Only sign of huge US base is pile of rubbish and broken vehicles – and a festering land dispute in a volatile province
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 eastern Kunar province this year, local officials and their 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 the morning, locals found guards gone, buildings blown up and, scattered around what had been a forbidding military encampment, piles of detritus from years of western living in a remote, mountainous 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 US 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 here, there is anger because the base was built on a muddle of small plots shared out among 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 is 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, the district governor, 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 some of 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 told the Guardian by phone from his heavily guarded offices in Naray. “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. “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.”
Afghanistan’s landscape is littered with rusting Soviet tanks and other military junk, a constant reminder of the Soviets’ troubled decade in the country, but since 2001, foreign forces have gone to great lengths to leave no trace.
To abandon even non-military equipment is unusual and perhaps a sign of the challenges facing Naray, which lies at Kunar’s northern tip. Poor and isolated, it is a place where insurgents can slip easily across the border from Pakistan or down from lawless Nuristan province, where an insurgent vice-and-virtue police holds sway in some villages.
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 International Security Assistance Force declined to comment on the situation at either base. “As a matter of policy, Isaf does not publicly discuss information pertaining to potential or pending claims,” said spokesman Charlie Stadtlander.