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Slow and steady in Kabul

Years of violent conflict and a history of controversial planning in Kabul have stifled urban development in the city.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus
12 March 2013

When Afghanistan was embroiled in civil war in the 1990s, Kabul was hit the hardest. With three major military forces fighting for political control, a never-ending volley of bullets and mortars devastated the city. When US led coalition forces subsequently invaded Afghanistan in 2002, Kabul was little more than a pile of rubble. Much could have been done at the time to plan for its future reconstruction, but such efforts were ignored and for several years the city has slowly crept back to life. Arguably the greatest advances in the reconstruction of Kabul began in 2006, but only became visible in 2008.

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Buildings scarred by war, 2011. Mitchell Sipus.

When I arrived in Kabul in the summer of 2011, I was surprised to see the lack of reconstruction progress in the city. There is no sewer system, no underground utilities, a failing power infrastructure, while the roads had more craters than the moon. With only two primary routes for traffic, it can easily take an hour to cross from one side of the city to the other, a distance of perhaps 10 kilometers. Not to mention that the traffic flow is incredibly erratic, making automobiles rather than acts of war, the greatest danger to living in Kabul.

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Residential Street 2012. Mitchell Sipus.

As an urban planner, I was surprised that so little planning and renovation had been done for a city that was once nearly empty. Furthermore, Afghanistan has acquired a wealth of international funding and resources, alongside returning diasporic Afghanis, so why so little progress? The more time I spent in Kabul, and the more I worked with various organizations, it became easier to understand why so little had changed. There is no easy, single answer to the current situation, but rather a list of issues that dominate Kabul’s post-war reconstruction.

Kabul's urban planning history

When you review the urban planning history of Kabul, it becomes quickly apparent a trend quickly emerges in which the city has been obsessed with the use of Master Plans since the 1920s. During that time, King Amanullah sought to rapidly modernize and westernize Kabul. His efforts led to the expansion of the city, new architecture, and a railway but his attempts to change the culture of the people, such as insisting upon lifting ones hat rather than saying salam aleikum, led to rebellion and he was later forced into exile in 1929. Later rulers continued efforts to modernize the city, but at a slower pace to distance themselves from Amanullah. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union held great influence upon the planning and design of Kabul, with specified land use for industry, green space, and blocks of multi-family housing that were very unpopular at the time.

Today the city is designing a new master plan. The effort is commendable, but typically, detailed master plans are unfit for conflict and post-conflict environments. They can potentially cause more damage than good. Furthermore, the lines of power between government ministries and municipal government often overlap, causing much infighting among officials. In the meanwhile, political corruption and egotism has undermined the greater development of the city. The refusal to accommodate illegal housing settlements has resulted in vast swathes of occupied land without proper infrastructure. Furthermore, as the resident is continually at risk of being forced out of their home, there is little investment in property.

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Informal Settlement on Mountainside, 2012 Mitchell Sipus.

In the last two years, however some new efforts have yielded great benefits. USAID and the World Bank have funded large-scale road repair and paving initiatives throughout Kabul. Along each road, drainage ditches have been dug to provide some degree of sanitation. At a few major intersections, traffic lights have been installed and traffic police are common throughout the city. Furthermore, the mayor, Mohummad Yunis Nawandish, has led an initiative to plant trees in the city to improve air quality and reduce the presence of dust.

The recent efforts are promising, but while much work remains, new challenges continue to arise. With the withdrawal of the bulk of US forces on the horizon in 2014, many of the massive buildings that were constructed for international agencies are now empty. A myriad of half-finished structures dot the landscape as less and less money flows into the city. Many of the Afghans who developed new skills for high paying jobs in NGOs are now looking for jobs and employers everywhere are reducing salaries.

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The gardens behind Darulaman palace, 2012. Mitchell Sipus.

It is unlikely that anything will dramatically change in Kabul in the next five years. If the city is to again become a point of violent conflict, it will be a slow process and take much time to occur. Many parts of the city will fall back into decrepitude as the recent gains in infrastructure are already overburdened. The economy will need to restructure, causing much strife in the short-term, but hopefully will find footing. Many are putting faith into natural resource extraction for the economic hope of Afghanistan, and thus Kabul will be a major hub to support the international trade of minerals. Of course reliance on natural resources can and will cause new problems.

All we know today is that Kabul is a resilient city. It has experienced terrible atrocities yet continues to grow. But what is resilience without agility? The transformation necessary requires speed, and that quality tends to be lacking. The international community has dedicated its best resources but the outcomes have been disproportionate. Perhaps, however, the strength of Kabul is its ability to lumber forward, always at the same dependable pace, regardless of the challenges. In an unstable region, it would seem that nothing could substitute such fortitude.

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