The Archipelago of Fear

Are fortification and foreign aid making Kabul more dangerous?

Illustration by Marco Cibola

I met a friendly Canadian in Terminal 2 at Dubai International Airport. We were lining up for the flight to Kabul.

“Where are you staying? ” he asked as we shuffled toward the gate.

“Dunno,” I answered.

He twisted his face into a look that was one part incredulity and two parts mad dad.

“Have you ever been to a place like this?” he asked. I glanced at the card he’d handed me: Colonel Michael McLean, Canadian Defence Attaché.

“A place like what? ”

“A place where they’ll kidnap you and cut your throat. Listen to me,” he said sternly. “You need to stay at the Serena Hotel. It’s safe there.”

It was an audacious recommendation. The city’s “safest” accommodation had recently become its bloodiest.

The Serena was built from the bombed-out skeleton of the sixty-year-old Kabul Hotel. After President Hamid Karzai presided over its opening in 2005, the city’s only five-star hotel became a popular gathering place for well-paid aid workers, security contractors, and consultants eager to escape the dust and chaos. Kabul was a shambles, but the lucky few who made it through security at the hotel’s iron gate could enjoy two fine restaurants, a coed pool, an air-conditioned health club, and a spa specializing in Elemis brand skin therapy. From the rose garden, guests could gaze at Sher Darwaza, the arid mountainside where returned refugees built huts from the scree. Rooms start at $280 (US). The Serena was, as one of its press releases proclaimed, “an oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city.” Perhaps that’s what made it a target.

Last January, suicide bombers stormed the hotel. One of them exploded at the Serena’s gate. During the ensuing confusion, two of his pals charged into the compound, armed with machine guns and grenades. One marched through the marbled lobby into the Serena’s gym and spa, shooting at everyone he saw. Seven guests and staff were killed before he was captured. It was the first suicide attack on a soft target in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban.

I didn’t need the defence attaché’s encouragement to visit the Serena, however. I had read dozens of accounts of the attack, and was struck by one particular detail: the attackers didn’t hunt down the Norwegian foreign minister (a guest at the time) or any other politician. Instead, they laid siege to the hedonistic heart of the oasis. Why would insurgents choose the heavily guarded Serena when there were easy marks throughout the city? It was as though the building itself, with its high walls and unheard-of luxuries, had been the real target. If so, the Serena and places like it had a story to tell about the relationship between architecture and violence.

This idea seemed academic until my friend Tilo and I left the razor wire hedgerows of Kabul International Airport. A parks planner in Vancouver, Tilo is a fastidious and cautious fellow. He had done his reading, and concluded that Kabul was a post-conflict city, perfect for an architectural holiday. He could take photos of bullet-strafed monuments without actually having to dodge bullets. But having arrived a week before me, Tilo had been sobered by the city. He had yet to walk the streets alone. His eyes were wide open, and his nostrils were an angry red. He had developed a nasal infection he insisted was the result of breathing dust-borne fecal matter. “The air is shit,” he said. “And it’s not safe here.”

Our driver sped us toward the city on a highway that had been refurbished by the Americans. From here, Kabul resembled a junkscape of cracked mud huts, woodpiles, and rutted dirt side streets, punctuated by gleaming new glass low-rises and cellphone transmission towers. Pockmarked shipping containers served as workshops and vegetable markets. Now and then, a tremendous stench blew in through the open window. Amid this chaos, the airport road’s four lanes of slick asphalt felt like a miracle. But the fresh pavement ended a block from the American Embassy. The road disappeared under a gauntlet of loopy razor wire; giant concrete blocks; and stacks of Hesco brand blast barriers —wire mesh cubes lined with polybags and filled with dirt. They looked like refrigerators in bondage.

