Rights & Freedoms

Land Grabs (2): Deh Sabz, the new and the old


On the way to settle down. This photo of a Kuchi nomad caravan was taken 2010 in Deh Sabz north of Kabul where Kuchis today seek to become sedentary. However, the vast expanses of land in the valley are coveted by many, among others the investors for the Kabul New City project. Photo: Christine Roehrs

Kuchi nomads on their way to becoming sedentary and foreign and local investors planning a prestigious Kabul New City development project end up competing for the same piece of land. A recent, dramatic fire fight between the Kabul police and the armed supporters of a Kuchi leader in Deh Sabz sounded like an alarm bell about scarcity of suitable land around Kabul and the competitors for it. While the actors have displayed considerable creativity in finding ways to appropriate land for their own purposes, lawful and long-term approaches to the problem of land distribution and ownership seem still far away, reports AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini in his second contribution on the sensitive topic of land grabbing in Afghanistan (see first one here).

On the morning of 24 June 2013, four engineers of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) travelled into Deh Sabz district, just north of Kabul, to survey the site of the greater Kabul development project, a decades-long undertaking to build a new city, led by JICA since 2006.

They did not go far, though, as their car was stopped in the Dispatchery area (District 9 of Kabul city) by supporters of Janat Gul, the brother of local strongman and MP Allah Gul Mujahed. The Japanese men were kept by the roadside for some time until the Kabul police intervened to free them. Janat Gul and his men released their hostages and withdrew to a gas station owned by the family a couple of kilometres away. There, they engaged the pursuing policemen in a fire fight, until they had to call for reinforcements from the army. A gun battle of two hours ensued until seven of Janat Gul’s retinue lay dead and some 18 more people – among them at least one agent of the Rapid Reaction Force – were injured. Janat Gul was arrested along with a number of others.

Behind this unfolding Deh Sabz drama, the events that preceded it and the ones likely to follow, looms the anxiety of the people of Deh Sabz, particularly the Kuchi communities associated with Allah Gul Mujahed, over whether they will lose their land – or at least the land they claim to own – to the Kabul New City (KNC) project. Indeed, in the following days, people from Deh Sabz staged protests against the police for the nine dead (two more had meanwhile died of their wounds) in front of the parliament and by blocking the Jalalabad Road. According to the police, people connected to MP Allah Gul’s family also held a policeman hostage who had travelled to Deh Sabz off duty to attend a fatiha, a funeral prayer. Janat Gul and the other people arrested were soon released.

However, judging from the dynamics of the incident, it seems unlikely that the purpose of the locals was to kidnap the Japanese; if it were, they would have been quickly moved out of their car and transferred elsewhere. It is more probable that the targeting of the foreigners was calculated to pressure the government – wary of the potential loss of promised foreign investment – to accept some of the group’s requests and to make the police and the attorney general drop the charges they already had formulated against nine followers of Janat Gul concerning previous incidents.

The prologue to this battle was in fact less bloody, but not less dramatic. Roughly one month before, on 16 May, the Kabul New City authorities in Deh Sabz had scheduled an inauguration ceremony. The day before, a crowd of protesters led by Allah Gul Mujahed – according to Kabul Police Chief General Ayub Salangi “only a handful of whom were locals, they mostly were Pakistanis, Nangarharis and Logaris, labourers from the brick kilns” – stormed the site and set fire to the tent which had been erected there for the ceremony. They opposed the appropriation of Deh Sabz lands for the Kabul New City project or argued that they ought to be paid compensation by the government.

Deh Sabz, as it is

Deh Sabz is a district that extends beyond the line of hills north of Kabul airport, right up to the Kuh-e Safi mountains to the east and Bagram to the north. No longer as fertile as its name (Green Village) suggests, Deh Sabz, according to the Afghan Central Statistics Organization, is home to some 52,000 residents. The local villagers have in the last decade been joined by many thousands of Kuchi settlers who have either lost their livestock or do not find nomadic migration profitable or safe anymore. Many among them used to enjoy customary grazing rights on the vast rangeland of the district, which in the past represented a suitable stopping point during their movement between winter quarters in eastern Afghanistan and summer pastures in the highlands of the Hazarajat or Panjshir. Stopping over in Deh Sabz also allowed them to access the Kabul market with their meat and dairy products. Today, however, they are trying to settle permanently in the area. Although they often lack legal titles to land and, since 2006, a presidential decree bans the sale of land in the KNC, they have in some cases been able to purchase titles from local commanders who, in the past years, grabbed state land and illegally sold plots – the titles thus being of disputable value. In other cases, they have just progressively occupied patches of land through the years, usually erecting walls in the places where they would have pitched their tents and eventually transforming these into houses.

