Former nomad Gul Mohammad has not taken to a settled life.
“I live in a jail now,” the 45-year-old said, gazing out despondently at a livestock market from a breeze-block shed that doubles as a rough tea house.
With 11 children, his tiny house feels crammed and the large herd of sheep that once allowed him to eat meat regularly are a fading memory.
Mohammad is a Kuchi, one of about 4 million Afghans whose tribes over centuries pursued a migratory, but often highly lucrative, life, herding caravans of sheep, goats and camels around the country, from warmer lowlands in winter to mountain pastures in summer.
Their black tents, colorful clothes and flocks sometimes hundreds of animals strong have become a classic symbol of Afghanistan. They also make a critical contribution to the country’s economy and lifestyle, producing most of the raw materials for its much loved kebabs and famous carpets.
Yet the nomadic way of life has been rudely interrupted by war. Three decades of conflict have spared few in Afghanistan from upheaval, but Kuchis have been particularly vulnerable. They cannot claim protection from local commanders when the country fragments, because they move between areas.
“Each area fell under the control of one commander, who was king there,” said Talib, who like many Afghans uses only one name and works at a major Kabul livestock market.
“Commanders in each area did not care about night or day; they sent soldiers to seize our sheep or cows,” he said, adding that he gave up his tent 10 years ago.
Hundreds of thousands have now settled down, or are petitioning the government for land so they can join a more mainstream way of life. A handful of people, such as Ashraf Ghani, a former presidential candidate, have become powerful businessmen and politicians.
Nearly 1 million others have partly settled, moving for the main change of the seasons, but fixed enough to have some access to schools and medical attention. Many in the government would like to see the remaining million or so who are still entirely nomadic shift to a settled life, because of concerns about widespread exclusion and poverty.
“The life of Kuchis and other Afghans is as different as sky and earth,” said Ezatullah Ahmadzai, former head of the government’s Kuchi independent general directorate.
Yet the Kuchi tradition is appropriate for Afghanistan’s fragile and difficult terrain. Harsh deserts and soaring mountains are threaded with narrow green valleys of cultivated land. Outside the river valleys, thin soil and limited water mean most areas cannot support a large number of grazing animals for more than a few days or weeks.
“With the type of semi-arid and very arid environment you find in Afghanistan, it is nearly impossible to raise livestock in one location because you will damage the vegetation. After a few years it can’t support them any more,” said Mike Jacobs, a rangeland ecologist at Texas A&M university who has been working with Afghanistan’s nomads since 2006.
The Kuchi lifestyle, developed over hundreds of years, is an ideal adaptation to these conditions, allowing the country to raise tens of thousands of sheep a year, but limiting grazing in any single area.
A year-long survey of six of the country’s main livestock markets by Jacobs’ Pastoral Engagement, Adaptation and Capacity Enhancement (PEACE) program showed that more than two-thirds of animals sold in Afghanistan are raised by nomads.