Sunday, 11 June 2017

Quick and Dirty: Kabul (Night's Black Agents)

Inspired by a New York Times article, Urban Sprawl Up Mountainsides, With Splashes of Color, by Fahim Abed and Mujib Mashal.

This one's of obvious use to Night's Black Agents Directors, but may also appeal to Esoterrorist types, modern day Cthulhu Keepers, Delta Green and similar.


This three thousand year old city, heart of the old Mughal Empire, is the capital of Afghanistan and epicenter of civil war in the 1990s, which ended with the capture of Kabul by hardline Pakistani-funded Taliban fighters in 1996.

However when terrorists took down the World Trade Center in 2001, one of the retaliatory actions taken by the US and its allies was the support, militarily and financially, of anti-Taliban forces, as the Taliban sheltered Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda figurehead and mastermind of the attack. Bin Laden exercised complete control over Kabul, and the nearby city Jalalabad.

By November 2001 Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance,  and in 2004 Hamid Karzai, leader of the transitional government and winner of the 2004 elections, was sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at a ceremony held in Kabul. Bin Laden hid in Pakistan and was eventually killed in 2011. 

'The city lies almost in the center of a semicircular chain of hills,' wrote William Taylor, Troop Sergeant-Major of the Forth Light Dragoons in Scenes and Adventures in Afghanistan, 1842. 'The valley in which it is situated being watered by a noble river which pursues a serpentine and picturesque route through it, and divides the town in nearly equal parts.' That became a problem in the 1990s, when the mujahideen used those surrounding heights as launchpads for its bombardment, devastating Kabul. The city was all but destroyed, power and water completely cut, and Kabul remained in a semi-ruined state for the rest of the decade. Only now has it begun to rebuild, in a haphazard and ramshackle fashion, but its need for housing and utilities is immediate and growing.


Though estimates in 2015 put Kabul's population at a little over 3.6 million, there can be little doubt that those 2015 estimates are well out of date; 5 million would be closer to the mark.

This makes Kabul larger than any American city except New York, and Kabul is growing exponentially every month. Even using the 3.6 million figure, Kabul would still be about as large as Los Angeles, California, give or take a couple hundred thousand.

Over 60% of the population is under the age of 24, and living standards are among the lowest in the world, with unemployment hovering at the 35% mark.


Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, and production has held steady since Karzai's ascent to power. Money laundering through informal financial networks is a significant part of the economy, and thanks to skyrocketing hashish and opium production there's a growing local narcotic addiction problem.

Alongside the river of narcotics cash is an almost equally large torrent of foreign aid and US government money. Billions have been spent over the years on infrastructure projects and contractor fees, with knock-on inflationary effects felt throughout the local economy.

One symptom of this money flood is the poppy palace, architectural monstrosities with 50 or 60 rooms, built for the expat (read: military contractor) market, for high-ranking government officials, and for narco-traffickers.

'Narco-villas feature grand entrances, byzantine floor plans, and huge, cavernous hallways,' writes Tom Freston for GQ. 'Everything inside is concrete and marble. There is very little wood trim, and the chandeliers and fixtures could be right out of a Columbian drug lord's HQ. They say you can tell a lot about a home by the way it smells. These smelled unhealthy; cold and mouldy ... The most striking thing about these buildings is the vulgar detailing: the painted Greek columns, the mirrored fireplaces, the Bavarian Alpine murals ... Architecture here was traditionally low-key and adaptive to the environment: cool in summer, warm in winter. These were just the reverse. And the design influences are quite foreign, drawing not from tradition but from movies that glamorize excess.'  

In recent years poppy palaces have fallen out of favor. There aren't as many fat military contracts, or government bigwigs willing to spend a fortune on rent. It doesn't help that American media alerted people to the 'ghost soldier' phenomenon, where fake soldiers were on the books as 'living' in empty poppy palaces so the owner could claim government rent money.

Taliban, ISIS and other terrorist factions operate openly within Afghanistan. These groups routinely attack civilian targets with little regard for human life; on January 12, 2017, for example, a suicide bomber killed 30 and wounded 70 in an attack on a mosque.

Kidnappings on the streets of Kabul are not uncommon. Westerners have been snatched by various groups, sometimes for ransom, often for political purposes - as in publicized execution. Locals are taken for ransom, though often the kidnap victims are not returned even if the ransom is paid.

