Kabul’s Grass Is Green at Last

Today’s slide show: Kabul

A burqa-clad beggar

I flew in to Kabul on Air Inshallah, also known as Ariana Afghan Airlines, where, by some quirk of fate (they needed the economy seats for some extra baggage), I was bumped to first-class. When I wandered back to the bathrooms midflight, I found all the flight attendants standing around smoking cigarettes.

We broke cloud cover just as we crossed the Hindu Kush, and the dusty brown wastes of Afghanistan opened up below. At customs, lots of beefy, sun-burnt, middle-aged Americans with crew cuts and pocketed vests milled around, waiting for very big, mysterious bulletproof-looking cases to come around the carousel. Contractors: a word so vague as to seem almost sinister. With the international forces and a host of inscrutable characters in Kabul, the city has the air of the Vienna of The Third Man. But a chase through the sewers of Kabul would be inadvisable.

I got an ancient Russian taxi into Kabul, which had smoother roads and far less chaos than the Delhi I had left a few hours earlier. My rather cushy guesthouse offered Western food, Internet in the room, satellite TV, and armed guards.

Kabul has undergone an extraordinary renaissance since the Taliban fled in November of 2001. Store windows now feature large-screen TVs, when not three years ago Kabulis were digging their sets out of their backyards after five years of Taliban rule. DVD shops overflow with Bollywood favorites and Western films. A pirated copy of Fahrenheit 9/11 sells for 150 afghanis, about $3. Rambo III, the film “[d]edicated to the heroic peoples of Afghanistan,” is also widely available. There is a single, often-incapacitated ATM, and even a French bakery, a “Specialist in Frenchised Baking.”

The presence of NATO and U.S. forces as well as thousands of international aid workers has created a split economy: The average Afghan makes $40 a month, while a nonprofit employee might make 100 times that much, tax-free. This leads to hyperinflated prices for foreigners, with a $100 dinner for four at a Thai restaurant not at all surprising, and many rents rivaling Manhattan prices. A car, fixer/translator, and a decent room in a guesthouse will run at least $200 a day. Many shoestring-budget freelance journalists who have come here to seek their fortunes have had to improvise. Three stringers told me they had subsisted for some time on high-calorie U.S. Army MREs (meals ready to eat), bought for 50 cents in the main bazaar. Unsurprisingly for a Muslim country, the ham and shrimp jambalaya MRE is not otherwise a big seller.

Intersections are jammed with the white SUVs of the U.N., UNHCR, ICRC, CARE, MSF, WFP, and other abbreviations, and they are swarmed with dusty children selling the Kabul Weekly and women in burqas tapping on windows for baksheesh. The adobe slums of returned refugees climb up the barren hillsides around the city, while the leafier precincts of Kabul sport concrete-barricaded compounds, many built by Kellogg, Brown & Root (or as one contractor I met joked, “Kellogg’s Brothers and Relatives”). The West has landed here hard.

With thousands of troops and aid workers in the city, security is a huge concern. I met with the Canadian spokesman for ANSO (Afghanistan NGO Security Office) who monitors the security climate in Afghanistan and sends out weekly reports. He painted a grim picture of the state of Afghanistan and the vast stretches of territory where aid groups cannot operate. “Not only are there worries about violence over the upcoming elections and opium processing season, but last year 50 people were even killed in battles over the pistachio harvest.”

After showing me a disturbing series of Plasticine (modeling clay) bomb models (an alarm clock time bomb stuffed with plastic explosives, a hollowed-out book bomb, and an exploding pressure cooker) and describing the brutal murders of two European backpackers in a Kabul park earlier this year, he told me that he was “pleasantly surprised” that there hadn’t been a “spectacular attack” against soft targets in Kabul and that it would not take much to send the aid groups stampeding for the airport. One Irish NGO has already withdrawn, and everybody expects the situation to deteriorate as resurgent Taliban and local militias try to derail the Oct. 9 presidential election. There were two nighttime rocket attacks in Kabul within the space of three days this week, killing one person. I heard the second, which I mistook for a door slamming in the wind.

The echoes of the war are everywhere, with bullet holes in concrete and many parts of the city still littered with mines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance). The outskirts of the Kabul airport were piled with the shells of destroyed Russian planes, and de-mining teams still labored to clear the sides of the runway. About 40 percent of the women are still in burqas, and all cover their hair, but other than that, Kabul is not nearly as conservative as I expected. It is nothing if not a liberated city, compared to life under the Taliban.

My 23-year-old guide, Najib, told me about getting thrown in jail for a week by “Vice and Virtue” for playing chess, about the delight that swept through the city when the Taliban were driven out in 2001, with people dancing on the roofs of cars and thousands of people flooding the streets of Kabul to celebrate. Now, Najib’s cell phone ring tone is a formerly banned Bollywood song. We drove out to the soccer stadium, the site of the Taliban’s public executions, the place where they amputated hands and murdered fornicators before—Najib claimed—aghast crowds. The stadium is spiffed up, even boasting a set of Olympic rings to honor the Afghan team now training for the Olympics on the isle of Lesbos. The soccer pitch was heavily irrigated, and a youth soccer team in mismatched uniforms kicked the ball around on the far side. We stood in the middle, surrounded by an oval of concrete bleachers. Najib told me the story of watching with his friends, four years earlier, as a woman in a burqa was led from a truck to the very spot where we stood, made to kneel, and shot in the back of the head by a Taliban. Najib had nightmares for a week, he said.

“But now there are pictures of [former Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah] Massoud and [President Hamid] Karzai above the stadium. And the grass is green. It’s so nice to see that the grass is green.”