Building a Better Afghanistan

by Asher Kohn on 12/7/2009 · 7 comments

The USMil plan for Afghanistan is to protect the population centers. Lots of things have been said about this, and I’m on the record now for support Joshua’s thoughts on it. I suppose the heart of my version of the argument is that the urban population of Afghanistan is only ~30% of the total population. Even allowing that this is a low estimate due to refugees flocking to cities (or just the heck out of Afghanistan), it’s easy to see that the vast majority of Afghanistan is NOT living in urban populations. So between that and the fact that Afghanistan’s economy is still mostly agricultural/mining based, protecting population centers tactily means not protecting the economic and social base of Afghanistan. It is giving up on the historic understanding of what Afghanistan is.

The major refutation of my argument is that the “old” Afghanistan was obviously broken if it was taken over by Taliban, so now the idea is to recreate a new, better, Afghanistan. There’s some sense to this, and also some opportunity. The GlobalSecurity infograph I linked to previous states [sic where necessary]:

About 77,000 urban houses, of which 63,000 in Kabul alone, have to be rebuilt and an additional 63,000 have to be built for the internally displaced people (IDP). 60% or Kabul urban roads have been destroyed; access to piped water is only about 20% in Kabul (10 to 30% in the other major provincial cities); more than 20 provincial capitals do not have any functioning piped water system and no more than 50% of solid waste is collected.

So there is a distinct opportunity to create a new urban fabric, since the existing one is ripped to shreds. This is a basis for HRTs, NGOs, and all of the other non-military COIN operations to be undergone. Bombing Taliban folks isn’t going to get running water going, pitched gunfights aren’t going to provide jobs. And it’s not that “Roads = Security” or some such tosh, but if the military is operating under the assumption that they can provide a better future than the Taliban can, then a better future has to be built. There has to be an Afghanistan to be provided security, not just FOBs.

This is all a prelude to the work of Nick Sowers, an architect graduate student who, after a long time of traveling and studying on fellowship, is now writing his thesis on the built environment of militarized Afghanistan.* The conclusion to that post deserves quoting at length:

And yet, a recent NY Times article made me realize how neo-colonial the whole enterprise is. Top of the line hospitals sitting vacant. Energy infrastructure running at a marginal percentage of its capacity. So what role could an architect, or could Architecture, possibly have there? Good will has no place when it’s towed in by a tank.

I’ve been running thesis end-game scenarios like this for a project in Afghanistan, to test my moral satisfaction with the potential outcome. I could design bases that are easily recycled to civilian uses. It might even get fun designing things like a church which becomes a mosque, or a defensive wall which provides some kind of infrastructure for refugee housing. Making a base easier to recycle will also make it easier for the military to plant bases wherever they please, under the guise of providing future infrastructure.

Is the military creating wholly new urban environments for their bases? Or are their bases symbiotic to the populations they’re purportedly protecting? If the idea is to build up a state that the US can leave, what sort of footprint is being left behind? And how contextualized to the Afghan people is this? Do these “churches that become mosques” look like a mosque? Or a church? And most interesting to me is zoning and the urban fabric: is the new Afghanistan going to be something that an Afghan would feel comfortable in, that is, to the scale, using the materials, and involving the streetflow and roomflow that an Afghan can expect? Or will the Afghans be expected to Americanize or go back to the (not-USMil controlled, lest we forget) rural areas?

When we talk about withdrawal and exit strategies, I don’t think any of these things get taken into consideration. But whatever else you say about the current war, the US military effort will probably leave the greatest urban footprint on the land of Afghanistan itself since Timur rolled through. We know his legacy from centuries past, but the USMil isn’t thinking about its legacy decades from now. And if there’s no consideration of the endgame, then, well, is there seriously an endgame?

Not entirely topical to this post, but when reading Sowers’s notes, I keep on thinking of Full Battle Rattle. Yeah, its about Iraq, but it is still kinda relevant. Anyone seen it and want to give a film review to me?