Evidently, the main road through Kabul had become a private driveway for the US Embassy and its neighbour, the International Security Assistance Force. In fact, Wazir Akbar Khan—the upscale neighbourhood made famous by The Kite Runner—was largely off limits to traffic and to Afghans. We joined a fuming mass of battered taxis making a halting circumnavigation of the barricaded heart of the city. “Look,” Tilo said, pointing at the sandbagged walls, razor wire, and watchtowers. “Look,” he said again, nodding at the fleets of unmarked pickup trucks that pushed through the streets, their boxes loaded with gunmen in generic uniforms. Finally, our driver steered into a canyon of concrete blocks and under a pole gate—pausing briefly for a guard to check the van’s chassis for explosives—and eased into a garage-like chamber between two house-high iron gates. He waited for the first barrier to close and the second to open, then delivered us into the light.

We couldn’t afford more than one night at the Serena, so Tilo had found us another island in Kabul’s archipelago of high-security compounds. And what an island it was. The guest house (whose name and location I won’t disclose, due to the security concerns of the international organization that runs it) inhabited a pair of walled gardens lush with honeysuckle and rose bushes. There was a badminton court, a gym, and a party room that shook on its weekly salsa nights. But it was the pool bar that distinguished the place, especially on Fridays, when bikini-clad babes and their beaus draped the lawn or frolicked in the California-blue pool. The beer was cold, and the burgers dripped with American ketchup.

It was hard to believe we were in Afghanistan. And really, we weren’t. Kalashnikov-armed guards kept Afghans from approaching the compound gate unless they happened to be employed there as waiters, cleaners, or bartenders. A few years ago, one aid worker felt so comfortable, so fancy free inside the compound, she once opted to swim topless. She was ejected from the country.

That first night, a gang of engineers and security consultants lingered at the bar until late. The Guinness cans piled up. From my bed, I could hear Texan voices howling, “We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving.” Their song echoed off the compound’s high walls.

We felt safe inside those walls. Sometimes Tilo even seemed his old self. He would giggle and take photos of the pool. But this sense of security, according to many of the people working to rebuild Kabul, was entirely false. In a 2007 essay titled “Capital of Chaos,” architects Ajmal Maiwandi and Anthony Fontenot argued that while roads and sewers crumbled and squatter settlements were bulldozed, aid dollars, opium profits, and war booty had transformed the Afghan capital into a manic showcase of glittering mansions, glaring inequity, and militarized urbanity. Like the Serena Hotel, our walled country club was a monument to the failures of reconstruction that could only serve to inflame and alienate Kabulis.

I had spoken with Maiwandi months before arriving in Kabul, shortly after the Serena attack. He’d answered his mobile phone in the middle of the public garden he was rebuilding on the banks of the Kabul River. The cherry trees were pushing out the first buds of spring, but Maiwandi’s thoughts were dark. While it was unlikely that Kabulis had carried out the Serena attack— suicide bombers were known to be coming in from elsewhere—he pointed out that insurgents have a tough time blowing up hotels without sympathetic Kabulis to feed, house, and hide them.

The foreigners who ousted the Taliban back in 2001 had vowed to rebuild the country, but the failures of reconstruction were written all over Kabul’s landscape. The city’s fancy fortresses symbolized seven years of broken promises. “The city is a tinderbox,” Maiwandi despaired. “All it needs is a little spark.”

Seven years after the Taliban’s ouster, Kabul was supposed to be a bastion of stability, from which peace and prosperity would ripple across Afghanistan. But if Maiwandi was right, then the failures of reconstruction were actually contributing to a feedback loop of fear, fortification, and instability. I was fascinated and troubled by the possibility that foreign aid might be helping remodel Kabul into an even more dangerous place.

