Sunday, March 7, 2010

Thinking Big, Thinking Small...

...or perhaps not thinking. Not at all. Terrible Seuss-ian writing aside, there are a few different ways to view how ISAF is trying to change the built environment in Afghanistan. I've been bullish on architectural changes for a while now, and the military wings its way besides. I'd imagine the impulse to make wholesale changes is a bit too colonial and a bit too expensive, but the costs of just throwing up a base on the outskirts of town are pretty severe too. More than just creating a divide between the locals and the security, poorly planned bases are at least partly responsible for a couple of serious blunders. This is actual stuff. And its becoming apparent that nobody really knows how to do it.

This is all a bit old news at this point - to an extent. There's still a tremendous confusion over the benefits of going Big or Small Footprint in Afghanistan. Take embassies. The one in Kabul is more known for its guards then what they're guarding, sure. And for the $200 million expansion to make sure it keeps up with the arcologies in Baghdad and Islamabad, it is still a big frightening structure behind concertina wire and killing zones. The new-style embassies look more steampunk than something out of 21st century defense.

Will Wiles has a very good write-up on his blog about the new American Embassy in London. Completely different environment, I know. But the embassy still treats itself like its in a warzone. It's worth quoting at length:
It's worth taking a step back to really admire what we're looking at: a building designed with explosions in mind. A shape formed by the manipulation of spheres of destruction. It could be the first London building built with attack from the ground in mind since the Second World War. (It's also a testament to the extraordinary power of terror: the fact that a few hypothetical malcontents with A-level chemistry and a driver's licence can race to the head of the queue ahead of a whole gang of other diplomatic considerations.) So, what new forms are these? Going back through my notes from that terror conference is a dispiriting experience; the bureaucratic jargon like "hostile vehicle mitigation" and "exponential decay of blast effect" does not exactly induce good cheer. There are some aspects of HVM that might give pause to Londoners. Firstly, it doesn't stop attacks, it just makes them more difficult and limits their impact. Secondly, it's primarily meant to protect facilities, rather than people. Obviously some people are protected into the bargain - I'm not saying that to make some Spartist the-Yanks-care-more-about-their-office-furniture-than-the-lives-of-honest-cockneys point, it's just a fact of life. 30m stand-off will prevent a truck bomb causing massive structural collapse, but said bomb could still cause horrific death and injury. Thirdly, HVM only protects the one facility, not the buildings around it. The plans for the new embassy show new glass blocks surrounding it at street's edge. Will they still be glass when they're built, I wonder.
And this is in the United Kingdom. The Kabul (and Islamabad, et al) embassies are even more startlingly imperialistic. The "new forms" are the old forms, and the embassy is still built to withstand direct kinetic attack like some fort of yore.

So that's what's going on at the core of the state-building. At the periphery? More small-scale projects that get so lost in NGO Bureaucracy so as to have a minimal affect. Danger Room is referring to Haiti in this particular example, but it's a good read on the dangers of throwing money at problems: local context gets lost, and most of the money makes it back to the +01 country code regardless.

Some of the smaller, fleeter, projects tend to work better. Projects that are run by smaller staffs not bloated by interns, run by people who have more of a stake in it than a resume line. There are people out there who can say more about this than I can, but there are definitely a couple operations I have a lot of respect for. Turquoise Mountain is impressive. I've written about my awe of the Aga Khan before (and poorly).

The state-building taking place has to be done at a local level - this is a surprise to nobody. What is a surprise is why the United States feels the need to have a Death Star Presence in Kabul in order to make it so.


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