image Paper #1 Post-Conflict Planning in Kabul

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In 38 years of conflict, Kabul not only has experienced waves of wars and terror but also fragmented attempts to planning. These unregulated actions, carried out by various actors using contradictory urban planning models and tools, have within Kabul created various fragmented realities. Kabul’s lack of an updated overarching urban vision, have resulted in uncoordinated approaches by government institutions, NGO’s, militaries, influential figures and common urban dwellers. The argument of this paper is that in the absence of clear urban planning that address the overarching development issues and objectives, the urban problems that years of conflict has created, are exacerbated and are likely to endure. This includes urban fragmentation, the growth of gated townships, illegal occupation, and disputes over land ownership.

Key words – (Post)-war cities, Kabul, Urban planning, Foreign Assistance and Politics

Kabul has been a warzone for almost 38 years. The city has suffered from numerous waves of opposing regimes, planning doctrines, clashing political rationalities and the imposition of various economic, social and urban planning models. The result is a city in in which 70% to 80% of the residents occupy informal settlements, land speculation private townships entrench inequality, and influential people control large swaths of urban area.

In last three decades opposing regimes have left their mark on Kabul. In 1979, the Russians invaded Kabul and implemented communist planning principles. Until 1991, urban development was consequently handled by the Russian planning mechanisms.  In the years 1992 to 2001, two regimes has governed governing Kabul under one overarching ideology based on Sharia law, with Taliban being most extreme of the two regimes.

After the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, an internationally initiated reconstruction program for Kabul was launched. In its minimalist version, the aim was to eliminate “terrorists”, reconstruct the state and kick-start the economy through market-friendly political agendas. These objectives were formulated as part of social-spatial engineering project, but formulated with limited understanding of the underlying conditions and mechanisms of indigenous social, tribal and spatial relations. The objectives and aims put by the international assistance generated enormous expectations that could not have fulfilled under the best circumstances.(Esser, 2009)

Since 2001 around 6 million Afghans have returned from Iran and Pakistan, and many have chosen to move to the large cities of Afghanistan, particularly to Kabul. The massive waves of returnees and inflows of social-economic migrants have made Kabul one of fastest growing cities in the world, and created various problems for the city to deal with. Notably, the formal sector and international assistance community have not been able to provide the migrants and the inhabitants of Kabul with basic needs, such as adequate shelter, urban utilities, security of land tenure and water supply. To fill this gap, influential elites in Kabul have stepped up and taken control within their own area gathering power and support from local inhabitants. (Bertaud, 2005)

In case of Kabul, throughout the history new political climates and foreign policies have been enforced upon local administration systems. The most recent political regime is the neo-liberalism of the Karzai / Ashraf Ghani administration with the help of US and other NATO countries.

The new layer of neo-liberalism contradicts with the institutions build on socialist ideas, as well as the mind-sets of of many inhabitants that are oriented around Islamic values. While Soviet Kabul was planned on socialist values, the regime shift has given way to the privatization of many of the countries public assets. Public assets, produced by collective efforts, were sold to those with privileged access entrenching power positions. For example, many new townships have been built on public land, excluding the urban poor. The same goes for privatization of water supply, electricity, and urban transport system, exacerbating inequality.(Gregory, 2004) In other words, the marketization of the existing political economy has not simply regularized a chaotic developing city. It has moved an organized political economy based on traditional values to an unregulated market economy.

Various local elites have leveraged this privatization process by engaging in urban planning themselves. In almost all of Afghanistan’s cities, private enterprise developments of “little cities” authorized by politicians and government officials have sprung up, often by dubious legal means. (Wily,2013) In the absence of official housing facilities by the government in Kabul, such gated communities are one of the few attractive residences, for who can afford it. Yet, this kind of urban planning excludes a majority of urban population, who are not able to buy a residence within these townships. As a result, the urban poor and large segments of the low income groups have no choice but to rely on informal land and housing markets for access to land and shelter. (Esser, 2009)

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The Soviet Master Plan of 1964 plan was based on a projection over 25 years with 800,000 inhabitants in the city; an increase of ~400% from the population of 215,000 that Kabul housed at the time. Yet currently has been growing with over 10% over the past decade, and houses over 2.5 million (UN-Habitat 2014). How to deal with the legacy of the Master Plan is therefore an important point of debate.