Even US Embassy personnel are advised against travelling to any and all locations in Kabul except the Embassy and other US government facilities. Though thousands of Western contractors and diplomats live in Kabul, they do so behind thick blast-resistant walls and are advised to travel with a bodyguard at all times. The road to and from the airport has been so frequently targeted that British Embassy officials, at time of writing, travel to and from the airport by helicopter instead.

This is a stark contrast from the early days of Karzai's rein in Kabul, when an assortment of rebels, do-gooders, misfits and journalists descended like a swarm of muddle-headed Western locusts to do whatever it is muddle-headed Western locusts do when they want to do good. In the words of Guardian correspondent Sune Engel Ramussen, 'If the expat bubble in Kabul in the 00s was like a pool scene from Boogie Nights, Kabul in 2016 is more like Panic Room.'

All this is before even considering the domestic strife that has gripped Afghanistan since the 1970s: town vs country, secularism vs Islam, Tajiks vs Pashtuns. The history of 20th and 21st century Afghanistan is warfare, ignited initially by conflict between the Soviets and the US back in the dying days of the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah, and never since quenched.


Bala Hissar, a 5th century fortress and landmark. It sits to the south of the city center, and its walls sweep down the mountain ridge to the river. It featured in the First and Second Afghan Wars in the Victorian Era, and was the focal point of conflict throughout the 1990s. Today an Afghan army unit is stationed there, and the site is surrounded by tanks and other war detritus.

The Gardens of Babur, or Bagh-e Babur, a historic park and location of the tomb of the first Moghul emperor. It was traditional for Moghul rulers to design parks where, in the fullness of time, they would be buried. These Gardens are the last resting place of Babur, conqueror of the Punjab and victor of the Battle of Khanwa, one of the earliest battles in modern India.

Kabul City Center, the city's first modern mall, nine stories tall, part of the Safi Landmark Hotel. Its doors are protected by metal detectors and its glass windows are explosive resistant. A failed suicide bombing took place there in 2011; the two low-paid security guards who stopped the bombing, at the cost of their own lives, were hailed as heroes. The bomb went off inside the protected security screening vestibule, which is why it did so little damage to the mall or its patrons. 

Three Hooks

A Pakistani criminal group smuggles conflict antiquities from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and from there to the antique stores and collectors of Europe. Poor Afghan villagers often go out with pick and shovel to dig up whatever they can find, and Afghanistan is rich in artefacts. This time the villagers have unearthed more than they can handle, but the Pakistani smugglers will not be put off. The agents realize the villagers have something very useful - a new Bane item perhaps, or some kind of artefact important to the Conspiracy - but they'll have to silence the Pakistanis if they want to take possession.

A local Network contact or vital NPC is kidnapped by gangsters and held for ransom. The kidnappers think that, because the NPC associates with foreigners, the foreigners will pay handsomely to get the NPC back. Or, if the agents have high Heat or are obviously spies, the kidnappers take him for political reasons, calling the NPC a spy for the West. Whether or not the kidnappers are correct the Conspiracy has its boots on the ground as well, and may intervene if it thinks that getting the NPC for itself will upset the agents' plans.

Local contractors, while demolishing a poppy palace, claim to have found papers which they say are very valuable. Certainly Academi, the military contactor formerly known as Blackwater, seems to be taking an interest, and one very nervous Academi bigwig would pay almost any price to get them back. But what could these documents possibly be - and why is the CIA also keen to get them?

Thrilling Elements

As Middle Eastern Bazaar, with the following elements unique to Kabul:
  • Narrow, poorly maintained roads that can easily be blocked at any time.
  • Mosque blaring out anti-Western propaganda from its loudspeakers.
  • A group of well-protected Westerners, nervously scuttling from one safe zone to another.
  • Yet another narco-palace in the process of being pulled down, to make way for a more modest housing development. Expensive fixtures and fittings are being stripped out and dumped.
  • A cafĂ©, ice cream parlor, gym or similar, blaring out Western music and filled with people.
  • Street demonstration blocks the road, forcing traffic down even narrower side streets.
  • A nearby television set shows a woman journalist in full hijab discussing women's rights.
  • An overwhelming stench emanates from a nearby sewer, the lines having broken weeks before.
  • An old man sat at his desk on the corner advertises his services: love letters written on request.
  • Soldiers - or possibly kidnappers in soldiers' uniforms - patrol the streets.

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