Following the devastating 31 May 2017 bomb attack in the Afghan capital, President Ashraf Ghani commissioned his security experts to develop a new security plan for Kabul. Although apparently not officially approved or fully funded yet, the plan called the ‘Zarghun Belt’ (Green Belt) was announced in mid-August. Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark (with input from the rest of the AAN team) have been collecting details about the new plan and mapping out what it should entail. They find it designed largely to improve the security of key government institutions and some of the diminishing ‘international community’ in Kabul, despite official claims that its aim is to protect everyone.
The lethal truck bomb attack near Kabul’s Zanbaq Square on 31 May 2017 (see AAN’s dispatches here and here) killed at least 92 civilians and injured nearly 500. It also caused heavy damage to surrounding infrastructure, including the German Embassy which had to be closed. This and the subsequent protests that ensued (see AAN reporting here) have been game-changers for Kabul’s security planners.
A week after the attack, on 7 June 2017, President Ashraf Ghani, chairing the armed forces’ commander-in-chief’s meeting, ordered high-ranking security officials to undertake comprehensive efforts to improve Kabul’s security, including its diplomatic areas, and the wider province. (1) One of the two international security experts that AAN spoke to for this report hinted to us, however, that the plan that has emerged was driven as much by high-ranking internationals residing in Kabul; it is not clear whether they were from the various diplomatic missions or NATO’s Resolute Support or both.
The roll-out of the new Kabul security plan was announced at the Government Media Information Centre (GMIC) on 14 August 2017 (see here; see also Reuters’ reporting based on an interview with a security official from 6 August here) by the Ministry of Interior and the Kabul Municipality. (Based on AAN queries with relevant security authorities, it is not clear which authority is responsible for enacting the plan or its various parts.)
The details that follow have been somewhat tricky to collate as there are apparent contradictions within and between official statements and press reporting, not only about the what and where of the security measures, but also the when.
The plan has been presented as comprising various new or improved security measures for Kabul city, but many had actually already been discussed or had been waiting to be implemented or had already been in use for long time. It also appears that the plan, despite being announced by the government, has not actually been finalised or signed off, but is, AAN was told by an international security analyst, still sitting on Ghani’s desk. Another security expert said the plan was waiting for funding, and only a few steps had, thus far, been initiated. The larger projects within the plan, he said, would only be executed once funding was secured. Further confusion has been caused by officials and the media using terms such as ‘diplomatic area’ and ‘green zone’ as well as ‘Green Belt’ which they then often do not define in geographical detail. So, a warning: there is some inherent confusion in how the plan has been presented. We have tried to clarify, where possible, and point up remaining contradictions, where necessary.
A three-phase plan – as presented by the Ministry of Interior
Deputy Minister for Security at the Ministry of Interior and acting chief of Kabul’s Asmai Police Zone 101, Muhammad Salem Ehsas, said at the GMIC press conference that the security plan, named the ‘Zarghun Belt’ (Green Belt, sometimes also, confusingly, translated as Green Zone) would be implemented gradually over the next six months. He said that “Wazir Akbar Khan, Shashdarak, Sherpur and some other areas [of the city] were part of the Green Belt.”
Abdul Basir Mujahed, spokesman for Kabul police, in conversation with AAN said the plan, which he referred to as the ‘New Plan for Kabul Province’, had been endorsed by the Ministry of Interior and approved by the president and would be rolled out in three phases, firstly, covering ‘the diplomatic area’, then other Kabul urban districts and finally Kabul’s rural districts. (2)
It is probably worth trying to pin down the geography of the plan, here.
The first phase of the plan appears to concentrate on what is often referred to, by officials and the media, as the ‘diplomatic area’ of Kabul, or the green zone (after the heavily fortified area of Baghdad used by successive Iraqi regimes and the US and other military and civilian authorities). The map below shows the extent of the current green zone and its proposed extensions, as discussed in security meetings. The extent also matches the neighbourhoods mentioned by deputy minister Ehsas under ‘Green Belt’.
Kabul’s green zone/diplomatic area (the green area on the map) does indeed host many embassies, including those of some of Afghanistan’s key backers – the United States, Germany, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey, as well as the World Bank country office. Moreover, this area also hosts key government agencies and ministries, including the presidential palace, the Chief Executive’s palace, the ministries of interior, defence and foreign affairs, the NDS, Independent Directorate of Local Government, Sedarat and Radio Television Afghanistan. The CIA and the international military’s headquarters is also within this zone, as are some international contractors. Many commanders and politicians live there and even some ordinary people. However, many other embassies, including many northern European ones are located elsewhere in the city. The term ‘diplomatic area’, then, is a misnomer.
