The Role of Property Rights in Counterinsurgency

by Joshua Foust on 12/5/2008 · 5 comments

This is an area that I am not well versed in, but I’ve finished one book on the topic and begun another, and I am now convinced this matters tremendously. The first is Registering the Human Terrains: A Valuation of Cadastre, by a National Geospatial Intelligence Agency political geographer. It focuses mainly on the role that solidifying property rights—in this case by mapping out plots of land using cadastres—that is, assigning and making legally permanent the rights to own certain plots of land. More importantly, Doug Batson, the author, has a good grasp of how difficult such a program would be to implement in Afghanistan, though he has a few examples of where locals have expressed enthusiasm for pilot projects in Kabul.

The second book (that I couldn’t find online, though maybe FMSO has it available for order) is Property & Peace: Insurgency, Strategy and the Stature of Frauds by Geoff Demarest. I’ve just started it, but Demarest’s thesis—which he has been discussing for about a decade, and is really thoroughly fleshed out as best I can tell—is that property rights is a vital and ignored component of warfighting and peacemaking. In particular, he argues that the formalization of ownership rights, especially over land, is a critical step in securing any lasting peace to conflict.

Taken together, these two books—one focusing on Central/South Asia, the other on Latin America—are starting, I think, to speak of universal importance of property rights, especially in a largely political war like a counterinsurgency. I need to do a lot more reading on this topic, but anecdotally it makes a lot of sense for Afghanistan in particular. I don’t know enough about other wars to say for certain, but I think this is an idea of growing importance.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Blazingsuth December 5, 2008 at 2:15 pm

This sounds like an interesting idea for Afghanistan, and one that is long overdue for a number of reasons. I noticed that one of the methods considered for establishing property rights was cadastre, how effective would that be for Afghans when so many are currently illiterate? Also, as Afghanistan still uses the Arabic script, written records of that nature would be incredibly difficult to computerize any time soon, making life even more complex for the hapless soldier trying to figure out how to interact with Afghans on their own terms (many of them do try).

Alex Strick van Linschoten December 6, 2008 at 12:55 am

Land Issues. Very important. In fact the sacking of Kandahar Governor Raufi was over land issues (and a stewing conflict between him and Ahmed Wali Karzai)…

Mirco December 6, 2008 at 6:32 am

The language is not a real problem.
In Puglia (Italy) until the 1500-1600 the last will and the properties were recorded in greek and not in latin (like the other parts of the Reign. Then the authorities ordered that any last will and document was wroten in latin or not accepted.
They converted very fast to the latin.

If the property rights will be supported and defended for the little and the paesant you could ask them to write the cadastre in English, and they will learn the written English Allah and the Talibans be damned.

Property rights trump religion any and all days; and as wrote Nicolò Machiavelli in “The Prince”, “People are more upset if you touch their purse than if you touch they daughters”.

An interesting study would be how Napoleon used property rights of the paesant to solidify his power.

Radha December 8, 2008 at 11:54 am

Great post. You may have seen the article written by Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria in late October that described ensuring secure land rights as one of the five most important things we can do to change our world. In rural areas especially, this is vital, because poverty is concentrated primarily in rural areas and because it has important ramifications for the global food crisis. In rural China, for example, where 800 million rural farmers live, land is routinely grabbed by the government for China’s ever-expanding urban development. The result is thousands of violent protests each year in the countryside.

You have hit on a key issue: land provides people with security. Financial security, emotional security, food security,etc.

Thanks for posting this important topic.

Alex December 8, 2008 at 1:18 pm


Not to harp on the Maoism analogy too much because it has numerous obvious limitations, but land reform was/is central to the development of many modern economic and political institutions and movements–including various ‘revolutionary’ movements of liberal and Marxist (and perhaps theological?) varieties.

As I suggested in our previous correspondence, one similarity between the Taliban and Maoist insurgencies is their rural base. Land reform was/is often at the top of the agenda for Maoist revolutionary movements.

Land reform is an essential ‘bridge’ between pre-modern or feudal/imperial forms of economic and political organization and modern forms such as the nation-state and national/international markets.

I certainly do not know enough about Afghan political economy or Islamic property law to make the analogy explicit, but is it possible that the absence of successful land reform in Afghanistan has inhibited the development of property rights as well as the formation of a ‘national economy/market’ and the necessary politico-administrative unit (i.e. the State) to oversee it?

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