History not quite repeating itself

17 June 2007 / 27 Jauza 1386

I have not blogged in two weeks because I have been working on my dissertation prospectus and a draft of one of the chapters. That is good, and it helps me process information; but so do these pages. The paradox is that the more that is happening, the harder it is to find the time to create web pages. So I will try a little catch-up now.

Yesterday there was a bombing in Campani, which is outside of Kabul city in the western part of Kabul Province. Today there was a suicide bombing on a police bus just in front of the Police Headquarters. 35 people killed, 30 of them on the bus itself. Horrific. As I was taking a taxi to the Municipality Planning Office we got stuck in traffic and I saw ambulances rushing past, apparently toward the scene of the crime. It made me wonder what London was like in the 1970s, during the ‘troubles.’ Or is this more like Saigon in 1970? History never quite repeats itself…

In any case I had a great meeting with several engineers in the planning office. I actually got to have an in-depth conversation about the planning standards that have been in effect in Kabul for the last twenty-five years. The engineers would like new standards, but for me the problem is much more complicated. In fact, the Soviet-era standards they are using seem very reasonable: parcels are 12 x 25 m; neighborhood streets are 10-16 m wide; arterials are 40 m wide; and urban highways are 60 m wide. I would advocate narrower arterials (about 25-30 m wide) since 21-meter-wide San Francisco streets are capable of carrying tremendous amounts of traffic. But for the most part, the grid-plan approach looks very suitable for new urban development

But development standards are not the central issue. Such standards are fine for new cities built on open ground, or for city-extensions built on partially-open ground. But in Kabul the engineers in the Municipality want to demolish existing informal areas and rebuild them according to these development standards. This desire is articulated in almost exactly the same terms that were used by American urban-renewal advocates in the 1940s and 1950s. The Urban Renewal movement destroyed dozens of urban cores in the United States; a loss which was best articulated by Gans (1962) regarding Boston’s West End, and Mumford (1958) and Jacobs (1961) regarding parts of New York City. Americans over 50 vividly remember and regret this movement. When foreign planners and foreign-trained Afghan planners hear that engineers in the Municipality want to demolish informal settlements and replace them with modern urban areas, they roll their eyes and say ‘Oh no, don’t repeat that mistake.’

Four years ago “they” included “me.” I felt strongly that the Municipality was mistaken for wanting to destroy several thousand hectares of informal settlements. Now I don’t see this issue in the stark right/wrong way, for reasons which I will argue below.

Urban Renewal as Modernization

Let’s start back in the United States. The New Deal was the great developmental phase which turned the U.S. into a modern country. This era of massive investment in education, fundamental research, and physical infrastructure continued through Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. It included rural electrification, road paving and construction, dams, and a huge public-building program. Environmentalists may wince at the consequences of this program on the natural environment, but the social result was a massive increase in broad-based wealth, public health, and the ‘realization of the American dream’ in terms of life-choices and opportunities. Robert Reich calls the era from 1947 to 1973 the “Great Compression,” when the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. was greatly reduced. To this day, the period from 1932 to 1973 in the U.S. remains the standard against which people across the world measure “development.”

For other countries visualizing their own development, which parts of the American developmental process are required? Which parts can be omitted or avoided? How can some processes be improved or adapted to very different sociocultural contexts? In effect, how much of this history must be repeated in order to have some form of desirable development? A strong emphasis at Berkeley is to identify the parts which should NOT be repeated, such as the pollution and the wasteful consumption. Furthermore, we believe development should be culturally appropriate, and we also believe the globalized economy of the Third Millennium is quite different from the industrial economy of 50 years ago.

Et cetera. I agree with all that. But development does mean paving roads (so that airborne dust does not cause endemic asthma and pneumonia); generating reliable electricity (so that refrigerated foods and medicines do not spoil); and spending money on school buildings, school supplies, and schoolteacher salaries. Development processes may always be unique, but there is still something which we call the “developmental state phase” which seems necessary to get literacy rates above 40%, and life-expectancies above 50 years. These are two of the core measures of the Human Development Index advocated my Mahbub ul-Haq (1995) and Amartya Sen (1999), and used by the UN since 1990.