Can the shape of a city really change the psychology of its inhabitants? It’s not an outrageous thesis. In 1997, the citizens of Bogotá elected as mayor an adherent of what some call the “economics of happiness.” Armed with studies suggesting that people could be made happier and more engaged by boosting feelings of safety, equity, and trust, Enrique Peñalosa ordered that fences around neighbourhood parks be ripped down, and handed road space to bikes and pedestrians, among other measures. Despite Colombia’s ongoing civil war, feelings of optimism in Bogotá spiked during his three-year term. Traffic accidents plummeted. So did the murder rate. Peñalosa’s ideas are now being adopted elsewhere, including in crime-plagued Mexico City.

International surveys show that the more people trust their neighbours, strangers, and their government, the more likely they are to help strangers, to vote, and to volunteer. If better streets, sidewalks, walls, and buildings all improve the ways people engage with one another, then the reverse should also be true: antagonistic architecture can corrode trust and fuel hostility. Kabul just might be a laboratory of toxic urbanity.

With his close-cropped hair and gymnast’s physique, Najib Naheb, my first Afghan friend, looked like the kind of guy you’d meet at a Starbucks back home, or maybe in a yoga class. Naheb had studied journalism at Kabul University, and had agreed to translate for me. He moved through his neighbourhood, Shar-e-Naw, with easy confidence. But he changed when we reached the edge of fortified Wazir Akbar Khan, lowering his head and his voice as we presented our IDs to an Afghan soldier at a guard hut. After seeing my foreign passport, the soldier waved us through the stacks of Hesco barriers. We headed south on a sidewalk lined with hot tub–sized cement planters. The road was desolate. Unspooled coils of razor wire glinted on the ground and in the air.

“Don’t stop. Don’t lift your camera. Don’t point. Keep walking,” Naheb murmured as we padded past the gated entrance to the US Embassy. Near the Ariana Hotel, now a cia fortress, the sidewalk disappeared under cement blocks so high we couldn’t see over them. At what was once one of Kabul’s busiest intersections, we negotiated more gates and more stone-faced soldiers. A convoy of suvs with tinted windows roared past, raising a plume of yellow dust.

The entire neighbourhood had been militarized except for a concrete high school stranded amid the fortifications. We took shelter from the sun in a classroom with a few of the teachers. The staff of Amani High School was uniformly bitter.

“Your money is not helping us!” sputtered Mohamad Ibrahim Oshimyor, a gaunt, wrinkled German teacher. He straightened his threadbare blue blazer and explained that the school was cursed by its proximity to so many foreign diplomats, soldiers, and spies. “Whenever the soldiers have their meetings, the students aren’t allowed to come for lessons.” He paused to suck on a crumpled cigarette. “Maybe the US Army and others are scared of us. But their fear is having a terrible effect on our students. Why don’t they move outside the city? ”

During the Soviet occupation, the Russians were despised for situating their bases in urban areas, effectively using locals as shields and shutting down parts of the city. It had occurred to many Afghans I spoke to over the next two weeks that the West was essentially doing the same thing. “We expected the international forces not to follow the same mistakes as the Soviets,” said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, an architect and deputy chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, when I dropped in for tea the next day. “These compounds and roadblocks have a disastrous psychological impact on Afghans. They make everyone feel as though we live in a war zone. Well, the city is not a war zone.”

This was more than an aesthetic critique. Those who look at the intersection of psychology and urban form suggest that the short-term gains from fortification might be overshadowed by the hostile response it fuels. Aggressive architectures—such as high, bare, cement walls—have been found to produce a backlash of vandalism and incivility in peaceful cities. Buildings offer cues suggesting how people should act. They tell us about our relationships with one another. University of Victoria environmental psychologist Robert Gifford once put it to me this way: “Buildings are symbols. They communicate to people, even if it’s not what their architects intend.” Fahim Hakim suggested that in Kabul, the fortifications around foreign compounds reinforce Afghans’ suspicion that those inside the walls have more in common with their former Soviet occupiers than they admit. “We just don’t know if they are here to protect us or themselves,” he said.

