Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

One Land, Two Rules (10): Three case studies on Taleban sales of state land

Fazl Rahman Muzhary 21 min

As the Taleban have expanded their areas of control around the country, anecdotal reports have been popping up of Taleban commissions and commanders in several provinces selling state land. However, a closer look into the three most prominent examples – Helmand, Uruzgan and Takhar – reveals a murkier picture than media reports and claims by government officials have suggested. Although it is clear that the Taleban have been involved in ‘land management’ – including redistribution, leasing and taxation of land, as well as the establishment of new bazaars and townships – there is no clear evidence that they have been systematically selling off state land. This does not mean their interventions are not problematic, not least because of the absence of a proper system of documentation or even clarity as to whether the land was given away, sold, leased or rented out. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary (with input from Christian Bleuer) notes that if the Taleban ever become part of a new government, they will need to deal with the confusion and disputes they are currently sowing.

Nad Ali desertSome of the once desert land in Nad Ali district in Helmand, which local residents say was distributed by the Taleban. Photo: Alcis, 2008

Service delivery in insurgent-affected areas started as a joint research project by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). All publications in the series can be accessed here.

State land, sales and distribution

Land disputes have long been a trigger of violent conflict in Afghanistan, with competition over land only increasing at a time of growing population and economic hardship. Private ownership of land in Afghanistan is a complex legal issue, as land ownership is based both on government laws and informal systems of local consensus, with flaws in both. The formal and informal systems sometimes contradict each other, assigning the same section of land to different owners (see this AREU report in a PDF here). The system governing state land is even more complex, as this category legally includes not just land owned by the government, but also any land where private ownership cannot be legally proven, which is significant given the number of people who do not have title deeds or other documentation. Not all state land is eligible for sale or distribution to private owners; there are many sub-categories that cannot be sold under the Land Management Law (2008). This includes land that has been used for farming and grazing within the last five years, pastures, forests, mines, historical sites, or any section of land that is determined as needed by the state for some public use purpose, including city development plans (see this UNAMA report on state land distribution in a PDF here).

All Afghan governments throughout history – including the Taleban government of 1996-2001 – have used land as a tool, with periods of confiscation, redistribution and sales, particularly during times of war and conquest. Local and national level politicians have sold and distributed state-owned lands to both reward and strengthen their supporters. In the modern history of Afghanistan, this phenomenon was most pronounced during the decades of Amir Abdul Rahman’s rule (1880-1901), when the Kabul government took land in central and northern Afghanistan and gave or sold it to large numbers of Pashtun settlers from other parts of the country. This land transfer continued at a lower level into the 1970s (see here).

The fall of the Taleban in 2001, and the subsequent reshuffling of power, brought about a new round of land grabbing, as powerful politicians, commanders and local people confiscated (or took back) land all over the country. This included new government officials and other powerful figures selling state lands for their own personal profit (see relevant UNAMA and AREU reports here and here). The Afghan government responded by issuing Decree 99 in April 2002 and ordering a countrywide freeze on the distribution of state land to counter as Conor Foley (2005) has reported “what was perceived as widespread distribution of public lands to undeserving beneficiaries at the local, provincial and national levels” (see here). Nevertheless, the distribution of state-owned land to powerful military commanders, political figures and already wealthy individuals continued after this date (see previous AAN report here, see UNAMA reports here and here).

As part of its state-building mandate, the post-2001 Afghan government issued several new laws on property and state land and assigned responsibility to various government agencies, departments and commissions. (1) This framework provided for the hyper-centralised distribution of state land where every single sale of state land needs to be authorised by the president. Other entities involved in the sale can only make recommendations, which are then subject to the president’s approval (see here). However, although Afghanistan has a legal framework (complete with detailed guidelines, rules and standards), it does not have the institutional capacity for the consistent enforcement of these laws. An investigation by UNAMA in 2015 found that Afghanistan’s system for the distribution of state land suffered from “the lack of an overarching land distribution policy and the near absence of an integrated, transparent, and accountable land distribution system” (see here).

A further complicating issue is the fact that most of the best state land has already been taken. As local officials told UNAMA: 

…land grabbing is widespread and there is little to no such state land left to distribute or sell because it had all been grabbed by the Taliban or powerful individuals and had not yet been recovered by the state. Further research disclosed that the lands referenced were desirable state lands, that is, land that could be used for a specific purpose, such as housing in or near a municipal area, farming or commercial development, or because the land was valuable or was potentially valuable.