The red area on the map – the extension of the green zone as we know it so far – brings the northern part of Wazir Akbar Khan and Sherpur into the zone. Sherpur used to be a popular neighbourhood. “For centuries,” AAN wrote in 2010, “this plot of land was part of the finely woven agricultural fabric surrounding Kabul [comprising of] traditional mud houses, small pieces of farmland and a historical garden.” One morning in 2003 though, then Kabul Chief of Police, Bashir Salangi ordered it to be bulldozed. 100 armed police forcibly evicted the people living there, injuring some. The land was then parcelled out by the Minister of Defence, the late Marshal Qasim Fahim, to cabinet members (then Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani was one of the very few to refuse land and to criticise the land grab), politicians and commanders (with a strong bias towards Fahim’s Jamiat-e Islami comrades; read more here). Today, northern Wazir Akbar Khan and Sherpur is home to a few embassies, but also to many commanders and politicians. As will be seen below, some new security measures have already been taken in this area.
The other possible extension (in blue on the map) would bring in some stretches of the approach road to Kabul Airport. It seems, according to New York Times reporting, that this will mean US embassy employees will “no longer need to take a Chinook helicopter ride to cross the street to a military base [formerly the headquarters for American Special Operations forces in the capital] less than 100 yards.” It would, of course, mean ‘safe access’ to the airport for everyone else located within the extended green zone.
Green area signifies the current green zone (roughly), red is the planned extension where some new measures are already implemented, and blue is a possible additional extension. (Google Earth puts Bibi Mahru in two locations – the road named Bibi Mahru on the map is wrong, ‘BiBi Mahro’ is correct). Credit: an international security organisation.
General Ehsas has tried to insist that diplomats would be better defended, motorists little affected and the whole of Kabul protected:
In fact, we don’t have any special plan to close or open the roads. The traffic is normal, but on days that we have a VIP guest, the Wazir Akbar Khan roads will be temporary closed for an hour. Wazir Akber [sic] Khan is a diplomatic area and we are making efforts [to ensure] the diplomats’ security and this is our priority. We want to enhance our security plan on Wazir Akbar Khan area. All Kabul is our ‘green zone’ because all Kabul people need security. We have a special security plan and it’s carried out day by day and our aim is not to close the streets.
Other politicians have also sought to insist that everyone will benefit. Member of Kabul provincial council Rahimullah Mujahed claimed the plan would benefit 80 per cent of the population of Kabul, because the installation of new security posts in various squares and other locations would stop security threats to the city, as a whole. Positive claims were also heard from President Ghani and the head of the Capital Zone Development Authority, Ilham Omar Hotaki, as reported by Pahjwok:
[Hotaki] said the Kabul Green Zone plan would bring about a positive change in the living style of Kabul residents and would play a role in improving their economic and social standard. President Ghani said the government would also contribute to the execution of the green zone plan, which he called as effective in bringing about change in social living and improving security of the foreign diplomatic missions.
However, speaking to Reuters, Ehsas appeared to be more frank. “In this security plan, our priority is the diplomatic area,” he said. “The highest threat level is in this area and so we need to provide a better security here.”
Looking into the details of the plan, it appears indeed that the new security measures will largely benefit the already protected and may lead to worsening security for others.
What are the new security measures in Kabul?
The security plan, despite not having been officially published and apparently being confidential, includes at least six elements that have been spoken about by officials or written about in the media. That information provides the basis for the details below. Many are in the current green zone; others outside it.
According to acting deputy interior minister General Ehsas, “26 checkpoints have been placed around diplomatic areas in Kabul so far, 10 mobile checkpoints have been considered in the routes connected to it.” Elsewhere, he mentioned the 26 checkpoints being in the Green Belt (which he defined as located in Wazir Akbar Khan, Shashdarak, Sherpur and some other areas).
At each of those 26 checkpoints, Kabul police spokesperson Mujahed told AAN, the number of security personnel had been increased from between eight to ten policemen to 15 or 16. He also said that two companies from a Kabul anti-riot police battalion had been sent for training before they undertook the security of the checkpoints.
Many of the new fixed checkpoints have been under discussion by the relevant authorities and their foreign counterparts for many years now. For example, the new Sherpur checkpoint at a much used road fork, just in front of Emergency Hospital, an international security analyst told AAN, had been on the agenda of many security meetings.
