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What may be a bigger threat to Afghanistan than insurgency? Land disputes.

Land theft is a major source of conflict in Afghanistan and threatens stability, say analysts. Protesters near Kabul Tuesday say an MP was involved in stealing their land.

By Correspondent / August 11, 2011

Mirwais Mena, Afghanistan; and Kandahar, Afghanistan

Things had been tense in Mirwais Mena, a village just outside Kabul, since Qais Hassan, a member of the Afghan Parliament, and his brother Mirwais reportedly built a wall through the village and told residents he would seize all the homes on one side of the wall.

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The village was constructed illegally on unoccupied government land, but the brothers were not acting on behalf of the government. They allegedly planned to destroy the homes and sell the land for their own benefit. In protest this week, the residents destroyed the wall.

Less than 24 hours later, many residents say they awoke to a band of thugs led by Mirwais Hassan, firing rockets at homes, setting them ablaze, and shooting the residents as they fled. By the time villagers managed to chase off the attackers, up to six people were dead and more than a dozen hospitalized. This prompted yet another protest. On Tuesday, angry villagers closed off the main road, burned tires, and tore down a massive city sign.

“It was a great cruelty that they did [this] to us,” says Haji Mangal, a tribal elder from Mirwais Mena.

In the past decade, land disputes like the one in Mirwais Mena have become pervasive across Afghanistan, numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands, according to some estimates. These feuds may stand as a bigger threat to the country’s longterm stability than the insurgency, say observers.

“In Afghanistan people believe that their property is their honor. They will kill and die to protect their property during a land dispute,” says Bisimullah Hamid, an attorney in Kabul who has mitigated land disputes. “It’s another major challenge for the Afghan government right now, next to the fight against terrorism.”

Since the US-led invasion, the proliferation of warlordism, government corruption, and returning refugees has fueled violent land disputes. Now, people from virtually every layer of Afghan society are involved in these deadly feuds, from the brothers of President Hamid Karzai to nomadic tribesmen.

In Afghanistan, where roughly 80 percent of the people make their living through agriculture, land rights are a central part of life here. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, their land redistribution policy was one of most controversial practices among Afghans. Though disputes continued through the Afghan civil war and the Taliban's regime, they didn’t become a major problem until after 2001.

In the power vacuum created immediately after the fall of the Taliban, a number of warlords quickly rose to power, fueled in large part by US and international money. It became a common practice for these new warlords to reward their supporters with plots of land that were usually not theirs to give away.


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