Sherpur's kitsch mansions, viewed widely as symbols of megalomaniacal excess
Kabul - AFP
The houses are painted in gaudy carnival colours, with multi-tier chandeliers, ornately gilded porticos and giant eagle rooftop sculptures, in a neighbourhood touted as the Beverly Hills of Kabul.
These multi-million-dollar dwellings derided as "poppy palaces" over suspicions they were built on illicit cash from Afghanistan's opium boom appear garishly out of place in a city scarred by decades of war.
But if wedding-cake mansions don't make you cringe and having notorious ex-warlords as neighbours doesn't inspire dread, the wealthy enclave of Sherpur could be your home -- for a monthly rental of $25,000-60,000.
The villas, which emerged during Afghanistan's construction boom after the 2001 US-led invasion, were valued at nearly twice as much two years ago due to soaring demand for luxury accommodation from hordes of foreign contractors, aid agencies and security companies.
But the steady departure of foreigners -- as NATO's 13-year war in Afghanistan winds down -- and fears of impending doom sparked by an ascendant Taliban insurgency have sent rental values plummeting, with "available for rent" signs becoming a familiar sight in Sherpur.
"The market is close to zero," Kabul estate agent Abdul Latif said ruefully, prayer beads wrapped around his wrist, as he showed AFP around an empty 52-room property overlooking a rose-festooned garden.
The oyster-coloured, marble-and-granite dwelling behind high walls topped with rolls of concertina wire has been on the market for nearly six months.
The owner threw in a sweetener, offering to build a blast-proof safe room to protect against any insurgent attack, Latif said.
But the demand for such properties has hit rock bottom.
"People with big money are leaving Kabul," Latif said, his voice bouncing off the walls of the empty villa.
- 'Lion's loot' -
The rows of vacant mansions in Sherpur, also home to some former warlords, symbolise the hobbled state of Afghanistan's economy, propped up for years with hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign aid.
With the inexorable exodus of aid and investment, the war-battered nation is in the throes of what local observers describe as a transition from "a dollar economy to an Afghani economy".
For many Afghans, concerns over rampant unemployment driven by a tanking war economy, after more than a decade of double-digit growth, outstrip fears over deteriorating security.
As the country struggles to wean itself off its heavy dependence on foreign assistance, cynics liken Afghanistan to a coma patient surviving on a glucose drip for years.
The artificial nourishment is suddenly stopped, the joke goes, and the patient is expected to get up and start running.
But Sherpur's kitsch mansions, viewed widely as symbols of megalomaniacal excess, also highlight another woefully pervasive problem: corruption.
Sherpur is widely lampooned as "Sher-chur" -- or lion's loot.
Before the 2001 US invasion, Sherpur used to be a barren patch of hillside that was home to refugee colonies.
But human rights groups accuse Kabul's nouveau riche former warlords and bureaucrats -– the lions -- of sending in bulldozers in 2003 to evict the refugees.
The source of wealth funnelled into these mansions remains a subject of hushed speculation, with suspicion falling on Afghanistan's booming opium production -- which the UN says is estimated to be worth $3 billion a year.
"Think about it. How does a government bureaucrat earning a monthly salary of $2,000 afford a $2.5 million luxury mansion on land valued at $1 million?" said Bashir Omar, the owner of Kabul-based Bashir Omar Real Estate.
"You have to ask: where has their wealth come from?" he said, adding that the real ownership structures of Sherpur's villas remain opaque.
When Latif got the owner of the 52-room villa on the phone, he declined to be interviewed.
- 'Great stratification' -
The government is caught in a catch-22, unable to clamp down hard on money laundering activities to prevent the elite from shifting their wealth overseas, Omar said.
That exodus of money is happening anyway at an alarming pace, experts say, with the wealthy parking their cash overseas in Dubai, Turkey, Pakistan and India.
"Sherpur's poppy palaces symbolise not just impunity, corruption and abuse of power but also the great stratification of Afghan society over the past decade," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on illicit economies in conflict zones.
A small section of Kabul's elite -- dubbed the "9/11 millionaires" -- harvested enormous wealth in the years after the 2001 invasion from the billions of dollars of foreign aid, mostly as private contractors with military bases and international NGOs.
International donors have expressed outrage that so much of that money has disappeared into private pockets while Afghanistan remains wracked by poverty and violence.
Felbab-Brown said that while the elite have broadly insulated themselves from the wrenching war, a large majority of Afghans in the Taliban-infested countryside suffer daily bloodshed.
"The poppy palaces symbolise the unequal benefits of the past decade and the unequal distribution of the cost of war," she said.