Patrick Cockburn: The double threat that hangs over the poor of Kabul

World View

Share
Related Topics

As popular uprisings convulse the Middle East and North Africa, governments across the world wait nervously to see if any other country will experience an explosion of popular rage against despotic rule. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake there is also a more general curiosity about which places are most vulnerable to a similar calamity.

The answer to both questions could well be Afghanistan, and, in particular, Kabul: hitherto an island of calm compared with the turmoil elsewhere in the country. The potential for natural and political disaster in the capital, which exists almost as an independent city state, is seldom realised by the diplomats, intelligence officers, soldiers, aid workers and journalists who live there. They are in Afghanistan only because of the war with the Taliban and focus largely on matters relating to the conflict. Much of the media reporting is taken up with accounts of firefights between embattled US and British patrols and local guerrillas in the mud-brick villages of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

This means that little attention is given to the fact that Kabul is situated in a geologically unstable zone close to the Chaman Fault and has been shaken by severe tremors in the past. One extension of the fault ends only six miles from the capital. Any sizeable earthquake will be catastrophic because, over the past decade, Kabul has been the fastest-growing city in the world. Its population has tripled from about 1.5 million at the time of the Taliban defeat in 2001 to more than 4.5 million today. The increase is so big because of the return of refugees from Pakistan and Iran, flight from the turmoil in the rest of the country and the naturally high Afghan birth rate.

The spectacularly rapid unplanned growth of Kabul means that the Afghan capital is at risk of suffering a disaster that will have nothing to do with the Taliban. Government officials estimate that three-quarters of houses, home to three million people, have been illegally built and are unsafe in the event of an earthquake.

The extent of the problem is visible from much of the capital. The city was built at the bottom of a narrow valley and is overlooked by mountains. These are increasingly covered with new jerry-built houses that cling precariously to steep slopes so close to the vertical as to be almost cliffs. A tremor of any strength would bring them tumbling down. The best parallel here is probably not Japan but the earthquake in Port-au-Prince in Haiti in 2010, where there had also been a surge of people moving from the countryside. When the earthquake struck, the poorly built houses collapsed, killing 250,000 people.

People in Kabul are vaguely aware of the threat from earthquakes, but they are entirely engaged in the struggle to survive from day to day. This is getting more difficult and explains why everywhere in Kabul one finds exactly the same sort of rage against the corruption, incompetence and brutality of the Afghan government as is expressed by Arab protesters.

This detestation of the government is quite different from support for the Taliban, though popular contempt for the authorities gives the insurgents the political oxygen with which to breathe. It was a real estate dealer in Kabul, not a religious fanatic, who told me in a burst of fury: "There is bound to be a revolution if things go on as at present." He explained that for a small, well-connected ruling class Kabul is a gold-rush town where it is easy to make a fortune, but for most of the population it is a polluted, crowded, overpriced shanty town.

The way money is made in Afghanistan is often misunderstood abroad. It does not only come from the opium business or through corruptly obtained foreign-funded government contracts. As foreign money has flooded in since 2001, the Afghan cities, not just Kabul, have expanded rapidly but not enough for the number of people trying to live there. "Rents are five times higher here than in any of the neighbouring capitals such as Islamabad, Dushanbe or Tehran," explained Wahdat Aatifi, the owner of the Zhundun Real Estate company.

The notorious "poppy palaces", supposedly built with the profits of the drugs trade, are frequently cited by journalists as symbols of pervasive corruption. In reality, these hideous mansions are often paid for by the equally obscene profits accruing to the "land mafia", led by former militia commanders and politically well-connected power brokers who have seized control of state property. In addition, they buy luxury villas in Dubai while ordinary people in Kabul live crammed 10 to a room without electricity or fresh water.

In one sense, a natural disaster has already started. Kabul has become one of the most polluted places on earth. Clouds of brown smog are so toxic that the Afghan government has advised people to wear face masks during the rush hours.

Three-quarters of the pollution come from vehicles. As the population has increased so has car ownership, but Afghans own cars of a peculiar kind. Almost all are reconstructed car wrecks from the US and Germany and use a poor grade of petrol, belching out fumes that are trapped in the valley in which Kabul is built.

If life is so bad in Kabul, why do people keep coming there? Many new arrivals say they had no choice; they are fleeing for their lives. Not far from the Intercontinental Hotel in south Kabul I spoke to a group of 870 refugees, Pashtun farmers from Helmand who had fled US air strikes. Several had lost legs, and one man took off his dark glasses to show his mutilated face and sightless eyes. Their leader, Rahmatullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said it was too dangerous to go home. "The Afghan government and the Americans rule during the day, and the Taliban by night." If the air strikes did not get them, the insurgents would.

The Taliban is primarily a rural Pashtun insurgency and, aside from Kandahar, never seems at home in the Afghan cities. This is fortunate for the West, oblivious to discontent among Afghans unless it is directly linked to fuelling guerrilla war. Their unconcern may be shortsighted. It would not take much for the poorly housed Afghans to rise up with the same fury as the Arab protesters.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam