• September 19, 2014

Company plunging $160 million into citadel for Afghanistan’s elite

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Posted: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 4:30 am

KABUL, Afghanistan — If Mohammed Ibrahim Caravan smells fear about Afghanistan’s future, he doesn’t show it.

He strolls around like a country squire in the glittering new gated community he helped build, dressed in a spotless white shalwar kameez tunic, stylish shades and polished wingtips.

“Worried?” the 28-year-old asked. “Ha — not me. I’m confident in the future. If you don’t invest in your own country, who will?”

Caravan’s company is plunging $160 million into the family-run Saleem Caravan City, with its rows of salmon-colored villas with balconies and rose gardens, like some ersatz Miami Beach condo community. He’s moved his family into a lavish 7,500-square-foot mansion with a pool, hot tub and guest kitchen.

Two hundred of the 300 homes in the 160-acre complex have already sold, Caravan said. Buyers love the swimming pool, the two mosques, the school, the shopping arcade — and especially the security walls, augmented by a high-tech security system and armed guards.

Many Afghans are panicking at the prospect of U.S. combat troops pulling out next year. Their confidence is battered by lingering uncertainty over a U.S.-Afghan security pact that, if rejected, would leave no U.S. troops in the country and cut billions of dollars in aid. As the Taliban insurgency roils the countryside, many investors are fleeing. Businessmen send their families to Turkey, Pakistan and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for safety.

Betting on Afghanistan

But Caravan is betting big on Afghanistan. He’s among a new breed of entrepreneurs here, young and energetic, in contrast to the paunchy warlords who dominated Kabul after the Taliban government was toppled in 2001.

Rising from the gray dirt on the capital’s gritty eastern shoulder, Caravan City’s walls protect the people who have the most to lose if Afghanistan’s government collapses. Many of the buyers of the homes — at $250,000 to $300,000 each, cash only — are top officials in the government, army and police.

These elites live in fear of car bombs, snipers, assassinations, kidnappings and roadside explosives. Unlike most Afghans, they can afford a secure gated community.

Caravan chooses to portray their home purchases as signs of confidence, not fear.

“They’re like me — they plan to live here with their families for a long time,” he said.

Beyond the walls

Beyond the walls, a goat saunters past. Garbage and sewage clog the gutters. Grimy men hawk vegetables, donkeys pull rickety carts, and street urchins go through trash bins on rutted streets. Inside Caravan City, the roads are paved and marked by freshly painted street signs in Dari and English.

“My uncle lives here. My brother, too. We’re all confident about the future,” said Caravan, an investor in and director of the company that runs Caravan City.

He said another uncle, Saleem, the company’s owner, lives in Dubai for business reasons but also has a home in Caravan City.

Yes, he knows a real estate boom, pumped up by new “poppy palaces” built by fat cats with dubious opiate-enriched income streams, has burst and sent home values plummeting. And in an October report, the World Bank office in Kabul projected a sharp decline in Afghanistan’s economic growth in 2014 due to “uncertainty surrounding the political and security transition.” It noted that the country’s economy was “highly aid dependent.”

Caravan snorts at that kind of talk. Everything will be just fine if people don’t panic, he said. He’s so confident that he’s building an 18-story apartment building with 180 units at $120,000 each, rising through the swirls of dust and the hustle of 1,500 Caravan City construction workers. He plans more expansion after that.

“I’m putting my money in my homeland, and all those frightened people should too,” Caravan said as he welcomed guests into his gilded reception room, outfitted with flat-screen TVs in a space the size of a small auditorium.

Pockets of optimism

If you look hard enough, you can find other pockets of optimism in Kabul in these perilous times. In a quiet compound amid the clatter and auto fumes of downtown Kabul, Farshid Ghyasi is plowing profits back into his business software company, Netlinks. The company runs an Internet job website and plans to open a business service portal soon.

The faltering economy has trimmed his job website’s profits by 60 percent this year, but Ghyasi, 32, said he’s staying put, unlike many businesspeople, and keeping his wife and two young sons here.

The unstable Afghan government is his biggest single customer, so his very viability is at risk, he acknowledges. Without the U.S.-Afghan security agreement, Ghyasi said flatly, “this government would simply collapse.”

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