Opportunities for the government to raise significant revenue by selling state lands now seem relatively limited, since what can still be sold tends to be land that was not attractive enough to be stolen or sold already. 

Reports that the Taleban is selling (or redistributing) state land

Reports that the Taleban were selling state land in areas under their control first reached the author in 2013 during several visits to Helmand. In 2017 there were media reports that the Taleban had been selling state land in Uruzgan province and had even inaugurated a whole new township in Takhar province in the north. Based on these reports, the author decided to look into the subject more closely. In the three provinces investigated, Helmand, Uruzgan and Takhar, state land redistribution by the Taleban has indeed been confirmed, but the picture with regard to the selling of state land is less clear. At the time of writing, the author was unable to find additional cases of the Taleban selling or redistributing state land. It should be acknowledged that it is difficult to talk to people living in areas controlled by the Taleban, as mobile telephone companies are not operating in these areas, or only intermittently. Meanwhile, local residents in government-controlled areas could not provide the necessary details.

Taleban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed completely rejected the notion of land sales in a Whatsapp interview, telling AAN that it was not the Taleban’s policy during war time. Instead, he said, in some areas poor and landless people, as well as the relatives of martyrs, had received plots of land to build homes on. He said that this kind of distribution had happened in ‘dead deserts’, ie uncultivable land or the land that has never been cultivated before, but that there was no plan for wider distribution given the war and changeability of the situation. Mujahid did not specify the amount of land that has been distributed to the landless or poor or in which provinces this had taken place. However, he also conceded that in some cases, land had been distributed for shops, as was the case in Takhar.

In Helmand, local residents gave conflicting reports. Some told AAN that the Taleban had distributed land to the disabled, poor, landless and relatives of victims of military operations. Others said the Taleban had actually sold land, but could not provide details of which Taleban commanders or commission had been involved in the supposed transactions. In Uruzgan, AAN could again confirm the redistribution of land – both state and private land – but could not confirm the claims that the Taleban was selling state land. In Takhar, there was considerable confusion over the conditions under which people had been given land for a whole new township, perhaps not surprising since the township was only a few weeks old at the time of the interviews. According to Mujahed, people in Takhar had received the land without making any payment. Local people told AAN that they had paid for the plots and the shops, although the amounts were quite low. In all three provinces, the land that was sold or distributed was situated in desert areas (the dasht) and had not been irrigated in the past. However, as will be discussed later, other research has noted the increasing development of previously unused desert areas, mostly driven by opium cultivation. 

Helmand case study

According to the interviewees in Helmand, including local residents, pro-Taleban interlocutors, journalists and parliamentarians,the Taleban began distributing state land around 2010 in the desert areas of Nad Ali, Marja, Greshk and other districts. According to local residents, some former mujahedin commanders and elders connected to a former governor had been grabbing and selling desert land since around 2006. When the Taleban took control of those areas around 2009-10, they took back most of the large land plots that had been grabbed – those spanning thousands of jeribs/hundreds of hectares (one jerib is roughly equivalent to 0.2 hectare) – and started redistributing them. (2) 

Over time, local residents developed several new bazaars, including one near Shawal area called the Esmat bazaar, which has become a major hub for the Taleban. A Taleban court is operating there and local people take land and other disputes to it for resolution. 

Three sources, two living in Taleban-controlled areas and one who regularly travels there, described the process of redistribution to AAN. One source described how his relative, who had lost both legs and an eye when a rocket hit his house in the Zarghun Kalay area of Nad Ali, received land from the Taleban. He explained that to request a piece of land, his relative brought two villagers and the imam of his village to Esmat Bazaar in the spring of 2019. The two villagers and the imam witnessed that he had indeed been injured in an attack. He then wrote an application to the military commission of the Taleban requesting a piece ofland. In response to his application, the Taleban provided him with 20 jeribs of land in the desert area near Shurab, where the UK military base Camp Bastian used to be located. Since he received the land, the man has built a house and installed solar panels and has been living there for the last year. The two other sources confirmed this procedure and said that in most cases, the disabled and orphans received 20 jeribs, although in some areas they received 15 jeribs (they did not know the reason for the difference). All three sources said the recipient was not charged for the land, but had to pay 4,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly 26 dollars) for the tractor that was used to demarcate the land. All three sources told AAN that many people had submitted their applications to the Taleban’s military commission, but most had not received land so far. The distribution, they said, seemed to be on hold, but they expected it to start again in the near future. 

