War & Peace

The Kuchi-Hazara Conflict, Again


As every year around this time, violent clashes have erupted between local Hazaras and incoming Pashtun Kuchis in the pastures of Eastern Hazajarat. Houses were burnt down, people and animals killed, many fled the area. Hazara MPs boycott the parliament’s sessions. But the level of violence seems to be higher than ever. Fabrizio Foschini. Junior Researcher at AAN’s Kabul office, reports on the events and patterns of this annual conflict.

Weesa 17.05.2010: A clash has again taken place between nomads and Hazaras in Behsud of Maydan Wardak Province… God forbid, it does not prepare the ground for a number of political circles to take advantage of this inconvenience. They are waiting to strike deals on the lives and blood of Hazaras and nomads. We believe that there are several circles which are waiting to fuel such disputes to implement their vicious objectives. They are not willing to see the Hazaras and nomads live like brothers in a peaceful atmosphere, the way they did in the past…
Tolo TV 17.05.2010: Parliament discussed in its session today the latest clashes between the nomads and residents of some parts of Maydan Wardak Province. Nomad MP Alam Gol Kochi: “They started the dispute and now that they are defeated they are complaining. I will reclaim the [land] as it is a right given by God.” Muhammad Mohaqqeq, the leader of the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan and some MPs have said that they will continue their protests unless the government addresses the dispute. “Last year I went on hunger strike, and if necessary, I will again go on hunger strike. We want [the government] to correct its policies and remove the nomads from the area. These were our demands.” [Hazara] MPs later walked out of the session in protest against the clashes.

Daily Afghanistan 17.05.2010: How can we accept the claim that a number of nomads with hunting guns can force thousands of people to leave their homes… This development, which comes ahead of the National Consultative Peace Jerga, an international conference in Kabul and parliamentary elections, is portraying a negative image of security status and stability in the country. The government should promptly put an end to this calamity and prepare the ground for the return of displaced people and provide them with immediate assistance…

Hasht-e Sobh 19.05.2010: Apart from legal issues and civil rights, the existence of wandering nomads in a country, which is talking about democracy and human rights, is disgraceful for it.

The clamour in the Afghan press (see above) and public opinion about the recent clashes between Kuchi and Hazara people has yet to subside, more than a week after the conflict took place. Almost daily protests hit the streets of Kabul and other cities with sizeable Hazara populations, denouncing government inaction and demanding the nomads withdraw. But despite early announcements on part of authorities, yesterday Kuchis were still occupying the greater part of Daimirdad district, along with chunks of neighbouring Hissa-e Awwal Behsud (Behsud 1) and Markaz-e Behsud (Behsud 2), in Wardak province. Rumours of a partial withdrawal after minor clashes with police took place remain unconfirmed.

The issue is definitely not new or unexpected, especially at this time of year, when Kuchis grazing animals head for higher pastures. However, the level of violence witnessed this year had rarely been reached, at least since 2001. Reportedly eight local Hazaras residents and two Kuchis have been killed in the fighting of 15 and 16 May in Daimirdad while numbers of displaced persons have been rising steadily in past days. Currently, they reach a total of 1,958 families, almost 1,000 of which from Daimirdad. This last number could well match the claim made by locals that the majority of the Hazara population of the district, estimated at around 12,000 persons, had to flee their homes.

Most of these IDPs made their way to Kabul during last week, and AAN interviewed some of them. Even if some brawls had been reported earlier that week, resulting in the killing of some livestock, interviewees maintain that the residents of Daimirdad were completely taken by surprise by a massive, militarily-style attack on 15 May, as Sayyed Shah Abdul Qahar, a representative from Garmab, recollects:

