute state land. If redistribution does happen, it would be particularly upsetting to anyone who has lost property in the process of the state reclaiming its land.

Edited by Kate Clark


References

References
1 These provinces were chosen for this research for the following reasons: first, they featured many cases of land-grabbing and these, compared to other provinces, had been exposed previously, though none of them thoroughly. Second, AAN knew that in these provinces the activity of the commission was intense. Third, the author had well-informed sources in these provinces to provide him with good and accurate information.
2 There are three types of land in Afghanistan – private, public and state. Public land comprises pastures and graveyards. Graveyards cannot be transferred or leased, but ‘common pastureland’ can be transferred or leased out by the government to anyone it chooses. ‘Special pastureland’ (maximum area 2,700m2) cannot be leased or sold by anyone, including by the government, but can use it for social purposes, such as a playground or for grazing cattle or other livestock.
3 This is a programme in which government ministries provide detailed reports of their activities during the previous year. It started during the Ghani administration and the IEA has continued it.
4 Foschini adds:

Built-up areas, at 35 per cent of the total, are at an all-time high due to in-fill (they were 20 per cent in 2000). As of 2019, the rest consisted of barren land (53%), vegetation (11%) and water bodies (0.1%) according to land use surveys made with GIS/GPS technology.

5 When the project of this township was in its initial stage, most probably in 2008, this author was sitting in the office of a local reporter. The local reporter received a call from the Taleban, saying that all people should be aware that the land of the Aino Mena township was a government asset and people should not buy property there. The Taleban warned that when the government of the Islamic Emirate came into power, all the property would be retaken from anyone who had land or built houses in the township.

A few days later, the author, who was a working journalist at the time, asked the reporter what had happened to the issue, as he wanted to write a report about the case. The journalist said when he contacted the authorized body of the township, he was told to be aware that the authority has spent millions of dollars on this township and that the journalist should be careful not to write a report in this regard. He said he then decided not to make a problem for himself and simply forgot about reporting it.

Tags:

Aino Mena housing land land conflict land-grabbing Taleban

Authors:

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon

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