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Afghan suburbia: Luxury construction boom grips Kabul despite uncertain future

A luxury housing development under construction by developer Haji Hafizullah Caravan in a suburb of Kabul, Afghanistan.
A luxury housing development under construction by developer Haji Hafizullah Caravan in a suburb of Kabul, Afghanistan.Jamieson Lesko / NBC News

KABUL, Afghanistan -- High-rise condos and luxury dwellings with price tags that wouldn't be out of place in many U.S. cities are reshaping the Afghan capital's skyline.

Mud-brick homes precariously stacked on hillsides now peer down at cranes as the counterintuitive construction boom extends from suburban dream homes to slick shopping malls and office complexes.

Despite some grim predictions about the country's future when Western forces withdraw next year, wealthy Afghans are throwing caution to the wind and investing millions of their own dollars to build in grand ways that they hope will redefine this war-torn city.

Developer Haji Hafizullah Caravan says he has poured "tens of millions" of dollars into a sprawling suburban housing complex which features 500 luxury homes and apartments.

“When Kabul was destroyed, it brought me a lot of pain," said Caravan, recalling the despair of the country's civil war in the 1990s. “I prayed that one day I would have the strength to change this destruction to construction. I made the decision to rebuild Kabul.”

And rebuild he has. Caravan beams with pride as he speaks of the $1 million-plus home he’s building for his family within the neighborhood.  A grand staircase greets visitors from two sides as they enter its foyer. Crystal chandeliers hang in the spacious dining room. A large swimming pool and cascade fountain adorn the backyard. The bathrooms boast multi-jet spa showers, a striking feature for a capital city plagued with open sewers.

“It is the most beautiful house in Kabul,” he said. “I want to show it to the world!”

If you build it, they will come

Caravan, 53, is putting his fortune on the line in the belief that things are about to get better in Afghanistan, not worse.

A grand staircase at the personal home of developer Haji Hafizullah Caravan in a suburb of Kabul, Afghanistan.Jamieson Lesko / NBC News

Saleem Caravan City, the suburban gated community he's building in the east of Kabul, is showcased with ads on television and YouTube.

In an animated promotional video, a "fembot" voice takes prospective owners on a virtual tour, challenging them to "discover a new art of living" in "dream houses" that are "models of contemporary-style aesthetics."

Set to modern music, the tour soars through models of state-of-the-art kitchens, home cinemas and down tree-lined streets full of upscale restaurants, shops, a mosque and a kindergarten school.

The homes feature six bedrooms and three living rooms and range from $250,000 to $300,000, depending on how close they are to the city.

Caravan seems to ascribe to the "Field of Dreams" theory: If you build it, they will come.

But will they? About 50 percent of the homes in Saleem Caravan City have been sold, he says. But just 10 percent are actually occupied. 

"Unfortunately the 2014 rumors made our sales a little slow. The people who have money want to delay and not to spend right now,” Caravan said. “But I do not have any faith in the 2014 rumors.”

Caravan hopes to sell the rest of the community's homes “in the next couple of months,” but the current market conditions are bleak.

Fears of 2014 pullout

According to realtor Mohammad Khan, Kabul property prices have decreased as much as 35 percent since 2011, and prices in the rental market are down about 55 percent.

Khan, 47, attributes this to anxiety over whether the security situation will deteriorate after coalition troops pull out. Fears of chaos and civil war have many keeping their wallets shut.

“Buyers nor sellers know what will happen," he said. 

Another factor is the current exodus of Western aid workers and contractors, as their projects - and the dollars that came with them - have begun to wind down. The compounds they used to occupy for average rents of $12,000 - $20,000 a month now sit vacant.

Homemade “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs are strewn across balconies and doorways on many streets in upscale neighborhoods. 

A pool at a housing development under construction in a suburb of Kabul, Afghanistan.Jamieson Lesko/ NBC News

For some, the decision to invest in property runs far deeper than faith in the market. Rather, it’s a patriotic duty to give back to their homeland.

'Come back and serve your country!'

Construction company owner Mohammad Shafiq acknowledges that it may be less risky to invest elsewhere, but he takes pride in his choice to build here.

His business, the New Jan Group, has just finished renovating a Kabul hotel with plush amenities.

“I have made all my money here, so I should invest here,” he said. Shafiq's advice to Afghans is to return home. “Nothing bad will happen in 2014, come back and serve your country!” he implored.

Caravan echoes this sentiment, urging investors to “not to be afraid of the situation here."

He added: "They should take advantage of this chance. Such a chance will not be given to them again."

Caravan refuses to be intimidated and doesn't fear that the resurgent Taliban will rise to power again after the pullout.

“I invested here... I want to live here and I want to die here,” he said. “I will leave it to history to show who destroyed Kabul and who rebuilt Kabul.”

NBC News' Akbar Shinwari and Khyber Shinwari contributed to this report.