Afghanistan villagers angered at US troop departures

US forces accused of behaviour that risks turning remote communities against the Kabul government and into supporters of the Taliban

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 7:04am


US forces left behind piles of equipment, an unpaid rent bill and a festering land dispute that threatens to undermine the Afghan government when they moved out of a volatile corner of Kunar province, officials and former landlords say.

The only clue that a base that dominated Pashengar village for years had been abandoned for good was the midnight rumble of a convoy of trucks in September. In the morning, locals found guards gone, buildings blown up and, scattered around what had been a forbidding military encampment, piles of remnants from years of western living in a remote, mountain valley.

Rows of air-conditioning units stuck out of a damaged wall, a giant, dilapidated generator was marooned near shipping containers and twisted, dented vehicles remained. But there was no sign of a cheque for a landlord who said years of rent, running to hundreds of thousands of dollars, was owing to him.

"They stayed six years and only paid rent for one year," said Haji Najibullah Khan, who grew up in the Pashengar house that became a United States military base. He said the departing US commander warned him off pushing for rent money when they met a few weeks before the soldiers drove away in the night.

A few kilometres down the road, in the centre of Naray district, the US departure was neater, with a joint base handed over to full Afghan army control. But even there anger remains because the base was built on a muddle of small plots shared by 90 families from the area.

They are also claiming that years of back rent is owed by the Americans and are worried they may never see their land again now Afghan government troops are firmly entrenched. The simmering dispute threatens to undermine loyalty to troops ostensibly sent to protect the area.

Gul Rahman, the district governor, has attempted to mediate but with little success. "I met the Afghan National Army (ANA) with the elders. Now the army are staying, the people are very angry and asking for the payments they are owed, but no one is listening to them."

Land is one of the most sensitive issues in Afghanistan. During 30 years of war, many legal documents have been destroyed, landowners and their families have been killed or become refugees, and people have settled on to land to which they have no legal claim.

Haji Usman, headmaster of the Naray boys' high school and owner of about two hectares of land that is now part of the base, led a delegation to Kabul that lobbied successfully for an official investigation and recognition of the villagers' claim to the land. The army was ignoring that finding at its own risk, he said.

"The people are very angry that the ANA are not leaving," Usman said. "I don't think most people who have had their land taken would be willing to join the Taliban; this is a village under government control. But there are maybe a few, who live in more remote houses, who will join if this issue is not resolved."

Rahman said security problems had kept him from visiting Pashengar, but he had been looking into Khan's situation and believed a sale of the military detritus could help pay the rent.

"I didn't visit the house but I asked some people about it, so I know that some containers, vehicles and generators were left behind. Some were destroyed but some were OK," he said by phone from his offices. "This equipment left by the Americans could make up perhaps half the rent of Haji Najibullah, or at least a quarter."

But Khan said it was mostly worthless in an area of subsistence farmers.

He said: "I can't sell any of the equipment because it is not stuff that people in the district use. I just leave it in my yard, because it's quite worthless to me."

A spokesman for the Afghan army would not comment on the situation in Naray, and the Kunar provincial governor, Fazlullah Wahedi, said he had not heard about the land disputes there.

The Nato-led force declined to comment on the situation. "As a matter of policy, [Nato] does not publicly discuss information pertaining to potential or pending claims," spokesman Charlie Stadtlander said.