It’s not that walls are anything new to Kabul. Nearly every home, even the most humble hillside hut, is surrounded by one, most commonly built of mud brick. In a country with strict gender and social codes, walls allow for privacy as much as security. But foreigners have taken fortification to new extremes. All over Kabul, embassies, development agencies, and even businesses have buried sidewalks and street lanes under cement blocks, guard posts, bunkers, and private generators. Hesco barriers are ubiquitous, and the everyday life of the city has been crowded out. In 2006, President Karzai ordered the streets and sidewalks cleared, but for the most part internationals have ignored the decree.

The architectures of fear in some ways play into the hands of the Taliban. A post on Al-Emerah, a now-defunct pro-Taliban website, described an old man’s response to a foreign convoy in Kabul: “What have these irreligious Christians come for that they write on their cars, ‘Don’t approach, keep away’?…If these bloody foreigners try to stay away from us, then for what reason have they come to our country?”

The dangers are, of course, quite real. Tilo and I were emerging from the Canadian Embassy in Wazir Akbar Khan one afternoon when we were accosted by Colonel McLean. He shot me that familiar mad dad look and insisted we follow him back into the bowels of the embassy for a security briefing. McLean and his security manager unrolled a map of Kabul decorated with red stars. Each one, he said, represented a bomb attack in the previous year. Some explosives were remote controlled. Some were packed into cars. Some were delivered by bicycle. While I furtively toyed with a microphone in my satchel, Tilo counted stars and became increasingly agitated. “Thirty, fifty, more than a hundred,” he said, his voice climbing an octave. McLean hurriedly rolled up the map before Tilo could finish.

Up in his office, McLean showed us pictures from the day last November when he was woken up—lifted off his bed, in fact—by a blast on the street behind the embassy. The bomb shattered nearly every window in the complex and blew a bathtub-sized crater in the street. Body parts littered the roof. Now the back wall of the embassy was dwarfed by a three-storey stack of Hesco, piled up like a mountain of marshmallows. “You get it now?” he asked. “You have to ask yourself why we have all these Hesco barriers, why there are Kalashnikovs everywhere. It’s not for fun.”

In the past week, three homemade bombs had been discovered along the airport road. Seven explosives were detonated in nearby provinces. Four Afghan National Police were kidnapped and killed in nearby Wardak. A rocket landed inside the fence at the international airport—this in a city the folks back home had been led to believe was the stable heart of the country. It was enough to make anyone want to build a higher wall. “Back to the guest house,” Tilo said gravely. “I need the pool now.”

For a time, we stayed close to our compound. We felt calm there. But the longer we spent inside, the clearer it became that Kabul’s walls also had a powerful effect on the people stuck within them. One Friday afternoon, a red-facedwoman arrived at the guest house in dainty sandals and a fluorescent orange frock. She would have been a marvellously transcendent sight had her billowing cruisewear not been constricted by a bulletproof vest. She tromped past the bar to a far corner of the pool, stripped down to her one-piece, and leaped into the pool with a great splash.

“How do you like Kabul?” I asked her when she hauled herself back onto the lawn.

“Kabul?” she replied in a heavy German accent. “How should I know? I haven’t been to Kabul.” As an adviser to the European Union Police Mission to Afghanistan, she was under close protection, which meant that her world consisted of her residential compound, her office, and the interior of an suv. She needed advance permission to swim for the afternoon, and oh, dammit, her day trip ended at five. She hurried off before I could get her card.

Foreigners were segregated, isolated from the city by fear, insurance risk, and institutional fiat. The UN Minimum Operating Security Standards, for example, forbid staffers from wandering more than 150 metres away from UN vehicles, and ban visits to all but eight approved, walled, guarded, double-gated restaurants—all off limits to most Afghan nationals, since they serve alcohol. A security contractor told me that the insurance risk was so great his road engineers couldn’t drive during rush hour. A few times each day, our cellphones buzzed with shrill text messages from the Afghanistan ngo Security Office. My favourite: “Threat of suicide and assault team attack on high-profile target over next 48 hours. Avoid anywhere high profile tonight. Call for advice if needed. More info tomorrow.” The attacks never materialized, but the fear found its way into everyone’s steps. Unlike the early days after the invasion, foreigners were a rare sight on the streets. Flights to and from Dubai were packed with weekending aid workers.

