Quiet streets, neat gardens and private swimming pools — welcome to suburban life in Kandahar, the Afghan city where the Taliban was born.
Kandahar was once home to Taliban supremo Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and was bombed by US air strikes in 2001 when it was a final bastion of the hardline Taliban regime.
It became notorious in recent years for Islamist death squads, criminal gangs and drug traffickers killing hundreds of public officials and tribal leaders, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai.
However, in Aino Mena, a new development on the city’s outskirts, life is rather different.
Residents hit the gym after work before dropping in at a colorful ice-cream parlor and maybe having dinner outdoors at one of several busy restaurants.
Wide, tree-lined boulevards lead to cascading fountains and a picnic site will soon be completed with small pagodas scattered around the edge of an artificial lake overlooked by a pink pavilion.
“It is like we grew up in a village, which first turned into a big city and now into this,” Kandahari businessman Khalil Ahmad, 35, said before heading home to see his wife and children after a workout at the World Gym. “We have good schools, the security is high and it is not dusty or noisy. I come to exercise here six days a week.”
Suburban Kandahar is not exactly California — the few women visible in public wear burqas, the gym is all-male and there are armed checkpoints and pat-down searches at the entrance gates.
Aino Mena, which was begun in 2003, represents an unexpected side of life in southern Afghanistan, renowned for Islamic extremism, suicide bombings and the long war between Taliban militants and US-led forces.
In the beautifully tended garden of his house, Noorullah Khan, 37, shows off the rockery, pebbled pathways and small bridge that he has designed himself.
“All of Afghanistan doesn’t have anything like Aino Mena,” he said, setting his Samsung tablet computer to one side. “People like modern ways of living and they are happy here. For many, it is a dream. There is a war, but life goes on.”
Khan has embraced suburban ways to such an extent that his small terrier Tony trots across the lawn. Dogs are regarded as unclean animals in Islam, and few Afghans keep them except for guarding their homes.
With wealthy residents like Khan on the scene, Aino Mena has attracted upmarket shops selling everything from frozen pizza to imported kitchen appliances.
“Many people like traditional food, but we want to make them also like this,” store owner Ahmed Shah said, pointing to a freezer containing imported pizzas, chicken nuggets, burgers and fish and chips. “Aino Mena is good for living and good for business.”
The first phase of the development has about 2,000 homes, and a second phase of 11,000 more properties is planned on a vast, empty road grid stretching out to distant mountains.
Belying its tranquil atmosphere, Aino Mena attracted fierce controversy when the 4,000 hectare site was bought from the Ministry of Defense at a knock-down price by a company run by President Karzai’s brother, Mahmood.
Mahmood was recently involved in a bitter dispute with his half-brother Shah Wali Karzai, a former manager of the project, over the uncertain fate of US$50 million of Aino Mena funds.
The feud halted construction as workers and suppliers were not paid, and it split the Karzai family until the president imposed a compromise deal earlier this year.
With houses in Aino Mena ranging in price from US$25,000 to more than US$600,000 — astronomical sums in impoverished southern Afghanistan — many homeowners are accused of profiting from the 12 year war or from the region’s global opium industry.
Many residents such as Sharifullah admit their businesses rely on contracts from the US-led NATO military campaign, and they worry the economy will be badly hit as foreign forces withdraw by the end of next year.
“With the US leaving, it will affect us a lot,” said Sharifullah, the owner of a transport and logistics company that works for the NATO coalition. “We fled from Uruzgan province nine years ago and we like it here. It is a complete change of life.”
Sharifullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, maintains tidy rose beds surrounding a circular swimming pool and keeps birds in an aviary beside his high-walled property.
Violence in Kandahar has fallen sharply over recent months, but Aino Mena has not been immune to attack, with two bombs killing nine people in May.
Such setbacks have not put off locals such as Qudratullah, 22, whose father is building a Japanese-inspired house costing US$800,000.
“It is safe here, and we are optimistic,” he said.