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Counting down to economic collapse in the Afghan capital

It was a Monday in November, the second day of Eid al-Adha 2011, and the streets of Kabul were free of their usual knot of honking vehicles. In Taimani, a residential district of tree-lined avenues and walled courtyards in the center of town, groups of young boys ran down the road in sandals, calling happily to one another. Older men in pale, starched robes stood in pairs, murmuring salutations as friends passed by. A boy on a bicycle carried a stack of flatbread wrapped in a black-and-white scarf; the aroma of the baker’s oven lingered in the air after he rode by.

“This area is interesting because it was never poor,” Jolyon Leslie said to me as we left one of Taimani’s main roads and headed toward a hill called Kolola Pushta. Leslie, a slight, ruddy-cheeked South African architect with a widow’s peak of closely trimmed white hair, first came to Afghanistan in 1989 with the United Nations; he has been working here ever since. “I’m absolutely staggered how things have changed,” he said, gesturing at the half-built homes around us. “Almost every compound is having, or has had, construction done.”

Climbing the dirt road up Kolola Pushta, we looked out at the capital, a dusty lattice of densely packed flat-roofed houses interspersed with pine trees and high-rise buildings. Kabul is enclosed by the lower ridges of the Hindu Kush mountain range; most of the city lies at nearly 6,000 feet. The weather had been cool and clear recently, but now the usual mixture of dust and smog was settling over the city, drawing a brown film across the distant, snowy peaks of the Safi Mountains.

Across from us was a hill of similar height crowned with a large mud-brick fort built by the British in the 1840s, during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Below the fort, on the steepest part of the hill, there was a cluster of traditional single-story houses. “This could be a photograph from the 1920s if you just look at the lower frame of it,” said Leslie. He pointed toward the glass-faced office buildings behind the hill. “Then behind you’ve got the benefits of what is actually, to give credit to the engagement in Afghanistan, a degree of prosperity.”

Since 2001, Kabul has been transformed from a ghost town ruined by civil war into a busy metropolis. While there hasn’t been a proper census since 1979, the city’s population is estimated to have grown from about 2 million to more than 4 million in the past ten years. Refugees returned from abroad and rural migrants fled violence in the countryside, cramming the narrow river valley, all seeking a share of the development and military funds being spent disproportionately in the capital. While rural Afghanistan still suffers from appalling levels of poverty (nearly one third of the children in the south of the country are acutely malnourished), the urban centers — not only Kabul but also Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif — have become boomtowns. Newcomers crowd into slum housing hoping to find a foothold in the wartime economy. This influx has pushed up prices for labor, for consumer goods, and most of all for land. Houses in central Kabul sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars — in a country where per capita income averages $528 a year.

I asked Leslie how the city looked different from when he arrived in 1989.

“What’s changed, spatially, is that people have gone up, because the land is so valuable,” he said. “And there’s no planning control.” The slums have crept higher and higher on the ridges; the newest houses cling to the cliffsides. Some 70 percent of the city’s population lives in unplanned and illegal construction. Many Kabul residents give protection payments to their community leaders, to the police, and to the city government to keep their homes from being torn down.

Leslie pointed out the areas seized by Kabul’s major power brokers after the fall of the Taliban, when U.S.-backed warlords and their militias came streaming into the city. Many of the developments in these areas had been sold and resold multiple times, making it difficult for the original owners to reclaim their property. “The biggest change, I think, is one of ostentation,” said Leslie, pointing at a cluster of bulbous wedding-cake houses. “Now the people who are powerful have to physically embody that power and wealth in glass and concrete.”

Squatting and land-grabbing are not the only ills of contemporary Kabul. Hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks inch along the city’s narrow streets each day, all burning leaded fuel. The smoke from burning scrap tires, wood, coal, and plastic garbage fills the air.