Shravan Kashyap, a long-time UN hand, told me over an English breakfast in the rose garden that he was working on a project, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, to improve refugee settlements near Kandahar. cida was doing fantastic work, he said.

“So what are those settlements like?” I asked as he munched on his toast.

“Oh,” he said matter-of-factly, “I’m not actually allowed to go there.”

This segregation inevitably affects the direction of international assistance. After seven years and billions of dollars in aid, Kabul still lacked a fully functioning sewage system. The streets were a moonscape. Electricity flowed to only a few neighbourhoods, only every second night, and only for a few short hours. Most homes lacked running water. Most of the three million–odd refugees and returnees crowding the city lived in informal settlements with no services whatsoever. But a citizen of the security archipelago could remain completely unaware of these hardships. The United Nations standards for employee housing require that guest houses have their own generators, plus water, food, and fuel enough to sustain the residence for several days. Bomb shelters are mandatory. So are blast film for windows, armed guards, and walls high enough to keep out disgruntled Afghans. The city could starve, but we wouldn’t find out until we saw it on cnn.

Fahim Hakim had waved his arms in frustration when I told him about life in the guest house archipelago. Fear and segregation have led to massive failures in the reconstruction of the city and the country, he said. “If you are locked in your guest house and your offices, how can you interact with normal people and understand their needs? All you’ve got to inform you is the international media on your TV at night. So the reconstruction plan emerges from this, without understanding the needs of people here. It’s a golden chance for opportunists and smart people to make big money off foreigners’ good intentions.”

It was ironic that our conversation took place behind the walls of Fahim Hakim’s own gated compound, but that didn’t weaken the tragic logic of his argument: that an aid system guided and blinded by fear was easily perverted. Indeed, the international compounds were part of a system shaped to some degree by opportunism. After the 2001 invasion, Afghanistan was promised billions of dollars for reconstruction, nation building, and economic development. Some $15 billion in aid has been spent thus far, with an additional $17 billion–plus promised during the summer of 2008—not to mention the estimated $4 billion in annual revenues from the opium trade.

But according to a report this year by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, a vast amount of aid money disappears before it reaches the Afghan people, having been spent on premium accommodations, food, security, transport, and salaries for expatriate consultants and contractors. Most foreign consultants in Afghanistan charge more than $250,000 per year—more than 200 times the salaries of the planners I met at Kabul’s city hall. Four of every ten aid dollars bounce right back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries, and over half of aid delivered to Afghanistan is earmarked for materials and labour from its donor countries. (None of Canada’s aid is tied in this way.) By acbar’s calculations, only 10 to 15 percent of the dollars spent on international construction contracts make their way into the localeconomy.

The United States Agency for International Development spends nearly half its funds on five American contractors: kbr, the Louis Berger Group, Chemonics International, BearingPoint, and DynCorp International. For some large jobs, these companies farm out the work to as many as five layers of contractors, with each one taking a cut. Sometimes only half the total budget of a project is spent on the work at hand. A case in point is the new road from the airport to the US Embassy, one of the most visible aid initiatives in Kabul: usaid hired the Louis Berger Group to build it. Berger then subcontracted it to the Afghan Reconstruction Company. In the end, the road was built for over $2.4 million per kilometre, at least four times the average cost of road construction in Afghanistan.

It was easy to imagine, as many Afghans did, that the waste and misdirection of aid was intentional, part of a grand scam to funnel international taxes into a kind of aid-industrial complex. But Fahim Hakim preferred to give internationals the benefit of the doubt: sure, most foreigners wanted to do the right thing for Afghanistan, he said, but even the most well intentioned would misunderstand Afghans’ needs if they didn’t leave their fortified world.