*= I don’t know Nick, I’ve just found his blogs through BLDGblog and find them interesting. I’m going to e-mail him once this is published, sure, but there is no pre-existing relationship.

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This post was written by...

– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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David M December 8, 2009 at 11:26 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 12/08/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Michael December 9, 2009 at 7:27 am


your post on afghan cities i thought was really interesting. in terms of your last paragraph, id check out anything by Janet Abu-Lughod. written some veyr good portratis of isalmic cities, and what it means to be an islamic city vs just a city. can get dry and academicy tho at times, beware. altough most of research was in no rth africa. and of course, i just go ahead and assume that north africa and middle east and central asia are the same, whcih i know they are not of course.

in terms of city and neo colonial. really, the entire colonial project in Spanish America was to build cities. thru the cities, u coudl control mvoement of good frmo the hinterland to the mother countyr. where the educated elite would live’. there is always something un settling about what is out there in the countryside. a fantastic book for this is the Letter City by Angel Rama. really, it is one of the better cities books that ive read and i think that the difference in regions would give u a really itneresting perspective.

also its interesting to me, the whole idea of a rural revolution. for me, i think about a lot of the 20th century,a dn all the revolutions (russian ones and the 1989 ones) were urban. contrast to say the guatemalan internal armed conflict fmo 1960-1993. really it was a rural war (save the disappeareances in urban areas). it could be said that the rural (read: indigenous) armed forces (although still mestizo lead) were fighting to be recognized as guatemalans, with their attending rights. basically they were fighitng for the rural areas to be included in the conceptual space of guatemala, and unravel the bifurcated space of the nation that rama perfectly explains.

anyway, food for thought. and keep up ur posting. im woefully ignorant about central asia.

DE Teodoru December 9, 2009 at 6:22 pm

The urban solution, I’m afraid, cannot be based on what’s there now. Kabul, for example, is an expanse that reflects anything but the state we propose to leave behind. So if we’re doing “nation building,” let’s do it for real from the ground up OUR way so people can see WHAT WE OFFER, not what Karzai, Dostum et al do right under our very noses. Is it really worth fighting for, an Afghanistan that looks like Pakistan? Our only social tool– which has already met with much success in the Middle East– is techno-social modernization. Towards that end we must build from the bottom up and the cities that we build must be TOATALLY NATO controlled so they are administered by technocrats whom the Alliance hires and fires. These urban centers will attract Afghan youths from the countryside. They will be offered REAL jobs and must also accept REAL education– boy will they, as the Communists offered and they took in the 1920s. Over the years the cities evolve as YOUTHS adapt, become proficient and our made-by-NATO towns are gradually turned over the Afghans. The remittances they send home to the countryside will speak a real volume that filthy illiterate Talibs can’t respond do but by violence– just like McChrystal. The social orders developed in these towns would be OUR responsibility to THEIR benefit until they can take over in a decade of so. From these areas will come the REAL POLICE and ARMY that will eventually keep order in Afghanistan as well as the political rulers of tomorrow. Holding towns of this kind for years will create a new Afghan mind set, especially given the education. Science trumps absurd illiterate interpretations of the Koran! What the Soviets did haphazardly in Central Asia we can do much better systematically in small areas that expand as young people move there and fit in. The real difficulty is logistics but the smaller the area and the smaller the population controlled in any town, the more penetrating the success. My working hypothesis has been that anything short of social revolution is pointless because anything less than that even the Taliban can both undo and replicate. Education is the one thing the Taliban cannot compete with. Central Asians YOUTHS are amazingly thirsty for technical learning. The rigidity of the older rural folks we Americans have beat by many times before because we tried to rule them in a setting we couldn’t control but they did. I have never seen people are responsive to modernization as the youths from these rigid rural nations. But, as the Soviets learned the hard way, you can’t reform the Pashtun in situ. Most are too old to modernize and will shame the young into defending a style of life they despise as suffocating. Pashtun youths will defend those who provided them modernity with a loyalty and fierceness like you’ve never seen because the US has always sent crooks to steal the money America sends in with local crooks. Some of the bureaucrats NATO has in Kabul should be hung and left to dangle as examples. Pashtun culture cannot be worked the mediocre people who shoot first that we send in intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb; it must be confronted with real urban modernization alternatives. To do this we must be really to severely punish the criminals with political pull back home that we send in as well as the Afghan crooks they recruit. In the overall Afghanistan of today our side can’t function and just pisses and steals away all invested assets. Pashtun youth must be drawn out of their laird, given a real modern life and paid enough so they can build urban lives for themselves while educating themselves while sending assistance to their rural families. That will defeat the tribal localist structure that makes possible Taliban. In current setting we can win a spot in space and time, as in Gant’s paper, but it is not stable and cannot spread to something manageable and reliable over time. Modernization must be a revolution as was Communism in Central Asia. Clues to techniques for winning people over can come from reading how the Soviets did it. It was not always the McChrystal method of blowing people up, alas Soviets tried to win over the rural establishment and that would not hold. Dostum is not a man you want to deal with, he’s a man you want swinging on a rope for all to see that a NEW Afghanistan is offered them. Please note that today Petraeus called for more American mom and dad needless casualties as in Iraq because he really know no other way but to KINETICALLY hit the Pashtun areas and try to conquer them. It is not Pashtun that will beat us but geography. In the end defeat is all these “surges” have to offer. Nothing is won if you have to keep fighting over it. Model cities out of Taliban control areas, in geography that we can control, can be the demonstrations of what we have to offer and the young will come and commit to our side. The help they send their countryside families will be all the psyops we need.