What does the developmental state look like? This question can be allegorical; but in Kabul it is often asked quite literally. For Afghans, a common answer is that ‘It has paved streets, not clouds of dust.’ A more detailed answer is that it has a full suite of urban services provided to all city residents: including sewerage and trash collection, and clinics, schools, playgrounds and mosques all within walking distance of housing. Sound familiar? Yes: it is very similar to the “urban village” ideal of the New Urbanists. It is an ideal of walkable cities, with a mixture of single-family housing, apartments, businesses, and retail areas all within walking distance, and yet with room for cars on the major traffic arterials. That is what the engineers in the Municipality are proposing: to replace the irregular, sewage-choked paths and mud-brick housing of the informal neighborhoods with a modern city, whose specs are very similar to what we are using in the U.S. right now. Better yet, they want to implement these modernized districts in small phases (40-60 hectares), destroying only several score of houses and resettling those residents in each phase. Americans may scoff cynically at this, but several phases of urban expansion in the 1970s in Kabul were remarkably successful in providing housing that was affordable to Afghans at the time. I’m not talking about the pitiful 1% of low-income housing that Americans produced from 1938 to 2005; more like 25% of the planned area of Kabul.

If the USSR were still backing the Afghan state, these modernization plans would make sense. But what about now? Americans howl at the Keso vs. City of New London controversy, and citizens’ movements across the U.S. are trying to pass legislation to prevent local and state governments from being able to expropriate land ‘for the public good,’ because most Americans do not believe the U.S. government can engage in any destructive-creative act “for the public good.” In that sense Afghanistan is a radically exotic country: here there is extraordinary respect for the idea that the government can and should act for the public good. If anything, that is what Afghans have been waiting for during these last 5 years: a government which actively develops the economy. As Tariq Ali (2006) pointed out, that is why the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and Ahmedinejad in Iran all have popular support: provision of public services like schools, clinics, and street-cleaning.

Our Western desire–my desire–to ‘save the informal settlements’ is very out-of-tune with many Afghans. They aspire to a clean new city, a modernity that they can be proud of. But my concern is relevant in one fundamental sense: the present Afghan government cannot afford to do even sequential replacement of informal settlements. In part this is because the promised billions in American “aid” is being paid mostly to American consultants. Sadly, I am part of this process with my World Bank contract. So there is some real ethical murkiness in my argument (and that of almost all foreign urban planners in Kabul) that Afghans should consider retaining and upgrading their informal settlements.

But it is also important that informal settlers have invested billions of dollars in the construction of the 60-70% of Kabul which is ‘out-of-plan,’ and the human investment of time and effort cannot even be calculated. All of this investment will be lost if the informal settlements are destroyed. Even the threat of destruction makes hundreds of thousands of Kabulis reluctant to invest further in the human and capital development of Kabul. The threat impairs the economic and social-network development of this city. Kabulis are keeping their options open. “Maybe next year, back to Iran or over to Dubai for work. Maybe India. Not worth putting down roots here yet.” How do you quantify the cost of a reluctance to commit to a place?

Urban Renewal as Remodernization

Stephen Graham (2003) and Derek Gregory (2004) talk about the “de-modernization” of cities in the global South that have been pawns in the conflicts of the global North. Kabul is a quintessential example of this: a city which had clean, tree-lined streets, electric buses, and a feeling of modernity in the 1970s. Yes, some savvy old-timers point out that this feeling was often illusory or only relevant to Kabul. But for so many Kabulis who fled in their youth and are returning or resuming work in their middle age, the loss of that modernity is cathected by association with a loss of a happy youth. Restoring Kabul represents nothing less than restoring their lost youth; the emotional power of this impulse cannot be overstated. Keeping the informal districts which have developed since the late 1970s means retaining a constant, continuous reminder of the loss of public rule-enforcement, the lose of government in the social sense, the loss of control to years of fear, chaos, and warfare. After deliberate reflection, most Afghans will tell me there is no going back. They know this intellectually, just as Americans know intellectually that Columbus did not discover America. Intellectual awareness does not override the power of normative myths. Americans still refer to those who deny scientific inquiry as ‘flat-earthers.’ Afghans still want their orderly city back.

