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The Changing Face Of Kabul: After Years Of Foreign-Fueled Growth, An Uncertain Future


Each day, Ghulam Ali walks to a nearby square with his tools and waits for women and children to bring him shoes to repair so he can feed his family of eight.

Each day, Ghulam Ali walks to a nearby square with his tools and waits for women and children to bring him shoes to repair so he can feed his family of eight.

On the eastern edge of Kabul is a modern housing development that once embodied everything the city hoped to become as international aid and investment poured into the Afghan economy.

The neat rows of trim bungalows and towering villas, dotted with a high-rise complex and a new mosque, went up quickly, with 500 construction workers and plenty of buyers.

But now, property developer Haji Hafizullah Karwan sits in his office surrounded by advertising materials for his still mostly uninhabited development and frets over how Kabul's economy has collapsed since most foreign troops and much foreign aid left Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The loss of the country's economic backbone has left many of his customers without an employer and unable to move into their finished homes because they cannot afford the installment payments that are part of their purchase agreement.

"Most of our customers have bought units by paying 20, 30, or 50 percent in advance," he says. "The units have been completed for three years, [but] now, when we demand payments from them, they don't answer when they see it's a call from our office."

Karwan's construction force has dwindled to just 100 men and his prospects for selling any more homes in the development, even after slashing prices by half, look bleak.

This deserted new development on the eastern edge of Kabul is just one side of the rapidly changing face of Kabul as the city and the country adjust to some hard economic realities.

This deserted new development on the eastern edge of Kabul is just one side of the rapidly changing face of Kabul as the city and the country adjust to some hard economic realities.

The deserted new township is just one side of the rapidly changing face of Kabul as the city and the country adjust to some hard economic realities. For more than a decade, from 2001 to 2012, Afghanistan posted an average annual growth rate of 9 percent. But that fast growth rate slowed to just 1.5 percent in 2015. The precipitous drop is the direct result of the withdrawal of foreign troops, whose presence injected billions of dollars into an economy whose own economic motors of agriculture and manufacturing still barely turn.

“Afghanistan's economic growth has been based on the service sector, which the presence of foreign troops created," says Economy Minister Abdul Satar Murad. "With the withdrawal of foreign troops, service, especially in the transportation sector, sharply decreased and caused a big drop in economic growth.”

In 2010, when there were 130,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, total foreign aid including military and reconstruction spending was $15.7 billion according to the World Bank. But today, just 14,000 NATO troops remain and total spending is reportedly down to $8 billion.

At the same time, Afghanistan has suffered a downturn in private investment as most foreign troops have left, but the Taliban insurgency continues with no end in sight. According to the World Bank, registrations of new commercial firms in 2014 shrank by nearly half compared to 2013.

The scale of the economic downturn has left Kabul with a list of problems that goes far beyond simply unfinished dream homes.

Kabul's relative stability and security after 2001, coupled with its booming economy, turned it into a magnet for people fleeing violence elsewhere in Afghanistan and those simply seeking a better economic future. The influx has made it one of the fastest growing capitals in the world, ballooning from some 500,000 people to 2001 to 5 to 7 million today.

That growth has put enormous strains on the city's infrastructure as it has created an urban sprawl of mostly unplanned new neighborhoods that now fill the broad valley in which Kabul sits.

Many of the new neighborhoods started off as encampments of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have settled on vacant land, usually on the outskirts of the city or on the slopes of the hills that ring it. Over time, the residents have built simple mud-brick homes, but their settlements remain unconnected to the city water supply, sewer system, or bus lines. The Institute of Afghan Studies, a private institution that promotes Afghan-U.S. ties, has estimated that up to 50 percent of the city's burgeoning population lives in such settlements, creating a stark contrast to the older areas of the city which remain the center of business.

WATCH: Welcome to Kabul -- where swanky villas sit empty while shanty towns teem with life.

"The influx of IDPs to Kabul has been a big problem for the city," says Khozhman Uloomi, the former deputy head of urban services at the Kabul Municipal Office. "They have put burdens on all the city's facilities, not only in terms of [housing] but also creating problems in the areas of providing jobs, health and education, and sanitation and drinking water. Unfortunately, the government, including the municipality, is unable to solve these problems."

In reaction to the influx, the municipal office began developing plans in 2008 to accommodate population growth up to 8 million people. But Uloomi says the planning is being outstripped by strongmen putting up townships when and where they wish and by IDPs occupying hillsides and other vacant areas.

He says the lack of facilities means that the children of IDPs most study outdoors under tents. As for sanitation, the waste produced by Kabul's burgeoning population is more than the city can collect and clean, leaving debris to accumulate and spread disease.

As fighting continues in many parts of Afghanistan, more people keep coming to Kabul and the problems keep growing.

On the other side of the city from the modern township Karwan is building, still another makeshift camp is taking shape as a new wave of people arrives from the northern province of Kunduz, where the Taliban this year launched a new offensive.

Ghulam Ali sits in a tent he has placed on a vacant lot near an established older neighborhood. The new arrivals have been warned by people he does not identify that they are on land destined to be a construction site and that they can only stay there only temporarily. But Ali, who is a cobbler by trade, and his family of eight have laid down a carpet and made their tent as neat and comfortable as possible in the meantime.

"We thought there would be work, work for cobblers, that our economic situation would be better, that's why we came to Kabul," he says.

It is estimated that up to 50 percent of Kabul's burgeoning population lives in encampments settled by internally displaced persons on vacant land on the city's outskirts.

It is estimated that up to 50 percent of Kabul's burgeoning population lives in encampments settled by internally displaced persons on vacant land on the city's outskirts.

Ali says his home in Kunduz now looks like "a black crow" after it was burned down during fighting. Each day, he walks to a nearby square with his tools and waits for women and children to bring him shoes to repair. He says he earns 10 to 50 Afghanis ($0.14 to $0.72) a day, then buys bread in the evening with nothing left over.

With nearby schools too overcrowded to accommodate his children, Ali says his only wish is to go back to his home village one day. But many others who have been displaced to Kabul, or come seeking a better life, have ended up staying, swelling the city with millions of dispossessed people. Unable to afford property of their own, they pay rent to one, and sometimes, multiple people who claim to own the land they occupy, risking eviction if they refuse.
Some analysts warn that as the face of Kabul changes, the deepening income gaps between residents are creating the ingredients for social instability that will last long after any peace deal with the Taliban ends security problems.

"Even if peace negotiations -- and we are nowhere near them -- will succeed in ending the war, we will still face all these social problems here," says Thomas Ruttig, of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Afghanistan will still be one of the poorest countries in the world and there will be a lot of conflicts which, because during the war society has been so militarized, might be fought out with weapons."

Many foreigners who have visited the capital over the years recall that in 2001 one could see the city limits from the rooftop of any tall building in the center. Today, the uncontrolled sprawl of the city extends far out of view.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents in Kabul Tameem Akhgar, Elyas Saleh, and Wali Sabawoon contributed to this story
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