Towns and cities across Afghanistan reflect the resilience and dynamism of their inhabitants, but also highlight basic urban challenges

Words by JOLYON LESLIE | 28 Jun, 2017

The historic quarters of Kabul and Herat, where I have worked in recent years, are testament to cycles of development, neglect and destruction. Traces of fine decorative work in Kabul’s crumbling merchant homes hint at the past prosperity of neighbourhoods that endured British invasions in the nineteenth century. Rural insurgents sacked the city in 1929 during the overthrow of King Amanullah, whose vision of a modern capital was of wide European-style boulevards rather than the narrow alleyways of its bustling bazaars.

This historic fabric was largely ignored during the ensuing decades, when Kabul and other cities saw significant development, as competing donors—the United States, Soviet Union and Germany, among others—attempted to make their mark on the ‘new’ Afghanistan. A cycle of destruction followed, as the factions who took control of the country in 1992 battled for dominance, forcing urban communities from their homes while inflicting massive damage on property and infrastructure. In the process of recovery since, the focus has been on the future. An understanding of the history that shaped Afghan cities today remains important as it clarifies the political and ethnic fault-lines that persist in what remains a fragile environment.

This fragility, in part, stems from the breakneck pace at which Afghan towns and cities are growing. The annual rate of urbanisation is around 4% per annum, one of the fastest rates in the world. Since 2002, the bulk of returning refugees settled in urban centres, joined by those displaced from conflict-prone rural areas. In addition to the relative security, Afghanistan’s cities offer the prospect of jobs and access to public services. A third of the overall population now lives in the five primary city regions, which absorb some 300,000 additional people every year...MORE IN PRINT