by Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She recently completed The Political Economy of Customary Governance: Informal Order and State Building in Rural Afghanistan (under review), and is finalizing Land, the State, and War (with Ilia Murtazashvili), on how conflict over property rights has shaped the trajectory of the Afghan state. She also co-authored “Community Documentation of Land Tenure and its Contribution to State-building in Afghanistan” in Land and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding with J.D. Stansfield, M. Y. Safar and Akram Salam, and provides an update in this guest posting.
Conflict over land is one of the most important, yet poorly understood, drivers of instability in rural Afghanistan. The Taliban, for example, has been active in trying to establish its credibility and authority as reliable mediators of land conflict as it competes with the Karzai government for legitimacy.
The solution offered by the international community to the problem of tenure insecurity is the promotion of formal, state-backed legal titles. The chapter I authored with J.David Stanfield, Yasin Safar, and Akram Salam, “Community Documentation of Land Tenure and Its Contribution to State-Building in Afghanistan,” suggests that customary forms of land titles may be more effective in promoting the legitimacy of the state than by simply issuing formal government deeds.
The state has very little credibility with most Afghans as it is largely viewed as a source of corruption rather than governance. This is not to say that Afghans do not want government. On the contrary, many Afghans are in demand of government but want to have little to do with formal state authority as it is currently exercised.
Thus, current efforts to promote property rights by promoting an extension of state authority in Afghanistan are not viewed by many Afghans as a viable solution. Instead, by making them more dependent upon a corrupt state, property rights based on state-issued legal titles may threaten, rather than enhance, tenure security in Afghanistan. This is largely due to the fact that many Afghans, especially those in rural areas, rely primarily upon customary mechanisms for the mediation of land disputes. Furthermore, as Doug Batson suggests in his chapter in the volume, formal land titles often fail to adequately account for forms of customary land tenure.
One of the reasons efforts to extend state authority in rural Afghanistan have struggled, is because state-builders (both in the international community and some in the Afghan government) view the relationship between customary authority and the state in zero-sum terms.
While some analysts of Afghanistan have argued that that customary governance has withered away, my own fieldwork has shown that such structures remain quite strong but have changed over time to adapt to new circumstances in the country. Due to war and displacement, customary structures are actually more representative and democratic than they had been in the past.