“At around 8.30 pm Kuchis forcefully entered Daimirdad territory, coming from the road of Tara and Dawlat Shah [from Chak district and the southernmost, Pashtun-dominated part of Daimirdad], the first village they attacked was Garmab. We had some trenches dug at a place called Jangal Kuh, at Jirki Naqak, at Kuh-e Mansur [spots situated to the north and south of Garmab] (…). These trenches were dug by those ill-fated people who went to defend the villages. Kuchis arrived en masse, maybe a thousand of them, a hundred riding horses, thirty to forty on motorcycles, others in pickups. We were able to put up a defensive fight for five to six hours against them. In the meantime the inhabitants sought refuge at Siahkhak [a full seven hour walk]. We thank the mujahedin that did the fight to protect their people and the few owners of cars that helped bringing elders and sick persons to safety. In that way people could avoid massacre, and only few of them have fallen prisoners. If the people of Daimirdad had not fought, many, many more, maybe 500 persons, would have been captured. The battle lasted until 3 am. At about 5.20 am the Kuchis reached Tezak valley and the first thing they did was burning the houses; then the whole population evacuated Daimirdad.”

As violence spread, people from the northern valleys of Daimirdad started to move hurriedly to the neighbouring districts of Behsud 1 and 2, and from there to Kabul. In the following days most of them reached the capital travelling in often desperate conditions, the swiftness of their flight causing a complete lack of food provisions or clothes. They are currently settled in West Kabul, especially around Dasht-e Barchi and Dehburi, partly with relatives and partly hosted in mosques or squatting in open air. Few families reached Bamian, while at the same time many others displaced households from Behsud 1 and 2 retreated to safer areas of those districts.

Humanitarian aid is reaching Behsud, but most of the refugees have already left the area and it risks being appropriated by representatives of unaffected villages.
The elders from Daimirdad that AAN interviewed were unanimous in pointing to the heavy weapons and military tactics employed by their attackers – and accused Kuchis of having Taleban in their ranks. They wonder at the government inability to notice the presence of such a large body of armed men approaching: “They came through Logar and other districts of Wardak: a thousand fighters with pickups, rockets and machine-guns. Is it not incredible, they come straight into the Hazara villages and nobody noticed it!”

The authorities’ reaction was initially ambiguous to say the least. A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior went as far as stating that it was no concern to his office, being a matter to refer to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (Rah-e Nejat, 18 May 2010).

Then, as the verbal conflict in the Wolesi Jirga between Hazara and Kuchi leaders rose to dangerous heights, the government was quick to recognize the need for a high-level commission to be sent. Headed by Second Vice-President Karim Khalili, Minister of Interior Muhammad Hanif Atmar, Chief of Staff Omar Daudzai and the powerful Kuchi leader, former Talib commander and Guantanamo detainee Haji Naim, the commission reached Wardak province on 18 May, and worked out an agreement to the effect that Kuchis were to withdraw from Daimirdad area and allow the return of displaced persons. Even this very provisional accord, representing more a cease-fire than an attempt at solving the problem, has not being respected by the Kuchis, who not only avoid relinquishing their territorial gains, but on 21 May moved on to occupy the pass of Jawqul at the border between Daimirdad and Behsud 1 and the village of Chaharpaskha inside Behsud 2 district, according to reports from the area.

The displaced villagers are also unhappy with the deployed security forces . A total of around 300 ANP and 160 ANA forces were sent to the area, mainly from Bamian province, but they seem to keep a low profile, and finding themselves outnumbered by the Kuchi fighters, who are estimated by various sources as being between 500 and 1000, have till recently avoided taking any steps to enforce the withdrawal of nomads. As Sayyed Abdul Qahar complains: “house, goods, livestock – the people lost everything. The fruit trees and the fields will hardly bear anything if they are not cared for at this time of year, we are about to loose our harvest completely if we are not allowed to go back. We could not even recover the bodies of our martyrs, they are still lying on the hills. That is the ultimate injustice. The government has done nothing about that.” Another elder reports having heard of great numbers of Hazara stolen livestock being sold at Ghazni.

Local people have also accused authorities of withdrawing security forces from the district on the eve of the attack (although UNAMA officers reported that a preventive security forces deployment did take place around 10 May.)

