x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Dark truth behind Afghan conflict

Taliban rebels implicated in assault, as Hazara minority claim attack that killed three people was encouraged by the government.

Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq says attacks on Hazaras are part of official government policy.
Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq says attacks on Hazaras are part of official government policy.

KABUL // Three slightly bewildered men stood beside a pickup truck loaded down with carpets, a plain white flag protruding from its front fender. One of them reached for a tin of snuff while the others kept their hands in their pockets as the camera panned shakily around the scene. Watching on the television at his home in Kabul, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq had no doubts about what he thought he was looking at. "Taliban," he said.

Last month a long-running but little-noticed conflict started in Afghanistan once again. On the surface, it was a dispute between nomads and an ethnic minority group, the Hazara. But amid the arguments over grazing rights and land ownership, the occasionally sectarian nature of the claims and counter-claims has at times hinted that something far darker may be at play. The tension began in the areas of Behsud and Day Mirdad, in Maidan Wardak, a province bordering Kabul. It was there that a large number of nomads, known here as Kuchis, turned up, livestock in tow.

Many carried with them official papers that they said proved they owned the land. What happened next is a matter of contention. Hazaras claim the nomads attacked them unprovoked, burning down homes and forcing thousands to flee. Protests and often inflammatory coverage in sections of the local media followed until Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and one of his deputies intervened. The Kuchis pulled back and the trouble stopped, for the moment.

Mr Mohaqiq is a former mujaheddin commander who has gone on to become a member of parliament and one of the most influential Hazara leaders in the country. "If they have the documents for the land, does that mean they should invade and kill people there?" he said recently. "We are not taking their land. If they have the documents they can come and go, but we are defending ourselves against their actions."

Mr Mohaqiq insists that rather than being simple nomads, the men were essentially part of a 2,000-member militia that included rebels from the Taliban and another insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami. He claimed that their assault left three people dead and eight to 10 injured, while they occupied the land for about 10 or 11 days. The recording he played at his home showed, he said, Taliban with goods they had looted.

This is not the first year fighting has broken out and it is unlikely to be the last. If anything, the violence and anger appears to grow annually. Mr Mohaqiq has come to believe that the latest round of trouble was a product of official policy. "Those people who did not have the trust of Mr Karzai and his team would not have attacked," he said, adding that ordinary Hazaras, though not he personally, regretted their decision to accept the disarmament process put in place after the 2001 invasion. "The Kuchis, Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban have not submitted their weapons and the government showed them the green light," he said.

Kuchis, like the Afghan president, are ethnic Pashtuns. As a result, Mr Mohaqiq claims, they were encouraged to attack, either directly or indirectly, by the government. Another MP made similar accusations. Abdul Reza Rezai, a Hazara from Behsud, claims that the nomads who entered the area were a "military force" armed with everything from Kalashnikovs and mortars to belt-fed machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Independent estimates generally consider Hazaras to be the country's third biggest ethnic group, behind Tajiks and the significantly larger Pashtun community. No one knows exactly how many Kuchis there are. Defining them as people living in tents and without land, Mr Mohaqiq claimed that there were no more than 10,000. Aizatullah Ahmadzai, the head of the Independent General Directorate of Nomads at the ministry of tribal affairs in Kabul, put the actual number at between four million and five million.

"Each year, they are giving new reasons and bringing new problems to prevent the Kuchis going to Behsud," he said, dismissing the allegations of Taliban involvement as "propaganda". As far as the nomads themselves are concerned, they are the real victims in all of this. They claim two or three of their own people were killed in the dispute, complain they are regularly prevented from entering land that is rightfully theirs and continued to be deprived of access to basic facilities including schools and medical clinics.

Haj Abdul Qadir Kuchi, an MP, had a folder full of old, fading paperwork that he said proved "more than half of Behsud" belongs to Kuchis. "If today the Hazaras are saying the Kuchis cannot come to Hazarajat, then tomorrow they will say they cannot come to Kabul." @Email:csands@thenational.ae