Monday, December 7, 2009

Building a Better Afghanistan

The USMil plan for Afghanistan is to protect the population centers. Lots of things have been said about this, and I'm on the record now for support Joshua's thoughts on it. I suppose the heart of my version of the argument is that the urban population of Afghanistan is only ~30% of the total population. Even allowing that this is a low estimate due to refugees flocking to cities (or just the heck out of Afghanistan), it's easy to see that the vast majority of Afghanistan is NOT living in urban populations. So between that and the fact that Afghanistan's economy is still mostly agricultural/mining based, protecting population centers tactily means not protecting the economic and social base of Afghanistan. It is giving up on the historic understanding of what Afghanistan is.

The major refutation of my argument is that the "old" Afghanistan was obviously broken if it was taken over by Taliban, so now the idea is to recreate a new, better, Afghanistan. There's some sense to this, and also some opportunity. The GlobalSecurity infograph I linked to previous states [sic where necessary]:
About 77,000 urban houses, of which 63,000 in Kabul alone, have to be rebuilt and an additional 63,000 have to be built for the internally displaced people (IDP). 60% or Kabul urban roads have been destroyed; access to piped water is only about 20% in Kabul (10 to 30% in the other major provincial cities); more than 20 provincial capitals do not have any functioning piped water system and no more than 50% of solid waste is collected.
So there is a distinct opportunity to create a new urban fabric, since the existing one is ripped to shreds. This is a basis for HRTs, NGOs, and all of the other non-military COIN operations to be undergone. Bombing Taliban folks isn't going to get running water going, pitched gunfights aren't going to provide jobs. And it's not that "Roads = Security" or some such tosh, but if the military is operating under the assumption that they can provide a better future than the Taliban can, then a better future has to be built. There has to be an Afghanistan to be provided security, not just FOBs.

This is all a prelude to the work of Nick Sowers, an architect graduate student who, after a long time of traveling and studying on fellowship, is now writing his thesis on the built environment of militarized Afghanistan.* The conclusion to that post deserves quoting at length:
And yet, a recent NY Times article made me realize how neo-colonial the whole enterprise is. Top of the line hospitals sitting vacant. Energy infrastructure running at a marginal percentage of its capacity. So what role could an architect, or could Architecture, possibly have there? Good will has no place when it's towed in by a tank.

I've been running thesis end-game scenarios like this for a project in Afghanistan, to test my moral satisfaction with the potential outcome. I could design bases that are easily recycled to civilian uses. It might even get fun designing things like a church which becomes a mosque, or a defensive wall which provides some kind of infrastructure for refugee housing. Making a base easier to recycle will also make it easier for the military to plant bases wherever they please, under the guise of providing future infrastructure.
Is the military creating wholly new urban environments for their bases? Or are their bases symbiotic to the populations they're purportedly protecting? If the idea is to build up a state that the US can leave, what sort of footprint is being left behind? And how contextualized to the Afghan people is this? Do these "churches that become mosques" look like a mosque? Or a church? And most interesting to me is zoning and the urban fabric: is the new Afghanistan going to be something that an Afghan would feel comfortable in, that is, to the scale, using the materials, and involving the streetflow and roomflow that an Afghan can expect? Or will the Afghans be expected to Americanize or go back to the (not-USMil controlled, lest we forget) rural areas?

When we talk about withdrawal and exit strategies, I don't think any of these things get taken into consideration. But whatever else you say about the current war, the US military effort will probably leave the greatest urban footprint on the land of Afghanistan itself since Timur rolled through. We know his legacy from centuries past, but the USMil isn't thinking about its legacy decades from now. And if there's no consideration of the endgame, then, well, is there seriously an endgame?

Not entirely topical to this post, but when reading Sowers's notes, I keep on thinking of Full Battle Rattle. Yeah, its about Iraq, but it is still kinda relevant. Anyone seen it and want to give a film review to me?

*= I don't know Nick, I've just found his blogs through BLDGblog and find them interesting. I'm going to e-mail him once this is published, sure, but there is no pre-existing relationship.

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