Ghani's Dilemma: Land Reform in Afghanistan

Ghani's Dilemma: Land Reform in Afghanistan

When Ashraf Ghani was elected President of Afghanistan in September 2014, he inherited a country in turmoil.  The election results sparked a political crisis challenging Ghani's right to power, the Taliban was ramping up operations just as NATO troops were preparing to withdraw, relations with key neighbors (e.g., Pakistan) were shaky, and the economy was still reliant on the illegal opium trade.  Afghanistan ranked 169th on the UN's Human Development Index.  Here's a less publicized but just as important problem facing Afghanistan today: it has a weak legal framework for land administration and management.  

Effective ownership of land provides economic and political opportunities to landowners, stability to the economy and government, and reinforces state functions like tax collection and security.  The absence of an effective legal framework for land does the opposite, weakening the economy, corrupting politics, and threatening security.  A 3-part series on land theft in Afghanistan - produced by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)'s Rule of Law Unit - claims that weak land administration is not just a critical issue in Afghanistan; it may be the most critical issue in Afghanistan:

Whether related to the opium trade, extractive industries, or land transactions, land conflict drivers likely affect a far greater proportion of the Afghan people on a daily basis than the ongoing military conflict...Land ownership disputes are estimated to be the cause of over 70% of all serious crimes (murder and crimes of violence) in Afghanistan.

So far Part I and Part II have been released, and the research effort is impressive.  Some key findings:

  • Most land in Afghanistan is not titled or registered in any formal legal sense.  The Land Management Law of 2008 provides a path towards ownership for individuals with customary or traditional land tenure, but the bureaucratic requirements and administrative costs needed to establish ownership are unrealistic.
  • Assuming customary tenure can be shown, formal title is no guarantee of effective ownership since many institutions provide some claim to title.
  • Property laws are skewed toward protection of the state, not individuals.  Lands are often claimed by the government (and often corruptly) without compensation provided to landowners.
  • The various land dispute resolution mechanisms that exist - be they formal, informal, or a hybrid - encourage forum shopping and create ambiguity.
  • Land grabbing is not criminalized.  In theory a penalty of 2 years can be imposed, but criminal land grabbing cases must wait until the associated civil case concludes.  To date no criminal prosecution of land grabbing has been recorded, an open invitation to steal land.  

Reforming this system means accepting some rather uncomfortable possibilities. 

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