Planning Kabul: the politics of urbanization in Afghanistan
This Dissertation began with an invitation by the Society of Afghan Engineers to work in the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 2003. Primary research was conducted in 2007, while I was funded by the World Bank Institute to teach planning at the two leading universities in Kabul: Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic University. I am grateful to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for acting as my local fiduciary in Kabul, and for additional support from the Al-Falah Foundation, through the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2011 the dissertation was co-recipient of the Gill-Chin Lim Award, which is given by Global Planning Education Interest Group (GPEIG) of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP).
A comment on the politics of knowledge-production
The writing-style of this dissertation may seem surprisingly straightforward for post-colonial scholars. That is because the primary audience for this dissertation is Afghan policy-makers and practitioners. For most Afghans, English is their 4th or 5th language. Furthermore there was not a rich lexicon of planning-theory terminology in Dari or Pashto at the time this was written. The paradox of this dissertation, within US academic scholarship, is that I needed to draw on postcolonial/post-structural theory written in extremely elevated university-English dialect, but make the writing plain. Hopefully this may explain some of the peculiarities of the writing style.
A second paradox in the writing of this dissertation is that I struggled to get past the “exotifying screen” of American discourse about Afghanistan. Kabul is a great city with serious challenges, but these are not the challenges of an “Oriental other space.” They are challenges of repeated waves of warfare and political uncertainty; foreign occupation; water scarcity; and extensive poverty. In fact, these problematic features make Kabul a city more similar to most cities in the world, whereas American cities are extremely peculiar because of their low density, comprehensive infrastructure, political stability, and prolific consumption of resources. One of the great lessons I learned from Kabul is that Kabul is not exotic as a 21st-century city. Rather, it is American cities that are exotic.
However, this dissertation had to be reviewed and approved against English-language planning scholarship, in which the Chicago School and then the Los Angeles School have been presumed to stand in for explanatory models of all cities (in the world–a qualifier which is unspoken). So if Kabul can teach us more about the thousands of cities in the 21st-century than any North American city, but North American cities are presumed to be “normal” by English-speakers, then how to explain Kabul when writing in English? I am not sure that paradox has been successfully tackled in this text. But it is one of the most important problems in how to situate this research within urban scholarship more generally.
Furthermore, during the first decades of the 21st century, the English-speaking sphere (the Angloshpere) has been expanding rapidly. It now includes most of sub-Saharan Africa and grows rapidly across Asia. Thus, the potential audience for this research has been shifting geographically during the research and writing, and even more so since the dissertation was filed in 2011. I am even a participant in the expansion of English-language urban scholarship into China as I teach planning and urban design at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, P.R. China. So I am a direct witness and participant in the process of mutating the geography and character of the Anglosphere.
In 2015 I removed the PDF copy of the dissertation from this website, because I hoped to publish a version of the dissertation as a book. However, in the spring of 2017 two things became clear: (1) the dissertation has circulated among Afghans and scholars of Afghanistan, so “the horse is already out of the barn” as we Yankees say. (2) I have been asked to update the research, since it is 10 years old now. Therefore, I have re-posted the dissertation for your reference and research. However, I do ask one favor: please reference it, but please also send be criticisms of the research. When I first conducted the research, scholarship on urbanism in Afghanistan was sparse and scattered. I was also constrained by my limited understanding of Dari and illiteracy in Dari and Pashto. So I will be the first to say that the research is probably flawed in many ways. The only way to improve this line of scholarship is to build on works like this through what Michael Burwawoy calls “theory-extension”. Please email me your work, your comments, your critiques.