People familiar with Afghanistan’s affairs recognize this as an ironic title. Its success cannot be measured, because no program with such a name ever existed there. The real program that ISAF emphasized was named Village Stability Operations. The name indicates a preference for stabilization of the countryside through operations in small villages. As a geographer, I always felt that rural initiatives may have overshadowed the need to understand urbanization and urban growth’s significance for Afghanistan’s long-term stability prospects.
Population Trends and a Reason to Worry
Stabilization efforts have ignored the common effect of a demographic transition that a country like Afghanistan would experience: rapid urbanization and population growth, migratory paths that lead into established ethnic neighborhoods, transition from traditional folk into an artificially-created market economy, and unequal distribution of wealth (real or perceived). Stages of the demographic transition often serve as indicator of forthcoming turbulence when the pendulum of instability swings from the countryside toward urban areas.
Figure 1. Unknown to him at his young age, this urban Afghan’s future has been determined by outside actions, many of which occurred years before his birth (Photo by the author).
During the war in Afghanistan, single-dimensional pro-versus-anti-GIRoA (Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) stability assessments have ignored the fundamental security question—what if the next civil war, if it occurs, begins as an ethnic conflict in Kabul City and spreads to other cities? Would it be possible to leave Kabul City to its own devices and expect a scenario unlike that of Beirut or Sarajevo, and remain focused on countryside? The answer is: not if cultural conditions are similar to those described in the second paragraph. And that is precisely the situation the country is in today.
The Capital Question
Kabul City is a microcosm of Afghanistan. Yet, ISAF’s love affair for continuous mapping of tribes, sub-tribes, and peasant power-structures has for years left a gap in knowledge of Kabul City’s spatial expansion, distribution and role of ethnic neighborhoods, infrastructure development, and people’s access to and isolation from resources and services. In a short time Kabul City has transformed from a series of villages into a vast metropolitan area, yet it largely remained a mystery. That is, until my colleagues and I decided to change it and shine a light on that mystery, hoping to acknowledge the swinging pendulum.
Figure 2. As we drove up this road, only a sparsely populated mountain was visible in front of us. Behind us, however, was a sprawling metropolis. But to see it and acknowledge its importance required a 180 degree turn from staring at the mountain. A similar shift in thinking will be required for planners and operators to overcome mountains of intellectual convenience. (Photo by the author).
After months of research and fieldwork and a series of publications, we managed to illustrate and articulate to the decision makers that the patterns follow the abovementioned trends. When conditions worsen in a predominantly young and multiethnic environment with already dire economic prospects, the urban population’s actions begin to foster instability toward the tipping point [imagine the impact of a devastating earthquake on Kabul City, which could easily kill hundreds of thousands in a matter of minutes].
When the city’s internal stability begins to crumble, a previously single-dimensional fight against the anti-government enemy becomes a multi-dimensional conflict, leading to the rise of ethnic factions representing disenfranchised masses. Remaining neutral becomes impossible as it was during the 1992-1996 Civil War.
We illustrated the need for a comprehensive urban stability framework that treats cities as living, continuously changing cultural geographic organisms, yet I am unaware if the framework was ever created. Perhaps the only solution was to leave Kabul City, and its 4-5 million residents, in hands of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and hope that they could pull it off. Considering that even their higher-level officers experienced difficulty in identifying some major landmarks on a map, like the airport (true story), the level of optimism should remain modest.
The question still remains why—adding to the list of programs and platforms for rural stabilization—ISAF did not envision and implement its urban equivalent? Answers are many and I invite the readers to respond with their own. Meanwhile, I cannot escape a feeling that a major factor in worshiping a rural strategy was the result of simple intellectual neglect. Despite seeing the changes in front of their own eyes (e.g., Figure 2), the experts, it seems, decided to remain mentally tied to Afghanistan’s rural past and, in turn, ignore the country’s evolution into urban future.