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Rent claims flare around US bases

Imran Waak
As international forces wind down their combat role in Afghanistan, the closure of bases or their transfer to Afghan military control raises has sparked renewed claims by landowners who say they were never properly…
5.12.2013  |  Asadabad
Smaller US bases follow a similar pattern of construction around the country, like this one in Zabul Province: Hesco barrier walls, containers, tents, watchtowers, and no-go areas around the perimeter. (Photo: Nick Allen). Main photo: A farmer in Helmand surveys fire damage to his crops after ISAF shelling. (Photo: Allen) 
Smaller US bases follow a similar pattern of construction around the country, like this one in Zabul Province: Hesco barrier walls, containers, tents, watchtowers, and no-go areas around the perimeter. (Photo: Nick Allen). Main photo: A farmer in Helmand surveys fire damage to his crops after ISAF shelling. (Photo: Allen) 

Shaky and clutching a walking stick, Meya Gul, an elder from the Watapur district of Kunar Province, stands on his garbage-strewn field located close to a base occupied by US troops. Gathering empty plastic bottles and litter dumped here is as close to actually working his land as he came for a long time.

“It has been seven years since the foreign troops confiscated our land,” he tells a recent visitor. “In the past, we could easily live off it and harvest tens of tons of grain. Now we have to buy flour from the local bazaar." 

Now forced to work as a school watchman, Gul says he cannot adequately feed the nine members of his family without the 1.5 acres of land occupied by Combat Outpost (COP) Miracle-Honaker, located in this district centre ten kilometres northeast of the provincial capital Asadabad.

According to Gul, the base was expanded in 2010 to occupy some 20 acres of agricultural land. But affected landowners only received an initial compensation payment for one growing season of under 10,000 afghanis (then worth 220 US dollars), he claims.

In the line of fire 

Abdul Khaliq, another elder from Watapur, has also been trying in vain with fellow landowners to get paid for military use of his land. Some officials came from Kabul to investigate whether the disputed land was privately owned, but did little more than extort money from the farmers to cover their travel expenses, he says.

As well as hitting family budgets, Khaliq stresses that this military use of the land endangers the population since insurgents target the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at every opportunity. Two years ago, an insurgent mortar shell fired at a nearby base fell short and killed 21 people attending a wedding party, the elder said.

The claim could not be independently verified, although ISAF confirms that three Afghan civilians were killed and eight injured in a Taliban mortar attack on COP Honaker-Miracle in May 2011.

Three Afghan civilians were killed and eight injured after a failed Taliban attack on Combat Outpost Honaker Miracle, Kunar province todahree Afghan civilians were killed and eight injured after a failed Taliban attack on Combat Outpost Honaker Miracle, Kunar province today..

Meanwhile, landowners face further pressure from the Taliban, who assume that they have been lining their pockets with US dollars for the use of their land. 

“Our areas are now mostly under the Taliban's control," says Wahidullah, a resident of the Kanda Gul area, where a number of smaller bases were turned over to Afghan forces or simply abandoned. "Now the Taliban hold these land owners accountable for leasing their lands to foreign troops and torment these poor people, yet the American didn’t pay them.”

Weighty backing for claimants

Separating genuine grievances from opportunistic claims is always a challenge for arbitrators in Afghanistan. It is not uncommon for several people to turn up at arbitration efforts and all assert ownership of a disputed plot. But authorities in Kunar generally support the complaints that the foreign troops have largely avoided paying rents.

In the line of fire: COP Honaker-Miracle in Watapur is one of the bases locals claim existed rent-free for years while occupied by ISAF trooops. (Photo: US. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell)

Mia Hassan Adil, the chairman of Kunar’s provincial council, said US forces confiscated private land in several districts to build bases but did not pay rent: “I have talked about this to the foreign troops in Kunar many times, but these talks remained inconclusive.”

According to landowner Abdul Khaliq, ISAF has consistently referred the matter of unpaid leases to the Afghan Ministry of Defence, which then places the blame on ISAF.

Kunar Governor Shuja-ul-Mulk Jalala says foreign troops confiscated private lands – more than they needed - which have now mostly been turned over to the Afghan National Army (ANA). 

“The base in Narray District, for instance, is particularly worth mentioning,” he told Afghanistan Today. “Hundreds of acres of private lands were confiscated and had walls built around them, and now the ANA uses the base, which is bigger than they can manage.”

Jalala, a former adviser to President Hamid Karzai who was appointed Kunar governor in July, says he has been lobbying in Kabul on behalf of the landowners. He believes the Ministry of Defense must give people new lands, since now in many cases the land has been lumped together over the years and reapportioning it would trigger numerous ownership disputes.

Rafiullah Haideri, a member of the national Senate from Kunar, also pledged to fight for short-changed landowners. 

“After investigations are completed we will raise the issue of private land confiscated by the foreign troops and people will get compensation for the lease they have not received from them and the Afghan forces,” Haideri said.

Sides at an impasse

With senior figures weighing in to support the landowners, there may be hope of genuinely affected families winning some compensation. But this will likely have to come from the Afghan Defence Ministry rather than ISAF or the separately commanded US forces, which say the tenancy of 'parcels', or facilities, in Kunar has in most cases been formally regulated.

"The US has agreements in place with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for all but a few parcels in Kunar Province used by the US military," USFOR-A, or US forces in Afghanistan, commented in a written response to an inquiry about the land leasing system.

"In reference to Honaker-Miracle, USFOR-Afghanistan has submitted documentation through the Ministry of Defense Construction Property Management Department to the Afghan Land Authority for a determination of landownership," the response added. "Until that determination is made by ALA, no further action can be taken."

Compensation claims welcome, says ministry

An Afghan soldier mans a watch tower in Kunar's Korengal Valley in 2008. As the 2014 end to foreign combat operations nears, US forces are turning over bases to the Afghan military, and the accompanying leasing disputes with them. (Photo: Nick Allen)

Afghan authorities in Kabul say there will be no arbitrary occupation of people's land by the national forces. 

Any use of the land by the ANA will be compensated, said deputy ministry spokesman General Dawlad Waziry, advising landowners to take their cases to the ministry’s directorate of establishments.

“The Ministry of Defense has never confiscated people's land and would never do so," said Waziry. But the official could not comment on previous land use by ISAF.

Meanwhile, some locals in Kunar regard alleged non-payment by ISAF as indicative of the true reasons for foreign troops being in Afghanistan.

“Foreign troops have killed local people, tortured them, and even now confiscated their lands,” said tribal elder Hajji Dawa Khan. “These foreign forces have only come to invade the country. If it is not the case, why would they build bases in villages where local people live and confiscate people's private land and not pay for it?”

Some names of interviewees were changed for security reasons.