A less apparently virtuous narrative came from one pro-Taleban source in Nawa district who told AAN that some local Taleban fighters, whose relatives had not been killed but who had power within the Taleban, had also received land – even though they were not eligible. The source said this happened during land distribution around 2010 and also more recently and that the beneficiaries had later sold the land on. This, he said, may have prompted people in Helmand to start saying that the Taleban were selling state land. 

Murad Nur (name changed), a resident of Nawa area, told AAN that people decided to settle in the desert mostly for two reasons: first of all, they decided to purchase cheap land there. The land in the desert areas of Nad Ali and Marja is much cheaper than in other parts of these districts: “In [the centre of] Nad Ali, Nawa or Marja districts, one jerib of land is sold for 700,000 to 900,000 rupees [roughly 4,431 to 5,697 USD], while in the deserts, one jerib costs 40,000 to 60,000 rupees [roughly 253 to 379 USD].”  

The second reason people buy desert land, Nur said, is to be out of sight of the Afghan government, particularly for poppy cultivation: “The main purpose of people who bought land in this area, has been to cultivate poppy and cannabis. The reason is that the area is completely out of government control and no one can destroy the poppy crop.” Although there are some people who cultivate wheat and maize in their fields, the most common product in the desert area is poppy. This trend has been noted by researchers studying cultivation in the southwest, with a spike triggered by a government crackdown on opium cultivation in Helmand in 2008-11 (see this article by David Mansfield). As pointed out in a previous AAN dispatch (read it here), people in these desert areas have no access to the major water canal known as Boghra, and are reliant on solar-powered wells to irrigate their crops. 

Murad Nur also told AAN that in some areas a condition for receiving state land seemed to be that one family member joins the ranks of the Taleban. “This has created a pro-Taleban community in the desert areas,” Murad Nur said, since most of those with land in the desert now have someone in the Taleban movement.

The Afghan government in Helmand has not been able to prevent the distribution of state land in these districts, although it has tried. In December 2017 the governor’s office issued a warning which said that the Taleban’s distribution of state land was illegal, would fuel disunity and was motivated by profit. The government warned that any land distributed by the Taleban would be confiscated, and that those involved would be dealt with by the law and that people who wanted to lease state land should contact the land authority department in Lashkargah (see footnote 3 for the full statement). Needless to say, so far, the government has not been in a position to prevent the distribution of land, let alone implement its intended policy of retaking the land or providing new leases. (4)

Member of parliament Mirwais Khadem told AAN that the Taleban had recently completely stopped the selling of state land by local people. He said that people who had received relatively small plots of land, either from the Taleban or from tribal elders, were allowed to continue to cultivate the land and even sell it. However, large plots of land that had previously been grabbed from the state were being confiscated and redistributed, according to one of the sources from Taleban-controlled areas. The Taleban also control the digging of new wells in their areas, since this is a primary way to expand land into the desert. If alandowner needs a well, they should seek permission from the military commission of the Taleban, who will decide, based on the needs of the person. 

Uruzgan case study

In Uruzgan, reports of land sales by the Taleban have largely focused on the areas around the provincial capital Tirinkot. Although the sale of state land could not be corroborated, it is clear that after expanding their control into these areas in 2015, the Taleban started intervening in land management once they had firmly established their control, from around 2017. The affected areas have included Sarmurghab, Mehrabad, Sahnan (also known as Senan) and Darafshan. 

In Sarmurghab, the Taleban redistributed a large amount of private land in an area known as Nabi Khan Hadda. The land was owned by Haji Muhammad Nabi Khan Tokhi, who had obtained permission from the local government to construct a township there, but who then moved to Kandahar when the Taleban took control of his area (Nabi died in mid-June 2019). According to former head of the provincial council Amanullah Hotak, people had already constructed about 60 shops and a few houses in Nabi’s township before the Taleban took control of the area. After the arrival of the Taleban the bazaar was further expanded. According to a civil society activist and journalists in Sarmurghab, the Taleban sold or gave numerous additional land plots to local residents for shops and houses. He said it would “belong to the owner whether he wants to rent it out to other people later or build his own shop on it.” 

