Land, the State, and War

By Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Ilia Murtazashvili

In Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel P. Huntington wrote, “When the conditions of land ownership are equitable and provide a viable living for the peasant, revolution is unlikely. Where they are inequitable and where the peasant lives in poverty and suffering, revolution is likely, if not inevitable, unless the government takes prompt measures to remedy these conditions.” Loosely speaking, Huntington’s hypotheses are that property security is a cause of political order, that government intervention in land relations improves property security, that the state is necessary for property security, and that conflict and violence is less likely when property is secure.

In this post, we evaluate these hypotheses in the literature on property, more generally, and through the context of property institutions in Afghanistan, more specifically. In contrast to most work on Afghanistan, which focuses on the current insurgency or donor efforts to build the Afghanistan state, our approach is rooted in the country’s historical experience.

Is property security a cause or consequence of political order?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, famously argued that land titling – registration of land through a formal, judicial process—is the most significant way to promote economic development. It is an idea that informs the push for land titling in conflict-affected states such as Afghanistan. But it is an argument that puts the ox before the cart.

The prescription of legal titling is flawed because creating a legal right requires both state capacity as well as constraints on that capacity that are often missing in many countries and that are often insufficient for certain groups where property is otherwise strong. Michelle D’Arcy and Marina Nistotskaya have shown that something as basic as the ability to conduct a cadastral survey of land ownership is often beyond the scope of many states. Another challenge is enforcing property rights. Accessible courts are important so that people can resolve disputes that inevitably arise over ownership.

There is a more fundamental challenge: what is to prevent government from taking away those rights once they are established? The paradox of effective governance is that a state which is strong enough to control private predation is simultaneously strong enough to engage in public predation. What is necessary for development is a government with capacity andconstraints. Underlying this is a view of what Mehrdad Vahabi calls the predatory state. Rather than presume that states are interested in providing public goods, predatory theory sees government driven by expropriation, unless it is subject to limits on its power.

Policymakers have often discussed land tenure reform as an important, yet unresolved, component to the current state-building project in Afghanistan, which began in 2001. Land tenure reform includes policies designed to address land-related uncertainty. Conversations in Afghanistan on land reform have considered legal titling as well as land redistribution.  Land titling refers to adjudication of customary, tribal, and informal ownership through a legal, judicial process. In Afghanistan, these reforms have not worked. The framework of capacity and constraints introduced above provides insight into why.

In terms of state capacity, Afghanistan offers little hope for robust legal rights. Afghanistan has never completed a cadastral survey; the coup by the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1978 cut short the last attempt that was started. Today, citizens perceive both the police and the courts among the most corrupt public bodies in the country.

Paradoxically, while analysts point to the lack of state capacity in Afghanistan, our analysis shows the absence of constraints on state authority has been the most daunting challenge. The government is hyper-centralized and faces few checks on its accountability to prevent predation. This created opportunities for massive corruption and deeply alienated people from the state. Thus, even in the handful of instances where the state provided land titling opportunities, few took advantage them, as this United States Institute of Peace report shows. To understand why, it is necessary to understand the state’s weak administrative capacity as well as its limited political constraints.

Does government intervention in land relations improve property security?

The conventional view in economics and political science is that improvements in state capacity are associated with increases in economic development. The reason has to do with provision of public goods, such as infrastructure and investment in creating knowledge commons, given the importance of technology as an explanation for prosperity. Similarly, the state has long been considered necessary to improve the quality of governance. Mancur Olson famously described the state as a stationary bandit that, once in place, provides public goods in exchange for a tax.  This idea harkens back to the Lockean contractual perspective on the state, whereby the government provides public goods for a fee.

There is nothing inevitable about state consolidation giving rise to better outcomes, which we know from James Scott’s deep history of the state and state-building. According to Vincent Geloso and Alexander Salter, the state capacity argument ought to be reversed. Once wealth begins to accumulate, people begin to demand protection from the state. State capacity in this view is a consequence of wealth creation, not a cause.

