After the Taliban’s takeover of power in mid-August this year, forced migration and displacements have been largely reported in different parts of Afghanistan. This piece looks at the problem of forced displacement and migration from a modern centralized Afghan state formation perspective. The process of state formation has led to multiple displacements in the past and still impacts on the present. However, it has been widely neglected in the debate on the root causes of forced displacement and migration in Afghanistan.
Forced migration and displacement in Afghanistan are often associated with the Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan, the civil war which erupted after the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, and the Taliban’s emergence in 1994 that overshadow our understanding of current circumstances. Although forced displacement and migration have a longer history, it became more common during the formation of the modern centralized Afghan state under Abdur Rahman Khan’s rule (1880-1901). The latter also needs to be distinguished from the founding of an Afghan state in the eighteenth century. The Pashtun emir suppressed his opponents ruthlessly and forced thousands of ethnic Hazaras, Uzbek, Tajiks, and Pashtuns to leave the country or resettle in other provinces where they could not pose a threat to his government.
Additionally, the Afghan ruler was afraid of Russia’s increasing presence in Central Asia during the ‘Great Game’ in which Afghanistan was used by the British as a buffer state against Russia’s expansion that led him to resettle thousands of Pashtun settlers in the North bordering Central Asian countries. He also encouraged voluntary resettlement of Pashtuns by offering financial support, livestock, land and tax exemption in depopulated regions as well as in provinces inhabited predominantly by other ethnic groups. The Pashton Kuchi (nomads) were also given permission to seasonal pastures in fertile valleys. The idea was to keep these new settlers as future allies of an emerging modern centralized state led by a Pashtun ruler and reduce heterogeneity in non-Pashtun areas. This policy continued by his successor to various degrees until 1973.
However, with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, millions of Afghans, among them Pashtuns were forced to leave their villages and hometowns shaping the first wave of migration and displacement in Afghanistan. Different ethnic groups joined the resistance against the Red Army mostly under the leadership of leaders who were coming from the same ethnicity. This also emboldened ethnic cleavages afterwards during the civil war, once the Soviet Union left and the communist government collapsed. These tribal leaders, better known as ‘warlords’ fought against each other for power-grab using ethno-centric narratives dividing the country into several regions of power from 1992 to 1996. In this time, many Afghans who could afford it left the country and some others were displaced or moved to provinces or regions where warlords from the same ethnic groups were in power.
Land Grabbing and Land Conflict Post 2001
When the new Western-backed government was established after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, hopes were rising for the future due to the heavy and colorful presence of the international community that brought more than 40 countries together investing millions of dollars in state-building and infrastructures across the country. The return of Afghan refugees started both informally and formally, for example, through UNHCR or IOM repatriation schemes from Pakistan and Iran. However, reintegration was challenged as returnees realized that after more than two decades of absence, the warlords and their affiliated groups already occupied their lands and houses unwilling to return them to their former owners. As the warlords soon became the new political elite of Afghanistan, public offices were unable to investigate such sensitive cases against them. A striking example is the Sherpur case, a diplomatic area in Central Kabul. In 2003 powerful Afghan politicians grabbed the land and forced hundreds of families to leave the area while the central government turned a blind eye to it. Among them were many high-ranking non-Pashtun politicians and warlords challenging the newly established government led by a Pashtun president. The influx of returnees and high demand for housing post-2001, made many warlords build new towns and complexes on grabbed private and public properties too. The Afghan government never succeeded to tackle these challenges effectively that led to armed clashes between different ethnic groups from time to time. For instance, the Pashtun Kuchi who were given the right to pasture by former regimes confronted with Hazara’s resistance in Behsud district resulted repeatedly in armed clashes. Unfortunately, neither the government nor the international community worked on establishing land conflict resolution mechanisms in the post-conflict recovery context of 2001.
Legal Disputes and Forced Displacement
Afghanistan is currently experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the history and has already started an economic slump. Only this year, more than half a million people were internally displaced due to the conflict between former government forces and the Taliban in the country. As stated by the Norwegian Refugee Council, more than 300,000 Afghans have entered Iran illegally since the fall of the Afghan government in mid-August 2021 and between four to five thousand, Afghan refugees enter Iran every day. The current displacement caused mostly by legal land disputes emerging from a long-neglected historical context can certainly exacerbate the situation.
With the Taliban’s return to power, most of the powerful former warlords and politicians who resisted the government reforms and good governance fled from Afghanistan. They were indeed part of the failure, if not the whole, of the Afghan government in the last two decades by hindering the rule of law in order to protect their personal interests and positions. Their patronage networks collapsed and strongholds came under the Taliban’s control. This paved the way for new claims over properties and lands in several parts of the country previously ignored by the government. Daikundi was one of the first provinces in central Afghanistan where the Hazara residents were forced to leave 15 villages in September this year. The Pashtuns returned to the province and claimed that they owned these villages before they left the area four decades ago, and after the Soviet Union invasion. With the help of the Taliban, they forced more than 400 families to leave the area. Although the Taliban denied their involvement in the incident, their local authorities reported afterwards that the displacement was stopped until spring to clarify the legal claims of the involved parties. In the second case more recently, Uzbek and Turkmens claimed in northern Jowzjan province that they were forced to leave thousands of acres of land to Pashtun nomads. However, these are not the only cases. When the Taliban rapidly reached the outskirts of the largest cities early this year, people also reported about forced displacement. For example, in June the Badakhshani Tajiks were forced to leave the Bagh-e Shirkat area allocated for the IDPs in Kunduz province. Taliban justified this movement under security reasons to reduce civilian casualty in the area in the fight against the government forces.
The displacement under the Taliban has not occurred only in non-Pashtun areas and provinces due to the possession claims. Reports have emerged from Kandahar, a province with a majority of Pashtun inhabitants and the Taliban’s first leader, Mullah Omar’s stronghold where 3,000 families mostly public servants affiliated to the previous government were asked to leave the area. This was criticized by Human Rights Watch, which sees it as a ‘collective punishment’ for the allies and servants of the former government.
A Risky Approach
Often debated as an ethno-centric policy, the earlier process of modern centralized state-building has not been considered just and fair by non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan. The constant state of transition since 1979 and the military invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S. in 2001 provided opportunities for non-Pashtun groups to maintain their claims on lands, which were traditionally in Pashtuns’ possession in the past. However, with the Taliban’s return, the power balance has turned in favor of Pashtuns again and land disputes and forced displacement become more prevalent across the country paving the way for retaliatory attempts. As a result, it is expected that the Pashtun plaintiffs will win mostly through traditional Jirgas (councils) or in Taliban’s Sharia courts as real owners of the disputed areas. It therefore seems that displacement will remain a major problem in the future too, due to the extent of ownership claims and land grabbing cases across the country that will further contribute to internal displacement and external migratory flows from Afghanistan. Additionally, in a country like Afghanistan where Pashtuns are perceived as ‘privileged’ and other ethnic groups see themselves as ‘victims’ of a historical process, current displacement even by court order seem to be a risky approach reviving further ethnic tensions instead of putting an end to a long-lasting problem that many Afghans inherited from the past. This requires establishing transparent land-conflict resolution mechanisms to offer thorough and enduring solutions but seems unlikely to take place under the present circumstances.