According to Sharifullah Sharafat, a local journalist who works with Azadi Radio, the settlement has now become a large and functioning town. He told AAN, “I went to this area two years ago. It is completely under Taleban control. There were more than 2,000 shops and all sort of facilities, including health clinics.” These numbers and claims could not be independently verified. Since then, this area has become a major town, Sharafat said, with many people from Tirinkot now going to Nabi Khan Hadda for their purchases, particularly after the Afghan government banned the use of Pakistani rupees in Tirinkot. Since the use of Pakistani rupees is allowed in Nabi Khan Hadda, people go there to purchase items more cheaply.

Hotak was adamant that the Taleban has been selling state land.  In Mehrabad, he said, the Taleban sold 10,000 to 20,000 jeribs of land and also distributed plots to relatives of Taleban fighters that had been killed. In Sahnan area, he said, the Taleban sold about 10,000 jeribs of state land. They also sold state land in Niazi desert in Darafshan, but he could not say how much. Locals from Uruzgan told AAN that the Taleban also sold state land in Sekzi and Dehzak areas of Dehrawud district. They said most of the buyers were local people because they feared that if they did not purchase the land, people from other districts mightdecide to settle in their area. According to Hotak, the Taleban also sold state land in Keshi area of Charchino district.

Local sources told AAN there were two types of people in Uruzgan who sought to get land from the Taleban: people who were either actively supporting the Taleban or were related to active Taleban fighters, and people who owned land near state land. Sources said the second type of people purchased state land because they did not want to have strangers as neighbours, or people who might cause trouble in the future. 

Hotak and some of the other sources said the Taleban in Uruzgan had provided land deeds to buyers. According to a civil society activist, the land deed “contains details about the buyer and is considered a proper document by the Taleban.” When asked about the documents, land department head in Uruzgan, Haji Jan Agha, said: “I have heard about this from people, but I have not seen a hard copy of a land document provided by the Taleban.”

However, when AAN asked these sources and local government officials who alleged Taleban land-selling last year (see Pajhwok report here) for further details – for instance, who within the Taleban was selling the land, or whether they personally knew any people who had bought land –  none could provide a specific answer. This may be because these transactions were conducted in private between the Taleban official and individual. However, it is notable that none of these sources were from the areas they were describing. (5)

One source from Dehrawud told AAN he had doubted that the Taleban were actually selling state land, but said they were definitely distributing it, either to their fighters or to the orphans of Taleban fighters who killed in the fight against the government. This was also confirmed by Hotak, who said the Taleban had distributed plots to relatives of Taleban fighters whohad been killed. 

In addition to distributing state land, the Taleban in Uruzgan are also collecting the money that is owed to the government for the leasing of state land. For example, in the Dam area of Dehrawud, which is located close to the Kajaki Dam, people have leased land from the government since the 1970s. The Taleban collect the money from all the farmers who have leased the state land there. Amanullah Hotak estimated that, “The Taleban collected 1,200,000 rupees [roughly 7,597 USD] from leased land in 2018.” The Taleban also collect taxes in this and other areas (the Afghan government has not been able to collect taxes thereroughly for the last ten years). The Taleban also collect taxes from farmers in Zartala area of Dehrawud, Karna area of Tirinkot and Jangal area of Shahid-e Hassas district. According to local people, the rates differ from area to area. For example, in areas where the land can produce more, Taleban collect taxes of 5,000 rupees per jerib (roughly 31 USD), whereas in desert areas, the Taleban charge 300 to 800 rupees (roughly 1.90 to 5 USD) per year for one jerib.  

Local people said the Taleban financial commission in Uruzgan has been responsible for collecting taxes and rent. It is not clear where this money goes, but Hotak thinks it is probably spent on treating wounded Taleban fighters, purchasing food andweapons and other daily necessities. 

Takhar case study 

In Takhar, the Taleban have gone a step further and have designed and inaugurated a whole township, the Omari Township in the Shur Arab area of Darqad district. The Taleban named the township Omari, after their late leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. It was officially inaugurated on 24 January 2018, (see this Pajhwok report here), approximately six months after they first started distributing plots. The township was constructed on a vast, flat area located in a strategic position between three districts – Yangi Qala, Khwaja Bahauddin and Darqad. The piece of state land measured approximately 20 kilometres and was located on a riverside three kilometres from the district headquarters of Darqad. The Taleban started distributing the land in the summer of 2017 for people to either build shops or construct homes. As many as 2,800 plots were distributed, largely to people who wanted to start businesses in the area, according to the brother of a senior Taleban fighter (this does not necessarily mean there were 2,800 shops and houses, as plots were sometimes acquired in clusters of two, three or four, to create a larger shop or house; local estimates of the total number vary from 600 to 2,000 shops).

