Letter from Afghanistan — From the February 2013 issue


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.”

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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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