Our research on the history of state building in Afghanistan emphasizes increases in state capacity do not necessarily translate into better economic outcomes. Abdur Rahman Khan ruled from 1880 to 1901, earning a reputation as the Iron Amir for his brutality, especially against the Hazara, a mostly Shia minority. The repercussions of his campaign continue to be felt today. What stands out about his rule, and what we compared, was the Afghan state from its formal founding in 1747 through 1880 to the changes that occurred during the reign of the Iron Amir, which by most standards represented an improvement in state capacity. What we find in Afghanistan is that bourgeoning trading routes and limited establishment of rights to use land for private purposes occurred when the state was highly decentralized, even fragmented; and that the rise of the ruler conventionally thought of as Afghanistan’s first stationary bandit was the source of property insecurity for many. It also led to a violent halt to trade. Abdur Rahman even banned railroads in the country.

Abdur Rahman dismantled constraints on his authority and waged a war against customary institutions that undermined the social foundation of opposition to despotism. Capacity increased without constraints from 1880 to 1901, undermining progress in economic institutions that occurred during the prior century and a half.

Is government necessary for property security?

Anarchy exists in the absence of an organization that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.  Although it is often associated with disorder, in much of the property literature we find that anarchy works quite well. The research on the frontier of the United States illustrates why. Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill showed in their The Not So Wild, Wild West that individuals often cooperate in property relations when the government is unable or unwilling to enforce rules. It was not just trust and a handshake, or what economists call relational contracting, that gave rise to social order in the American West. On the frontier, people established their own governments, which were called claim clubs or claim associations. These frontier governments emerged within the state, often challenging it.

These insights into the frontier of the United States are part of what motivated our consideration of property order in Afghanistan. Our intuition was that Afghans probably are better able at resolving land conflicts than it might seem. But we underestimated just how common private ownership was, and how much trust and confidence people place in customary governance. We designed a nationally representative survey, asking questions about land ownership. Over 9 in 10 households in rural areas had customary deeds to their land. These deeds specify who owns land and are respected widely within communities. Land disputes are resolved by customary organizations: by a shura or jirga (deliberative councils), or by petitioning a malik (village representative). Despite billons spent on state building, citizens view customary organizations as the most trusted source of governance in the country. Anarchy worked better than we thought.

These findings have significant policy implications. We found state-building projects that worked best are based on what we call community-based land adjudication and registration (CBLAR). These CBLAR initiatives begin with communities their needs, with international organizations coming in to provide support to communities. The entire framework views customary organizations as the most significant source of governance. These initiatives do not necessarily involve government. Rather, programs that supported community members to document their ownership and property relations were among the most effective forms of assistance.

These institutions also extend to water management. Mirabs—or water masters—are another example. These are customary positions whereby members of communities provide a payment (which may be in-kind) in exchange for the mirab maintaining local irrigation systems.

Figure 1: An example of an irrigation system rehabilitated with support from the World Bank On-Farm Water Management Project implemented in five provinces in Afghanistan. The institutional framework of governance recognizes customary governance and local authority over water management.

Customary governance is not a panacea. Most communities are small – only a few hundred people. As such, they may lack resources, and are often vulnerable to predation by state officials or local strongmen. Still, in a situation of imperfect alternatives, community-based adjudication often is more effective than state implementation of land reform.

As Peter T. Leeson and Colin Harris explain, wealth-destroying private property rights are a possibility. This occurs when the government is able to capture rents during the land titling process. For this reason, one of our conclusions in Afghanistan is that the absence of land reform, rather than reform through the existing centralized and corrupt state-led processes, may be a superior alternative. Rather, grassroots reforms that do not require a government, such as through the CBLAR initiatives discussed above, may be a most feasible solution.

Is property insecurity a cause of war?  

Much of the land and peacebuilding literature shows how land reform improves prospects for political order. The idea is sensible in the abstract: redistributive economic opportunities are often equitable and may even be efficient in the presence of market failures, such as land oligopolies.