Although media reports suggested that these plots of land had been sold, Taleban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed told AAN the land had been leased in a government-style plan to create a township and collect taxes from the shop owners. According to him, the land would not become the permanent property of the owner; the shopkeepers would instead pay annual taxes or lease fees to the Islamic Emirate. 

As many as 2,800 plots were distributed by the Taleban for the new Omari Township, named after their former leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, to people wanting to build houses or shops in Darqad district of Takhar. This photo, probably taken in autumn 2017, shows some newly-built shops. Photo:

However, AAN talked with local people and buyers, who said they had bought the shops and had not been told they were notthe permanent owners of the land, or that they would pay an annual tax. For example, Mullah Nasrullah (his name was changed on his request for security reasons), who said he had bought a shop from the Taleban in Omari Township, told AAN that depending on its location, a ten-metre square shop was sold for 3,000 afghanis (roughly 39 USD) while a five-metre square shop was sold for 1,500 afghanis (roughly 20 USD). Another shopkeeper, Esmat, who also owned a shop in this area, told AAN that he paid 2,000 afghanis (roughly 26 USD) for the shop in the township. These prices do seem to be too low for a sale price, even if the new occupiers of the land believe they have bought the land. Moreover, shop owners and other sources from the area told AAN that the money was collected by a three-member committee, comprised of three local elders (who were not Taleban fighters) and used to pay the tractor owners that paved the roads in the township and the engineers who designed the township. Later, when the roads were paved and people started building their shops, the money from new recipients of land plots was collected by the Taleban mayor, which seems to suggest it was indeed a tax. 

The township did not last long enough to clarify what the exact conditions of ownership were. On 13 February 2018, three weeks after its inauguration, Afghan government forces launched a military operation, codenamed Atlas, and destroyed the township. According to the government’s district mayor, Abdullah Sattari, the government forces did so with bulldozers. Different local sources give differing figures for the total number of shops that were destroyed (ranging from 600 to 1,200), but it is clear that at the end of the operation, very few shops were left. Local government officials also told AAN that a mosque, a madrasa and a healthcare centre were destroyed in the operation. 

What was Omari Township in Darqad district of Takhar province after it was destroyed by Afghan government forces in a military operation in February 2018. The Taleban had authorised the building of the township on state land. Photo: 

According to Sattari, the Taleban had wanted to bring all businesses from the government-controlled towns into the Taleban-controlled town. “They wanted people to do business in their territory, not in the government’s territory,” he told AAN. If the government had not destroyed the township, he thinks the Taleban township could have indeed affected businesses in all three nearby district towns. “About 80 per cent of businessmen in Darqad had opened businesses in Omari Township,” he said. One resident of Darqad, Attal (his name is changed for security reasons), also pointed out that the township would have been a source of income for the Taleban. He said the Taleban had appointed an active shadow mayor for the township who collectedtaxes from the shops (which fits what other sources said). “Such taxes could have made a good income for the Taleban movement, if the township had not been destroyed,” he said. Another resident and shop owner, Esmat, said that in the beginning, the Taleban leadership told its local fighters to make a small township. The aim was to enable them to meet their daily needs, which could not be met in Darqad district township because it was under government control. According to Shukrullah, a local resident who spoke to Pajhwok (see here) “the Taliban were trying to expand the township and attract investment to the project.”

Soon after the township was destroyed, acting Takhar police chief Nezamuddin Ghori appeared to justify the attack, saying that the “builders, supporters, and those who had bought land and rented shops in the Omari township were all Taleban” (see here).  Takhar provincial director of National Directorate of Security (NDS) Gulistan Seddiqi claimed the Taleban were using the township as a training camp and as a base to launch attacks from on different security posts in Darqad district. The Taleban, in turn, condemned the destruction of the township and called it a cowardly act of their enemy. The statement, which was shared by email with the media and seen by the author, said the action “shows the low capacity (which can also be translated as tolerance) of the government and is the greatest sign that the Kabul administration is working for outsiders.”

