How like an architect to see the problems of one city as a reason for building another. It wasn’t his idea but Mahmoud Saikal – architect, refugee, ambassador and long-time resident of Walter Burley Griffin’s Canberra – understandably embraced it. The problem city was his birthplace, Kabul, the historic and once bucolic Afghan capital that was partially destroyed by civil war in the 1990s and is now beset by overpopulation, high inflation – partly caused by the presence of some 140,000 NATO and allied soldiers in the country – and domestic political dysfunction.
When the Taliban regime fell in November 2001, Saikal put his career on hold to help rebuild his country. First, he built an embassy in Canberra and served as Afghan ambassador. Four years later, he returned to Kabul to join President Hamid Karzai’s government as deputy foreign minister, a kind of closure for someone who had fled the 1979 Soviet invasion of his homeland and found asylum in Australia. But then in 2006 he quit, disillusioned, he says, with Karzai’s corrupt and undemocratic style.
That was when the new city idea became his ruling passion. Kabul was no longer the town of his youth, where the ‘monkey players’ busked with trained chimps during Islamic festivals. Its relative security had made it a magnet for refugees returning to the country after the Taliban’s fall, as well as for foreign military and aid agencies involved in the reconstruction. More recently, there has been an influx of Afghans from the war-ravaged provinces fleeing the resurgent Taliban.
By a common estimate, a city of 400,000 just a decade ago now accommodates 4 million people, the majority occupying illegally constructed dwellings in which up to three or four families often reside in homes designed for one. Water, electricity and waste disposal systems are in a shambles, and vehicle emissions are so bad that a desperate government recently declared Thursdays a public holiday for civil servants as a pollution reduction measure.
As a senior adviser to the New City (Deh Sabz) Development Authority, Saikal now spruiks the proposed new city as a way of relieving the pressures on adjacent old Kabul, while providing jobs for a new generation of educated Afghan youth whose employment prospects are dim. I met Saikal back at his family home in Canberra before Christmas – an elegant man with silvering whiskers, dressed in a blue business shirt, slacks and black leather slippers. At the dining table after lunch, he sets up his laptop and shows me an audiovisual presentation about Deh Sabz (“green village”), located between Kabul and the American military base at Bagram, north of the city. It looks futuristic, with steel and glass office towers and light rail transport, but there are also unique touches, especially the provision of agricultural land amidst the development plots; then again, the central and artificial lake is pure Canberra.
The new city master plan approved by the Afghan cabinet in 2009 envisages 1.5 million people living there by 2025, but so far not a single house has been built. Japan and the Asian Development Bank have bankrolled most of the feasibility studies, and France has kicked in design expertise, but in 2006 the World Bank advised against proceeding. Finance, insecurity and corruption pose formidable challenges. Credit is tight following the global financial crisis, and most donors feel their money would be better spent fixing old Kabul’s problems, or – better still – restoring peace and infrastructure to the provinces, thereby stopping people flooding into the capital. Taliban rockets and suicide bombers still occasionally scorch Kabul, and donor nations fear a multibillion-dollar project such as Deh Sabz will further enhance the wealth of the warlords and powerbrokers, even if the private sector gets the majority of the work as planned.
In Australia, the project has already burnt a few fingers. In December, a Melbourne grandmother claimed she had lost $50,000 investing in Pinnacle International Advisors Ltd, a joint-venture company set up to help build Deh Sabz. Several other Australian investors with Pinnacle, told the project had been backed by both the World Bank and the Afghan government, have since claimed to have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Saikal says the company never received final approval for its plans.
New capitals have been springing up for as long as there have been nations, providing neutral ground and a blank canvas for national and imperial ambitions. But Afghanistan is no country for dreamers. Since September 11, it has inspired many hopes, some bordering on fantasy. Among them, that a single nation – let alone the entire world – can ever be ‘cleansed’ of terrorists, and that democracy can be exported by force of arms. Now, scepticism and disillusion have replaced dreams. As the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, told the American ambassador to Belgium in 2009 (his comments were revealed by WikiLeaks in December), “No one believes in Afghanistan any more.”
Saikal still believes, fervently, and he’s reluctant to publicly acknowledge the obstacles in the way of his homeland’s progress, particularly in terms of the prospects of the new city. While others might see him as naive, Saikal is clearly a man more interested in ideals and ideas than in the comforts of high office, but he’s also conscious of political realities. He regrets, but understands, the political compulsions of western governments as they seek a way out of the Afghan ‘bear trap’. Yet he also contends that broader western economic and security interests will ensure an enduring American, and possibly Australian, military presence there.
The Deh Sabz site remains an arid cluster of villages pockmarked by decades of war. Saikal says a pilot project to construct 5000 housing units expected to begin this year will “make or break” the plan. Tellingly, he has stood aside as chief executive of the new city project. His passion now is to build on the success of anti-Karzai forces in recent presidential and parliamentary elections when, despite massive fraud, the president failed to secure a majority.
The emerging western policy – building a massive Afghan army and police force whilst ignoring Karzai’s personal power grab – threatens both of Saikal’s visions. “We must make sure that key elements of democracy work in the country, otherwise the new city will face troubles,” he says.
Meanwhile, in old Kabul, the problems grow in scale and intensity daily. When Saikal’s own neighbour flouted planning laws by adding a third storey to his home, police and work crews sent to demolish the extension took no action, presumably having been paid off by the offender. “If you’re thinking of complaining, don’t bother,” the neighbour told Saikal. “I have a cousin who works in the attorney-general’s department.”
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