“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Poppy Palaces of Afghanistan

'Poppy palaces' are latest symbol of Afghan corruption

By Karin Brulliard
Saturday, June 5, 2010; 2:55 PM
Washington Post

KABUL -- For rent on Street 6 in the neighborhood of Sherpur: a four-story, 11-bedroom dwelling of pink granite and lime marble, complete with massage showers, a rooftop fountain and, in the basement, an Asian-themed nightclub. Price: $12,000 a month.

It's a relative bargain in this district favored by former warlords and bureaucrats -- Kabul's version of Beverly Hills. There may be a war on, but carnival-colored mansions are mushrooming alongside cratered streets and sewage streams here. Vast outdoor chandeliers, heated indoor pools and acres of mirrored, skyscraper glass windows abound.

The grandiose houses -- derided here as narco-tecture -- have become the most obvious symbols of Afghanistan's corruption, which ranks among the world's worst and is fueled both by an enormous influx of American dollars and by the opium trade. They have paralleled a building boom sweeping this and other Afghan cities, fed by the donor money that has helped distort an economy of haves and have-nots.

But unlike the roads and schools being built, the so-called "poppy palaces" are so garishly incongruous that some observers view them as more cultural erosion in an oft-invaded nation. Traditional Afghan residences are low-slung mud brick with internal courtyards and little external embellishment. Poppy houses, critics grumble, are imported Pakistani designs, with Arab, or simply alien, influences.

"I mix designs from the U.S. and U.K. -- I create my own!" said Haji Akram Mughal, a Pakistani architect who works out of a second-story Sherpur office, where on a recent day he displayed blueprints for two mansions he designed for Afghan Air Force generals, one of which resembled a plantation from the American South.

In most of Afghanistan, where the United Nations says more than one-third of the population lives in "absolute poverty," mud walls and no running water remain the norm. That also prevailed in Sherpur until seven years ago, when local authorities bulldozed rudimentary houses there and gave the land to senior government workers. In their place now stand houses that mimic Roman ruins, the White House and a cruise ship.

Then there are the rooftop birds: Atop two domiciles sit giant statues of eagles, their wings spread.

"When I saw that eagle on my roof, I liked it more than a real one," said Fazil Mohammed, a construction executive who owns the larger of the eagles and its 16-bedroom perch, which he said is leased to a nephew of President Hamid Karzai. Never, Mohammed said, would he have "such a fancy thing" in the typical Afghan neighborhood where he now resides.

"The eagles? I can't place them at all," said Thalia Kennedy, an architectural historian at the Kabul-based Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which preserves historic urban areas. Poppy houses, she said, "seem to represent a massive leap from tradition."

But not entirely: Afghanistan has always been a crossroads, Kennedy said, and some of the poppy houses hint at past eras. The Mughals, whose 16th- and 17th-century South Asian empire included parts of Afghanistan, favored glass decoration, a bit like the sparkly mosaics of some Sherpur verandas, she said. An "obsession" with adorning every inch of a building's interior is common across the Muslim world, she said, something Afghanistan's nouveau riche have taken outside.

Zamani Nawid, a property dealer in Sherpur, said most homeowners acquire blueprints from Pakistan and hire local engineers to do the building, which is often fairly shoddy. Then they rent them to foreigners and go live in Dubai, he said. They are "very powerful people," Nawid said -- the sorts with posses of bodyguards -- and so he asks no questions about their sources of funding.

Among Nawid's listings is a 47-bedroom monstrosity that rents for $47,000 a month. He said he has also sold a property with a poolside feature that sounds like an urban legend: A mechanical contraption that looks like a black crow, and which wraps its wings around swimmers then blows air to dry them off.

"It's bigger than a man," Nawid, 21, said approvingly. "In Afghanistan, there is a lot of competition. So everyone wants a house that is better than the other person."

Among this set, the popular features these days would make a fundamentalist Taliban commander keel over. And for that reason, they are often concealed in the basement, said Mughal, the architect.

"Barbecue -- it's a must. Swimming pool -- it's a must. And -- I feel shame -- drinking," he said about his clients' typical demands. "Yes, a bar. Everybody likes this."

A few blocks away, 80-year-old Mohammed Gul sold brooms and cucumbers outside the earth house he built with his hands three decades ago. It now stands in the shadow of Sherpur palaces, which he said he views with awe and fear.

They are lovely, he said, even if they are "owned by drug dealers." But the city has warned that his patch of land might soon be handed to developers. Then, said Mohammed, "the next day they will come to us with their bulldozers."


  1. It costs us one million dollars a year to keep one US soldier in Afghanistan.

    Afghanistan accounts for production of 87 percent of the world's heroin.

