In Kabul, Taliban rulers are changing the face of the capital

Widening roads and replacing monuments, officials erase relics of adversaries and fulfill long-awaited plans

Municipal workers in December prepare a drainage ditch bordering a road long closed to the public but recently graded and about to be paved in the affluent downtown Kabul enclave of Sherpur. (Elise Blanchard for The Washington Post)
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KABUL — Taliban authorities have embarked on an ambitious project to change the face of the Afghan capital, a crowded metropolis of 5 million that still displays the scars, monuments and fads of periods of civil conflict, foreign invasion and new-money opulence.

The Kabul municipal government, which provides utility services to homes and businesses and then collects fees to support its budget, is setting out to improve selected corners and neglected corridors of the city. It has 180 projects underway, including planting trees on median strips, erecting traffic-circle monuments and building major roads from scratch. The projected total cost is about $90 million.

In the affluent downtown enclave of Sherpur, blast walls have been removed from around showy mansions once occupied by warlords and government officials. Bulldozers have been grading and paving streets that were long closed to the public, shortening commutes and allowing residents to glimpse the abandoned lairs of the mighty.

“This is where powerful people lived. I was never allowed here,” said a 10-year-old boy who was playing cricket on a newly graded block. A passing Taliban guard chimed in. “These properties were all grabbed illegally. No one paid their taxes,” said Fawad Alokozai, 49.

In Dasht-i-Barchi, a run-down district across the city dominated by minority ethnic Shiites, municipal crews are smashing old houses to rubble as they prepare to build a connecting road to a major highway. The thoroughfare was originally envisioned 43 years ago by the first Afghan president, Mohammed Daoud Khan, who overthrew the monarchy and designed a master plan for the centuries-old capital that was never fulfilled.

“We have been waiting a long time for this,” said a gray-bearded, 68-year-old resident named Shahruddin, watching dust-covered workers with sledgehammers destroy a row of old mud-brick homes in the future boulevard’s path. He said some residents are worried about being compensated for their properties. “The Taliban are more honest than past governments, so we have to trust they will pay,” he said.

Naimatullah Barakzai, the spokesman for Kabul’s reconstruction initiative, said all international development projects stopped after the Taliban took power last year. “We don’t want to wait for them to start again or depend on foreign aid,” he said. Even though the country of 40 million faces economic hardship, he stressed, “We want to solve our own problems, and we want to make the city beautiful. We don’t want people to think Kabul is ruined now and that we don’t care about culture.”

Barakzai, 40, a longtime municipal official, said his office is using the authority of the new government to get things done, including the seizure of private properties. “No one is allowed to use their influence to refuse us,” he said. “We will pay them, but we will use our tools, and we will implement our plans.”

Unlike Afghan kings and the Soviet-backed modernizers of earlier eras, the Taliban religious militia did not leave a physical stamp on Kabul when it first took power in 1996 after a civil war that left much of the capital in ruins. That five-year reign was infamous for destroying non-Islamic, rural antiquities and landmarks, especially the towering 6th-century Buddha statues carved into cliffs in the northern province of Bamian.

During the past 20 years of elected civilian governments, Kabul underwent a construction boom, which was driven by Western aid and development projects. High-rise apartments created a new skyline, and supermarkets and sleek fashion malls opened. In some areas, streets were paved and storm drains dug. But years of relentless warfare kept foreign investment away, and critics said aid funds often went into contractors’ pockets. Refugees returning from years in Iran and Pakistan swamped poor communities, many already crowded and barely habitable.

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One businessman who lives in Sherpur welcomed the new government’s efforts, although he recently lost half his house and nine ancient pine trees when the wreckers came. He said the capital had needed cleaning up in more ways than one.

“In the past, there was corruption and bribes, there were gangs and drugs, but that’s all gone now. If the municipality says they will pay me within the year, I believe it,” said Abid Baloch, 55. “The new government is honest, and it is changing both the physical and political landscape.”

One such change has been the dismantling of an urban fortress once occupied by Abdurrashid Dostum, a former army general, vice president and brutal militia leader now living in Turkey. For years, the structure loomed over a narrow city intersection, slowing traffic to a crawl. Once, police trying to arrest Dostum were unable to get past the blast walls, barbed wire and gun turrets. Now, those defenses are gone and pedestrians stroll in the surrounding lanes.

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“This makes me feel like we have done something useful, that all my years of fighting were worth it,” said a Taliban security guard in his 50s named Khairullah, who was sitting next to a snack stand across the street. “We have brought peace, men are growing beards and going to mosques, and citizens are walking freely.”

Militarized structures built by departed U.S. and NATO forces — some overlaid with steel roofs that obscured entire city blocks — have been harder to beautify, especially those now being used by Taliban security agencies. Barakzai said municipal officials have been negotiating with such occupants to remove outer blast walls or hide them from view, so far with little result.

“We have no legal power to force anyone to cooperate or move. We can only file cases in the courts,” Barakzai said. He noted that one relative of a late Afghan president has refused to leave a longtime family home in downtown Kabul — part of which was due to be demolished — and may remain there indefinitely.

Some of the vacated residential palaces are still off-limits because their former inhabitants have been replaced by Taliban fighters, families and visitors. On July 31, when a U.S. drone strike in Kabul killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born al-Qaeda leader, he was living as a Taliban guest in a high-walled Sherpur mansion.

Other kinds of public projects are both highly visible and politically symbolic. Along with installing concrete lane dividers on busy boulevards, city workers are razing prominent traffic circle monuments. Several were built to honor slain anti-Taliban leaders such as Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq, both killed in 2001. They will be replaced by abstract objects rather than Taliban heroes, though, because the movement’s strict Islamic code bans human likenesses.

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In poorer areas of the city, the less visible, heavy-duty work of shoring up old roads and building new ones has been moving ahead rapidly. In Dasht-i-Barchi, the new avenue got underway last month with a rumble of heavy equipment. A crowd of residents gathered to watch, sad to see the old houses come down but happy that the community finally would be connected to Highway 1. The major north-south route between Kabul and Kandahar was built by the U.S. Alliance for Progress in the 1960s.

“I don’t know why they have to do this now, when winter is coming and people are hungry, but this road is something we need. I can remember my father talking about it when I was a boy,” said Mohammed Mohsin, 30, an unemployed butcher. “If it is finally happening with the new government, then we must all be glad.”