A gardener stands in front of one of the buildings in a housing complex called New Aria City in Kabul.

Kabul construction.

An Afghan standing in front of a construction site for a four-star hotel being built for the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Omar, on the left, a young Afghan who works in human resources for an Afghan contractor serving U.S. military forces, and a friend, in New Aria City, Kabul. Omar recently bought an apartment in the housing complex.

A family looks out over Kabul.

Kabul construction.

A mix of old and new in one of many construction zones in Kabul.

Building and decay in Kabul.

In front of a construction site in Kabul, a horseman from Mazar-e-Sharif sells rides on a horse for entertainment.

The hulks of destroyed Soviet-era military vehicles sit in front of half-built apartment buildings in Kabul.

Urban density in Kabul.

New and old Kabul: (background) a wedding hall; (left, right) apartment blocks, with advertising for a furniture store; (foreground) a shantytown with a child scavenging through garbage and livestock eating trash.

Jawwed Hamidullah, a young father of three who has worked in IT for an NGO ("non-governmental organization," or nonprofit), recently bought a four-room apartment for $150,000. Today, new apartments in his complex are going for $100,000. Piles of tile, building supplies, and appliances, still in boxes, were in front of the building, which was still under construction.

Jawwed Hamidullah in his apartment.

Jawwed Hamidullah in his apartment.

At Khaaja Rawaash Township, on the outskirts of Kabul near the airport, some of the largest housing construction in the country is under way, with some 2,000 workers constructing 72 buildings. The apartments inside, priced from $28,000 to 87,000--well below market rates--are exclusively for Afghan government officials and employees and were almost entirely sold out, even before the project was completed.

The lead engineer overseeing the project, Khaaja Rawaash Township.

Khaaja Rawaash Township.

Khaaja Rawaash Township.

Construction workers break for prayers.

A returning refugee, who came back to Afghanistan after years of exile in Pakistan and now lives in a shantytown surrounded by new high-rise construction sites, gestures to the luxury apartments around him and says: "They have that; we have this."

A returning refugee, who came back to Afghanistan after years of exile in Pakistan and now lives in a shantytown surrounded by new high-rise construction sites, gestures to the luxury apartments around him and says: "They have that; we have this."

An apartment complex in Kabul, stalled midway through constructed as the real estate market declined.

An apartment complex in Kabul, stalled midway through constructed as the real estate market declined.

An engineer, manager of an Afghan government construction project in Kabul. The apartments, which are reserved for government employees, are sold well below market value. So unlike many housing projects, the apartment units were completely sold, even before the project was completed.

An engineer, manager of an Afghan government construction project in Kabul. The apartments, which are reserved for government employees, are sold well below market value. So unlike many housing projects, the apartment units were completely sold, even before the project was completed.

Khaaja Rawaash Township.

Khaaja Rawaash Township.

The Kabubble: Scenes From Afghanistan's Stalled Housing Boom

The skyline in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, has changed virtually overnight. And now, ahead of an unsure and rapidly approaching future, building has stalled.

Drive around Kabul today, and you’ll see a curious sight: In a city historically dominated by low-slung, muddy brown buildings caked with the dust that forever blows through town, a forest of glittering high-rises stretches skyward. Shiny, glass-covered buildings are etching a new skyline.

Some of these are apartment buildings, catering to a middle class minted from the lucrative salaries handed out by the embassies, foreign contractors, and NGOs ("non-governmental organizations," or nonprofits) that descended on Afghanistan following the defeat of the Taliban. Some of them are investments, funded by businessmen and families who’ve gotten rich off new revenue streams: generous reconstruction contracts handed out by the NATO coalition and donor nations; the drug trade (Afghanistan provides about 75% of the world’s opium); and, shall we say, incentive payments disbursed to well-positioned officials.

A mix of old and new in one of many construction zones in Kabul.

But look closer and several mammoth structures sit untouched, stalled in a skeletal state.

The building boom heated up in the mid-2000s and kicked into high gear a few years later. Apartments buildings sold out before a single brick had been laid. Gated communities emerged, featuring blocks of apartments, grocery stores, restaurants, as well as 24-hour security and guaranteed power, all aimed at doctors, lawyers, and government officials. Even luxury high-rises have gone up, targeting, in part, Afghans who’d fled the civil wars to Europe and America in the '80s and '90s and now are looking for a pied-à-terre back in the homeland.

Informal housing has also exploded. The tall hills dominating the center of town are covered with homes built on the sly, by families escaping violence in the countryside or simply looking for the kinds of opportunities only a metropolis can offer. These aren’t the makings of shantytowns, though. They’re proper homes, with electricity and driveways. But everything, including water, has to be trucked in. The hillside neighborhoods are not on the city books, so they don’t receive any municipal services.

The city, which once accommodated 700,000 people, is now on track to reach 8 million in the next few years. But the real estate market in Kabul might prove to be a bubble. It’s already slowing down. The NATO coalition, which has maintained security in the country since the fall of the Taliban, has finally set a date to leave—at the end of 2014.

Khaaja Rawaash Township.

“People don’t know what will happen after 2014,” says Naqibullah Sherani, a real estate broker in the center of town. “They don’t dare buy because they think they need to hold on to their cash.”

Suddenly, everything seems to be on hold. Apartment complexes, where units used to sell out instantly, now see lagging sales for new construction. Housing prices in some neighborhoods have plummeted by 30% to 50%. A pair of brokers, cousins, who used to whip through as many as five transactions in a month two years ago, say they haven’t closed a deal this whole year and are starting to consider other lines of work.

Some worry the country will descend once again into chaos after the coalition leaves. And it’s not just the Taliban they worry about. There’s also a fear of general lawlessness, in which criminal elements will have free reign and personal scores will be settled. Even without a renewal of violence, certainty is the fuel of economic growth, and right now there’s precious little of that.

Jawwed Hamidullah, a young father of three who until recently did IT work for an NGO, is philosophical. He bought a four-room apartment a few years ago for $150,000. Today, new apartments in his complex are going for $100,000. But Hamidullah is taking the long view. “I’m sure the situation will keep changing,” he says. “If we get a good president [in next spring's elections] and stand on our own feet, I’m sure this house will be worth $200,000.”

Jawwed Hamidullah, a young father of three who has worked in IT for an NGO, recently bought a four-room apartment for $150,000. Today, new apartments in his complex are going for $100,000.

And not everyone is pessimistic about 2014. Some see the Taliban’s declaration this summer that it was ready to start peace negotiations as a hopeful sign. Others point to the fact that, in a country with as few opportunities for investment as Afghanistan, real estate is still a good place to park money.

Others simply don’t believe that the international community, especially the United States, will give up on Afghanistan altogether. Says Naveed Ahmad Ezam, the engineering manager at an eight-building complex going up in the center of town, “I was in Japan last year, and a man there said that when the Americans came to his country after World War II, they said they’d only be there for 10 years.” He pauses. “And they still haven’t left yet.”

[Photos by Teru Kuwayama]

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