For example, the Soviet socialist theorists who developed the Master Plan were heavily influenced by the modernist ideals of E.Howard. (Calogero, 2011) A key component of this plan, namely Howard’s advocacy for urban green space was also adopted by the Soviets, and in turn by Afghans. Current ambitions, as expressed by Deputy Minister Ir. Salek, demonstrate the perseverance of the Modernist ideologies. The areas originally planned as green belt or “the lungs of the city”, are now fully covered by illegal settlements. The minister has formulated the ambition however to reconvert these areas to green areas, as originally intended in the Master plan, displacing thousands of people. Contrary to Kabul municipality of plan implementation office however, the ministry of urban development does not see the need to implement the whole master plan. This shows the intergovernmental disagreements in how to plan the city.

In an interview with Najim in 2013, Deputy Minister Eng Amiruddin Salek, 2013argued that the Afghans educated in the Soviet planning system and Afghans in exiles who learned policy in the west, have fundamentally different ways of thinking. This difference of ideologies has resulted in sharply contrasting policy recommendations. This has resulted in differences of opinion on whether to implement the Master Plan, or to abandon it, and upgrade infrastructure and exiting informal settlements. Not only are these expressions of fundamentally different political policies, they show disagreement on the understanding of planning itself. In other words, planning policy is divided on a fundamental level, and the evaluative criteria for policy success of failure has diverged.(Yiftachel, 2009)

“Kabul is witnessing a remarkable private sector-led construction boom, sustained by the “economic bubble” that is mainly generated by the temporary presence of international forces and organizations … Planning processes and investments seem however to be in private hands – including the private hands of some government officials” (Khechen, 2012)

Another layer of governance is added by the assistance of foreign ministries and NGO’s. Located far from Afghanistan, they make operational decisions especially about governmental, spatial and economic levels- that profoundly affect urban space and the city as a whole, without any local consultation or alternatives.
This inequality and disagreement of policy on the formal side of the planning have created a space in which simultaneously informal settlements, illegal, gated communities and land grabbing occur. This disagreement in the policy of urban planning has thus created multiple modes of planning in the city. Formal planning occurs where government has control, while urban informality and gated communities, which both often occur outside the law, emerge in ungoverned spaces. In this contexts, warlords have stepped up and acted as urban planners themselves.

Afghanistan’s warlords, now landlords, have forcefully captured public land, or acquired it by dubious means.. On their part, the new owners subdivided the land (sometimes subdivided and built) then sold it in formal and informal land (and real estate) markets to ordinary citizens, mainly middle-income groups.” (Khechen, 2012)

The loss of governing coherence and the clashes within the operating systems in Kabul are thus not only the result of a loss of coherence and ideological alignment within the regime: it is the product of an on-going fragmentation of authority and is inextricably bound with the socio-spatial fragmentation of the city.

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The high demand for housing and residents who look for security of job opportunity, have led to both an expansion of the informal sector and private developments. Structuring this type of development with conventional tools, such as the implementation of an outdated master plan are likely to fail, because tools fail to address the situation on the ground, of which power-relations are an important aspect. In addition, the institutions and public bodies responsible for implementing such conventional models are not present.

Hence, a new planning model should be adopted: one that takes account of the enduring conflict situation, demographic fluctuations, foreign assistance, land dispute resolutions and massive migrants that rely mostly on illegal shelter provisions. Planning should in this context go beyond the provision of good, secure living and reconstruction aims; it should bring all actors around the table in a collaborative effort to formulate a vision both on development and reconstruction.

Post-conflict cities deal with complex relations of national, international institutions and transnational NGO’s that play an important role in establishing policies and urban governance. New policies introduced by these stakeholders have the tendency to create contradictions on local level as these policies and models are largely given shape by global mechanisms that lie outside the scope of local decision makers. This mismatch between national, local and customary policies has the tendency to weaken national government and gives rise to undesirable forms of urban development.

Overall, these processes have in Kabul led to a transformation from a traditional hierarchical state to insular institutions and hence insular (fragmented) spatial planning and urban development policies. One reason is the significant impact non-governmental actors (Warlords, private interests) have had on the cities spatial and authoritative structure. As Kabul clearly demonstrates, architecture and urban planning in post-war cities must address these political, social and economic realities of indigenous as well as the “internationalist” situation, within the framework of the city, otherwise the socio-spatial fragmentation and informality will endure. This is also a hotbed for enduring conflict. Public authorities should take the lead or facilitate the formulation of a new urban vision to tackle the spatial separation and fragmented authority, and as such contribute to the cities reconstruction as well as conflict mitigation.


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