But it is also clear that land redistribution by governments can be a source of violence conflict. The current ongoing conflict in Afghanistan was triggered by a land redistribution campaign: far from a solution, land redistribution caused violence.

Afghanistan’s main communist party, the PDPA had two main factions: Khalq and Parcham. The Khalqis were dedicated to radical change; the Parchamis were gradualists. The Khalqis purged the Parchamis from the PDPA upon seizing power in a coup in 1978. Among their first decrees was large-scale land redistribution.

Figure 2: Mujahideen fighters in Kunar Province, Afghanistan in 1987.

The property rights renaissance

Our work on Afghanistan is part of a growing body of research on property and development. One theme is the central role of property in political conflict. Catherine Boone’s Property and Political Order in Africa provides shows how land tenure regimes are inextricably linked with politics. Abbey Steele’s Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War shows how elections systematically result in land-related displacement. Kathleen Klaus’ Political Violence in Kenya clarifies that when land tenure institutions are weak, elites and citizens coordinate the use of violence around land expropriation.

Recent research recognizes disparities in property protection amidst reforms that contribute to economic growth. Michael Albertus’ recent book, Property without Rights, argues that authoritarian governments who have the capacity to implement land reform will do so inequitably. Such reforms advantage ruling classes, while reducing economic growth and productivity for those excluded. This is also referred to as selective enforcement of property in the literature, a phenomenon documented in Mexicohistorically, in contemporary China, and in relations between the United States and American Indian nations. Even in countries where there is substantial progress in the definition and enforcement of rights, many groups are left out. Thus, a focus on economic growth and development alone– rather than on the disparities in property protection – is insufficient to understand property relations.

Another theme is land and welfare. Alisha Holland’s Forbearance as Redistribution shows how governments allow informality in order to secure electoral support. On the frontier of the United States, there were similar aspects of this, as squatters saw land as a benefit they were entitled to. Eventually, the US government came to see giving away an empire of land as its best option. In this regard, land can be thought of as welfare, which is how it is often used in China, where so-called flying land– land which is transferred, bought, and sold to provide government with revenue – is a key aspect of China’s public finance.

In short, there is a great deal of interesting work on property, and many more opportunities for comparisons across countries and regions to better understand the relationship between land, the state, and war.

Some of the material in this post draws on our book, Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan, which is forthcoming in with Cambridge University Press in July 2021 in the Cambridge Studies in Economics, Choice, and Society series.


  • Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili is Director of the Center for Governance and Markets and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on issues of self-governance, security, political economy, and public sector reform in the developing world. Murtazashvili is the author of Informal Order and the State in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press), which received the Best Book Award in Social Sciences by the Central Eurasian Studies Society and received honorable mention from the International Development Section of the International Studies Association. Her second book Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan (with Ilia Murtazashvili) is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. Murtazashvili has advised the United States Agency for International Development, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, World Bank, the US Department of Defense, the United Nations Development Program, and UNICEF. She served as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. She is the President-elect of the Central Eurasian Studies Society and an elected board member of the Section for International and Comparative Public Administration of the American Society of Public Administration, as well as a board member of CEDOS, a Kyiv-based think tank. She is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council as well as a member of PONARS Eurasia, a research organization focused on security issues in Eurasia.

  • Ilia Murtazashvili is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His research and teaching interests include political economy, property rights, self-governance, and natural resource governance. His current research focuses on the political foundations of effective private property rights, the consequences of the shale boom, the link between social institutions and forest governance, and the politics and economic significance of blockchain technology. He is the author of several books including The Political Economy of the American Frontier (Cambridge University Press) and The Political Economy of Fracking: Private Property, Polycentricity, and the Shale Revolution (Routledge). Another book, Land, the State, and War: Property Rights and Political Order in Afghanistan (with Jennifer Murtazashvili) is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. He has published articles in Public Choice, Journal of Institutional Economics, The Independent Review, Review of Austrian Economics, World Development, and Rationality & Society. He has twice received the Teacher of the Year award from GSPIA. Murtazashvili is currently a Campbell Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University researching property rights institutions on Native American lands.

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