In restoring a century-old palace, a step toward rebuilding Afghanistan’s independence

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Afghan men walk past the ruins of Darulaman Palace in Kabul November 9, 2012. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST SOCIETY) - RTR3A7DW

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we return to our coverage of the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the aftermath.

A decade-and-a-half after the U.S. invasion, Afghanistan is still rebuilding and heavily dependent on international aid, relying on other countries for 70 percent of its government budget.

Still, Afghanistan is taking steps to stand on its own. One project on the outskirts of Kabul is both a symbol of the effort to rebuild the country and a potent reminder of national pride.

Special correspondent Jennifer Glasse reports.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Mohammad Kabir has lived in the shadow of the Darul Aman Palace all his life through years of peace and decades of war.

King Amanullah Khan commissioned the building of the Neoclassical palace in the early 1920s, a symbol of a modern, progressive, independent Afghanistan. It took just over two years to build and the king lived here about as long, before he was driven into exile in 1929 by a popular uprising.

Kabir, who says he’s about 100, used to play with the king’s children, then tended the palace garden for most of his adult life, until the mujahideen war that followed the 1989 Soviet retreat drove him away. He returned four years ago, and says it’s a lot different than when it stood in its glory.

MOHAMMAD KABIR (through translator): Back then, the garden was full of fruit trees and covered with grass. Families came to picnic, listen to music, and camp overnight.

JENNIFER GLASSE: A corner of the gardens has been partially restored, and there are grand plans for it and the rest of the palace.

In 2010, a professor and former World Bank official named Ashraf Ghani wrote that Darul Aman was a palace of abandoned dreams. Now he is president, and trying to make it the stuff of dreams with an all-Afghan project to restore it.

For three months, hundreds of laborers have been taking down ceilings, and carting out rubble to make the building safe. That process could take until the end of the year. Architect Zabiullah Suleimankhail is one of the 100-strong technical team that’s mapping out the reconstruction. There’s been a lot of research.

ZABIULLAH SULEIMANKHAIL, Architect: The bricks they have used to build the palace had the mark on them.

JENNIFER GLASSE: The mark of the king, he says. He is proud that the workers here and the funds to pay for it are all Afghan. He says this project is a source of national pride that shows that Afghans can work on their own.

ZABIULLAH SULEIMANKHAIL: When you’re looking to the palace, you’re envisioning about or you’re thinking about the decades of war that Afghanistan was faced with. And now, when you want to build or reconstruct this building, it’s really a point to great and brighter future.

JENNIFER GLASSE: The building also points to an ambitious past, like the grand room built by the king to house the new parliament. He wanted the Darul Aman Palace, which means Abode of Peace, to be the center of a new city. He was deposed before he could make that happen.

President Ghani is using the rebuilding process to reflect his own view of what Afghanistan should be. So a quarter of the technical staff are women, like structural engineer Sofia Roshan. It’s her first job out of college.

SOFIA ROSHAN, Structural Engineer: It’s very difficult for — especially for girls of Afghanistan to work as a structural engineer or architectural engineer on the big projects of Afghanistan, especially palace. And so that’s that’s a good opportunity for us to work with them and show the world that, yes, we can do it.

JENNIFER GLASSE: They’re hoping to complete this in three to five years at an estimated cost right now of around $30 million, though planners say costs could go 10 percent higher or more, depending on how much structural damage is discovered.

This isn’t the first time that Afghans have tried to restore this palace. About four years ago, the mayor of Kabul launched a campaign and called on Afghans to donate whatever they could, from as little as 20 cents to hundreds of dollars. And thousands of Afghans did, but nobody knows where that money went.

Lack of accountability has fueled corruption for years here. Transparency International rates Afghanistan one of world’s worst corruption offenders. The head of Kabul’s exchange market says it is as big as threat as the Taliban.

KHAN MOHAMMAD BAZ, Chief, Kabul Exchange Union (through translator): Inside the government, we have some criminals and warlords who are always fighting to keep their influence on the nation and government. And they use illegal ways to stay in power. They only care about their own profits, not what benefits the people or the government.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Afghanistan’s finance minister says the government is aware of the problem and doing what it can.

EKLIL AHMAD HAKIMI, Minister of Finance, Afghanistan: I have identified at least 20 very corrupt individuals within my ministry. So, I just fired them. Unfortunately, I regret now why I fired them. I should have put them in a jail or in a detention center to recover the stolen public money. But I regret, up to now, we don’t have this kind of system.

JENNIFER GLASSE: He hopes a new anti-corruption justice center will fill that gap.

The Afghan government is trying to support fruit and vegetable sales and export. Eighty percent of the population is involved in agriculture, but few make more than a subsistence living.

It’s the same problem about 100 miles north of the capital in the Panjshir Valley, lots of promise, but not much support realizing it. Deep inside a hillside, these miners are hoping to strike it rich. They’re looking for emeralds. It’s a basic operation. Pretty much everything is done by hand, except for the blasts that help carve out the tunnels.

The dangers are considerable, but so are the rewards. One group recently found an emerald that sold for $80,000.

Panjshir isn’t the only place in Afghanistan with possibilities for mining. There are metals, minerals and gems all over the country that could bring the government billions of dollars. But, in many cases, they don’t have the resources to get them out of the ground or the infrastructure to take them to market.

Last Wednesday in Western Afghanistan, Afghan and Iranian officials came together to inaugurate a key step in building that infrastructure, the first link in a railway that eventually will connect the Iranian seaport of Chabahar to landlocked Afghanistan. This project has already been delayed by seven years.

Afghans will be watching closely to see whether this train line to connect Afghanistan with the wider world and reduce its dependency on exporting through Pakistan will really be built.

Back at the palace, there’s no doubt that this project will be completed. They say the president is keeping close track of it. And they can’t wait for it to be finished.

ZABIULLAH SULEIMANKHAIL: I’m really just looking forward to that day, that a day will come that we will face the palace, and we will cut the ribbon, and we will inaugurate the place. That will be the best of my — our life.

JENNIFER GLASSE: If that day does come, then a new Afghan leader will have renewed the dream of a king who, a century ago, wanted to show the world a modern independent Afghanistan.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jennifer Glasse in Kabul.

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