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.

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.

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.

Meanwhile, Afghans who had fled during the Soviet war, civil war, and Taliban regime began to trickle back into the country only to find their homes or family land occupied by squatters or people connected to high-level government officials or warlords. To make matters even more complicated, some power brokers and warlords who had seized land paid bribes to put the properties into their names, making it all but impossible for the original owner to reclaim them.

Fast forward to international troop reduction

Without the presence of international forces to act as a buffer, many of the ongoing disputes over land could easily erupt into violence, says Muhammad Hassan Haqyar, an independent political analyst in Kabul.

“When the international community withdraws and there is a weak government, there will be more fighting and bloodshed over land disputes,” he says. “This is a really corrupt government. Right now, if someone bribes the government enough, they can even get the deed to the presidential palace.”

In Kandahar, these disputes were pushed into the spotlight last month when a suicide bomber killed Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi. The attacker had come with a group of people who were angry with the mayor for demolishing homes they illegally constructed on government land.

While Gul Agha Sherzai was governor of Kandahar in 2001, he allegedly handed out large parcels of government land to his supporters – land that he lacked the authority to give away. The people he gave it to then divided and sold it and handed over the official deeds. Plots were bought and sold multiple times.

Earlier this year, Mr. Hamidi sprung the news on residents that the city of Kandahar was the actual owner of the land, and the municipality needed it for development so the city could expand. He gave them three months notice to evacuate before destroying several hundred homes.

Haji Mohammadullah, who paid $3,000 for his lot and built a house on it for another $3,000 (the average Afghan annual income is less than $1,000), was among those who bought land without knowing that it technically belonged to the Kandahar municipality. Before the demolition of his home, he went through a number of channels to save his home but none worked.

“This is intolerable for us and it’s possible that some people will turn to the insurgency because of this,” he says.

Role for strong government

Many Afghans say that only a strong government free of corruption can solve this problem. Right now, however, says Mr. Mohammadullah echoing a common sentiment in Afghanistan, “we’ve lost our trust in the government.”

The ease with which blood is shed in these conflicts, as shown by the assassination of the mayor, is of particular concern because of the long lasting tribal and family feuds they can create. In Afghanistan, especially among ethnic Pashtuns, few people are content to settle a conflict until they’ve taken revenge, which often leads to generational feuds.

Meanwhile, in Mirwais Mena, local resident Noor Mohammad stands near the gates of the village mosque watching other villagers dig graves for those killed in the night attack by Hassan and his men.

“This guy should be kicked out of the parliament. If the government arrests them [Qais Hassan and his brother Mirwais] and puts them in jail it will not be enough. We will get revenge,” says Mr. Mohammad.

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