Legacies of Conflict and [Re] Constructing Urban Futures

Legacies of Conflict and [Re] Constructing Urban Futures

By Zannah Matson

“For if the past of slow violence is never fully past, so too the post is never fully post.” (1)

In October 2001, in response to the international War on Terror, Afghanistan became a theatre of conflict. The United States began a bombing campaign on October 9th, and at the same time, the Northern Alliance (the Taliban’s largest opponent at the time) launched a ground invasion, entering the capital city of Kabul later that month. (2) Despite the official overthrow of the Taliban and the signing of interim agreements for governance in December 2001, Afghanistan remains an active conflict zone. In 2003, the NATO-assembled International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took control of Kabul and began an eleven-year commitment to provide security for the city. (3) Although Afghan forces officially took responsibility for security operations in 2014, NATO mission Resolute Support continues to provide security assistance with a presence at the Kabul/Bagram base. (4) Amidst this continued military presence, and despite ongoing unrest both in the city and across the country more generally, Kabul faces the pressures of urban growth, development, and reconstruction.

Increasingly, contexts of protracted conflict such as Kabul are defining sites of urban intervention and design. Formerly envisioned as exceptions to a baseline of stability, these environments have become ubiquitous, amplifying their relevance to architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design. In the wake of war and widespread urban destruction, the pervasive question has become: How should the city be rebuilt?

For decades, conflict has woven itself throughout the fabric of Kabul, acting upon the urban form while also being shaped by the physical and social dynamics that define the city. Kabul’s position within the conflict is one of continual negotiation: there is no singular point at which post-conflict reconstruction can commence, just as there is no previous state of growth and stability that could or should be reinstated for the city. Instead, pressures of insurgency, colonial occupation, migration, reconstruction, informal settlement, and infrastructure provision all contribute to the making and remaking of the city.

Traditional approaches to urban reconstruction are unsuited to addressing the aftermath and the extended present of contemporary urban warfare (See Image 1). Within the Eurowestern design canon, the most prominent precedents for urban reconstruction were developed in response to the widespread urban destruction during both World War I and World War II. In these contexts, aerial bombing campaigns demolished prominent buildings and infrastructure in cities across Europe. After the signing of peace agreements, reconstruction efforts often emphasized the restoration of historically significant architecture that was damaged or destroyed during the war. This model of reconstruction has persisted despite fundamental changes to the nature of war. Meanwhile, civil unrest, the targeting of civilian infrastructure, and persistent ethnic cleavages are increasingly prominent features of contemporary conflict.

Image 1: A conventional view of conflict that sees a peaceful baseline to which conflict is an interruption, versus a contemporary interpretation of conflict that includes a spectrum of violence and an understanding of longer term processes of destruction and construction within the conflict city, 2017, Zannah Mae Matson

Stari Most and the Failures of Rebuilding

The restoration of the Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia, after its destruction in 1993 illustrates this kind of post-First World War reconstruction implemented in a contemporary conflict zone. An iconic site of deep ethnic cleavages within the region, Mostar continues to be one of the most divided cities in Europe more than twenty years after the official end of war in the region. Located in southern Bosnia, the city is divided by the Narevta River, with the largely Muslim ethnic Bosniak population on the east bank and the predominantly Catholic ethnic Croats on the west. Built in the sixteenth century by the Ottoman Empire, the Stari Most, the oldest of the city’s bridges, was targeted and demolished during a bitter and extended urban battle in Mostar’s core. (5) The bridge was of little strategic significance; its demolition was symbolic rather than provoked by clear military objectives. Martin Coward points to this type of targeted destruction as evidence of urbicide, in which the city itself becomes a target of ethnonationalists who oppose the cosmopolitan premise of contemporary cities as spaces of diversity and shared infrastructure. (6) For many, the destruction of the Stari Most signalled the extent to which ethnic divisions between the two groups on either side of the river had become entrenched during the conflict. 

Following the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995 that signalled an end to the war, rebuilding the bridge became a central focus of UNESCO and additional international aid funding, a symbolic gesture to reconnect the urban fabric of Mostar. (7) However, despite the completion of the reconstruction in 2004, deep divisions in the city persist and urban institutional capacity for local economic development and funding for educational facilities falter. In Mostar and elsewhere in Bosnia, projects like the rebuilding of the Stari Most have failed to address the divisive impact of war on social relations and continued ethnic divisions in physical and political spaces.

Legacy of Occupation and the Construction of Urban Form

In Kabul, destruction caused by the recent war has become the most prominent image of the city and the region; however, Kabul has long been the site of extended imperial and ideological clashes. These historical conflicts have not only resulted in destruction, but also in periods of widespread construction, directed and shaped by colonial urban agendas (See Image 2). Shifting periods of conflict and reconstruction have long shaped the dynamic city, complicating the idea that there is a stable state to which it can return.

