Perspectives on Pakistan
Returning to Kabul after five years
The rows of bombed-out and upturned Soviet era-planes that littered the ground at Kabul airport are gone. Gone also is the confusion that used to reign in the small immigration control office or over at the baggage belt in a dark corner of the damp building. You are quickly waved through, the bags have arrived and you are whisked off in Kabul’s crisp early morning air.
Returning to the Afghan capital after five years is both reassuring and a little bit disconcerting. Traffic clogs the dusty streets, people crane their necks out of cars hollering at each other to give way, smiling school girls in twos or threes wait by the roadside for a ride home in the crowded cabs. Mobile phone shops have sprung up everywhere, and everyone uses the phones. You even have shalwar-clad men standing at street corners selling Afghanis for dollars in one hand and pre-paid calling cards for your phone on the other.
Five years ago, it was a city that seemed to have just crept out of years of darkness. The signs of war were still there – in the pock-marked government buildings and houses, and in the men and children you saw on almost every other street with an arm or a leg amputated because of a mine blast in the world’s most mined nation. You would also see a lot more former soldiers, members of one or other of the warlords, walking the streets still in military fatigues figuring out a future now that the war was over.
Most of that has gone. The grass has grown and there is a football game on in the stadium where the Taliban conducted public executions.
But then you look at Kabul’s high-walled compounds with their blast barriers, sandbags and concertina wire running all around to keep suicide bombers as far away as possible, and you know that things can turn ugly very quickly. Five years on, the walls of the embassies and other foreign organisations have grown taller, there are more checkpoints and more roads that are either cordoned off completely or regulated, and you begin to feel the insecurity that the city, especially the expatriate part of it, lives with constantly.
The assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai during a military parade in April, the Indian embassy bombing in July and last month’s Taliban ambush of French soldiers outside Kabul have added to a sense of siege that in some ways began with the storming of the luxurious Serena hotel earlier this year.
If large parts of the country have remained no-go areas, even the capital can feel menacing at times, especially for foreigners. Some people are starting to talk of the Taliban at the gates of Kabul, which along with Kandahar has traditionally held the key to dominanace over the fractious nation.
So what is the image to take away ? Of the laughter of children as they run home after school or that of a garrison city living in fear of the next attack?