    Afghanistan cultivates 225,000 acres (350 square miles) of poppies.

    It is estimated that there are one million hardcore heroin addicts. 34% get their heroin from Afghan sources.

    4300 US servicemen have died in Afghanistan.

    The Taliban get from 40-60% of their income from heroin.

    Drugs and bribes are the two largest income-generators in Afghanistan. The country's opium trade last year was worth an estimated $2.8 billion.

    For the annual cost of 2800 US soldiers, a small brigade, the US could pay off the entire food chain of the heroin drug trade in Afghanistan.

    That is the costs of three days of US oil imports.

  2. In Colombia we refer to them as narco mansions.

  3. The poppy harvest in Helmand and Kandahar should be significantly diminished this year.

    Bad for the farmers. Good for the drug lords, who comprise a healthy chunk of the Good Guys.

    Little known statistic: Afghanistan had the world's fastest growing economy last year, at 11 and something-odd percent. That was the licit part of it.

    They're on a roll.

  4. For as long as those pledges of foreign aid continue to be honored.

  5. Minor correction, however: At the end of May, 1,000 US service members had been killed in Afghanistan. Not 4300.

  6. Talking about ag products, the oil spill may be good for us alfalfa farmers, as alfalfa can be used to soak up oil. Wish it hadn't happened though.

  7. Navy boards 'Rachel Corrie' off Gaza
    06/05/2010 15:32

    IDF forces dock ship in Ashdod, none harmed.

    These activists were not quite as active as the last activists. The model of good activist behavior.

    Meanwhile, thousands gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the Gaza blockade. The JPost identifies them as "leftists." We just call them Ha'aretz readers.

  8. "It is a tragedy, though, that Quirk wasn't soaking in the tub, when he plugged that appliance in. :)"

    Cute Bobber.

    Real funny. As were the other comments about Spain and bulls and me.

    We'll see just how funny when the plan is fully implemented. You can take some comfort in knowing that Idaho is far down on our list. However, rest assured we will get to it eventually.

    (Just got back to the suite, badly sunburned. Need a nap. Tell Rufus and Whit I will check on the status of the plane when I get up.)


  9. We're paying $400.00/gal for diesel over there. That's right $Four Hundred.

    We can get 100 gallons of biodiesel from an acre of poppies. Capital costs are nil.

    100 X $400.00 = $40,000.00

  10. In fact, there's no real reason to turn it into "biodiesel." It would work just fine if we poured the poppyseed oil directly into the fuel tanks of those vehicles.

  11. Trish's CIA guys did it right the first couple of months. As soon as Tommy Frank's Army boys moved in, and screwed the pooch at Tora Bora, it all went downhill.

    We'll be gone by Dec 31, 2011.

  12. No way Obumble is going into 2012 (HIS election year) with troops in Afghanistan.

  13. The Indy 500 is going to 2.4 L engines next year. They can do that because they're using 100% Ethanol. (they can get, at least, 30% more Horsepower out of a gallon of ethanol than they can out of a gallon of gasoline.)

    The Buick Regal coming out in the fall will have a 2.0 L option which will get good power, and, virtually, the same mileage as gasoline, on E85.

    For the cost of ONE YEAR in Iraq, and Afghanistan, we could be free from "imported" oil, FOREVER.

    One Year

  14. With U.S. Aid, Warlord Builds an Afghan Empire

    TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan — The most powerful man in Oruzgan Province is not the governor or the police chief but the head of a private army that guards NATO convoys and fights Taliban insurgents alongside American Special Forces.

  15. We have 15 Billion Gallons/Yr of Ethanol from Corn. You want another 60 Billion Gallons/Yr from Cellulosic (switchgrass, corn cobs, waste paper, etc?)

    The Price Tag is approx. $180 Billion for the biorefineries.

    Less than we paid to bail out AIG.

    1.2% of GDP - for One year.

    We save approx $360 Billion in Oil Imports the "First" year.

  16. We can say, "Sayonara" to the Middle East, Forever.

    We can collect the "taxes," locally.

    Did I mention Exxon paid NO U.S. Income Taxes last year? Out of a Profit of $36 Billion?

  17. If I ever went back Spain and France, I'd go directly to those paleolithic caves, with the old wall painting, 30,000 years or more, abandoned when men, or maybe it was the women, found agriculture, around 11,000 years ago, and abandoned abruptly; and not waste my time in museums and cathedrals. Biggest mistake of my traveling life. I recommend that over Pamplona, Quirk. Never been to either, though.

  18. The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our way of life, the clearer we should see through it.;u=142449