Meanwhile, some checkpoints outside the green zone in the Qala-ye Fatullah and Taimani areas have been dismantled. Since 2009, those were parts of another series of checkpoints, called the ‘Ring of Steel’, introduced by then minister of interior Hanif Atmar. This neighbourhood is home, not to diplomats and government ministries, but to many international and national NGOs, as well as ‘ordinary Afghans’, of course. It has been heavily targeted by kidnappers over the last couple of years, as well as by suicide bombers. The checkpoints at the Salim Karwan intersection, in Medinat Bazar, near the Attorney General’s Office and at Street 3, Taimani, have all been removed, “This seems to run counter to the Kabul police’s declared prioritization of NGO-inhabited areas,” said one analyst, “and indeed, there are empty checkpoints where there used to be manned ones.” While the police have appeared diligent looking for insurgency-related materiel and individuals at these checkpoints, there have been repeated accusations of police collusion with the kidnap gang(s), given their ability to pass through the checkpoints.
Vehicle barriers and metal gates
Kabul police spokesman Mujahed told AAN that a number, possibly up to 40, of metal ‘security gates’ (these are tubular roadblocks that prevent vehicles of a certain height from passing through streets; Reuters has a photo here) were being installed. Some would be flexible and mobile, allowing big vehicles to pass in an emergency. He said he could not disclose their exact number until all were erected. In July and August 2017, the Afghan National Security Forces installed a number of metal gates on specific roads leading to the Green Belt. These gates range in height from two to two and a half metres. A few are outside the green zone or its proposed extensions (as per the map) Those installed close to the city centre are located at: the Sherpur crossroads, close to Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum’s house; the intersection in front of the Emergency Hospital in Shahr-e Now; near to the Kabul police compound/ Sedarat intersection; Pul-e Mahmud Khan intersection; the Abdul Haq Square; in Third Macrorayon; in front of the Kabul municipality; near Azizi Plaza in Bibi Mahru from where a road leads to Fourth Macrorayon; in Pul-e Bagh-e Umumi. New gates are going up in fresh locations.
At the 14 August press conference in GMIC it was announced that large lorries delivering necessary services would be directed along specified roads within the Green Belt and would now only be allowed to enter the Green Belt via the airport road after the police had searched them (see here). Reuters reported that cars would also be generally barred on nine of the fifteen streets in the “diplomatic area” or leading into it and totally and permanently barred from the remaining six (it is not clear if or how residents will be allowed to use these roads).
Mujahed told AAN, “Kabul police have the right to check any kind of car and if anyone tries to avoid this, legal action will be taken.” In practice, police inspect cars selectively and ‘known people’ (meaning passengers who are known to the policemen on the checkpoint) are usually not inspected; at most checkpoints, female passenger are also not searched.
The security forces are also now blocking almost all the roads leading towards the presidential palace (and the Serena Hotel) from 10:00 at night until 6:00 in the morning. The roads include those passing behind Ministry of Telecommunications along Zarnigar Park, from Pul-e Mahmud Khan and from Pul-e Kheshti overnight. This measure starts from 10:00 at night until early morning.
Four hangar-style scanners, each weighing around 30 tonnes have been installed at the four ‘gates’ to Kabul city, in Pul-e Charkhi, Company, Tank-e Logar and Sar-e Kotal at Khairkhana, ie respectively on the roads to Nangarhar, through Logar to Loya Paktia, through Maidan Wardak to Ghazni and southern Afghanistan and the Shomali to the Afghan north. The scanners, donated by China as part of an economic and security agreement with Beijing signed in 2012, had crossed into the country by rail from Uzbekistan. (See also this Reuters report from December 2016). It was reported that the scanners had been ‘gathering dust’ for over a year in a Kabul warehouse because of infighting between different Afghan interior ministry’s departments over which one should install them and a dispute over who should purchase the land on which the giant scanners would be installed. (3) After the terrorist attack at Zanbaq Square, the scanners were finally, it seems, taken out of storage. Mujahed told The Kabul Times they would stop the entry of drugs, explosives, ammunition and other illegal substances into the city.
Four hangar-style scanners, each weighing around 30 tonnes have been installed at the four ‘gates’ to Kabul city. Credit: Tolo, 2017
Several Kabul residents whom AAN spoke to said they had observed that it takes the police at least ten minutes to scan a car and at certain times of day when there is a heavy traffic congestion, the policemen do not scan any vehicles at all.
In early August, ANSF deployed five ‘K9 units’, dog teams trained to search for explosives and other illegal materials, to several locations in Kabul City: Pul-e Mahmud Khan, Wazir Akbar Khan, Bibi Mahru Hill, Abdul Haq Square and Kabul Airport’s main entrance.
Although K9 teams have been intermittently present at Kabul Airport for almost a year, deployed there on a 24-hour basis, some vehicles have been exempt – those belonging to VIPs and ‘known people’ and those with female passengers. There is no fixed time frame for how long the K9 teams will be deployed to these five locations.
Deputy Minister Ehsas said that police patrols, both on vehicle and motorcycle, would be increased in Kabul city. Apparently, 80 motorcycle patrols will be established, but as the motorcycles have not been purchased yet, it is a presumption that this will only happen at some point in the future.
