The waiting game
Dust and heat smother the Afghan capital. The traffic is a nightmare. Stray dogs walk among piles of rubbish; helicopters fly low and hard through the morning sky.
For people here, however, life might not get any better. After more than a decade of foreign occupation, the tide has begun to recede on a long and difficult war. The last of the Nato combat troops are due to leave in 2014 and Afghanistan’s future hangs in the balance.
All the talk now is of a descent into chaos or the Taliban’s return to power. Fearing economic collapse, the political and business elite are loading bags of money onto aircraft and preparing to escape for good.
When they look over their shoulders they will catch a final glimpse of a Kabul that is almost unrecognisable from the place it once was. Even for a city used to being at the mercy of others, this has been a period of monumental change.
Paris of the East
Down an anonymous side street in a quiet part of town is the entrance to the American University. Launched in 2006 to provide the kind of education not normally available in Afghanistan, its fees are too expensive for the majority of potential students.
Armed guards protect the campus, which is hidden behind blast walls, watch-towers and thick metal gates.
Inside the grounds one morning last winter, the university’s founder, Sharif Fayez, was reflecting on how Kabul had altered since he moved here in the late 1950s on a scholarship programme for gifted school pupils.
He arrived from a village in Herat province, only to be teased because his clothes and accent were different those of his “more civilised” new classmates.
Despite this, it was a period of calm and innocence that is difficult to comprehend today. Kabul would soon be known as the “Paris of the East” in the diplomatic community and become a major destination on the hippy trail, attracting tourists from across the world.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower made an official visit to the city in 1959, Fayez lined up to greet him. The U.S. President travelled in a motorcade from Bagram, north of the capital, and spent hours with the king discussing plans for development projects. They held their summit in Chilsitoon Palace, which is now abandoned and in ruins.
“The Kabul that we remember, much of which was green and beautiful, doesn’t exist anymore,” says Fayez.
No Man’s Land
Situated in a no man’s land between central and south Asia, Afghanistan’s strategic location means it has always been a target for foreign invaders. Once a small and inconsequential market town, Kabul was sucked into the cycle of violence after becoming the capital in 1776.
The British Empire waged three wars in this country and left lasting cultural, psychological and physical scars on the city. Its soldiers deliberately burnt down a bazaar in what is now an area of cheap hotels, shops and mud brick houses.
They also executed prisoners at the nearby Bala Hissar, a 5th century fortress that is currently a base for the Afghan National Army. A Nato surveillance balloon floats above the site, and insurgent territory lies just a few miles away into the distance.
What in retrospect seems like a golden age followed independence from the British in 1919. Then came a communist coup and, from 1979 to 1989, the Soviet occupation — a period that did much to shape modern Kabul.
Eastern Bloc-style apartments from that era still dominate the skyline. The walls are disfigured with bullet holes and graffiti, and inside they are dark and damp. Yet they remain in huge demand simply because they are secure and have running water and central heating.
Senior government officials once resided in the flats and a few of those same men are still living in them, sad and disillusioned as time passes and they contemplate what might have been.
That feeling even exists among a section of the Afghans they fought. In the spring, a former jihadi commander staying in one of the apartments complained the landlord had decided to charge him $700 a month rent. He didn’t have the money and would soon have to move out but couldn’t think of anywhere better to go. At least the Russians were good engineers, he says. Now everything is badly built and too expensive.
Kabul eventually imploded into civil war following the departure of the Soviets in 1989, and it has never fully recovered.
Reminders of that period are everywhere, yet it is rarely talked about in official circles. Instead, a kind of collective amnesia exists with the rich and powerful, possibly because many of them played a role in the anarchy.
Nasir Saberi was not here then, but from the safety of exile in London he would read reports of the fighting, look at pictures of the dead, and mourn for the city he used to know.
He came from a neighbourhood where he says all ethnic groups “lived together and we had a tremendous harmony”.
In 1980 he fled the country after his brother, a heart surgeon,was arrested for opposing the Communist government.
“Kabul was the centre of culture for this country. People were polite, well-dressed and well-behaved,” he says. “In those days the money was not there, but the poverty we have got [now] was also not there.”
The civil war between the mujahideen ended after the Taliban emerged and seized the capital in 1996, but the damage lingered on. Isolated internationally, the regime did not have the funds for reconstruction and Kabul slowly suffocated, its landscape and history razed to the ground.
At the time of the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 the city’s population is estimated to have been as low as 500,000. Now
it is between five and six and million. Saberi is among them,having returned in 2002 to take the job as deputy minister of urban development.
Entire districts were in rubble on his arrival, and when he went to check the condition of a relative’s house, all he recognised was a pink bathtub. Everything else had been completely destroyed.
“People were living under these ruined buildings, which absolutely were very, very dangerous. One small earthquake would have buried all those families,” he recalls.
Today the frontline from the civil war era is full of new homes, shops and internet cafés. But the roads are often broken and many of the old properties are also visible, pockmarked and fading in the sunlight.
Saberi resigned as deputy minister at the end of 2004 in despair at the corruption he claims runs through the heart of the government. His brother is still missing, presumed dead.
“The country is in a disaster,” he says. “The Taliban will take it over.”
Today Kabul can be broadly split into a series of distinct quarters defined by the backgrounds and ethnicities of their residents. Although a certain amount of mixing goes on, Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras tend to live separately from each other.
The city has never had a Green Zone like the one created by the U.S. in Iraq that cordoned off a section of Baghdad for the coalition’s exclusive use, but some neighbourhoods serve a similar purpose, and they are all near the airport.
Named after a hero of the Afghan resistance against the British Empire, Wazir Akbar Khan is home to supermarkets, expensive restaurants and numerous diplomatic missions, including the American embassy. Barriers protect the streets and police watch the compounds.
Next there is Shirpur, where warlords seized government-owned land in the early years of the occupation, demolished the old homes and forced dozens of families to leave. Since then, new mansions have been rented to wealthy international organisations for thousands of dollars a month.
The heavy security in these places has not been enough to protect them from militant attacks, including a coordinated eighteen-hour assault on various locations in April. If anything, Afghans regard them as more dangerous than other parts of town because they are likely targets.
Elsewhere, it is easy to find sympathy for the insurgents and there is little doubt they have underground support networks here. So far, at least 163 foreign soldiers have been killed in the city and surrounding rural areas since 2001.
On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion, Adil Khan Akakhil was a commander in the Northern Alliance, a loose collection of the mujahideen factions trying and failing to resist the Taliban regime. The group’s leader had just been assassinated by Al-Qaeda and they were left holding a small corner of the country, praying for a miracle.
Now Akakhil is a provincial councilor in Kabul, a low-level position that can still carry considerable power if a man plays his cards right. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he describes the last decade as the best time he can remember and says the capital “has changed fifty or sixty percent”.
But even he is worried about the future. For all the shopping centres, office blocks and wedding halls that have been built, the city has suffered severely under the increasing weight of the population boom and the escalating conflict in the countryside.
Drug addiction is rife and the majority of residents are still desperately poor. Camps for families displaced by the fighting in southern Afghanistan blot the landscape and the threat of suicide bombings is never very far away.
The World Bank has warned of a possible recession in the country after 2014 and, if security deteriorates, economic collapse. Akakhil believes the government, the international community and the private sector have failed to provide for the basic needs of ordinary citizens.
“People are leaving to go to Pakistan, Iran and some Western countries. They are submitting their bodies for death just to find a little money for food,” he says.
The political fault lines are shifting under Kabul again and no one knows what will happen next. An era of unprecedented change is drawing to a close. The city awaits its fate.