Ways Forward

The major terrorist attack against the police in Kabul today will be a boon for the Industry of Fear. The insurgents just handed foreign ‘security consultants’ (a.k.a. mercenaries) another raft of $2,000/day contracts. Ten days of work by one mercenary equals the cost of equipping a twenty-station computer lab in the Polytechnic, which I don’t expect they will get. I keep asking; I keep getting flat refusals. My surgeon just told me this evening that the 400-bed army hospital got internet. Last month. That probably costs about $200 per month, or $2,000/month for a direct satellite connection. Mercenaries here earn that in one day, and as far as I have observed their main role is to offend Afghans and make this place more dangerous for the foreigners they protect. After all, that is good for business.

The perverse logic of money-flow here just about guarantees that “aid” will not go to modernizing this city in any substantial way. The main source of available cash seems to be drug traffickers. I think they are the major underwriters of construction financing here. But they are only likely to lend to revenue-generating properties, not houses. So yes, there is substantial large-scale commercial construction, but I think that sector is only indirectly linked to the housing sector, and even more weakly linked to the provision of public facilities. In other words, I don’t see any potential resources for the type of modernization which the Municipality aspires to. Notice how different that is from saying their ideas are ‘wrong-headed.’ If anything is wrong here, it is the promise of nation-building which the international community gave to Afghans. We foreigners should have been more honest in the first place.

From this angle, the thought of incremental upgrading seems like prescribing ibuprofen to someone with a major brain tumor. It is almost embarrassing. But it does seem like the only feasible way forward with the lack of resources being made available. Can the old planning standards be used as a metric for upgrading? Making sure that houses are within 500 meters of parks, kindergartens, schools, and mosques? Selectively widening streets to admit at least one car, for emergency access? Will commitment to intermediate measures reduce the chances of greater improvements later? Can we foresee those trade-offs now so that Afghan planners can make informed decisions about what they are willing to sacrifice in exchange for some acceptable process of urban modernization? I think the urban planning studio this fall will answer some of these questions.

Shelter from the storm

3 June 2007 / 13 Jauza 1386

I have been learning the transit system around Kabul. Taxis from the University to downtown, for a foreigner, can cost 120 AFS ($2.40). But if you catch a shared taxi or a minivan (Tunis), it costs only 10 AFS; bigger buses cost 5 AFS; and the National Bus Service costs 2 AFS (1 cent). Of course you need to know destinations in the city in Farsi, and exactly where they are in relation to where you want to go. So it took a while for me to learn the routes in a city with only about ten named streets and no address system.

Today I took the bus to Deh Mazang intersection, and I was going to walk the 3/4 km to the Aga Khan office. It started to rain just as I got off the bus, and then it started to hail. At first I was marveling at the puffs of dust as the hailstones hit the ground ahead of me, and then I realized the storm was intensifying. By that point I was walking next to a construction-supply area, and men were starting to scurry for the inside or underside of their trucks. Two guys motioned me to hop in their cab, which I thankfully did.

Soon the hail started coming down in golf-ball sized clots of slush, making a deafening thunder on the roof of the cab. We laughed and pressed our hands against the windshield, in the hopes of preventing the extension of an existing crack in the glass. The hail lasted for a full twenty minutes, and shifted to a downpour for another ten before is was sensible to venture outside.

My shelterers were Hafizullah and Aminullah, if I remember correctly (I will check later). They had been eating watermelon, so Aminullah had a big knife for cutting it. I found that distracting, and it added to the interest of the conversation. The following is a testament to my bad but functional Dari.

Shoma Musulman as’?

Ne, Isawi astum.

Ah. Az koja ‘s?

Shahre San Faransisco. Aale ustad dar Pohantun-e Kabul astum.

Amerikaie? Amerika kharob as.

Pause. I looked at the knife Aminullah was cleaning with his scarf.

Mardom-e Amerika khub as, ammo Bush kharob as. Daulat kharob as.

Bale, bara bisyar mardom-e Amerikoie Bush mishkel as.

Mmm. Aolad astin?

Bale, yak dokhtar wa yak pesar astum.

Khub as. Man arusi as, ammo aolad neistum. Hafizullah char bacha as.

Mubarak! Chandta bache mikhoayi?

Shash, haft. Inja farq as… Shoma tarbuz bukho!


The watermelon was excellent.

