The drive to Qasabah on the outskirts of Kabul is painstakingly slow. The shock absorbers of the cars shriek as drivers carefully maneuver through foot-deep potholes. The contours of the snowcapped summits of the Hindu Kush mountains slowly fray out against the darkening sky, with the hundreds of lamps and advertisement signs of Qasabah forming a dimly lit labyrinth of lights at the foot of the mountain.
Qasabah is Kabul’s biggest car bazaar and is home to Wahid Jamshady’s dealership. “It was good that the Americans came to Afghanistan,“ he says, echoing views commonly expressed among the business class in Kabul and the northern part of the country — areas which have benefited more from the occupation led by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces than the south. “The economy grew and we have had all these development projects.”
Seated behind his desk looking out onto rows of polished SUVs and sleek sedans, Jamshady has the aura of a man who has achieved his life goals. As a child he washed cars in other people’s shops during school holidays — with the money he earned he bought used bicycles and sold them on for a small profit. Later he moved on to motorcycles. Then two years ago, at the age of 41 and after years of saving, he finally bought a car dealership.
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Now he faces the prospect of his life’s efforts falling apart. The reason, he explains, is the withdrawal of international troops next year — a topic that dominates collegial chats and sales talks across Kabul. “Everybody is afraid of 2014,” Jamshady says, with a glance at his teenage son sitting on a couch in the office, “many people are selling their cars to leave the country.”
Many Afghans expect a sharp increase in violence as the withdrawal of international troops inches closer. And the surge in car sales is an early indicator of a phenomenon Afghanistan knows only too well: migration. “My business is being badly affected,” Jamshady says. “Nobody is investing anymore, because they don’t know what is going to happen.”
After four decades of conflict, Afghans are the biggest refugee population worldwide. However, in the decade since the invasion, 5.7 million Afghans have returned, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of them came from Iran and Pakistan but some 2.7 million remain registered refugees in the two countries, while an estimated 2.4 to 3.4 million live there illegally.
But hopes of convincing more to return may be dashed as whole families pack their bags and leave Afghanistan daily, hoping to make a living in the neighboring countries or find a passage to Europe. And for many of them Qasabah is an essential step in their preparation as they sell off their cars for cash.
The increased supply can be seen in the automobile market. “The drop of car prices is making it more difficult for people who want to leave”, says Jamshady. Cars that he used to sell for $30,000 now go for $20,000 and he predicts they will fall further still as NATO forces sell off their superfluous vehicles on the cheap.
Officially, Afghanistan’s economy grew by an impressive twelve percent in 2012 and will continue to grow in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund. Yet with more than a third of the country’s people still living below the poverty line, these figures sound like wishful thinking to most Afghans. And the post-2014 economy will take a serious hit with the decrease of international development spending. Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid, the international community has largely failed to build a sustainable economy — whole industries depend on the foreign subsidies, while widespread government corruption, a lack in professional education as well as foreign investment inhibit the growth of domestic industries. Most manufactured goods are imported from neighboring countries, as well as India and China.
Like so many of his customers, Jamshady also plans to leave the country as Western forces pull out. “If there is no money and the people have no jobs, crime and especially kidnapping will pick up,” Jamshady says. “Half a year ago an armed group tried to kidnap my son,” he says and nods to the skinny 14-year-old Elias, who tries to look brave. The car salesman found out beforehand of the plans and informed the police who arrested the kidnappers-to-be. “If they would have kidnapped him, I would have had to sell everything to get him back. It would have cost me $250,000”, he says.
Since then he has been planning his own departure from the country. He recently returned from the Netherlands where most of his family already lives — soon he wants to follow with his wife and son. “I have thought a lot about leaving. I will miss Afghanistan — it is my country,” he says.
Yet the fear of kidnapping and the prospect of a return to Taliban rule prevails over all other considerations, including the concerns of his son about their potential life in Europe. “I don’t want to go”, Elias says, his voice hardly audible. “I’m afraid that I won’t fit in [the] new country.”
It is an open secret that, like Jamshady, a whole class of rich politicians and businessmen is preparing their departure. In the past decade they have sent their children to good universities and built lives in Dubai and elsewhere and now they are ready to leave if security deteriorates, with another brain drain a real possibility.
While the elite may leave, the majority of Afghans do not have this option. For them, selling their property will not take them much further than Iran or Pakistan. In the past Afghans were welcome as manual laborers in these countries but with Pakistan’s economic growth slowing and unemployment on the rise in Iran, both countries are less welcoming to foreigners. At the same time Europe is building ever-higher walls on its outer borders, forcing refugees to take increasingly dangerous routes. Scores of drowned Afghan refugees in the Mediterranean speak loudly of their desperate attempts.
Looking back at the past decade and the results of the US invasion of Afghanistan, Jamshady can’t avoid a grim smile at the irony of it all. “Everyone is after this country,” he says, “and all the Afghans want to leave.”