Land Disputes and Too Few Troops Make for a Perfect Storm in Afghanistan
The war is bad now — and it’s about to get a lot worse
by MATTHEW GAULT
U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson sat before members of congress last week and told them he needed more troops in Afghanistan. According to Nicholson, the country would fall to the Taliban without some serious help.
The Army officer is the commander of the NATO led forces in the country, overwhelmingly made up of American troops, and his calls for support echo what security experts have been saying for the past year. Kabul will fall if something doesn’t change soon.
But there’s another set of problems that might speed up that collapse. Land disputes and too few troops and police to enforce the law could create a perfect storm.
Land, and who has it, is a big deal in Afghanistan. By the end of 2016, the Taliban — who ruled Afghanistan until 2001 and spent the next 15 years battling the American-backed central government — controlled close to half the country.
The government in Kabul, felled by corruption and propped up by foreign aid, had yet to sustain itself and field a military capable of taking the fight to the enemy by itself. Taliban fighters control much of the Pakistan border while soldiers in the country’s official army go unpaid.
Only Afghanistan’s special forces and commandos seem competent. But those elite troops are mostly busy fighting defensive operations to hold on to what the central government still controls.
Pres. Donald Trump has told the NATO forces in Afghanistan to keep fighting and that he wants to win the war. He has not supplied a plan or made any visible changes to the existing operations.
Worse, there’s a huge problem brewing, the kind of thing that could feed the Taliban with fresh troops for years to come. Afghanistan’s citizens are fighting over land rights and officials in Kabul can’t keep track of who owns what.
When America invaded Afghanistan back in 2001, it launched hundreds of development campaigns to better the country. Over the next 15 years, U.S. taxpayers spent billions to keep Kabul afloat and better the life of the average Afghan.
One of those projects was land reform. In developing countries such as Afghanistan, land is incredibly important to its people.
Land is often tied to families, passed down for generations and the source of both income and pride. After decades of foreign invasions and Taliban rule, it became increasingly hard to figure out who were the rightful owners of specifics plots, especially since many residents were repeatedly displaced by fighting.
To help, the U.S. Agency for International Development — aka USAID — forked over almost $100 million to change the way Afghanistan’s government managed land and the associated disputes. As with so many well-intentioned programs in the country, the project has been a disaster.
USAID hired an outside contractor, Tetra Tech ARD, to help it normalize Afghanistan’s land program. The goal was to formalize things and “improve the documentation and recording of land records and ownership, update and promote laws supporting land management, land dispute resolution and property rights to reduce usurpation, build the capacity of Afghans to perform land administration and strengthen land markets for improved economic growth and increased investment,” according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.
Basically, USAID hired the California-headquartered consultancy to monitor the paperwork and work with officials Kabul to clean up the land markets. If it worked, the changes would help stabilize the country and resolve land disputes in the courts instead of out in the streets.
Tetra Tech worked the problem for 10 years, but USAID didn’t follow up. The results were horrible, but the excuses were worse.
“USAID was unable to fully measure the program’s performance because of delays by Tetra Tech ARD in submitting and in USAID approving key performance monitoring and evaluation documentation,” investigators explained. “Neither USAID nor Tetra Tech ARD reported on some key performance indicators established in [the program’s] performance monitoring plan.
“Tetra Tech ARD did not consistently monitor or report on program performance.”
In short, the company wasn’t routinely checking on whether its projects were having any impact, good or bad. Worse, USAID couldn’t give investigators paperwork and reports they needed to follow up on Tetra Tech.
Why? The records were missing.
“The fact that USAID did not have the information raises questions as to whether or not the agency appropriately monitored the contractor’s performance during implementation,” the Washington watchdog wrote.
So, despite millions in supposed effort, land reform hasn’t worked and now Afghanistan has a new crisis to add to the already long list of problems. Add to this the country’s undeveloped legal system, where bribes grease the wheels of justice, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Land owners can’t settle disputes through the crappy courts. The government in Kabul simply lacks the technical capacity to handle the cases.
As part of recent aid deals, Afghanistan agreed to welcome back hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled over the past 15 years. In most cases, war and refugee camps will greet the returnees.
For many, strangers have taken their land or its just gone, uninhabitable after decades of conflict. With nowhere to live and no cash to pay off judges and reclaim their property, they have little choice but to make due with living in tent cities and slums cropping up outside of urban centers.
“The [Afghans] who have not been able to reclaim their land have resorted to squatting on the outskirts of urban areas in informal settlements unrecognized by the government,” SIGAR said. Now, almost 70 percent of all urban Afghans live in those unrecognized, unregulated and ungoverned settlements.
The returning Afghans are refugees in their own country and officials in Kabul doesn’t know how to handle them. These kinds of camps are hotbeds of extremism and violence.
Desperate people who fled the country only to return to find they have nothing will be receptive to the Taliban’s message. Both Afghan and American officials have seen similar issues come to a head in the past.
In 2015, insurgents briefly captured the city of Kunduz, a major regional hub in northern Afghanistan and capital of the province of the same name. The Taliban were able to blitz into the city in no small part because locals were fed up with official security forces and government-sanctioned militias abusing their authority.
In these impromptu camps across the country, fighting is already on the rise. Returning Afghans who can’t afford the justice system use violence to force people off of land — something insurgents might he happy to help with in exchange for local allegiances.
Needless to say, the tent cities are dangerous potential flash points. If the Taliban keeps making gains in the country, America drags its feet about a larger troop commitment and Kabul can’t provide real security and implement actual land reform, the growing violence could easily spill over into Afghanistan’s major hubs and beyond.