I felt the accusation implicit in his gaze and left his office chastened. I had become far more intimate with the geography of the archipelago— smoked salmon pasta at L’Atmosphère, burritos and brews at La Cantina, canapés and disco dancing on the rooftop of the American Embassy—than with the concerns of the millions of people who had poured back into Kabul from Pakistan, Iran, and the provinces. The walls made it easy to indulge. Tilo helped, too, with daily recaps of security warnings: “No hailing taxis on the street. No walking alone. No taking the same route twice. Don’t forget about the improvised explosive devices!”

Shame pushed me beyond the city’s fortified isles. My first forays were tentative: a quick trot through Shar-e-Naw park, where unemployed men played cricket beneath the pine trees. A trip to a pharmacy to buy antibiotics for Tilo’s latest infection. A wander through a street market, where people barely noticed my passing. Sometimes I walked with Najib or his brother Ahmad. Sometimes we’d grab a taxi.

“What do you want?” I took to asking people. “Security,” answered many. When I pressed them, I realized that they were talking mostly about jobs, food, and a way to take care of their families.

One afternoon, I walked with Ahmad on the rubbly slopes above the Kabul River. We followed a gang of boys as they hauled water up a dirt path toward their mountainside homes. Wahid Nor Hagha, a bright-faced lad, shyly described his day: In the morning, he sold gum and shined shoes near the Demazang traffic circle. Midday, he accepted lunch at a centre for orphans. In the afternoon, he carried water up to his family hut. Four hours of hauling usually covered it. He had no time or money for school. “I’m the head of the family,” he boasted. He was twelve years old.

As the sun fell over the Hindu Kush, Wahid’s father hobbled out from the family’s darkened hut. He opened his shirt to show me the purple scars on his shoulder and belly, left over from battles against the Taliban. He was gaunt, wide eyed, and hungry. I readied myself for his plea for money or food.

“I just need a job,” he said. “I can do just about anything. I can work.”

This was clearly untrue, but his sincerity was heartbreaking. A crowd gathered around us as the man raised his voice. “I can work! I can do anything! I can drive!” The moon rose. Wahid smiled helplessly as he led us away from his father, down the hill. “A job!” shouted the old man. “I can do anything!”

All of Kabul seemed to be going mad from this unquenched desire for work. Forty-five percent of Afghans are unemployed, and research by the Senlis Council has found that in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, and Nangarhar, jobless youth are the prime targets for Taliban recruitment. On my solo wanders, I would inevitably attract a wake of bright-eyed young men who would spontaneously begin to advise me, protect me, bargain for me, and then, after an hour or so, ask me to find them a job. I couldn’t help but wonder if these were the urban cousins of the hungry rural men who turn to the Taliban.

The poor certainly had reason to be resentful. The high walls and cloistered compounds of Kabul were a daily reminder that the cash was flowing—just not for their benefit. Wealth glinted and glittered from dozens of tinted-glass wedding palaces and office towers rising from garbage-strewn streets in the leafy district of Shar-e-Naw. It showed in the price of real estate: the monthly rent on a walled villa—the residential and business address of choice for foreigners—had jumped from $200 to $10,000 since 2002, according to one realtor who specializes in housing internationals. Most of all, wealth oozed from the garish mansions of Sherpur, a neighbourhood whose name had become synonymous with corruption—and collusion between foreigners and Afghans constructing a city of searing inequity.

Sherpur was once owned by the Afghan Ministry of Defense, though it was inhabited for decades by war refugees and squatter families. In 2003, then defence minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim sold off the land to allies and cronies, including the mayor of Kabul. Existing squatters’ homes were bulldozed, and the country’s elite built mansions on the rubble. The district is now a showcase of some of Central Asia’s gaudiest residences, home to the likes of Uzbek warlord and accused war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who, according to media reports, had recently gotten loaded, then kidnapped and tortured a former ally who also lived in the neighbourhood. (Dostum was not arrested, since his supporters warned that doing so would trigger riots.)