Before the official inauguration of the township, the local government had already warned people not to purchase land from the Taleban in this area because it was state land. However, the government had been unable to stop the Taleban from distributingthe land and creating the township. The reason, according to Sattari, was clear: “The government only controls areas extending two kilometres from the district centres of Yangi Qala, Darqad and Khwaja Bahauddin.” That is still the case; although, the Afghan government was able to launch a military operation and destroy Omari Township, it had to immediately retreat back to Darqad district town once the operation was over. According to local residents and officials, the Taleban have since regained full control over the area where the township was, Shur Arab. The township, itself, has not been revived, although some shops have been reconstructed and are now open. 

Since the government had warned people not to buy or receive land from the Taleban in the Shur Arab area, none of the people whose businesses there were destroyed have received any compensation from the government. The Taleban has also not offered any compensation. 

Concluding remarks

Although there have been reports, both in the media and by local sources, that the Taleban have been selling state land in areas under their control, AAN research found very few examples of actual sales.  While individual commanders may have acquired land, perhaps illegally, and may have sold the land, the selling of state land per se does not seem to be Taleban policy. It is, however, very clear that in some areas the Taleban have given away, taxed and leased state land in a bid to both assert their authority and raise revenue. 

Moreover, in all three case studies the distribution of state land seems to have been, at least in part demand driven; there was a need for new or expanded bazaars, as areas became more populated and access to government-controlled bazaars was sometimes difficult. Or, the Taleban were motivated to increase revenues in their areas of control. What started as a small initiative in the case of Esmat Bazaar in Helmand, proved to be much more significant in Uruzgan and Takhar, where the Taleban allocated land for whole townships and distributed plots to establish houses, shops, and fuel stations. 

The distribution of state land by the Taleban is likely to result in problems, if not now, then in the future, not least because of the lack of proper documentation. For example, in the case of Helmand, according to one resident, some plots of land have been sold to two or three different persons. This happened, he said, in cases where people who had bought land from the local Taleban did not cultivate it for two or three years, after which the local Taleban fighters sold the land on someone else. When the original buyers showed up again, they found their land had been sold to someone else. Most of these disputes are not out in the open now, because the Taleban fighters are in power, but people fear that when the Taleban lose power, the original buyers may dispute the current ownership. 

In Uruzgan, local residents said no major dispute had so far been reported, since most of the land was in the desert and had not belonged to anybody. However, according to the former provincial council head, Hotak, people are concerned about the possibility of future disputes between people who acquired land and those who have not been able to do so. 

In the case of Takhar, the backlash was dramatic and fairly immediate, with the destruction of all the shops by government forces in the February 2018 operation. According to local residents, some local businessmen lost about one million afghanis (roughly 13,161 USD). No one compensated them. They also said that if the government retakes the land and people receive nothing in return, local people could rise up against the government or local disputes could start. Prior to this, there had been an imbalance in the amount of land people could purchase in the Omari Township, which could still ignite disputes among people. One local journalist told AAN, “There are people who purchased ten shops and there are others who could not purchase a single shop. This might be acceptable for people right now, but in the future it could cause disputes.” 

The irregular distribution of state land may also present problems to the government in the future, assuming it regains control of these areas. As one resident in Helmand remarked, it would be very hard for the government to exercise control in the future. For example, the government may have trouble convincing these new landowners to allow the construction of a road in the area if they anticipate that it may result in forceful land confiscation. Meanwhile, in areas under Taleban control, new communities are developing largely without access to proper health and education services. It will be a challenge for any future government to implement its plans with regard to the construction of clinics and schools, if no land has been allocated for that purpose in these areas. 

More importantly, the new land ownership has not been properly documented with title deeds. In some cases, local people told AAN that the Taleban had given a letter to the buyer which described how much land had been sold or given and to whom (the author has, however, not been able to find either an original or a copy of such a letter). Even there are letters, they hold no validity beyond the areas that are under Taleban control, and there is no sign of a system of any centralised registration for the land that is being sold or distributed by the local Taleban. This will obviously cause problems in the future in the management of land affairs and the resolution of land disputes. (6)

The lack of enforceable property rights has been one of the primary drivers of conflict in Afghanistan. It is linked to weak government legislation, lack of enforcement capacity and corruption. The Taleban have offered to resolve land disputes as one of their services in areas they control, but they may increasingly suffer from their own actions as they are contributing to future disputes. One challenge is that it will be hard for any government to take back the land from people who believe they are now the owners, in particular, if the land was given to people as a form of compensation for losing close relatives in the war. Dealing with a community which is mostly pro-Taleban or which has members who are active Taleban fighters, can be a tough challenge for the government. However, this could also pose a challenge for the Taleban if they ever become part of a future government if it tries to change land ownership. There is also the issue that most people acquired the land at a very low price, or for free, or with contradictory ideas about whether it was bought or leased. This may not be acceptable for this or any future government, but it would be difficult to charge people more money in the future. 

Given all these complications, the question of whether the Taleban is selling or ‘only’ giving away or renting land seems secondary. More significant is the potential for future conflict which the Taleban’s attempts at land management might spark.  

Edited by Christian Bleuer, Martine van Bijlert and Rachel Reid.

(1) Much of the policy development work was done between 2008 and 2014. The current legal framework for the distribution, transfer, sale and lease of state land in Afghanistan is based on: the Afghan Constitution; the Land Management Law; the Land Expropriation Law; the Municipality Law; several executive orders; and the regulations and functions of the Independent Directorate of Local Government (IDLG), the Arazi (lands) department, the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (see here and here).

(2) In Nad Ali, according to local residents, the Taleban had distributed hundreds of jeribs of land in the desert area to local people, including in areas near Qasam Bazaar, Esmat Bazaar, Barigul Bazaar, Sherindil Bazaar, Basir Bazaar, Mataka and Shawal. According to one resident who lives near Qasam bazaar, the local elders who introduced themselves to the government as tribal leaders, in the pre-Taleban controlled time, managed to grab and sell thousands of jeribs of land in the desert. The scale of the land grabbing was such that, according to one local resident, “Nowadays, it is very hard to find desert land in the immediate areas of Nad Ali.”

(3) Our translation of the December 2017 government statement:


Recently, the Taleban have created issues and disputes over land in Musa Qala district and other areas of Helmand. This is not only illegal, the Taleban [also] want to fuel disunity and disputes between tribes over state land and to fill their pockets by selling this national property. This type of action by the Taleban is unlawful and [is undertaken] with no legal authority.

The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the office of the governor of Helmand want to inform all residents of all districts of Helmand that no one has the right to distribute state land, except the Afghan government. Those individuals or the Taleban who irresponsibly distribute state land to people have no legal authority and should refrain from this action. 

Therefore, if anyone wants to lease state land, they can request the land authority department of Helmand to provide a legal contract. Beyond this, all the distribution of land by insurgents is unacceptable to the government. In addition to confiscating the land, these people will be dealt with according to the law.

(4) The Afghan government blames the Taleban for igniting new disputes. In January 2018, almost a month after the government’s statement against Taleban land distribution in Helmand, a longstanding dispute over the ownership of a piece of desert land in Musa Qala district flared up between the Alizai and Ishaqzai tribes (see media reports which describe an exchange of gunfire that resulted in several deaths here and here). Spokesman for the Helmand governor, Omar Zwak, told Pajhwok Afghan News that four civilians were killed and another six were wounded and about 20 Taleban fighters were killed and wounded. Both Zwak and the deputy of a Taleban splinter group, Mullah Manan Niazi, blamed the Taleban, claiming that they had given land that belonged to the Alizais to the Ishaqzai. The Taleban reject this claim. 

According to local sources from Nawzad who currently reside in Greshk, the disputed land is situated about 15 metres above the water stream that passes through the lands of the Alizai tribe. They maintained that the land thus belongs to the Ishaqzai tribe which lives in the upper part of the area, and was ruled by former Taleban governor for Helmand Mullah Manan. Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi insisted that the Taleban had prevented further fighting and that this was “completely an issue of rights; it has no political aspect.” 

(5) One source in the government named a specific local Taleban commander as Furqani, whom he said was selling land to people in Mehrabad. Other sources could not confirm this. Since most of the land distribution or selling has taken place in areas where telephone companies are not operating, AAN was unable to talk to people who might have actually purchased or received land from the Taleban.

(6) Based on the government Land Management Law (LML), government land can only be distributed when the land is part of a government project, which is not the case in the instances of land sold or distributed by local Taleban described in this report (see the LML here). In the implementation of its national land policy, the government already faces several existing challenges over property ownership, land planning and provision of basic services in areas that have expanded in the last four decades (see the national land policy here). 


Helmand one land state land Takhar Taleban two rules Uruzgan


Fazl Rahman Muzhary

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