The city also faces a water crisis; the water table is both contaminated and dropping. Neighbors race against one another, boring deeper and deeper wells. The only place in the city with an underground sewer system is Microrayon, a neighborhood the Soviets built in the 1960s and ’70s. The rest sends its sewage into open gutters or poorly built septic tanks that further pollute the groundwater.

The aid boom of the past decade has fueled wild and haphazard growth without providing the infrastructure needed for it to last. In 2010, total aid spending was $15.7 billion — equivalent in size to the entire Afghan GDP. A decade of easy money has made Afghanistan one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world. The Afghan government doesn’t come close to having a balanced budget: during the 2010 fiscal year, public spending was $9.4 billion, against just $1.65 billion in revenues. Two thirds of the government’s payroll is covered by international donors. When the money stops — and so far the United States and the international community have made commitments only through 2015 — a severe recession will almost certainly follow. Wealthy Afghans will flee the country, and middle-class urbanites, who have made decent salaries working for NGOs and businesses tied to the aid community, will be stuck in a country with few economic prospects.

A recent World Bank report found that even in the most optimistic scenarios — if big mining projects come online and political stability is maintained — per capita GDP will decline and then flatline for a decade.

Leslie and I walked around to the north side of the hill. The sounds of the city drifted up: the cries of roosters, the hum of distant cargo planes, the sharp reports of construction, the buzzing of military helicopters. Leslie and I looked out toward Taimani and Qala-e Fatullah. The two neighborhoods are popular with foreigners. In 2006, rioters filled their streets in response to a fatal collision between a U.S. military truck and several civilian cars, and mobs looted houses owned by expats. With the youth unemployment rate estimated to be 40 percent, an ever-worsening environmental crisis, and a housing bubble growing larger every day, it seemed likely that Kabul was bound for more unrest.

“What comes to mind is the night of the long knives, where Alexander Burnes was pulled from his house and had his throat slit,” Leslie said, recalling an incident in 1841 when the population of Kabul rose up against the British occupiers. A single survivor escaped to India. “The first thing the Afghan elite are going to do is deflect disaffection toward foreigners. It’s going to be very scary for a lot of people.”

Rasool Mohibzada greeted me at the door of his house in southern Kabul with a proud grin. “Now I have a permanent address,” he said as we entered the courtyard. He pointed out the double-paned windows; the large bedrooms for his parents, his siblings, his wife and child; the still uncarpeted basement where he planned to host family gatherings. Here was a space they could grow into. “When my brother gets married, he will build another story on top for his family,” said Mohibzada.

Mohibzada is thirty-one years old, with a reserve that might be mistaken for diffidence. He has a slender frame and is a careful dresser: when we first met in Kabul, he was coming from his job at the British Council — a government-funded cultural organization — wearing a modest but neatly tailored gray suit and a maroon tie. Today, he was wearing a gray shalwar kameez.

“It’s a very big thing that you have your own house,” Mohibzada said as we sat down in his living room. “You will have respect among people and your relatives.” He and his family had moved in five days earlier, ending a nomadic period that had begun during the civil war. Twenty years ago, they fled Kabul for Pakistan after Mohibzada’s father was badly injured by a rocket. Mohibzada, as the eldest son, had to provide for his family, first in Peshawar, Pakistan, and then in the ruins of Taliban-ruled Kabul. When money was tight and they hadn’t eaten in a while, Mohibzada’s mother would go around in the evening in a burka and ask the neighbors for stale bread, which the family would soak in water and eat. “We thought that life would always be like that, and so we killed our dreams,” Mohibzada told me.

Through luck and effort — and the deus ex machina of international aid — Mohibzada had secured a well-paying job as a computer technician with the British Council and managed to climb into the middle class. With his monthly salary of $1,400, and with $25,000 in loans from friends and relatives, he was able to save up $95,000 to buy the property and $60,000 to build the house. Now he was worried about paying back his creditors. The British Council job might not last — Mohibzada and his co-workers had a bad scare in 2011 when the office was attacked and burned by a team of suicide bombers, though the program has continued in a different location. The salaries of his mother and wife, both of whom earn $120 per month as schoolteachers, were reminders of the economic realities in Afghanistan before the foreigners came.