One sunny morning, I convinced Tilo to join me in a common pastime for internationals in Kabul: the hunt for a Sherpur dream home. The streets were a mess of broken rock and open sewers clogged with garbage, but amid this public poverty lay a phantasmagoria of private wealth. The mansions stood three, four, even five storeys high, with champagne-tinted windows, candy cane columns, mirrored cupolas, and gold paint so chaotically collaged that the loops of razor wire adorning the balconies seemed almost a whimsical flourish. Roman fountains! Swimming pools! Concrete fauna! Sherpur’s aesthetic roots were international —there were splashes of Dubai, Peshawar, and Miami—but fuelled by a local phenomenon: buckets of booty from war, corruption, and the opium trade. We couldn’t agree on the nomenclature. Was this narcotecture or warlord kitsch?

Along with a local realtor, Tilo and I inspected a pink mansion around the corner from Dostum’s place. The crystal chandeliers, sculpted marble fireplaces, and expansive entertaining rooms were impressive, but nothing beat the diorama of the Serengeti in the great room, complete with plastic zebras, tigers, gazelles, and trees, all underneath thick panels of glass. “Cool!” said Tilo. This was more like the vacation he had envisioned. Thus encouraged, the Afghan owner jumped up and down on the synthetic savannah. “Just like flying over Africa!” he proclaimed.

Up on the roof, he waved toward the surrounding villas. “Americans, Indians, Australians, more Americans!” For $10,000 a month, we could be surrounded by our kind of people. Indeed, some of those who had supposedly come to help rebuild Afghanistan had taken up residence in the stolen neighbourhood. The Spanish Embassy, the Mines Advisory Group, and International Relief and Development (a US government–funded contractor) were all there. Their choice was a tacit embrace of Dostum and the corruption that had spawned his neighbourhood. It also wrapped their own reputations in a distinct stench.

If the happiness economists are to be believed, then the architectures of the new Kabul are a security disaster. Rose-tinted ostentation and high-walled compounds make for tempting symbolic targets. University of Zurich economics professor Bruno Frey noted at an anti-terrorism conference in Lisbon this summer that terrorists act quite rationally: they generally choose objectives they expect will provide the highest cost-benefit ratio. Attacks that make international news or affect an organization’s operations are by far the most attractive. Terrorist attacks are most successful when they create stories. So a high-profile building, even a thoroughly fortified one, is likely more appealing to attackers than a collection of dispersed targets. After all, it was the Twin Towers that took the hit on 9/11, not a business park in Brooklyn. In Kabul, attackers chose the opulent and well-guarded Serena while dozens of less obtrusive guest houses fell under the radar.

The most efficient means to reduce risk, Frey argued, was not fortification but dispersal—a spreading out and watering down of targets. This notion of dispersal can be broadened to include the way international organizations engage with Afghans. Security and development go hand in hand. The more donors can spread out the benefits of aid, the safer the country will be. Every new wall, every new building tells a story about how well this has been done.

A few aid workers have taken this idea to heart. One of them is Babs Alink, a Dutch architect and woodworker who agreed to meet Tilo and me for dinner inside the beefed-up walls of the Serena Hotel—which now boasted a second iron gate, more guards, and an airport X-ray machine. We had the hotel’s slick Asian fusion restaurant to ourselves, thanks to another security alert.

Alink said she had spent nearly half a decade helping rebuild schools, clinics, and roads in Afghanistan. At one point, while co-ordinating the construction of dozens of schools for usaid, she resisted the agency’s pressure to hire one of Washington’s big contractors to do the work. Instead, she organized the project through local village councils, using native methods and materials—wood, rock, and mud brick—rather than expensive imported concrete.