Events of this kind should have been well expected at this time of year. Since the last eight years there have been attempts on part of the Kuchis to regain access to their traditional summer pastures in central Hazarajat, especially in the Waras, Panjab and Yakaolang districts of Bamian province. Most of these attempts have been frustrated by the mobilization of local inhabitants. Hazaras have gained enough political weight in post-war Afghanistan to hinder a return to the previous status quo, which featured an unbalanced set of relationship between relatively well-off and politically-backed nomads and impoverished and marginalized villagers.

The problematic relations between Kuchi nomads and Hazara villagers are older than most people can remember – although the past is increasingly being used to justify current claims and counter-claims. On one hand, Kuchis possess grazing rights on pasture lands up in Hazarajat that were bestowed on them by Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman Khan, after the ‘Hazara wars’(*) of 1891-1893. On the other, the validity of the act is questioned by Hazaras who say it was unjust at the time and was revoked afterwards, during Habibullah’s reign.

There are more articulate arguments invoked by Hazaras who say the pastures are no longer available because of the increase in Hazara-owned livestock and animal husbandry in recent years, something that finds a partial confirmation in experts’ data, as reported to AAN by Gorm Pedersen, a scholar on Kuchi’s nomadism and agro-pastoral development expert. A different issue is the property of land obtained by wealthy nomads acting as traders and moneylenders in pre-war times. As the Constitution defines Kuchis as people that do not possess land, the Hazara would argue, there is a major inconsistency to be solved.

None of these issues actually have anything to do with what happened in Daimirdad, as it seems clear that Kuchis never owned, or even seriously claimed to own, land in the district or utilized its territory as pasture. Nor can the misfortune of being positioned on the Kuchi path to highland pastures alone explain what happened.

A look at the political elites of the two rival communities is useful. Kuchi leaders are for the most part rich entrepreneurs who have settled, mainly in Kabul or Jalalabad, a long time ago. They not only do own land (and grazing rights) in various parts of the country, but run hotels, restaurants, trucking and service companies. Nomadic husbandry is hardly a part of the economic life of these Kuchi leaders, yet they remain eager to identify themselves as heads of the Kuchi community, thus claiming a status which is far from being distinctive in Afghanistan.

One possible reason is that Kuchis represent a destitute and traditionally backward community, but possess ten prized seats in the Wolesi Jirga from which Kuchi MPs are able to derive a remarkable political relevance and centrality. Figures for Kuchi population are difficult to assess: they range between the random five millions claimed by the Independent Directorate for Kuchis to one million of “potential” Kuchis identified by more conservative estimates.

It is even more difficult to come up with figures of those still living on animal husbandry and itinerant petty trade, probably not more than a few thousands families nationwide, and a majority of, as one expert put it, “political Kuchis”. Kuchi identity is, in fact, becoming a political asset for impoverished communities on their way to urbanization, allowing them a shortcut to political patronage by influential powerbrokers and some – very basic – material benefits. Given the Kuchis’ traditional lack of access to education and health facilities, aspects of this “spontaneous” transition to sedentary life could prove positive, but identities sometimes need to be fortified through confrontation, and contemporary Afghanistan offer only too many opportunities to do so, as the recent violence proves.

The Hazara community has already gone through this ordeal, to emerge as one of the most cohesive identity groups in new Afghanistan. This is well demonstrated by the last week’s ratio of nationwide protests, often carried out by individuals who have never seen nomads or pastures in their whole life. However, memories of past oppression by Kuchis constitute one of the major vectors for conveying cohesiveness to the Hazara community, and political leaders are sensitive to the issue, never failing to condemn Kuchis’ inroads each year.

Stirring up tension by way of emotive speeches serves to strengthen the community and also draws outside attention. Last year, for example, Mohaqqeq boasted of the election deal he had struck with Karzai – following two years (2007 and 2008) in which nomads had started more aggressive efforts to move into Hazarajat. He presented the deal to its electorate as some sort of stable achievement for Hazaras, in that there was a promise for Kuchis to be kept away from their lands. Afghan newspapers claimed that Karzai fulfilled his promise by buying off Haji Naim Kuchi, the former Taleban commander once bent on ransacking Hazarajat, with something between two and three millions of dollars to keep “his” nomads seated. Nothing strange if, given such past subsidies, the eruption of violence on a larger scale might have been expected to increase the price of a peace settlement for the current year – especially since it also features elections. On the other side, it is these same elections and the oncoming peace jirga that Hazara leaders are now threatening to boycott if government does not deal with the Kuchi problem.