Image 2: Timeline of Imperial Influence and Projections, 2017, Zannah Mae Matson

Prominent within these historic narratives are periods of British invasion and rule dating back to 1838. (8) The city’s location at the fork of the Darya-e-Kabul and the Paghman Rivers provided trade routes that connected Kabul with the region more broadly, while its position within a valley flanked by steep hillsides provided a strategically defensible position. While Afghanistan officially declared independence in 1919, British engagement within the region continued, and as late as 1948 there was a Royal City Planning Architect and Engineer stationed in Kabul to oversee the creation of city plans. The continued influence of British planning ideals on the city’s development went so far as to plan for the demolition and rebuilding of large tracts of urban fabric. (9) While unrealized in their entirety, evidence of this influence can be seen in the garden district area surrounding the Presidential Palace and the Dilkusha Palace.

Following the Second World War, as territories across the globe were being divided into the bipolar spheres of influence of the Soviet Republic and the West, Afghanistan once again became contested territory. Prime Minister Mohammed Daud Khan attempted to maximize potential gains for the country by pitting these two opposing forces against one another. In the national context, Kabul was seen as a supportive centre for the Soviet-supported People’s Democratic Party, an influence that can be seen in the Mikrorayon districts. Built on the eastern side of the city, these blocks of standardized, Soviet-influenced apartment buildings still stand and provide a significant source of formal housing in the city.

By 1978, the city had official plans produced by Soviet technocrats that called for strict land-use zoning. Later that year, Daud Khan—who had since become the President of Afghanistan—was deposed and killed in a coup led by the People’s Democratic Party. (10) After the coup, extensive Soviet support for industry and capital investment in factories further shaped Kabul. This was part of an effort to establish a relationship of dependence between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. (11) Meanwhile, the United States backed the opposition Mujahedeen forces through a steady stream of arms and financing, feeding the civil war that laid the groundwork for Afghanistan’s present conflict.

Despite the 1988 signing of peace agreements that lead to the withdrawal of international troops and support, sectional rifts within the country raged on. In 1996, after intensive bombing destroyed some of the city’s central architectural features, Taliban forces took control of Kabul, imposing a strict Islamic code, including curfews and social regulations, that further altered the city’s formerly cosmopolitan character. (12) Throughout the civil war, and specifically in response to the Taliban’s restrictions, many of Kabul’s residents fled the city. As former residents return alongside people displaced by violence elsewhere, the city’s population growth amplifies the effects of the Taliban occupation. (13) Rural to urban migration trends within the country are a direct result of the current war, and settlement patterns represent some of that war’s most significant impacts on Kabul’s urban form.

Legacy of Recent Conflict in Kabul: Insurgency vs Informality

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) detonated within Kabul have caused significant loss of life as well as the damage and destruction of historically and culturally significant architecture (See Image 3). These attacks have largely targeted the formally planned city of Kabul, while outside these boundaries, alternative legacies of conflict are evident in a recent construction boom (See Image 4).

Image 3: A map of Kabul showing the historic districts of the city in relation to both topography and the most heavily bombed parts of the city during the civil war, 2017, Zannah Mae Matson

Image 4: Stages of informal development within the city creep up the hillsides of the region, while IED attacks (represented as dots) take place largely within the formal parts of the city, along major transportation infrastructure, 2017, Zannah Mae Matson

In Soviet planning schemes from the 1970s, steep topographic features of the city were left as open space and parkland, while flat valleys along the river were assigned strict, separated land uses (See Image 5). The onset of war in 1979 meant that these plans were abandoned, and instead, informal settlement crept up the hillsides at an alarmingly fast pace, covering increasingly extensive territory (See Image 6). This settlement formation has impacted the overall growth of the city at 17 percent per year over the past several years. Informal settlements now account for 70 percent of the city’s residential area, and accommodate up to 80 percent of the population. (14) One central settlement stretches up the sides of TV Tower Hill, creating what New York Times writer May Jeong describes as “a microcosm of a nation divided…[W]aves of migration have left on TV Hill a kind of sociological sediment, with different groups of different means settling at different levels up the slope. The higher, the poorer.” (15)

Image 5: Contrasting informal and formal development within the city, this map shows the extent of informal development as of 2001, the eve of the most recent international intervention in Kabul, 2017, Zannah Mae Matson

Image 6: Informal development has continued within the city to accommodate new waves of migration to Kabul throughout the most recent period of conflict, 2017, Zannah Mae Matson

Image 7: A Collage of Sectional Urban Form, 2017, Zannah Mae Matson

Amidst these rapid changes, land speculation and a sharp rise in housing demands have forced residents out of their homes and into an increasingly marginalized existence. Housing demands have lead to a push for high-rise construction in secure compounds, further entrenching wealth disparity within Kabul. (16) Meanwhile, residents of informal settlements lack land title, making them vulnerable to eviction unless they are given greater representation within the city.

