On Monday, the Center for the Study of American Democracy hosted Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an award-winning author and professor, to give a presentation titled “Property Rights and the Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Murtazashvili is the author of Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan, which won the Best Book Award in Social Sciences from the Central Eurasian Studies Society; Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan and several other books. She is a professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets. In 2022, Prospect Magazine named her one of the world’s top thinkers.
Murtazashvili’s talk was centered around the issue of property rights in Afghanistan, one of the main causes of conflict for the country. According to Murtazashvili, citizens often turn to corruption, informality and power to establish order due to the lack of defined ownership over land in Afghanistan. Rather than suggesting that land disputes can be fixed by free markets and economic prosperity — a conclusion drawn by many other analysts — Murtazashvili explained these disputes are instead a consequence of an Afghan State that cannot define and enforce property rights.
Murtazashvili claimed that throughout the world, clearly defined property rights are dependent on a common set of factors. Among these, Murtazashvili listed, are security from outside threats, administrative capacity, inclusive institutions for decision making and constraints on political power. Many of these necessities are resources that Afghanistan lacks, causing citizens to take property matters into their own hands. Murtazashvili concluded that whoever has the power gets the land in this primarily agrarian society.
Later in the presentation, Murtazashvili explained that centralization of power in the Afghan government has been one of the main causes of property disputes. Before the government was centralized, communities in Afghanistan were able to create systems that civilly allocated common resources. These communities established branches of leadership such as village councils, village representatives and religious leaders, which cooperated and resolved issues independently. Then, when governments with different ideologies took power, they wanted to centralize Afghan society. Murtazashvili said these governments did not take the communities seriously, rendering them incapable of governing themselves.
This process led to the confiscation and collectivization of land, interfering with the systems that local communities had previously established. However, these national governments did not have the capacity to enforce the new property laws, which has led to the collapse seen today. Murtazashvili concluded that this centralization and collectivization was a primary cause for land disputes within communities that had never experienced issues prior.
To end her talk, Murtazashvili discussed the failure of United States and NATO intervention in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. She evaluated the U.S.’s role in misallocating funds to Afghanistan, as well as their minimal success in defeating the terrorist organization. Murtazashvili further described the results that ensued in Afghanistan after the government collapsed in 2021, which coincided with the U.S. withdrawal of military troops. Murtazashvili asserted that the oppression that occurs today is a result of the Taliban taking control, claiming the Taliban is “drunk on its own power.”
“By 2021, Afghans who fought valiantly…for decades, for freedom, for things that they believed in dearly, felt they have nothing to fight for anymore…They fought courageously for a future they believed in,” Murtazashvili said at the end of her speech. She explained how today, the Taliban is making the same mistake of collectivizing land and centralizing power at the expense of communities. If the Taliban remains in power, she warned that Afghanistan may likely “fall into another vicious cycle of bloody conflict.”