The reciprocal accusations expressed by the political establishment, each side accusing others of fuelling the conflict for money or political ambitions, have reached up to the highest levels of the state yesterday, when the senate chairman Sebghatullah Mujaddedi charged Second Vice-President Karim Khalili – himself an ethnic Hazara from Behsud and currently visiting the affected area – of abetting the clashes.

But behind big words, it seems that a solution – the usual one – is at hand. It is reported from local NGO workers that on Wednesday (26 May) an agreement was signed between representatives of the Ministry of Interior and Kuchi leader Haji Naim in Daimirdad. Kuchis will complete their withdrawal in a period of three days and be paid a compensation for not having access to pastures. Khalili, as he had earlier promised, will remain in the area until the terms of the agreement are carried out.

Another aspect of the issue, namely the accusations of Taleban involvement, must be considered. The practice of labelling political rivals as Taleban is well-known, but dismissing the Hazara claims as propaganda is too simplistic. Taleban involvement in the Kuchi-Hazara dispute dates back to the Emirate times, when it featured Haji Naim in a very prominent role. In 2000, the Taleban managed to enforce a compromise between Hazara and Kuchis after the latter’s excesses, when they, enjoying Taleban military backing, had wreaked havoc among the villagers.

Wardak is now an overwhelmingly Taleban-controlled province, its northern, Hazara-dominated districts being considered a partial exception to this rule. A local NGO worker reported past hostilities between the Taleban and Daimirdad district governor, rumoured to have passed information about Taleban activities and hideouts to Coalition Forces. He hinted that current violence could represent a reprisal. Elders from Daimirdad, however, where quick to dismiss this possibility. Instead they claim that the wuluswal (district governor) already has a deal with the ‘brothers Taleban’. “The truth is that justice is in the hands of the Taleban, job opportunities are in the hands of the Taleban, three of the main roads leading to the district are in the hands of Taleban… No, our wuluswal must have good relations with the Taleban; in case Taleban are not happy with one wuluswal, in the span of one year they have him killed, he would not last more than that.”

So, apart from a hypothetical vengeance, what would the Taleban gain by militarily supporting the Kuchis? Quite a lot: Bringing instability and showing the government’s inability to control provinces; asserting their dominance over Hazara-inhabited districts of a province they now can claim, if not to control, at least to influence, in its totality; providing support for fellow Pashtuns in what now is perceived by some as an ethno-nationalistic cause, or more naturally following the steps of their precedent cooperation with the Kuchis in Hazarajat between 1998 and 2001. Finally, this could turn out to be an economically useful adventure for the local Taleban fronts, because Kuchis are potentially useful allies not only in terms of manpower, but financially too. Still, local perception has it that it is more a case of Kuchis successfully exploiting their connections to get help from both provincial authorities and the Taleban, rather than the Taleban trying to put their hat – or turban – on the Kuchis’ political mobilization.

Now, after one week of stalemate, it seems that Kuchi withdrawal is about to start. Depending on the ability and willingness of the government institutions to enforce its completion and bring back the IDPs as well as to defuse the level of political hysteria, it will be possible to assess the real economic and social necessities of the Kuchis and find a durable solution to their problems, to prevent this time of year from becoming high season for communal riots, cheap demagogy and blackmail.

(*) Up to then, the Hazaras were virtually independent and the Amir forcefully integrated their areas into his realm, pursuing policies of so-called “internal imperialism”. He mainly used Pashtun tribal lashkars, and the participants were rewarded with the land of the driven-out, enslaved or massacred Hazaras. Hence today’s reference by many Hazaras to Pashtun-inhabited areas as parts of the Hazarajat. (One example is Chora district in Uruzgan, today almost entirely Pashtun, where the old demarcation line between Hazara and Pashtun areas – a line of rocks across a wide valley – is still visible today.)

 

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Thematic Category: War & Peace