Contemporary reflections on conflict in Kabul focus on the violence of insurgent attacks, but we must understand the informal settlements on the city’s hillsides as an equally significant outcome of conflict as the spaces of direct impact. Their continued exclusion from infrastructure provision, and from the municipality’s formal planning initiatives, has meant that informal settlements continue to be underserved and remain unrecognized as essential components of the urban fabric.

Heightened population pressures have begun to stress city resources, and water scarcity now presents one of the most pressing issues for Kabul. The issue is exacerbated by a drought that has extended across the region since 1999. Lack of sanitation and a lack of water resources in informal settlements has meant that residents turn to the river for water, a body that has become extremely polluted due to urban sewage runoff and industrial effluents including the toxic chemicals from nearby tanneries. Although these issues may seem less urgent in the broader context of war, the often-divisive nature of resource shortages could lead to further cleavages within the fabric of Kabul civil society. By shifting the focus of urban analysis from the immediate violence of destruction to extended marginalization and discriminatory infrastructure provision, we can begin to understand the legacies of conflict in terms of their effect on ongoing processes of urban change rather than in terms of the ruined architectural sites that dominate our images of war zones. In doing so, it might be possible to prioritize constructing more equitable infrastructural responses to a dynamic context instead of focusing on the rebuilding of a historicized city.


Urban Futures on Conflicted Terrain

In contemporary conflict zones, the construction of infrastructure has either been left to forces of informal provision, or it has become militarized as part of counterinsurgency strategies. Kabul’s current form contains insights into the political perspectives and design responses necessary for the reconstruction of sites of urban conflict. Kabul’s urban fabric contains layer of the continued impacts of colonial occupation and the legacies of Cold War engagement alongside more recent histories of civil conflict and international counterinsurgency strategy. While past reconstruction models configured their approach in terms of rebuilding what was destroyed, focusing on dynamic urban development allows designers to engage with the complexities of urban conflict and to construct more equitable and just urban futures. Kabul and its surrounding region present a distinctive set of challenges: examining them allows for cross-contextual insight into how conflict manifests in the urban environment.


(1) Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 8.

(2) “Afghanistan Profile – Timeline,” British Broadcasting Corporation, last modified March 8, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12024253

(3) Ibid.

(4) “Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, last modified October 13, 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_113694.htm

(5) Sukanya Krishanamurthy, “Memory and Form: An Exploration of the Stari Most, Mostar (BIH),” Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 11, no. 4 (2012): 81-102.

(6) Martin Coward, “Urbicide in Bosnia,” in Cities, War, and Terrorism ed. Stephen Graham (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 154-171.

(7) Jon Calame and Amir Pasic, “Post-Conflict reconstruction in Mostar: Cart before the Horse,” Divided Cities / Contested States Working paper no. 7 (2009).

(8) Xavier de Planhol. “Kabul ii: Historical Geography” Encyclopedia Iranica, last modified April 19, 2009, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/kabul-ii-historical-geography

(9) Frank E. Patterson. “Planning in Afghanistan.” Landscape Quarterly 38 no. 4 (1948): 165-166.

(10) British Broadcasting Corporation, 2017.

(11) Kevin Sieff, “As U.S. War ends, Russia returns to Afghanistan with series of investment projects,” The Washington Post, March 21, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/as-us-war-ends-russia-returns-to-afghanistan-with-series-of-investment-projects/2014/03/21/11fab228-a5fc-11e3-b865-38b254d92063_story.html

(12) Ibid.

(13) Pietro Calogero, “Planning on Contested Ideological Terrain: Kabul,” Association of European Schools of Planning (2009).

(14) Alain Bertaud, “Kabul Urban development: Current city structure and spatial issues, recommendations on urban planning,” Kabul: World Bank (2005).

(15) May Jeong “Kabul’s City on the Hill,” The New York Times, June 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/10/opinion/kabuls-city-on-the-hill.html

(16) Annette Ittig, “Urban development in Kabul: An overview of challenges and strategies,” Institute for Afghan Studies, accessed March 5, 2017, http://institute-for-afghan-studies.roashan.com/Contributions/Projects/Dr-Ittig/UrbanDev.htm

Zannah Matson is a PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Toronto. Her current research focuses on counterinsurgency strategy and transportation infrastructure development in Colombia. She holds a Masters of Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and teaches in urban planning and design.