Rethinking planning through Kabuli lenses

Yesterday a bomb went off near where I work in Kabul. For security reasons, I need to be vague on the details of my relationship to events here; that is one reason I have not posted in the last two months. However one colleague’s reaction to the bombing made me think about something we should all consider.

“It was probably a magnet bomb,” he speculated. We may not find out, because security forces here also withhold details about attacks; details that might inform terrorists in ways they find useful. So this reflection is not about the attack, but about the discourse in Kabul and what it reveals about life, insurgency, and class politics. “Someone sees a big car, with black plates. Stuck in traffic, They know the car belongs to someone important because of the government plates. So they stick a bomb to the rear bumper, and…” he gestured with his hands to show an explosion.

I know about those cars. Land Rover SUVs, or Lincoln Navigators or some other grotesque equivalent. Tinted windows. Pointedly aggressive driving. Never yield for pedestrians or smaller cars. This, in a country where my management-level government colleagues have not been paid in five months. This, in a country where malnutrition is obvious in all sorts of ways. It has gotten colder in Kabul. So once again, I smelled that nasty pungency of burning plastic. In a house nearby, someone has gathered up plastic trash and is burning it in their house, probably to keep their children warm. Balancing whatever longer-term respiratory health hazards come from inhaling plastic-smoke against the more immediate and tangible dangers of hypothermia.

So in a city like this, where the inequalities are flaunted so bluntly, who needs an organized Islamist insurgency to provoke violence? The violence is already here, in a continuous way: it is the rich attacking the poor, depriving them of both dignity and the means to keep their children safe.

Kabul is one of the best teachers I have ever had. It explains the nature of the modern, 21st-century world with a raw clarity that is concealed and buffered in North American cities. Yes, this is modernity. Yes, this is the 21st century; indeed conditions of Kabul are the direct byproduct of late 20th-century Cold War geopolitics. You can’t find a more Global City than Kabul. So it is worth taking a close look at what it reveals.

One thing it reveals is an unpleasant re-think about urban planning ethics. For those of you who are not planners: our profession took a strong social-justice turn in the 1960s. We mark it with the publication of Paul Davidoff’s “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning,” published in 1965. One of the most cherished awards in our American Collegiate Schools of Planning association is the Davidoff Award, in his honor. So planners may still be technocratic nerds in some ways, but we are deeply invested in the idea of social justice. And for those of us who read Davidoff alongside Machiavelli, there is the added logic that when planners are seen as doing good, they add credibility to the regime. It promotes stability, along with promotion of “heath, safety, morals, and the general welfare,” as our legal record affirms.

As a planner, I am more consciously pro-system and pro-government than the vast majority of Americans. But unconsciously, maybe my fellow citizens are propping up aspects of the American regime that are deeply toxic: we are letting the rich get away with harming us in some deeply profound ways. We let them write laws that profit them, and block laws that would protect the rest of us from their predations. There is still not substantive legislation to protect us from the sub-prime lending/speculative hijinks that trashed the US economy starting in 2007. We need to think hard about our willingness to protect and apologize for our billionaires.

How does this tie to Kabul? The elites in those SUVs got their money from us. We set up this racket. As another Afghan colleague reflected, “When the U.S. said they were going to move on Afghanistan, the leaders of the United Islamic Front [we call them the “Northern Alliance”] were terrified that they would be arrested as war criminals for what they had done,” referring to the bloody civil war of the early 1990s that had only been suppressed by the arrival of the Taliban. “Instead, the Americans welcomed them with pallets of money.” Not briefcases. Freight pallets. Thus the Bush regime set up one of the most corrupt governments in the world—an official ranking of the Karzai regime by Transparency International some ten years ago. Ashraf Ghani—and thousands of ethical, dedicated Afghans under him—are trying to undo that damage, but habits have become ingrained. Commanders careening around Kabul with no regard for human life are a persistent, daily reminder to the rest of us that there are still thugs in high places here.

There is another connection, though, which makes this more relevant to an American context. We got involved in Afghanistan because of a criminal attack that was hyped up into being called an Act of War. By definition, that was a stretch, because al Qaeda was not a government and not even claiming to be one. It was in fact a movement led by a billionaire. So one way of interpreting 9/11 is that it was an attack on Americans by a very rich person, from a very rich family. The known facts are even weirder than speculations about other explanations. The woman who coordinated the flight of the bin Laden family out of Texas on the afternoon of September 11th was my student. She described what it was like to arrange the only civilian flight over the United States on that afternoon. The bin Laden family was protected from potential angry reprisals and perhaps embarrassing questions from a Senate committee. Billionaires were protected. Bush even shifted focus away from bin Laden towards the distraction of Iraq for the better part of a decade. Maybe I infer too much there; but there is no secret to the predominant guess—for a decade—that Osama was sheltering in Pakistan.

So here is the problem for a planner: since Davidoff and the ‘social justice turn’ in planning back in 1965, we have focused on helping the poor. Community planning, in the U.S., does not mean helping the whole community (as it does, I discovered, in Thailand). Community planning for American planners means helping the poor, the disadvantaged. Which is a charity model of social justice, and it only holds up if we accept the (rather patronizing) assumption that the rich mean well. That those with more feel an ethical need to help those who are less fortunate. This ethical position also does something less obvious: it shifts the planner’s attention away from looking too closely at the behavior of the rich. I was, for many years, concerned about the plight of minorities and underrepresented people in the U.S., and pointedly indifferent to the rich, who do not need the systemic help of planners. Since they can take care of themselves, I did not pay much attention to those who are much closer to my class-position (at least I have an education on a par with theirs) but above me. For planners as a whole, this has been a costly mistake.

From a systemic point of view, the financial crisis of 2007- was another attack upon Americans by the very rich. It did not have the spectacular drama of jets hitting buildings. But on a month-to-month basis of making millions of Americans wonder which bills they could pay, it did deeper systemic harm. And it was brutally violent in the way that only a family who were foreclosed out of their home can fully understand. And it was damaging enough to institutional systems that planners need to rethink our position in the 21st century very carefully.

Americans based at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul are not allowed out of the Embassy except under extraordinarily rare circumstances. They arrive at Kabul International Airport and are flown by helicopters (Blackhawks or Chinooks, flown in pairs) to the U.S. Embassy. The rotor-thump of those choppers wakes me up each morning. The American Embassy squats as a massive fortified complex in the middle of Kabul, blocking traffic and the commerce of a very vulnerable population who have to squeak around it and wait in congested traffic every day, because there are no alternative routes to the downtown adjacent to the Embassy complex. In unguarded moments, Afghan colleagues have dropped their usual graciousness towards me and intimated how much they resent the behavior of the Americans in Kabul. Rich people flying overhead. Not touching ground, not contributing to the city in any tangible way. Floating balloons with surveillance cameras, to catch high-resolution images of people and behaviors that they do not understand, because they have practically no interface with the actual urban population of the city.

It would be easy to flatten ‘those Americans’ into caricatures. But they went to the same schools I went to. These are my fellow countrymen. But they—we—are operating with a set of assumptions that I find increasingly untenable. What kind of system are we protecting? What promise do we hold out to Afghans? That they should become like us? What does that mean? A people who apologize for the misbehavior of billionaires?

Planners, almost by definition, are not revolutionaries. Since we are the system, we are perhaps constitutionally incapable of advocating the overthrow of the system. Furthermore, as pragmatists, we generally get the sense that idealistic government overthrows mostly kill the poor, no matter what the other outcomes are. So we are, at most, radical revisionists. Based on what I am seeing through lenses granted by Kabul, we as planners need to think about how to protect ourselves and human populations as a whole from the predations of the very rich. We often plan for ‘urban resilience’ as recovery from natural disasters. But how do we protect the cities we are responsible for from real-estate speculation and resultant gentrification? From the sumping of middle-class salaries by people who spend it on 400-foot yachts and personal jets? Paul Davidoff did not prepare us for this. We have a very different set of problems we need to tackle.

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