Portraits, and thoughts on oppression

25 May 2007 / 4 Jauza 1386
Note: I have interspersed portrait-photos of Afghans I have taken. In conformance with the principles of the Committee to Protect Human Subjects–to which I am bound as an American university researcher–I must say nothing about who they are personally. However I do not intend to imply that these are “pictures of the oppressed.” Rather, this essay is about all of us as human beings. I thought it would be appropriate to see some human beings as you read this.

This morning I was re-reading Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I realized that I am forming a very different opinion about how to deal with systems of oppression, based upon what I am experiencing in Kabul. I think planning and development work should focus much more on the oppressors as the agents of resistance to oppression.

From a Leftist perspective this seems logically contradictory, and threatens to draw energy and focus away from the oppressed. But the apparent contradiction rests on the assumption that there is no difference between structure (systems) and agency (individual choice and responsibility). It assumes that oppressors are always fully conscious of their actions and fully conscious of the consequences of those actions. Rarely if ever is this even possible.

An example will help: suppose a man buys a dress shirt at a brand-name store in San Francisco rather than commissioning a skilled local tailor to make it. Is that man deliberately, maliciously supporting brutal working conditions for women in Ciudad Juarez where they make that shirt? No. There is a whole system of production which is designed to sell him a fine-quality shirt at a price low enough for him to buy it, and high enough to ensure company profit. Does that system deliberately hide the conditions of the woman in Ciudad Juarez who made that shirt? Not exactly. At the point of sale the idea is to sell the shirt. Company resources are devoted to ‘the retail experience.’ And the man is looking for a shirt, not a briefing on the political economy of Maqiladoras.

Many other examples can be cited from daily life: the man leaves the store, goes and buys a cup of coffee, gets in his car and drives off. The consequences of each of these actions may be far-removed, and it is difficult to gauge how individual, iterative acts of consumption contribute to either collective or very individual disasters far away in space and time. Chains of production, trade, and consumption today are so complex and dispersed that the process of oppression–and understanding of the nature of responsibility–can be very hard to pin down in practice. I will call this system oppression through distance, in which case the most identifiable processes which support this form of oppression are what Ananya Roy calls the management of distance. Think of anti-immigration movements; re-segregation; the promotion of social phobias. The promotion of fear of travel to “dangerous” areas.

For the current design of our economic system this abstraction by distance may be necessary because too few humans would stomach the consequences of their actions if they could observe them directly. I think few people would be sufficiently cruel to knowingly humiliate and deprive others as we currently do through more indirect action. But it may be worth looking at more direct, intimate processes of oppression from the oppressor’s side to improve the material and emotional conditions under which both oppressors and oppressed live right now.

A manager verbally abuses an employee in front of his co-workers because a job they are both working on goes badly. A white woman in Berkeley, California visibly clutches her purse more tightly when she sees a black man. An elderly Muslim man gets singled out and interrogated at length because he fits a certain ‘profile.’ Both fear and shame play major roles in each of these events. Friere points out that this dehumanizes the oppressor and the oppressed.

Over the last few centuries Christians and Marxists have engaged myriad conditions of oppression, and usually focused on helping the oppressed. The impulse makes sense: it is easier to feel compassion for the oppressed. But as a policy thinker working in Kabul right now, I must say that it is pretty apparent from here that those who oppress usually have more power to transform existing conditions. Besides which, the oppressor is you and me, demonstrated by the fact that I can create this page and you can read it–even, perhaps especially, if you are an Afghan.

There is a recursive problem here. Since oppressors are often motivated by fear and shame, perhaps exactly the same motives deter us from looking at ourselves. Far better to focus on charity for the needy. We know it helps, but it leaves existing conditions of oppression intact. Perhaps the man with the new shirt and the cup of coffee is driving to a community center where he volunteers in a literacy program, giving something far more valuable than money: his own skilled time. Does that change the conditions of inequality and oppression? Probably not, or only extremely slowly.

But a different line of questions may get at how to actually change conditions of oppression. Is that man working against his own dehumanization? Is he asserting his humanity? Perhaps he is driving to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and he is a sponsor who has to ask his client some very hard questions which he himself struggles with every day. Perhaps, in another place, the man is an American military commander who decides to go ahead with an investigation of troops under his own command, knowing that this will cost him his career. He asserts his honor; he asserts his fearlessness; he asserts his humanity.