MP Allah Gul Mujahed, a former mujahedin commander in the ranks of Hezb-e Islami, hails from Deh Sabz district and has been elected to the Wolesi Jirga from Kabul province. He is, however, considered a leader of the Kuchis and a strong player behind their current settlement pattern in a sort of belt around the eastern districts of Kabul. In fact, already in October 2012, Allah Gul had been accused of grabbing land in Bagrami, south of Kabul, by both local residents and fellow MPs. More generally, he is often described as one of the major armed powerbrokers in the eastern suburbs of Kabul.

The head of the criminal branch of the Kabul police, General Abdul Zahir, on 11 July requested President Karzai to revoke Allah Gul’s parliamentary immunity in order for the police to be able to arrest him. The list of accusations that the police bear against the MP and his brother Janat Gul is long: they range from armed intimidation and attack on locals to illegal detention of weapons and attacks on KNC guards, police and other parliamentary candidates’ offices (in 2010).

AAN has also heard reports of Janat Gul’s involvement in running a racket of the brick kilns, a widespread industry in Deh Sabz and the most common form of employment for Kuchis who have abandoned nomadic livestock breeding, by providing labourers to the factories in exchange for a share of the wages. An official of the KNC also reported to AAN in late 2012 of receiving threats from Janat Gul because the official had had demolished some of the walls erected by Kuchis around land plots they claim.

Allah Gul Mujahed, who relocated to India in the wake of the confrontation in late June, rejected all charges and in turn accused the Kabul police of acting on behalf of the authorities of KNC and other speculators interested in the project, among whom he named Hasin Fahim, the brother of First Vice President Marshall Fahim.

After the incident in June, the lower house of the parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, was incensed by the subordinate position that its deputy speaker Mirwais Yasini was given in the truth-finding commission appointed by the government to investigate the violent incidents of 24 June. Instead, the commission was headed by a high-ranking police officer, which made a number of MPs protest against the lack of access to information they faced when questioning the security forces. However, a closer look reveals that the parliament was actually split – between those supporting the action of the police and those resenting it. Allah Gul Mujahed received strong support from Haji Almas, the head of the parliamentary groups he considers himself aligned with, Saba (“dawn”). Haji Almas shares a Hezb-e Islami background with Mujahed, and comes from neighbouring Bagram district in Parwan province, another area bound to be affected heavily by the greater Kabul development project.

Deh Sabz as it will be

“The Afghan capital Kabul, symbolizing the spirits of all Afghans and international cooperation, sets [sic] at the heart of this highly resourceful region, with great potential to turn into a business hub for all.”

Thus reads the introduction to the KNC project on its official website. An independent board for the development of Kabul New City had been established by President Karzai in 2006; later, in 2009, the Afghan cabinet endorsed its master plan strategy until 2025. The executive unit of the board, the Deh Sabz City Development Authority (DCDA), launched a call for investors in 2011 and 2012. It is a remarkably big, long-term project:

“Deh Sabz City with its commercial agricultural Barikab area, planned for three million inhabitants, completion within 30 years on a 500 sqkm area, located on the north of existing Kabul and made for current and future generations.”

If that sounds too big, goes too far and reminds one of the length of time it took to simply create a master plan, be assured that intermediate steps are being taken. Phase One of the project involves the development of 80,000 housing units for some 400,000 residents. Contracts for the development of one of the two parcels of Phase One (for an estimated 320,000 future residents, over an area of 3450 hectares) were signed earlier this year, and the work should be completed between mid-2013 and 2018 (in some cases extending until 2020). This parcel is to be developed on privately owned land, mainly by landowners-developers (defined as those who possess more than 300 jeribs – 0.2 hectare – of land and possess the technology and the financial ability to develop the land as per the KNC rules) who expressed their interest in developing the land according to the master plan.