Mohibzada, like most Afghans in Kabul, is well aware that America and its allies are growing weary of their long, expensive engagement. The grand plans made in 2001 for a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan have not come to fruition, and there is little hope that the United States and NATO can accomplish in the next few years what they have failed to do in the preceding decade. For Afghans like Mohibzada, 2014, the deadline for the transition to Afghan control of security, is a date to dread; the internationals, they fear, are all that shields them from the warlords and plutocrats, and from the poverty and daily violence suffered by their fellow Afghans in the countryside.

Mohibzada’s four-year-old daughter ran into the living room and whispered that some guests had arrived. “Go on, child,” he told her, smiling. “I’m coming.”

He turned back to me. “Thirty years back, my parents hoped that one day the situation would get better. But it didn’t.” He shook his head, then glanced toward the door where his daughter had walked out. “I will always be dreaming that my child, Negah, will go to school, then go to college, then one day she will get her certificates and get a job and get married according to her own choice. But this is our dream — whether it’s coming true or not, God knows it.”

Above people like Mohibzada in Kabul’s economic hierarchy is a small group of rich, foreign-educated Afghans paid internationally competitive salaries; above them, at the very top, are the businessmen, contractors, and warlords who have made millions off the torrent of money flowing into the country. They drive through the rutted streets in caravans of armored cars and build colossal, gaudy palaces. They’ve stashed most of their gains abroad: mind-boggling quantities of U.S. currency are exported from the country in hand-couriered packets and on shrink-wrapped pallets. Afghanistan’s central bank estimated that $4.6 billion in cash left the country legally through Kabul International Airport in 2011 alone. There’s no way of knowing exactly how much more has left the country by other means — Kabul’s airport is the only place where it’s counted — but the total must be in the tens of billions of dollars. Much of this money goes to Dubai, where wealthy Afghans have invested heavily in the real estate market, or to Malaysia, Pakistan, Switzerland.

The elites — and everyone else — do spend a lot of money in one area of the domestic economy: at Kabul’s many lavish wedding halls. Recently I visited one known as the City Star, a vast complex that rises from the desert plain on the northern edge of the city. Guests there are greeted by a four-story-tall crescent moon surrounding an enormous star. When I arrived, I was led by armed, uniformed guards to a long room with high ceilings, lush carpets, and a wall of flatscreen TVs. I sat on an overstuffed leather couch, and an attendant brought me a cup of steaming green tea and bowls of raisins, almonds, and crisp Iranian pistachios crusted with flakes of salt.

The City Star’s proprietor, Hajji Mowla Payman, was seated at one end of the room behind a massive carved wooden desk. He wore a black linen blazer over cream-colored robes and was deep in conversation with a white-bearded man in a skullcap. A demure woman in a black head scarf stood on one side of the man, and his two middle-aged sons stood on the other. They were negotiating a wedding.

Weddings have always provided the family of the groom an opportunity to display its wealth. Since 2001, however, they’ve become caught up in the paroxysm of conspicuous consumption that has seized urban Afghans. The first wedding salons opened in the cities in the 1970s, but in the past decade they’ve mutated into something resembling amusement parks: cavernous halls marked by giant flashing billboards with names like Kabul Paris and Mumtaz Mahal — the ceremonial equivalent of poppy palaces. As both expectations and costs have risen, even middle-class families now spend tens of thousands of dollars on weddings. In 2011, a law restricting wedding costs was proposed in the Afghan parliament, but it didn’t pass. “It’s a competition, and in Kabul it’s gotten out of control,” Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan lawmaker who helped draft the bill, told me. “Poorer families have to borrow the money or sell property.”

Clasping hands with the groom’s father, Payman escorted him and his family to the door, then came over to greet me. During the Taliban period, Payman ran an import business in Kabul. After 2001, he switched to wedding halls. The City Star was his latest project, one of the largest such venues in Kabul. “People have come from thirty-three provinces to have weddings here,” he said. “And every night there’s been a wedding here, for the past two years.”

We walked outside, passed an enormous stone fountain lit up in multiple colors, and entered the heart of the complex. The City Star is in fact composed of six wedding halls of increasing size and grandeur, from the Moon Saloon on up to the International Hall. Payman led me through them in sequence, uttering commands over a walkie-talkie to a control-room technician who would turn on the banks of chandeliers overhead. Each of the halls was divided by a screen into male and female sections, with tables and a stage for the band on the men’s side. Most of the décor was flashy but cheap-looking, all mirrored-plastic inlays and polyester.

The International Hall occupied its own building separate from the other halls toward the back of the complex. Payman led me up a staircase to a small second-floor room where the bride and groom could prepare for their grand entrance. He opened a frosted-glass door, and we stepped out onto an elevated walkway. To our right stretched the 21,000-square-foot expanse of the hall. The walkway itself was done up in a sort of alpine motif, its concrete surface painted to resemble stone and dotted with fuzzy green artificial moss. To our left, below a mural of a sunny mountain scene, was a series of sculptures done in lumpy concrete, including a zaftig deer covered in heavy brown paint. The whole thing looked like a cross between the set of Fraggle Rock and a Rococo drawing room.

Payman and I descended the staircase to the main level slowly, like newlyweds. Near the bottom, he flipped a switch, and water began cascading underneath the stairs, illuminated by colored lights. “I designed all of this myself,” he said.

Here the sons and daughters of government ministers and drug barons alike had been married. With the live bands, floral arrangements, videographers, wedding dresses, security teams, and vehicle rentals, these top-tier ceremonies might cost the families arranging them $100,000 or more.

Payman led me down into a basement kitchen, which was steamy with activity. The City Star’s sixty-two food workers turned out thousands of dishes each evening. The complex has its own greenhouse for flowers, as well as several giant generators and wells that keep it supplied with electricity and water. It was strong evidence of the ingenuity of Afghan entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, little of the money spent here stays in the country for long. I asked Payman whether he bought anything locally. The flour for bread, the eggs?


The ornate mirrors and chandeliers?


The tablecloths and carpets?


The concrete and steel?


“Nothing comes from this country!” he said at last, his irritation evident. “If I could build a factory, I would.”

Finding products made in Afghanistan — even something as simple as a traditional robe — is nearly impossible. In the narrow old streets of Kabul’s Mandawi bazaar, merchants sit in front of one-room shops beside piles of foreign-made goods. “I used to import one container of wool a week from Taiwan or Korea,” a sixty-two-year-old shopkeeper named Said Qudus told me. “The factories in Kabul and Istaliff would make socks, scarves, and blankets.” Now he sells imported sewing supplies.

Afghanistan’s economy has always been largely agrarian, but by the 1980s there was a bustling industrial sector along Jalalabad–Kabul Road, on the eastern edge of the city. Today most of the factories there are closed. In 2005, USAID spent $6.6 million to build the Juma Mohammad Mohammadi Industrial Park in Bagrami, a neighborhood in southeast Kabul. Eight years later, the most notable occupant of the park is a factory that prints leaflets for NATO. There are also a couple of smaller places churning out stuff like toilet paper and cleaning products, but they are far outnumbered by businesses that used up their initial grant money and folded, leaving behind empty lots.

I met up with Amanullah Omidwar, an Afghan entrepreneur, who offered to show me around a factory — one of the largest in Kabul — owned by his brother, Nusrullah Rahmati. Omidwar, whose name means “hopeful” in Dari, wore a pair of square, tinted glasses and spoke in a cigarette-roughened voice. His own factory, which had made army belts, had recently shut down for lack of international contracts.

We pulled up to a large three-story building and entered the main hallway, where an array of photographs showed Rahmati meeting foreign generals and diplomats. The company got its start in 2002 producing upscale, hand-embroidered women’s clothing for Western markets, but Rahmati soon got a contract to produce bulk orders of clothing for the Afghan military and police, paid for by the U.S. and NATO. Most of the development spending in Afghanistan is concentrated in the security sector: of the nearly $88.5 billion the United States spent on “reconstruction” in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2012, almost 65 percent went to security and counternarcotics initiatives.

Despite the shift in their product line, Rahmati’s company had remained faithful to its original mandate of hiring Afghan women. Omidwar and I walked up a flight of stairs to the workshop, where dozens of young women were working at sewing machines with tan and olive-drab cloth, the room humming with the sound of the machines and hushed conversation. “Women are much better workers than men,” Omidwar declared. “With them, there’s no problems with smoking hash or taking breaks to talk on their cell phones.”

By the time I visited Rahmati’s factory, the military and police clothing contracts were already starting to disappear. NATO had helped expand the Afghan security forces from 120,000 soldiers, at the beginning of 2008, to 337,000 by October 2012. That level cannot be sustained by the Afghan government — the army and police cost an estimated $6 billion per year, well in excess of the nation’s entire budget — so it will be cut by a third after 2014. The private-security industry, which employs as many as 70,000 people, was another big source of revenue, although, again, most of the work was paid for by foreigners. When the money dries up, that will mean a lot of armed men out of jobs and out of uniform.

Omidwar took me to a second room, where a group of men was gathered around a drafting table. He handed me a simple blue nylon jacket that the company was planning to sell on the local market. “The problem is right now that the Chinese are selling it cheaper than us,” he said. The high level of international spending in Kabul had driven up the costs of skilled labor, land, raw materials, and other inputs, and also held the afghani at an inflated exchange rate. Moreover, the free-trade, open-border policies pushed by the U.S. government and Afghan technocrats meant that neighboring countries could flood the market with cheap goods.

After Omidwar and I left the factory, we stood outside and watched as a line of women came out the main doors, laughing and talking. It was five o’clock, and their shift had ended. They filed out through the gates, pulling their head scarves tighter as they blended into the flow of minibuses, men pushing vegetable carts, and gawking boys on bicycles. “Do you ever have a problem with men harassing them?” I asked Omidwar. “We did,” he said, “but then we had the police come down, and that stopped it.”

As it got dark, Omidwar drove us back toward the center of Kabul. The workers, he explained, came mostly from families that had moved to the capital from conservative, insecure rural areas in the south and southeast. I thought of Mohibzada’s mother, the schoolteacher who had once walked to work with her hair in the wind, having to beg in her burka for stale bread. “What’s going to happen to your factory when the foreigners leave?” I asked Omidwar.

“We’re going to make those jackets. You saw them,” he said.

“Do you really think you’re going to be able to underprice the Chinese?” I asked. He sighed, looked out the window, and dragged on his cigarette. When he looked back at me there was a glint in his eye. “Then I’ll make a wedding hall,” he said, chuckling. He listed off three corners of the city: “One in Kot-e Sangi, one in Pul-e-Charkhi, and one in Darulaman. And the whole country will start making heroin. We’ll be richer than America!” He laughed his raspy laugh.

The corrupting effect of international aid money has worked mostly from the top down: the ostentation of warlords and businessmen has inspired a generation of Afghan youth. “The national ethos today is not oriented toward public service,” Ashraf Ghani, former minister of finance and now adviser to President Karzai on the transition, told me, “because upward social mobility has not depended on a path of education or skills or others; it is dependent on patronage and on access to Bagram or to Kandahar airport.”

For Ghani, the past decade in Afghanistan offers a lesson in what aid cannot accomplish. “Investment in the productive sector requires a national vision and drive, and that does not happen through foreign aid.” He pointed out that when the United States rebuilt Japan, Germany, and South Korea, it did so using U.S. government workers. “The USAID of then it is not the USAID of today. Today it is a contract-management agency,” he said. “And the value that drives public servants is very different than the profit motive that drives the private sector.”

The country had suffered under misguided economic policies that assumed the forces of the “free market” would kick-start Afghan development. Contracts for projects were awarded to the lowest bidder, regardless of whether they could deliver, and state-owned companies like the now-shuttered cement factory in Baghlan province had been privatized, sold off, and forced to compete on the world market — with the result that Afghanistan was importing Pakistani and Iranian cement to build its internationally funded roads. The industries that were thriving — transportation and construction, for example — were dominated by a handful of families who monopolized access to contracts. “This is not a manifestation of the free market,” said Ghani. “It is a manifestation of the market as a jungle.”

It’s true that, with the labor forces of India, Pakistan, and China nearby, Afghanistan is not well positioned to become an industrial giant. William Byrd, an economist who has studied the country since the 1970s, argues that an enlightened Afghan economic policy would encourage high-value, labor-intensive farming, such as drying the country’s grapes into exportable raisins, or cultivating saffron, the world’s most expensive spice. (Opium, incidentally, would fit Byrd’s criteria as well.) Afghanistan’s substantial mineral resources, which have attracted multibillion-dollar projects from Chinese and Indian mining companies, also hold some promise, but it will be years before these begin bringing in significant revenue. It also remains to be seen how much mining and cash-crop agriculture will benefit ordinary Afghans, and how the country will avoid the experiences of other resource-rich, infrastructure-poor nations, where most of the profit has ended up abroad.

Ghani said he hoped that the withdrawal of aid could be mitigated by a commitment to public spending from the Karzai government. “We need to return to the New Deal and have a series of public-works programs. Our youth unemployment rate is 40 percent, and we need to address that group, because they are the ones who are going to rip this country to pieces, or put it together.” Ghani said that it takes USAID $600,000 per kilometer to build a road. Under Afghan management, he thinks, that cost could be reduced to $90,000. “This country needs immense infrastructure,” he said, “but the way we have to go is to make it affordable.”

Ghani — who ran for president in 2009 and is widely expected to run again in 2014 — said that despite their failings thus far, the technocrats could seize this last chance at averting economic collapse. “The good news is that rarely in the world do a country and its partners get a threeyear advance notice of the coming of such an event.”

The new city is geometrically exact, an equilateral triangle with slightly convex sides. At its center is a large park with a tear-shaped lake in the middle. Wide avenues radiate outward in concentric triangles, separating the business, residential, and industrial districts. Where the old city’s streets were crowded and hectic, the houses here are set apart by lawns and tidy little sidewalks; it is a green city, full of grass and trees and powered by renewable energy. On the outskirts, there’s a farm belt reclaimed from the desert where tranquil little irrigation canals run under footbridges.

Ghulam Hassanzadah, CEO of the new city’s development authority, pressed the buttons on the base of the model, lighting up the airport, the ring roads, the schools, and the factories. “Of course, this is the old plan, the one the French made,” said Hassanzadah. “The new plan is different.”

New Kabul — whose official name is Dehsabz-Barikab City, after the areas northeast of Kabul that it would occupy — is perhaps the most ambitious of all the visions conjured up since 2001 by Afghanistan’s would-be nation builders. The first iteration, represented by the model before us, was designed by a French team and called for the entire monumental project to be constructed in one go. In 2009, the Afghan government endorsed a revised plan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) — Japan’s version of USAID and the project’s largest donor — in favor of a design that could be implemented in stages. The scale of the original plan’s ambition, however, remained intact: a city that, over the next thirty years, would grow to hold 3 million inhabitants over an area one and a half times larger than Kabul itself.

The development would solve all the old city’s problems — overcrowding, lack of utilities and infrastructure, pollution, and, most important, the imminent water crisis — in one masterstroke. A hydroelectric dam would be built high in the mountains, and water would be piped in from the reservoir it created. The project would also provide funding for new commercial and manufacturing enterprises, only this time it would be geared toward meaningful domestic production instead of consumption. For the moment, though, all that existed of the new city was this model, along with reams of documents and surveys commissioned by Hassanzadah and the Dehsabz-Barikab Development Authority (DCDA).