Both systems and individuals can create oppression or dismantle it. The logic, ethics, and spatio-temporality of systems and individuals are very different, but neither can be ignored when challenging oppression. For those who have the power to oppress, and the capacity to transform systems that cause oppression, the fulcrum-questions may be fairly simple:

What quality of life do we want to enjoy?

If we really want to enjoy our lives, don’t we want to prevail over our own fear and shame? Don’t we want our humanity? That is what we have the power to claim.

ChahrRah-ye Deh Afghanan

21 May 2007 / 31 Saur 1386

The intersection at Deh Afghanan is one of the striking landmarks in the city. I photographed it from a pedestrian bridge last year. On this day I wanted to get up close to the intersection between the new, glass-clad commercial building, the older one-storey shop-fronts, and the clay-brick housing stepping up the hill.

Two modernities Scarf-seller

I call the photo on the left “Two modernities.” Obviously the glass building on the right is modern, but what is less obvious is that the clay-brick houses are too, and in fact they are a better reflection of the uncertainty, ephemerality, and deprivation that come with modernity for those we don’t want to see.

Bulani-seller 4

The boy in the left photo is selling bulani, which is fried dough with either potatoes or green onions in it.

Kabul Polytechnic: First Visit

19 May 2007 / 29 Saur 1386

Debra Frey of GIAI is a friend of Ustad Homa, one of the Architecture professors at Kabul Polytechnic University. When Debra relayed to Homa that the Kansas State team and was considering revising the curriculum at Kabul University, she asked if anyone was willing to come help the Architecture Department at Kabul Polytechnic revise their curriculum as well. I said I was willing, and pleased to have an invitation to the Polytechnic because I did not quite know how to approach this other university.
KPU Cafeteria


Kabul University had been established by Nadir Shah in 1932, and in the 1960s it began to receive assistance from various American universities. Therefore in the 1970s, when the Soviets began to play a much larger role in Afghanistan, they helped build Kabul Polytechnic University (KPU), which operates more on the Soviet model.

2 3
The mural on the gymnasium at the end of the (currently dry) axial fountain at KPU. The book in the middle has a Pashto phrase written across it which translates roughly as ‘knowledge is light.’


There are several paths from the main axis northward to the main classroom buildings. One path is covered by trees, which shades the walk. It is lovely.

Main classroom building, KPU main classroom building facade, KPU

The main classroom building, as you can see, is high modernist style. This is the west elevation; therefore it has both vertical and horizontal sunshades forming a decorative grille pattern. On the left side you can see that the north elevation is all glass.

KPU corridor KPU corridor

The corridors face an interior courtyard, and all but the west-facing corridors are flooded with daylight. The effect is fantastic, but appallingly cold in winter.

2 brise-soleils

The west-facing corridors are shaded by brise-soleils, which reflect indirect light. If Wurster Hall had been build like this, I would not have been such an opponent of Modernist architecture. Here I can see the intentions realized.

top of stairwell Stairwell
Stairwell stairwell

The stairwells are fabulous. I have no idea about the seismic strength of this glass-and-concrete wonder, but even with years of neglected maintenance it is a delightful place to be. Needless to say, Ustad Homa and her boss, Abdul Haq Wardak, talked me into giving weekly lectures here on urban policy as a volunteer. Rather than the 12 students I have at Kabul University, here I lecture to about fifty.

Qala-e No Burj: HQ of Turquoise Mountain

18 May 2007 / 28 Saur 1386

“Qala” means ‘walled compound;’ “no burj” means ‘nine towers.’ I have visited the headquarters of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF) several times. But on this particular evening, the light on the partially-ruined complex was remarkable.

sky above Qala-e No Burj

Of the nine towers, only one remains intact. One of the ruined towers is visible on the right, clearly built using pakhsa construction. In this technique, courses of adobe are laid down in 60-cm deep layers; allowed to dry, and then the next course is added.


The massive, white-washed wall with high windows reminds me of the Potala in Lhasa. The one intact tower is visible on the left.


The light behind the qala was exquisite.