But, as said, Deh Sabz is no empty promised land. The district must have attracted the KNC because of its vast expanses of rangeland, technically state-owned land, with no strongly entrenched communities (yet) and with uncertain tenure rights.(1) But the ambiguity of these rights allowed both big and small land schemes, for foreign investors to plan a new city and for Kuchi households to plan a new life by buying or claiming land by every possible means. Notwithstanding sophisticated plans for preserving pre-existing villages and integrating them into the agriculture economic zone of the KNC project, recent would-be settlers like the Kuchis hinder the project. JICA is well aware that the Kuchi communities in the district present problems. In early 2012 JICA even commissioned a study on the local Kuchi population. The study recommended establishing effective communication channels with the Kuchi elders to solve land clearance issues through consultation rather than confrontation. Also, it suggested supporting vocational training and literacy programmes to help overcome traditional problems affecting the Kuchis, social ills that heavily impair the Kuchis’ ability to integrate and act politically in the broader Afghan society except in the most disruptive ways.

Indeed, in years of increasing land disputes, some Kuchi leaders, veritable “entrepreneurs in social frustration”, have specialised in mobilising unrest to further their role as community leaders or to act as peacemakers and receive benefits from the government thereafter. Past eviction attempts by the police have already created tensions in and around Deh Sabz, and these will probably rise after the latest violence.

Probably in addition to the Kuchis others will also contribute to the explosive situation. Deprived groups – homeless returnees still waiting for land allocation and IDPs who fled from conflict in their home provinces, all eager to settle close to Kabul’s job market, security and services – could contribute to what is potentially becoming a “class war” between landless people and private investors, with armed populist leaders instigating ill-fated constituencies. There seems little alternative until the laws regulating land tenure are adjusted, for example to guarantee collective or communal rights to land property or utilisation and to implement a coherent national land policy for disadvantaged groups.

Moreover, “mass” land grabbing by people in need is not the only type of land usurpation witnessed in Afghanistan nowadays. Presidential decrees, such as the 2003 Decree on Immovable Property, have been extensively used to discretely allocate land to private individuals or firms under different pretexts (read here), but often with profit in view, for example, the construction of residential townships or the sale of smaller land plots after the value of the land in the area had sky-rocketed.

In this respect, Kabul New City must look like a golden opportunity for the economic elite of the country. It offers well-off locals and foreigners a more-secluded, clean and controllable home than overcrowded, polluted and increasingly insecure Kabul city. Particularly in view of the often-evoked scenarios of chaos and institutional collapse after 2014, KNC could prove enticing.

The requirements for being a “landowner-developer” in the framework of the master plan will naturally favour the concentration of land and contracts in the hands of a few major economic actors, those with the biggest investment capacity and closest proximity to political power. It was only to be expected that other would-be players, when excluded, would try to spoil the game to get some crumbs. What was probably not expected was such a strong reaction by the security forces, which have in the past been cautious in dealing with armed powerbrokers. This may, as in the hopes of the Kabul city police chief, “establish a fearsome precedent for all other armed commanders involved in a ring of illegal activities in and around the city”; but it might also shift the competing interests over Deh Sabz to new political and communal levels of strife.

Punishing – according to the law – any armed faction that tries to intercept money investments and the desperation of deprived Afghan citizens may be the correct move. However, further steps must be taken to ensure that KNC, for the sake of “future generations”, does not add to the misery of the people presently living in Deh Sabz. This is also the only way to remove for good the very potential for unrest. The best way to create a future for Kabul as a healthy capital, while waiting for a new one to be built, lies in preventing conflict from creeping up into its very suburbs.

(1) According to the Land Acquisition Law, the government must pay compensation to the private owners of land it expropriates for projects of public utility such as new roads or residential projects (read this AREU study here, pp. 46-52). Rangeland being considered state-owned land would exclude any compensation payment to those who – like the Kuchis in Deh Sabz – exploit it as pasture.

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms