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Afghan Government Forces Shaky Truce In Tribal Land Dispute

The assertion of authority by Nangarhar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai is rare in Afghanistan.
The assertion of authority by Nangarhar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai is rare in Afghanistan.
Heavily armed young fighters vacated their respective trenches early on October 27 in eastern Afghanistan, honoring a truce demanded by the local government and halting a tribal land dispute that has claimed more than 100 lives over the last two years.

The two sides, from the Alisher Khel and Sepah branches of the Pashtun Shinwari tribe, agreed to the three-year truce only after Nangarhar Province Governor Gul Agha Sherzai threatened military action to put an end to their fighting.

What began as a dispute over a large plain in the Ghani Khel region south of the provincial capital, Jalalabad, eventually took on the appearance of a traditional war involving garrisons, trenches, mortars, and heavy machine guns.

The truce came after Sherzai, a former anti-Soviet guerrilla commander, delivered his ultimatum before a gathering of regional tribal leaders in Jalalabad on October 25.

"If by morning -- and my friends from Sepah tribe should listen carefully -- they don't vacate their trenches, [the makeshift] military garrisons, and the rooms they have built, the government will act in accordance with the law," Sherzai said. "I will go there -- and I have the backing of all the tribes, UNAMA [the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan], and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force]. We all will go there and disarm them."

Sherzai further warned that even the presence of Taliban in the region would not deter him from carrying out his threat of military action.

Sustainable Truce

Lawmaker Faridoon Mohmand, who has played a key role in resolving the dispute through tribal councils, accompanied Sherzai to Ghani Khel on October 26 to reinforce the ultimatum.

Mohmand tells RFE/RL he believes the truce is sustainable.

"The two sides agreed to a three-year truce, meaning that there will be a cease-fire and the two sides will live in peace," Mohmand said. "They will vacate whatever housing they have built under the supervision of a [designated] delegation, who will return it to the government. The government will then build a housing project where the impoverished and homeless people will be given homes."

Sherzai's assertion of authority is rare in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of small and big land disputes between families, clans and ethnic groups, threaten stability and bring untold suffering. Should the government fail to follow through on the promises made by Sherzai, the truce could prove to be short-lived.

Mohammad Yousaf Sabir, a lawmaker from Nagarahar, says disputes over landownership have risen sharply since the demise of the Taliban regime a decade ago. He tells RFE/RL that property prices have skyrocketed across Afghanistan, where land has always been considered a precious commodity. The Afghan Constitution and accumulation of properties under previous governments have made the state a major landowner, but people have rapidly encroached on its properties in cities and rural areas.

Ignoring The Rule Of Law

Sabir, who hails from Ghani Khel, says that the disputed plain in his home region is actually owned by the government. But the two Shinwari clans now want to possess it in order to distribute it among their members. The land grab, he says, is essentially a result of anarchy in Afghanistan.

"People think that because the government in Afghanistan is weak they can get away with grabbing property," Sabir said. "Many people here are not aware of the importance of the rule of law and they pay little attention to the laws. So some people only strive to capture a piece of land and think that nobody can force them out of there."

The Afghan government still lacks a comprehensive system of land management. Property records are patchy and in some regions land is still collectively owned by clans and tribes. After the fall of the Taliban regime, many powerful militia leaders and warlords became government leaders, and many Afghans accuse them of enriching themselves by grabbing public and private property.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.