6 4
In the photo on the left, the wall was re-topped with adobe, leaving the streak-pattern over the older whitewash. On the right, the ruined tower looks like something out of Mordor.


A girl was also watching the sunset, and then she saw me (another foreigner at TMF) taking pictures. She was amused that I photographed her as well.

A day in the life

17 May 2007 / 27 Saur 1386

I have just learned enough Dari to ask politely if I can take a picture of someone that might be sensitive.


Due respect and admiration goes to the Afghans who have lost a limb, and need to navigate the streets. It is one reason why I am unequivocally in favor of applying accessibility design guidelines here in Kabul. I think the accessibility guidelines are the most important design innovation that Americans have ever made.

Wheeler with sign

As the gentleman wheeled off, I saw something I had never seen before: he had an advertisement mounted on the back of his wheelchair. I assume he gets some income from this. I was stunned by the audacity of the idea; neoliberals want to make everyone into “entrepreneurs.” Here, rather than the state developing the capacity to help the disabled, the disabled get some revenue from being turned–literally–into part of the expanding advertising market. Systemically, I have a problem with this. But on a human rights level, I guess it is objectionable if it hurts the dignity of the gentleman in the wheelchair.

Inspection mirror

Sorry for the oversize picture, but this one depends a lot upon the composition. It is just a normal thing, like the still-life photo of a shovel laid up against the wall. But it is a truck-mirror and flashlight welded to a stick so that you can inspect the underside of cars for explosives. I like the texture against the rough-plastered wall.

Tired cart driver

Part of my challenge is to show how Kabul in so many ways is modern and ‘normal’ in your reference frame while still being different in some ways. Most of the traffic is cars. But some people still use horse- and donkey-drawn carts.

some fries with your human rights?

I was having a quick lunch with my students when I noticed the wrapping-paper for the french fries. Many foreign publications are funded by international donors and are therefore not only free, but also printed on good-quality paper. I don’t mean to be sarcastic, because human rights are very important to Afghans, as you will find on other pages I write. But just that the environment is a little weird when this is the available wrapping paper.

However, with the following sound clip, I am being sarcastic. This is one minute of a popular show on Tolo TV. Enjoy!

A little reality-check

16 May 2007 / 26 Saur 1386

Imagine life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, who ruled Kabul and most of the country from September 1996 to October 2001.

Okay, now let me contest that vision. Yesterday I met a fellow who is specialized in information technology. We chatted for a bit, and he said that he had worked in IT support in the offices of the Municipality during the Taliban. That’s right: dealing with Microsoft Windows, and networks, and whatnot to keep the city government computers working.

What was life like in Kabul under the Taliban? Well, the economy was very bad, and they passed a number of “stupid” (I quote) laws by decree, but it was stable.
Let me put that in context. The US-supported mujahideen pushed out the Soviets in 1989, but the communist government persisted in Kabul until 1992. When the mujahideen took Kabul in 1992, there was a brief period of government under Sighbatullah Mojaddedi, and then the civil war started. This was a war between mujahideen factions, and it took place in Kabul. Before that, there had not been military combat in Kabul itself. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the city between 1992 and 1994, as hundreds of thousands fled. Since the factions were no longer fighting atheist communists but rather other Muslims, it was no longer appropriate to call them mujahideen; from that point forward they were just commanders. Law and order broke down between 1992 and 1994, and remained collapsed until the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. As the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan point out, women became effectively housebound under the commanders, because women who were out alone at midday were seized and raped daily in Kabul.

So the Taliban were welcomed into town like the Magnificent Seven. They were very heavy-handed, and their forms of public discipline were similar to what the Romans, French, and British used to maintain law and order (Public executions make quite an impression). The Taliban required that women be accompanied by a male relative outside the house. Grossly sexist, yes; but also a way of engaging the populace in assisting with policing, because they could not protect the honor of every woman everywhere in Kabul. And honor and public morality were very important to the Taliban. In that sense, I think The Kite Runner and the film “Osama” misrepresent the Taliban.