“When you bring contractors from outside, the local people see jobs melting away before their eyes, and they get pissed off. Then of course you will need security,” she said, spooning up her ginger and lemon grass ice cream. “But that same community will send their children to school if you let them build it.”

Alink gave up her $20,000 (US) per month consultant’s salary to work for less than a quarter the pay with Turquoise Mountain, a foundation that helps Afghans rebuild historical neighbourhoods in Kabul using traditional methods. Her home—and the foundation’s temporary base—was the mud-walled Parwan Fort, ironically one of the least fortified structures in the city. Bang on the door, shake the gun-wielding guard’s hand, and you were in. Every day, some 200 Afghan masons, students, woodworkers, and teachers passed through the rickety gates to experiment with earth architecture and woodworking methods alongside international staff. This easy mixing had knocked the fort right off the UN’s list of safe destinations, but one security consultant told me that such engagement was actually a remarkably effective strategy. Indeed, there was a conviviality and lightness to the fort I didn’t feel anywhere else.

Alink explained the wisdom inherent to the earth architecture. Unlike concrete, mud walls insulated against Afghanistan’s extremes of hot and cold. The raw material—mostly dirt and straw—was cheap and abundant. The construction methods could be adopted by almost any able-bodied person, but they were labour intensive. A mud wall was an engine of employment. Thus mud could be the basis of strategies for both development and security.

I began to understand this the morning Tilo and I ventured into Murad Khane, the medieval quarter where Turquoise Mountain focused most of its efforts. We followed a tweed-suited Afghan through a warren of winding passageways and hobbitlike courtyard homes. He explained that two decades of war had nearly erased this neighbourhood. Homes not blown to dust by rocket attacks had been pulled apart, scavenged for their wooden frames, or buried under mountains of garbage deposited during years of chaos.

Not only was the foundation restoring the district’s mud palaces, but its crews—men from the neighbourhood—were stabilizing residents’ homes and packing out thousands of tons of garbage. On some walls, I could still see the shadowy traces where head-high piles had simmered. Around every corner, men were piling mud bricks, smearing mud masonry, or chipping at slate paving stones. Everyone was busy. The day was hot, but inside those thick walls the air was cool. In the Great Serai, a kind of traditional Muslim inn, a finely carved cedar doorway and smooth, delicately shaped mortar hinted at 300 years of wealth and history.

These buildings were performing a powerful psychological function, as Turquoise Mountain’s founder, Rory Stewart, had explained to me back at the fort. (Stewart is the former British diplomat whose 2002 walk across most of Afghanistan is recounted in his book The Places in Between.) “Rebuilding Murad Khane has a narrative purpose, a symbolic purpose,” he insisted. “It’s about creating something which allows Afghans to see that there was once a time where they weren’t simply a charity case, a recipient of international aid, but quite the reverse, where they were a source of world civilization.” Stewart hopes that by 2011 the people of Murad Khane will have taken over his craft and construction schools. The neighbourhood might help rekindle a taste and talent for Afghan architecture across the city and, perhaps, the country.

“Our fathers were born here, and they died here,” Kaka Khalil, a weathered fellow with gentle eyes, told me as he led Tilo and me up a set of crooked stairs to his rooftop. “We can’t all live in cement buildings. We need room for our own ways of living.”

As if to prove his point, Khalil opened the cage in which he kept his flock of pigeons. The birds cooed and clucked and bobbed their heads. For a moment, we forgot the anger and frustration on the streets, the rocket attacks, the warnings of imminent bombings, the mistrust, and even our own fear. Tilo’s face broke into a broad, grateful grin.

With a wave of Khalil’s hand, the birds exploded into a great speckled cloud. They flew in a widening arc over the mud walls, across the blue tiles of a minaret and the garbage-filled Kabul River, over the slums that clung to the mountainsides, soaring higher and higher across the blinding midday sky.

Charles Montgomery