In the Afghan city of Herat, the young are restless as war grinds on

The Citadel of Herat, built in the 15th century during the Timurid dynasty and recently restored with the help of $1.2 million in U.S. aid, overlooks the city of 400,000 people in western Afghanistan.


By MARTIN KUZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 30, 2011

HERAT, Afghanistan — Near the heart of this traffic-clogged western city stands a fortress almost as long as three football fields, with battlements that rise 10 stories above the swarming streets.

The Citadel of Herat traces to the Timurid dynasty of the 15th century. The Sunni Muslim tribe declared Herat the capital of its vast Persian Empire, and the brick stronghold was the crown jewel for ensuing regimes that seized the city.

In the 1970s, the Afghan government converted the imposing structure into a museum. The Taliban were less civic-minded, bolting artillery guns on the parapets and torturing political prisoners in the dirt courtyards.

With the help of $1.2 million in U.S. aid, the ravages of time and the Taliban have been repaired. Earlier this month, Afghan and U.S. officials presided over a ceremony celebrating the citadel’s restoration.

On a recent afternoon, Omid Mojaddidy, 30, a Herat native, ascended the steep, curling stairs inside a corner tower, stepping from shadows into sunlight when he reached the top.

The country’s third-largest city spread out below him, an urban labyrinth of some 400,000 people. The majority live in mud-brick homes as primitive as the dwellings of the Timurids.

He blew out a long breath. The climb hadn’t tired him. He was suffering from history fatigue.

“Enough with the past,” said Mojaddidy, who has resided in the city his entire life except to attend college in neighboring Iran. “Tear down the citadel, get rid of the old buildings.”

He lifted a hand above his head and dreamed out loud.

“I want new. I want skyscrapers. I want Dubai.”

His wish for instant gentrification amounts to heresy for older generations of residents who, like most Afghans their age, trust tradition before innovation.

But among those in their 20s and 30s, a yearning exists for Herat to live up to its moniker as “the Dubai of Afghanistan.” As yet, amid a national economy burdened by war, the label remains more aspirational than accurate — almost a taunt — despite the United States, Iran and other countries pumping millions of dollars into projects to create jobs and improve the city’s infrastructure.

His lean frame holstered in a light gray suit, Mojaddidy, who is married to an American and speaks fluent English, works as an office assistant for a U.S. contractor here.

He regards the frustrated hopes of the city’s young adults as another casualty of the country’s uncertain security. He expects conditions to worsen as the U.S. withdraws its troops over the next three years.

“We are ready for something different than violence,” Mojaddidy said. “We want a future that gives us opportunities, but everything is about the war.”

Starting around 220 B.C. and for the next 1,600 years, Herat was an important destination for traders traveling the fabled Silk Road that linked the Far East to India and Europe.

In the 21st century, the city sits at a crossroads, a faded Persian beacon struggling to evolve into a thriving Afghan metropolis.

“People my age are trying to make Herat go forward,” said Fatima Yosaf, 27, standing in her clothing shop beside wall racks of hand-woven cashmere shirts and scarves. “We don’t want to keep waiting.”

Yosaf’s store occupies space in a three-story mall funded in part by the Afghan government. The building opened earlier this year and its merchants are exclusively women, evidence of efforts seldom found outside the nation’s major cities to give women options for working outside the home.

“We sometimes have a feeling of optimism in Herat,” she said. “But there needs to be more jobs, and with the war, it is hard for businesses.”

Looking to the west?

The citadel is only the most imperial of the city’s architectural wonders conceived by the Timurids. The fallen kingdom’s legacy endures in a cluster of brick minarets and the renovated Friday Mosque, whose soaring, aqua-colored spires threaten to impale the sun.

Herat’s move toward the contemporary in the last decade has mostly emphasized function over spectacle: roads, schools, health clinics, office buildings, factories. An exception is the Herat Trade Center, a nine-story glass tower that lends a dash of modern to the city’s profile.

Concrete and rebar have replaced mud and wood as the staples of homebuilding. The largest new houses resemble palaces, with pillars, curved facades and tinted windows that reflect the city back on itself in shades of green, blue and gold.

“A few people have been very successful,” said Jamil Hashim, 23, who lost his job in July when the food supply store where he worked went out of business. “Everyone else is having to try to survive.”

It is local sport to speculate on how the affluent attained their status. There is talk of government bribes, drug running, arms trading.

The rumors tend to mention Iran, some 70 miles to the west and a major investor in Herat to counter U.S. influence in Afghanistan.

Iran spent millions of dollars to pave a road from the border to Herat, and another route to connect the city with Afghanistan's northern provinces of Badghis, Faryab and Jowzjan. The Islamic Republic has subsidized schools and industrial plants, and Iranian contractors routinely bid on development projects.

At the same time, Afghan and U.S. officials assert, the country supplies weapons to the Taliban-led insurgency.

“There is a lot of wondering about Iran,” Hashim said. “What I think is that there are bigger problems here to worry about.”

