Afghanistan's blast walls are falling - a sign of its changing social contract

The hulking concrete barriers once shielded 'islands of power' for warlords and corrupt politicians. Now they serve as canvases for Taliban propaganda

Taliban provincial culture chief Mullah Habibullah Mujahid stands next to part of a blast wall, taken from a former US military base, on display in the Ghazni governor's compound. AFP
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A generation ago, the US declared its intentions of state-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, only to fail miserably in both cases. The failure in Afghanistan, in particular, is owed to many reasons that will be studied for generations to come. They have been discussed a great deal this winter, at two conferences – the Herat Security Dialogue in Tajikistan and the Doha Forum in Qatar.

The Herat Security Dialogue, which was well-attended by former officials from Afghanistan’s fallen republic, brought to mind two reasons for Afghanistan’s failure: the empowerment of warlords and the erection of more blast walls than infrastructure. These two acts were related. They reinforced what Afghans call “jazayir-e-qudrat” – the “islands of power” that have long plagued their country.

The term rose in the Afghan political lexicon during the civil war of the 1990s, to refer to the different mujahideen groups vying for control. These islands did not merely symbolise different power centres, but rather unique pockets of sovereignty, creating a scenario in which the state was just one amongst many sovereigns. Critics of the republic also deployed this term to refer to the warlordism and impunity of certain individuals and groups that were pervasive in the US-backed system created in 2001 after 9/11.

Just like it would later do in Iraq, the US sought to right supposed historical wrongs by empowering groups that were considered to have been excluded from politics previously. On December 5, 2001, the US organised a conference in the German city of Bonn to transfer power to a new government in Afghanistan. Many of the participants were either the warlords of the civil war era or their representatives. Washington would spend the next 20 years relying on these men in their fight against the Taliban and buying out any who would cause trouble. It also often took sides in disputes between them, and created the Afghan Local Police, an organisation that was referred to by one of its own generals as the “reintroduction of the militias of former power brokers” to establish control over their localities. Shortly after the republic fell to the Taliban, in 2021, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted in a post-mortem report that the US had empowered local warlords whose allegiances conflicted with that of the Afghan state.

All this appeasement of men who built their influence through violence led tribal leaders to sometimes joke: “What do we have to blow up to get some aid around here?”

Geographical islands are separated from one another and the mainland by bodies of water, and islands of power are separated similarly from one another and the general population by a host of other barriers – wealth, weapons and concrete T-walls. These military-grade structures are ubiquitous in many Afghan cities, shielding the kingdoms of warlords and strongmen from the people they claim to represent.

Despite being originally designed to protect against roadside attacks by IEDs and mortars, the T-walls would eventually transform Kabul into mazes of concrete. They protected buildings, but also cut off large parts of the city in the name of security. The walls surrounding military bases, government buildings and the private (oftentimes forcefully grabbed) properties of warlords were a clear demarcation between the world that mattered and the world that didn't.

Perhaps the slowing down of the manufacturing industry of these walls should have been a wake-up call for those who thought the US presence would last forever

Beyond the physical separation of state and society, these walls symbolised a climate of fear, and served as a testament to the success of insurgents’ terror tactics. If state-building was reduced to numbers then the T-walls were a negative number – the addition of every wall was a step back in the goal of building the state.

Common citizens attempting to travel through the city of Kabul would often find themselves stuck between the protruding walls narrowing the street and the blaring sirens of the motorcades of the powerful ordering them to clear the way. Apps like Google Maps were useless in wealthy neighbourhoods, as most of the streets would be cordoned off by the powerful living there. Those parts of the city were labyrinths of dead ends.

The walls also hid much of the corruption and abuse that occurred behind them. Afghanistan’s government would become one of the most corrupt in the world, and much of the corruption – and sometimes the gravest human rights abuses – would either happen in government buildings or in the compounds of warlords.

The walls also created the perfect amount of mystery for the Taliban to weave tales about acts of immorality occurring behind them. The narratives of sexual abuse in government and political compounds – some of which undoubtedly bear a grain of truth – would eventually come to serve as a justification for banning women from going to universities and taking jobs in the public sector. We would hear Taliban representatives telling the citizens that universities and ministries had turned into hubs of debauchery under the republic. They would have to be cleansed, they said, before their doors could be opened again, if ever.

Perhaps the slowing down of the manufacturing industry of these walls should have been a wake-up call for those who thought the US presence would last forever. With the reduced military footprint and bilateral security agreement limiting foreign troops to military bases, the prices of the T-walls had fallen to a fraction of their original price. The industry was preparing itself for its natural death. The warlords would eventually scramble to their second homes outside Afghanistan, and the era of the islands of power would come to an end.

Most of the T-walls in Afghanistan have now been removed since the Taliban consolidated power. The ones that remain serve as canvases for Taliban propaganda. Afghanistan might still be a failed state but it has fewer walls – and thus fewer islands of power – to show for it.

Published: December 19, 2023, 2:00 PM