Hassanzadah is an engineer by training. He left Afghanistan in the 1970s and spent most of his professional life in Germany working for Siemens. In 2001, he came back to help rebuild his native country, but he was disappointed by what had happened since then. “We made some mistakes, some big mistakes, in regard to the development of this country,” he said. “At the moment, we do not have anything we can say we made ourselves.”

Hassanzadah had tried to bring Siemens to Afghanistan. He wanted the company to establish a plant for the manufacture of electrical transformers, mining gear, and other industrial equipment in order to fill the demand from dams, power stations, and mines being built all over the country. Hassanzadah told me that Siemens had allocated $5 million in start-up money to prepare the site, and the company’s business plan projected up to $200 million in revenue within five years. Hassanzadah said that when he met with Karzai in person, the president promised him that Siemens would get land for the factory, even if he had to give them space on his palace grounds.

“Over five years, I tried to get what was promised to me by His Excellency President Karzai,” Hassanzadah said. But he kept getting the runaround from the various ministers and aides deputized to take care of the project, and whether because of corruption or incompetence or both, the land never materialized. “Siemens told me, ‘Mr. Hassanzadah, stop. Don’t tell us stories — the president told you this and this.’ ” He shook his head sadly. “I lost my face in front of the president of Siemens.”

Hassanzadah left the company after that. Now, despite his earlier failure, he has become an evangelist for the promises of the Dehsabz-Barikab project. He played me a short video showing computer renderings of the project: the camera sweeps across a set of train tracks lined on either side by pedestrian walkways, grass, and long rows of poplar trees. A tram glides by, and an enormous glass tower looms in the distance. Finally the camera floats off to the right, panning over a wide canal flanked by terraced gardens, with the Hindu Kush visible in the background.

Like the U.S. State Department’s “New Silk Road” strategy, which envisions mountainous, landlocked Afghanistan as a hub of commerce, or the U.S. military’s estimate of $1 trillion in mineral wealth buried in the country, the utopian vision of the new city is most likely a fantasy. After years of delays, and with the worsening economic and security environment, New Kabul’s foreign backers are getting nervous.

When I visited Toshiyuki Iwama, JICA’s program director in Kabul, he told me that JICA had suspended its surveying work after his subcontractors had been threatened by powerful land-grabbers, among them a member of parliament. Already, people have encroached on the land set aside for the new city, building brick kilns and setting up boundary walls for houses.

Jolyon Leslie said the project was “visionary, but it’s also delusional.” The new city would cost around $34 billion, and nearly 70 percent of that was supposed to come from the private sector. Perhaps the plan would have been possible ten years ago, said Leslie. In the meantime, the real city of Kabul continues to deteriorate. “It’s drawn a huge amount of analysis and energy away from here, which is where the problems are,” he said. “We can’t deal with the city as it is, so let’s have a PowerPoint city.”

The United States has spent $592 billion fighting the war in Afghanistan, enough to build New Kabul seventeen times over or give $17,000 — thirty-two years’ worth of the country’s average per capita income — to every Afghan man, woman, and child. Instead, the city has grown on its own, chaotic and swollen, and Afghans have taken what they can for themselves. A few have made fortunes. Some, like Mohibzada, have built modest, decent lives for themselves at the margins. And until the bubble bursts, the city’s grand planners can keep on building models.

Hassanzadah admitted to me that the new city was taking too long to build, but he said that the solution was to grant the DCDA full powers to implement its master plan: “We have to get this city out of the stomach of the government.” The key would be for the president to issue a decree that gave Hassanzadah the clear authority to start building. He was sure the president would do so very soon. “We are very, very close,” he said. “His Excellency President Karzai promised us.”

is a freelance writer based in Afghanistan. His article “Disappearing Ink” appeared in the January 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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