TOPICS : Kabul should have its dignity restored

We declare war. We bomb. We conquer. We then pretend to rebuild. But there is no rebuilding, just collateral damage. In Belgrade, Baghdad and Kabul, the last three cities assaulted by Britain in war, millions may be spent on aid, but buildings are left as piles of rubble.

Central Kabul was, until the 1970s, an ethereal place of baked mud houses and gardens nestling among the foothills of the Hindu Kush, “the light garden of the angel king”. It then spent a quarter century being bombed and shelled by, successively, Russians, the Taliban, Afghan tribes and Western jets.

Two efforts are now being made to rescue the old city from the planners’ final solution. One, financed by the Aga Khan Foundation, is restoring lanes, houses and shops. More challenging is the neighbourhood on the opposite bank of the river, Murad Khane. Behind a quarter crammed with metal and craft workshops, the land is two-thirds flattened and expropriated by the city for clearance. Aerial photographs of Murad Khane in 1980 and 2004 are like those of the English city of Coventry before and after the WW II bombing.

A British charity run by a former diplomat, Rory Stewart, is struggling to help Kabul avoid Coventry’s mistake in destroying whatever the bombs left standing. Under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation is urging the owners of 30 surviving buildings to accept free restoration. The remaining sites will be rebuilt in traditional style.

The Aga Khan and Turquoise Mountain are the best things that could happen to Kabul. The occupying powers should be down on their knees pleading with them to join hands over the Kabul river, to embrace what was once a great bazaar of central Asia. Towering behind them runs the ancient city wall along a mountain ridge. At its foot stands the fortress of Bala Hissar, as dramatic as Syria’s Crac des Chevaliers. Both await restoration.

The West is spending obscene amounts of money on the ineffective military occupation of Afghanistan, including one billion pounds on a base in Helmand province. Spending is no less obscene on trying and failing to suppress the country’s one valuable crop, opium, which Britain consumes in vast quantities. For a fraction of this money, Kabul could have restored to it some of the dignity it has lost over the past quarter-century. For a smaller fraction London could at least restore the magnificent old British legation, rotting and derelict in its park while diplomats cower in buildings rented from Bulgarians.

The British statesman George Curzon’s greatest legacy to India was not pomp or civil service. It was saving the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and a 100 palaces, castles and temples that are India’s glory and its tourist asset. Even Nehru later said of Curzon that he would be remembered most among British viceroys of India because he saved “all that is beautiful in India”. It was Curzon’s proudest boast. Will the same ever be said of his successors across the North West Frontier? — The Guardian