The arrival of the Coalition Forces, the Northern Alliance, and Karzai into Afghanistan have brought a lot of money. Although it is very unevenly distributed, the economy has generally improved in Kabul since 2001. But we cannot evaluate a new regime only by getting the urban population above starvation-level. There is a question of legitimacy. Has rule of law improved in Kabul since 2001? Rapes are on the rise again. Prostitution–including the trafficking of Chinese prostitutes into Kabul–has become a major new phenomenon, as has AIDS. And now that land is valuable, land seizures are a serious problem in Kabul and in the provinces.

We need to remember that the Taliban were pro-business. They were initially backed by the Afghan trucker’s guild, who were tired of losing an unpredictable amount of their cargo to ‘taxes’ at scores of checkpoints across Afghanistan in the early 1990s. As Ahmed Rashid points out in Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad and Unocal even began negotiations with the Taliban for a pipeline that would bring gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
Government revenue was a chronic problem for the Taliban. The Soviets has scorched the countryside, the commanders had traumatized the capital, and a drought had set in. It seems that bin Laden was able to buy the Taliban state by replacing scandalous opium-revenue with donations from himself and other hard-line Gulf Arabs. Unfortunately for the Taliban, bin Laden had a broader agenda that brought the Americans down on their heads.

At Bonn in December 2001, the US legitimized the commanders and most of the spots at the negotiation table were given to them. But now that you know this bit of history outlined above, did the US just let the foxes back into the coop? Furthermore, how do we understand the transition from the Taliban to the Karzai government? Perhaps the official-name transition is more accurate: from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Not night and day.
Did the US have to reinstate the commanders? The apologist reply has been: Who else could run this devastated country? Implicit in that rehetorical question is the assumption that the Taliban (and now Karzai) are the whole state. That is why I began with that little anecdote about the IT specialist. There was an administrative apparatus in Kabul and the provinces. That continues to be the apparatus which runs the day-to-day business of the government. The presentation of the Taliban period as some surreal suspension of all government justifies the reinstatement of a thin layer of very corrupt leadership at the top of the state. The US did this at Bonn in December 2001.

Other bits and pieces of information challenge the prevailing Western view. Refugees started returning to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, because the Taliban had finally reestablished stability and security, even if they did not manage economic recovery. Afghans who had fled to the West also began to return and reclaim the houses they had abandoned in the 1980s and early 1990s. And apparently there was land-grabbing and certainly plenty of land-occupation of abandoned houses. So disputes and reclamation of property began under the Taliban, and only accelerated under Karzai. The implication of a ‘break with the past’ in 2001 has nothing to do with the reality on the ground in Kabul.

Khak Bad: the “dust wind”

15 May 2007 / 25 Saur 1386

Generally the wind blows from the north here. But starting in May, the wind sometimes blows from the west. It is one thing for strong wind to pick up all the dust in the streets of Kabul. It is quite another to have the city enveloped in a 2,000-foot-high rolling cloud of fine dust.

I cannot convey the sinus headache you get when this happens. But at least this sequence of images will give some impression.

What it normally looks like…

Khak bad arrives
You know it is coming when the sunlight changes color.

Khak bad abates
It arrives suddenly, but it abates slowly as the fines settle down.

post khak bad
Afterwards you can still see the squall-line of the wind-storm moving off.

I got caught outside in such a storm last year without a scarf. I had a hacking cough for the next three weeks which progressed into pneumonia. Many Afghans have tuberculosis, and I feared I had contracted that. I found out later that I am unlikely to suddenly contract TB, because I am not malnourished. The difference in access to a balanced diet alone means I am living in a different world than many of the Kabulis around me.

Sultan’s Qala, Shomali Plain

12 May 2007 / 22 Saur 1386

Hill of roses

I was invited on a picnic to Sultan’s qala just north of Kabul. Here, Sultan is growing roses which he hopes that Kabulis will buy, rather than the plastic flowers which are the current fashion.

Sultan with roses

Sultan, maestro of roses.

qala in distance

Next to Sultan’s land is a qala which was built in 1941. The interior is now in ruins.

Qala entry

One of the brothers who owns the qala let us in to see it.

Qala tower

This method of construction is called pakhsa. Adobe (gil) is laid in courses about 60 cm high, allowed to stabilize, and then additional courses are added. The foundation-stones are dry-laid, to prevent ground-moisture from wicking up into the adobe and rotting it. Flat capstones protect the pakhsa from rain, as does a re-coating every two to ten years.