KABUL — If you were to visit Kabul, the first striking thing you’d notice is that the city is much smaller than you might expect — and that the stark, brown mountains surrounding it are much larger, with snow-covered peaks visible just behind them.
The next thing you’d notice is that it is no longer the desperate ruin familiar from films and photographs shot soon after the liberation or during the terrible years of civil war and Taliban rule.
The biggest surprise, however, is that it feels, and indeed is, a relatively quiet and stable place. Contrary to the impression given by much of the mainstream media, it is not a city on the brink of chaos.
On my first morning in the Afghan capital, I accompany a squad (they call it a “section”) of British troops on a foot patrol. They have been in country for only a few weeks and are still getting to know the city. Members of a Pioneer regiment assigned to protect the NATO HQ here, they wear soft caps with their helmets at their belts — the level of threat in the city does not merit greater caution. They walk calmly but watchfully along both sides of the road, each man about twenty feet from the next.
Near the headquarters of ISAF, the International Security Force led by NATO, we walk through an area of new construction, where large villas are being built by or for the city’s wealthy. Someone here is making money — and is confident in the city’s future, though the half-built mansions stand in stark contrast to the hovels on the hills nearby. In this tree-lined neighborhood there are restaurants offering Seafood, Chinese Food, Indian food, and steaks, presumably for the city’s expatriate population. We go by a large telephone tower belonging to one of the country’s three mobile phone networks. Men and boys drive by on clunky Pakistani-made bicycles.
It is, of course, far from a rich city. The gutters, clean today because of yesterday’s rain, generally run with raw sewage. Most stores are the simple one-story concrete boxes with a metal shutter at one end that you see in dusty cities from the middle east to India. Yet there are plenty of cars on the road even though the Eid holiday is not yet over, and their exhaust fumes contribute to the smoky haze in the air.
The people we pass as the patrol walks down both sides of the road are neither particularly friendly nor unfriendly. They seem barely to notice the foreign soldiers, though children (some of them fair skinned with blond hair) rush up to offer chewing gum for “only one dollar.” Brushed off, they cheerfully skip away.
The lack of menace here is palpable. I have felt myself to be in more danger in American and British cities. Nor is this the calm before the storm, so beloved of foreign correspondents. Though Kabul is not as safe as it was in the immediate aftermath of liberation — allied troops no longer go jogging through its streets or wander alone through its bazaars — it is still surprisingly safe. Indeed as one ISAF officer points out to me, it is “safer than London or New York,” despite a suicide bombing last month.
There was a nasty riot in late May after a U.S. Army vehicle hit a pedestrian. But contrary to the impression given by the resulting TV coverage, the whole city did not erupt in violence. According to ISAF’s Brigadier General Nick Pope, when he went out the next day and asked shopkeepers about the riot, many of them replied “What riot?” He says there were “only about three hundred and fifty men” involved in most of the violence, many of them hooligans intent on theft (the offices of two aid agencies were looted of computers and burned). Some of the ringleaders were criminals; others were trying to take advantage of the absence of President Karzai, out of the country on business, to stir up trouble. But the violence was confined to one area of town and suppressed by the Afghan police within eight hours. The concurrent riots in France took much longer to put down.
According to NATO officers, there are insurgent cells in the city, hoping to achieve “a spectacular” and thereby give the impression that the city is unsafe. But they see the city here as a relatively benign environment. Whereas in Iraq most of the violence is urban, in Afghanistan it is almost entirely rural.
It’s one reason why, these days, almost all security in the Afghan capital is provided by the Afghan National Police. You can see them lounging on chairs and benches by the city’s traffic roundabouts, smoking and chatting. They are not nervous. This is not Baghdad.
One thing I see does remind me of the Iraqi capital after its liberation — or more specifically, of one of Saddam’s grim dungeons that I toured with U.S. troops. The British patrol goes by a large rose garden below an outcrop that NATO soldiers call “Swimming Pool Hill.” On the summit you can see a high diving board. Built by the Russians, the pool beneath has never been filled with water. The Taliban used to use it as an execution site, walking prisoners off the high board. If they weren’t killed by the fall, the Taliban would shoot them where they lay. The deep end is still stained ocher and pocked with bullet holes. The Taliban regime had an enthusiasm for public cruelty that almost matched Saddam’s taste for private savagery. They are an enemy we can be proud of fighting.
– Jonathan Foreman has also reported as an embed from Iraq.