Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Kabul’s “ring of steel” tests patience

July 9, 2010
Afghan police search a car at "Ring of Steel" checkpoint 26 in central Kabul. The checkpoints are testing the patience of ordinary Afghans, who experience increasingly long traffic delays and blame the government and foreigners for the imposition, rather that Taliban insurgent bombers. PHOTO: by author.

(Afghan police search a car at "Ring of Steel" checkpoint 26 in central Kabul. PHOTO: by author.)

If Afghanistan is a fight for hearts and minds, then the war against the Taliban is on shaky ground in central Kabul, where roadblocks and the concrete-encased fortresses of Western countries infuriate near everyone.

A security crackdown in the capital, enforced at so-called “ring of steel” police checkpoints, has turned travel in the capital into a test of patience denting support for President Hamid Karzai’s government just months from parliamentary elections.

“People are furious. They curse the government. They cannot get anywhere on time any more,” said 28-year-old taxi driver Del Agha as he sat beside his small yellow and white cab parked on a dusty Kabul roundabout.

“We have to drive a long way around to get anywhere now, which makes the passengers even angrier,” Agha said.

Over the last few years, much of central Kabul has been walled off after a succession of bloody insurgent suicide and bomb attacks.

Trips that used to be brief have become long and usually circuitous  as the city begins to resemble a Baghdad-like “Green Zone”, and some worry about their ability to reach a hospital or some other critical service in an emergency.

Towering concrete barriers, watchtowers and sandbagged emplacements protect embassies, government offices and courtrooms, while the sprawling U.S. and NATO military bases in the city centre have sharply curbed access to what were once busy traffic arteries.

Some streets have transformed into killing corrals, with drivers shepherded past multiple guard towers and under machine gun lines of fire. If entering secure buildings, successive body searches, full body x-rays, dog checks and iris scans can follow.

“They have created burdens for everyone. They should have built their bases away from the centre,” said Agha. “The city does not have the capacity for so many cars and now with these bases it is worse.”

He may have a point. In a city with 5 million people where many roads are atrociously potholed, narrow and choked with cars, some find it hard to see why NATO and American troops did not garrison themselves further from the centre.

Columns of American Humvees and NATO armoured cars clog overburdened roads, and if Karzai or some other senior government or international figure is going anywhere, all traffic is simply stopped — and that is often in Afghanistan. The city will later this month host a major international conference aimed at charting the country’s immediate future ahead of a U.S. troop draw-down beginning next year.

In a small roadside shop under hills bristling with telephone and NATO communications masts, owner Naseem has had to come up with ways to dodge the checkpoints, moving baskets of lentils and chickpeas at night or though a maze of tiny alleys.

“They don’t allow small vans like mine to go into the city or to the major markets because of past truck bombings,” he said.

“We usually sneak through the small roads and avoid them all,” the smiling 46-year-old said, prompting much laughter from other shop owners nearby.

Kabul is undergoing a building boom following the widespread civil war demolition after the Russian departure from the country.

With the population expected to rise to 8 million by 2014, the government and its international donors should be looking now at ways to shift some major bases away from central Kabul and help free up life for ordinary Afghans.

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