The effects of gaining more than 100,000 residents since 2001 has reverberated across the city. The electricity grid in older neighborhoods strains under the demand; power outages are common. Garbage collection is erratic; long necklaces of trash lie along some sidewalks and streets.

Cars, taxis and trucks plug narrow city streets as motorized rickshaws, motorcycles and pedestrians squeeze through gaps. Vehicle exhaust wafts through the main bazaar where vendors sell fresh produce and raw flanks of beef, lamb and goat.

In contrast to the population growth, economic activity, primarily nourished by public and private investment from the U.S., Iran and the United Arab Emirates, appears modest at best.

A business operations task force controlled by the U.S. Department of Defense has lured Afghan companies to a new 40-acre industrial park. Tenants include a soda bottling plant, motorcycle manufacturer and cut-and-wash carpet facility.

The task force has also hired IBM to run a tech incubator, touted as the country’s first, to nurture start-up firms in Herat.

At their hotel-like campus on the city’s outskirts near a NATO base, IBM consultants work with four companies to sharpen business plans and investor proposals. Each firm has fewer than a dozen employees, many of whom attend Herat University.

A typical afternoon saw three young men tapping at laptops in a small room, talking above the steady clatter of keystrokes. They constitute the creative team of a fledgling Internet service provider, and in ambition and attire — T-shirts, jeans, tennis shoes — they could pass for Silicon Valley expats.

“We had the idea to start a company,” said Jamshid Sultanuzada, the company’s CEO and, at 28, the trio’s senior member. “But we didn’t know how to get investments and develop our business approach.”

IBM’s consultants had arranged a meeting between Sultanuzada and a group of potential U.S. investors a day earlier. He was upbeat about the chances of a deal.

“This is an opportunity that we would have a hard time getting on our own,” he said. “This is the kind of help that (tech) companies need in Afghanistan.”

A larger project shepherded by the task force involves a $4 million upgrade of the city’s airport.

When construction wraps up in the spring, Herat will join Kabul as the lone cities in Afghanistan with airports capable of handling international flights.

In theory, the anticipated increase in air traffic, coupled with the opening of a new U.S. consulate in Herat, will boost business and tourism prospects.

Farid Ansari, 25, would like to believe the bright forecast of U.S. officials. He instead fears Afghanistan will slip deeper into disorder as America sends home 33,000 soldiers by next September.

“Our entire business depends on security,” said Ansari, who manages his father’s rug shop a few blocks from the citadel. “If the security is bad, business is bad, and it is obvious that security is a problem. Tourists will not come when things are like this.”

Violence persists

Violence in western Afghanistan, while less sustained than in the east and south, has persisted at an unsettling rate for those in the region.

Five Afghan soldiers died last week after their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Pashtun Zahrgun, a district near Herat city. A roadside bomb also killed two Afghan police officers and a civilian near the airport in late September.

In May, coordinated suicide attacks in downtown and outside the nearby NATO base killed five people and injured more than three dozen.

For business owners, already hurt by episodic unrest in and around Herat, bloodshed in the nation’s capital further magnifies their concerns.

In September, after a deadly insurgent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, shops in Herat’s central district may as well have been closed.

“There was nobody coming in,” Ansari said. “People were scared.”

U.S. and ISAF officials invoke the phrase “security bubble” when discussing the military presence that ostensibly buffers Kabul.

Ansari prefers “security pond”: The aftereffects of violence in the capital ripple outward, causing anxiety to rise and consumer confidence to plunge nationwide.

“If you don’t have peace there, you for sure won’t have peace in the provinces,” he said. “If you can kill the former president so easily, people are not going to believe they are safe out here.”

Young adults in Herat grew up swaddled in that collective unease, and as the war continues to leach the country’s resources, they worry the coming decade will mirror the last.

“I want to expand our business,” said Ansari, who has worked in his father’s shop since his teens. “But it is difficult as long as there is no peace, and there is no way to know what will be happening tomorrow. We are stuck.”

Many office buildings are vacant. Others are frozen in mid-construction, their investors unwilling or unable to keep up with payments.

A pair of 20-story towers lacking walls and windows have stood in their skeletal state for more than a year. The massive gray frames loom like twin tombstones over the city.

“For us, there is a lot of worry,” said Fatima Yosaf, who opened her clothing shop in April. “We don’t know if anything will get better. I am hoping my business will be OK.”

Discontent passes from one generation to the next in Afghanistan as each inherits the nation’s heritage of war. Gazing down from the restored citadel, Omid Mojaddidy could see remnants of a mud wall that was built by minions of Alexander the Great around 330 B.C. to protect the city from invading armies.

He recalled campaigning for President Hamid Karzai in 2004. Then, Mojaddidy felt his country could begin again.

Now, as he and his wife await the birth of their second child, he thinks the future lies elsewhere.

“We may move to America,” he said. “Afghanistan is still in the past.”


Twitter: @martinkuz

Jamshid Sultanuzada is the CEO of an internet start-up firm that is working with an IBM tech incubator in Herat, a city of 400,000 people in western Afghanistan. The incubator works with fledgling companies to sharpen business plans and investor proposals.