A good portion of Americans’ geographic expertise about Afghanistan, particularly about Kabul City, resembles the attitude of the American movie goers. Entertainment and box office value trumps artistic content, boredom proportionally increases with absence of special effects, subtitles are the ultimate inconvenience, and the story must fit the viewers’ mental framework—often based on short memory—to be appreciated. Official policymaking stems from such an environment, inconceivable to many of us that the rest of the world does not operate along the lines of our own mental framework. Hollywood is not the “Real world” in which policies lead to consequences. Recent loss of lives in Kabul City confirms that.

Policing the Policy

Even an elementary knowledge of Afghanistan’s geography, history, and current affairs is sufficient to comprehend the current system’s limitations. Yet, to admit to policy short-comings would be comparable to admitting the failure of the policy that created the current system of a heavy-centralized multi-ethnic state. A policy-driven attitude tends to ignore, or suppress, alternatives that emphasize the long-term issues, as if the problems will magically disappear. Afghanistan’s ethnic relationships and the distribution of power, political and electrical, are the issues I raised five years ago, anticipating increase in tensions. Sadly, the current conditions reflect that in five years little has been done to prevent the rise in ethnic tensions.


Figure 1. The cultural landscape of Kabul City. When too many opposing forces are pulling the pole of power in their direction, no policy in a multi-ethnic state can make it remain straight (photograph by the author).

Below are several excerpts from my book Photographic Memory of Kabul City: A Deployed Geographer’s Perspective, highlighting my thoughts and work in Afghanistan’s capital during 2011. Chapters considering ethnic population distribution and significance of infrastructure—specifically water resource use and electricity distribution network—are early in the book. The content is slightly modified to fit the purpose of this post.



My concern was that Kabul City had been a major battleground before. In civil wars the capital cities are centers of action. From atop a bunker on Camp Julien I could see the major battlefield between the factions involved in the 1992-1996 Civil War, which was fought mainly along the ethnic lines. The city was also the main focus of Pakistan’s almost decade-long attempt to destabilize the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. In order to topple Afghanistan’s communist regime, various groups—with the help of Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence)—had to assume control over the national capital.

When the Taliban arrived from the south they, too, fought for the control of Kabul City and won. Recent historical evidence has clearly shown that whoever wanted to gain control over Afghanistan had to control Kabul City. With 2014 and ISAF’s scheduled withdrawal approaching, we had to address the gaps in knowledge particularly those pertaining to: urban ethnic population distribution, boundaries between ethnic neighborhoods, and patterns of migration and urbanization. Over two-thirds of the city was undergoing rapid unplanned development. Sprawling areas of urban slums dominated the landscape. At one point the population was growing at an estimated annual rate of over 200,000 residents.

If large-scale conflict were to break out, establishing security measures to prevent escalation would require an enormous effort. And conflict, I feared, could also erupt in response to events not limited to insurgency-related activity. For example, we must never discount physical geography in northeastern Afghanistan, which lies in a seismically active zone. Even a moderate earthquake could contribute to the loss of lives and property of such magnitude that the government and security forces would be unable to cope. That, alone, could lead to unrest and further destabilize the country already in peril.

While trying to win the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan’s countryside, the decision makers had—by that time—completely ignored that the countryside was in fact filling the city and expanding ethnic neighborhoods via chain mi­gration. Urbanization of Afghanistan, not only in the capital city but in other regional centers, has slipped through analytical cracks as intelligence bodies focused on the countryside. In the case of Kabul City, my goal was to correct that emphasis and illustrate the need to refocus efforts on factors that were going to affect the country’s long-term stability.


A key element of infrastructure, the electricity distribution grid, has had a significant tactical value in previous internal conflicts. Most recently, during the 1992-1996 Civil War, Hizb-e Islami oc­cupied the Surobi hydroelectric plant in the Surobi District, Kabul Province, and effectively cut off the supply of electricity to the capital.  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s forces were not the first group to exercise such an approach. Nearly six decades earlier, in Habibul­lah Kalakhani’s ascent to Afghanistan’s throne, the invading groups attempted to cut off Kabul City’s electricity. I believe that the fighters in Afghanistan tend to repeat actions done by their prede­cessors. In case of an open ethnic conflict, the side that controls infrastructure can hold an advantage over others. I also drew les­sons from the conflict in former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the early days of ethnic conflicts, the warring sides immediately tried to seize transportation corridors, higher el­evations, and control over dams and the electricity network.

The recent conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina was remarkably similar to that of Kabul City; they even began in the same year, 1992. There, too, three ethnic groups (Muslims, Serbs, and Cro­ats) had to carefully choose how to fight for space and for power in order to remain relevant in the conflict. I concluded that in the Kabul area, the groups in control of sub-stations and the medium voltage network would hold a tactical advantage over their adver­saries. The ability to cut off electricity to entire neighborhoods at any moment is an invaluable military option and, in the political context, an excellent bargaining tool.

This product showed what can be seen if the ethnic geogra­phy map is overlaid by the electrical network. The relationship between the ethnic population distribution and access to electric­ity became immediately obvious. Three most recently built or renovated sub-stations were at the city’s periphery. Two were in the Pashtun-populated areas of Police District 12 and 15 and the third in Tajik-populated Police District 17. They were on the main distribution network from the northern suppliers (Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) and from the Surobi plant, respectively. The rest of the city depended on these three nodes. Any adversarial ac­tion on the three locations could potentially leave the city in dark­ness. Clearly evident was an absence of sub-stations and the me­dium-voltage network in the most rapidly growing and politically aware Hazara-populated neighborhoods of western Kabul City, to which I keep returning throughout the book.

With this product, ISAF had another level of analysis about the distribution of resources and their potential impact on ethnic relationships. In Afghanistan the distribution of power, political and electrical, depends on large-scale infrastructure development, which conceptually originates in the capital. Kabul City is a func­tional node for the rest of nation and, in the context of urban development, the vanguard of its economic and political progress. In plain words, what happens in Kabul affects the entire country [emphasis added].

(1) From “Present is the fruit of the past and contains the seeds of the future,” in Erhard Rostlund, Outline of Cultural Geography, 1961, p.4.


If not fitting the scope and purpose of the official policy, any attempts to raise awareness can expect little success. Afghanistan’s post-2001 history has so far confirmed that. In that regard, I expect nothing to change in foreseeable future.

Fight for Light in Kabul City and National Implications