Forced ethnic displacement in Afghanistan: Talibanisation or a continuation of social engineering?
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban usurped power in Afghanistan.
This violent seizure of power was followed by the creation of a non-inclusive – both ethnically and gender-wise – government.
Now, it has been over a year since the establishment of the Taliban’s ‘Islamic Emirate’ but, to date, no country has recognised it as the legitimate government of the country.
But for the people of Afghanistan, the legitimacy, and exclusivity of the Taliban's government is not the primary concern. Rather, there are dozens of illegal matters that the Taliban exercise daily to suppress non-Pashtun ethnic groups.
"The Taliban are not only facilitating settlements of Pashtuns and their supporters from within Afghanistan but they are also helping Pashtuns from the other side of the Durand line – from Pakistan – to usurp lands of other ethnic groups in the country"
One of the major concerns is the intensification of land grabbing and forced displacement of non-Pashtun ethnic groups from their ancestral lands, replaced by the Pashtun tribes sympathetic to the Taliban.
Forceful land grabbing and forced displacement is not a novel phenomenon in Afghanistan. This brutal strategy dates back to Afghanistan’s Pashtun monarchy as part of their nation-building effort.
For centuries, the Pashtun Kings grabbed lands of non-Pashtun ethnic groups forcefully and redistributed them among their loyalists – mainly Pashtuns.
Until 1885, the Pashtun tribes from eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan were relocated to northern and central parts of the country as punishment, but King Amir Abd Ur Rahman started relocating Pashtun tribes from the south and southeast parts of Afghanistan to the north, northeast, west, and central parts of the country for political and economic purposes.
The political objectives behind these forced displacement policies were to dilute the populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras through the 'Pashtunization' of the north, west and centre of Afghanistan. Pashtun rulers wanted to effectively control those parts of the country through their loyalists which, due to its many marginalized non-Pashtun populations, were at odds with the central government. And the economic motive was to benefit the Pashtun settlers through the provision of fertile lands in the north and central parts of the country.
In 1922, King Amanullah Khan institutionalized the policy by issuing ‘The Settlers to Qataghan Act’. The policy of forced displacement remains intact from 1885 until the end of the monarchy in 1973.
As a consequence of this biased policy, the Pashtun population rose significantly into the lands of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in northern, western, and central parts of the country, where many of the residents of latter ethnicities were forced to leave their lands and migrate into the neighbouring countries.
It can be argued the same policies continued during Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani's rule under the guise of repatriation and returnee policies funded by the international community.
Afghanistan Land Authority (ARAZI) was identifying land to be distributed to ‘returnees’ mostly from Pakistan. But this was not as intense as it was before.
"By June 2022, the United Nations estimated that the number of internally displaced [in Afghanistan] had grown to more than 820,000"
The Taliban – a Pashtun militant group – has once again intensified settling the Pashtun population in non-Pashtun lands of the country.
Amnesty International in one of its reports revealed that “within weeks of the Taliban taking power, non-Pashtun began being forcibly evicted from their homes and farms so that the Taliban could reward their followers with land taken from other groups, particularly Hazaras, Turkmen, and Uzbeks. These forced evictions were reported across the country, including in Balkh, Helmand, Daikundi, Kandahar, and Uruzgan provinces, contributing to already huge numbers of internally displaced people.”
Halim Hussaini – a Hazara resident of the Gizab district of Uruzgan – is one of the victims of forced evictions. He narrated the distressful event in an exclusive interview with The New Arab.
“After the Taliban rose to power, we were informed by the local government that we had to surrender all our lands and properties to the Taliban within a week as they now belong to the Islamic Emirate," he revealed. "A week later, the Taliban forces came to our district, attacked people's homes, and beat every man, woman, and child. We tried to stop them but to no avail. Finally, we all were kicked out of our homes.”
Halim’s family are not the only one to leave their home. Hundreds of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara families met the same fate. These unfortunate displaced families lived terrible life for they were left with no shelter to spend during the approaching harsh winter.
“Along with thirty to forty other displaced families, we took refuge in a mountain with dozens of children, women, and elderly people accompanying us. We stayed in the mountains for more than three months, without food or water. For several nights, our children slept hungrily. After three months, some of our relatives called us and offered our family a place to live in Kabul,” Halim added.
Though Halim's family was rescued by their relatives those without any external help continue to suffer.
The Taliban are not only facilitating settlements of Pashtuns and their supporters from within Afghanistan but they are also helping Pashtuns from the other side of the Durand line – from Pakistan – to usurp lands of other ethnic groups in the country.
For instance, Taliban authorities are helping Pashtun nomads from North Waziristan of Pakistan to grab the lands of sedentary people in the Takhar province.
Besides facilitating Pakistani nomads, the Taliban has also helped nomads from south and eastern Afghanistan to settle in Takhar, a northern province.
Shogufa, a Tajik, is one of the victims of nomads’ land usurpation. She is a widow with three daughters and a toddler son. This unfortunate family of five had a house in Lala Zar Village of district Khwaja Bahauddin, Takhar, which was snatched by the Pashtun nomads with help of the Taliban.
“Three months ago, Kuchis (nomads) with the Taliban came and directed the villagers to leave the village within a week," she tells The New Arab. "After a week, the Kuchis came back with a letter from the Taliban authorities. In the letter, the Taliban once again directed the villagers to evacuate the entire village. And after another week, the Kuchis along with the Taliban came and tortured the villagers. After witnessing the torture, I left my house as I was not having any male guardian to protect my children.”
Shogufa left her home and shifted to Rustaq – Takhar's Capital – to her relatives' house. But many villagers and other residents of Takhar province are still struggling against this illegal settlement of nomads in their native lands.
By June 2022, the United Nations estimated that the number of internally displaced had grown to more than 820,000.
The apparent purpose of these forced evictions may be to dilute armed resistance against the Taliban and have an absolute Pashtun government in the northern regions and other non-Pashtun areas.
Moreover, this forced displacement will also help the Taliban to pursue the Pashtunization policy of the state with little or no resistance in the future.
Afghanistan is a country of minorities. Though not all Pashtuns agree with the Taliban policies, the Taliban are an absolutist Pashtun group, and they have taken a dangerous step by resuming the forced eviction of non-Pashtun and uprooting their communities.
Other ethnicities that make up more than 60% of the country's population have a bitter memory of forced displacements.
The fresh wave of forced evictions by the Taliban for side-lining 60% of Afghanistan's population will surely draw an intense reaction from non-Pashtun groups. And any such reaction will prove detrimental to Afghanistan's territorial integrity and indeed to peaceful coexistence between the diverse communities.
Natiq Malikzada is a freelance journalist and holds a master’s degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern Affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @natiqmalikzada