DE Teodoru December 9, 2009 at 7:17 pm

I would laugh were it not so sad and so outrageous that for this our mom and dad soldiers are making for widows and orphans at home:

This only goes to show that Afghanistan needs cities DONE OUR WAY with us taking full responsibility.

aresnaut December 10, 2009 at 2:29 pm

About fifty percent of the population of Afghanistan are women, and I don’t see much said about giving them any real rights and power, in the cities or the countryside. It would be so much cheaper and better spent money if the goals were: to bring the Afghan women at least close to the Turkish women in rights and freedoms; to produce a police/security detail of women to protect the women and children; and to increase the communication and education of women in the country to a target of at least same literacy than males. Anything less leaves over 50% of Afghanistan in the same dark ages as the Taliban rule.

DE Teodoru December 10, 2009 at 6:52 pm

The women in these societies are the nucleus of the family. A mother is nit just a “woman.” Europe went through emancipation of women at great cost to familial stability. You can’t just legislate women’s rights, especially not in a pauperized society. But the status of women vs. that of a mother are quite different in most of these societies where a family is woman centered. On the other hand, girls will prove to be far better students, even when having to make up for many ontogenic years devoid of education. Only an urban center could afford women’s liberation. In fact, compared to rural areas, urban Afghan women thrive. In the kind of city I propose, people are emancipated upon arrival and protected by a social police that makes sure that males dare not predatory.

I would appreciate anyone familiar with literature on sexual immaturity and aberrance of Afghan adolescent men. It was intimated in Suskind’s WAY OF THE WORLD but he spoke of a cultural formation. I am more interested in genetic psychiatry in nations where consanguinity is common.

Chris December 17, 2009 at 4:19 pm

You said that “pitched fire-fights” weren’t going to create jobs, but it was my experience that pitched fire-fights (of which there are actually suprisingly few) happen precisley because they DO provide jobs….by the Taliban. Now, the ANA and ANP both factor into this, but they pay about $100-150 a month whereas the Taliban will pay over $200. Many Afghans aren’t joining these battles because they are idealogically drawn to one side or the other, it is simply that it pays the bills. I believe this is why so many engagements in Afghansitan take place at ranges over 300 meters. The “insurgents” aren’t really into it. They are punching their time cards. Spray a mag at the coalition convoy, send the video to Pakistan, await payment, lather, rinse, repeat…

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