Ehsas also said a 500-member police anti-riot battalion featured in the security plan. It appears that they have been deployed to guard the Wazir Akbar Khan and Sherpur areas. However, this 500-strong battalion was always part of the Kabul security architecture and it had, previously, been spread around Kabul City, an international security expert told AAN. According to this expert, the plan is now to re-train the battalion. The money for this may also be part of the Afghanistan-China 2012 economic and security agreement, the text of which is confidential. Known parts of the agreement suggest that a number of policemen would be sent to China for training. Either way, it seems that the green zone will benefit from a concentration of police on motorcycles, while the rest of the city will suffer a corresponding scarcity.
According to one of the international security analysts AAN consulted, there would also be increased patrolling in the Wazir Akbar Khan, Sherpur, Qala-ye Fathullah, Kart-e Chahar and Kart-e Se neighbourhoods.
T-wall removal: part of the plan or not?
The removal of anti-blast ‘T-walls’ is not part of the security plan, but worth mentioning in the context of Kabul’s security. A campaign to remove them was started a few weeks after the Zanbaq Square attack, announced by acting Kabul mayor Abdullah Habibzai, on 23 June 2017, supposedly in response to the demands of the citizenry (see here and here).
Removing T-walls has been a demand from the public for many years now. Former president Karzai ordered their dismantlement in 2010, in order to improve traffic flow on the capital’s roads (see here). The move was short-lived, however, and it was noticeable that the former president fortified his own residence with concrete blast walls as soon as he left the presidential palace.
T-walls protect those behind them, but amplify the blast for everyone else in the vicinity. For the common people then, they are an ‘insecurity mechanism’. In some places, they seem particularly appalling, for example, on the road outside the old Ministry of Interior. They actually increase the exposure of the Lycée Malalai girls school and the Jamhuriat and Antani Hospitals on the other side of the road to danger; if there was an attack on the ministry, the school and hospitals would receive a far greater blast.
T-walls also partially block roads and hamper traffic flow, as they are rarely built within the perimeter of the protected person’s property, but jut out onto the pavement or even into the middle of the road, blatantly grabbing land from the public. Many would also argue that by increasing security for those with power sheltering behind them, they reduce their incentive to improve the security for everyone in the city. (Compare similar dynamics when those who can afford generators and bottled water are in charge of systems which fail to deliver mains electricity and drinking water to the general population.)
The new security plan’s biggest ambition is to totally close off the ‘diplomatic area’ by building by-pass roads. Head of the Capital Zone Development Authority Hotaki presented a proposal, on 3 August 2017, to build ten kilometres of new roads as part of the security plan which he called the “Kabul Green Zone.” He said short and long-term measures had been considered in the security plan and five ‘security zones’ would be established in Qala-ye Musa, Bibi Mahru, Qala-ye Khayat and Qala-ye Nazir/Qala-ye Khatir (both names were reported, here and here), all neighbourhoods adjacent to the ‘core zone’ of Wazir Akbar Khan, Shashdarak and Sherpur. On 16 September 2017, Tolo television reported an announcement by the municipality to build one such new road linking the Airport Road to Bibi Mahru and onto Qala-ye Musa (police district 10), north of Bibi Mahru hill, to avoid Wazir Akbar Khan and Sherpur (which are in its south). This would mean the destruction of homes in popular neighbourhoods. So the creation of ‘security zones’ here means security for others, not the inhabitants.
Hotaki said anyone losing their homes, would be re-housed. However, particularly given that government promises on housing and land are rarely honoured those facing the demolition of their homes could be forgiven for being sceptical (see also AAN analysis here and here).
Indeed, rather like building T-walls, this looks like another grab of resources from ordinary people to improve the security of the already privileged.
A few thoughts about the new Kabul security plan
In general, it is difficult to protect the population when Taleban and Daesh insurgents are prepared to kill civilians and do not (despite statements to the contrary) recognise the city’s population as ‘their people’ who have to be safeguarded in any attack. The insurgents’ readiness to commit suicide also makes them a tricky enemy to protect against.
Physical barriers alone will also never be able to protect a large and sprawling city like Kabul. Even in Najibullah’s time, when the population was smaller and more homogenous, his triple-ring defences could not protect the population then from mujahedin attack, in those days mainly the systematic targeting of relatively low-profile targets – police and army checkpoints, barracks and individuals (see AAN analysis here). Even if the Taleban did not have sympathisers inside the city ready to help with logistics or provide safe houses, they would still be able to force cooperation through threats, for example from people with relatives in villages under Taleban influence or control, or for money. Good intelligence is important here.
Even so, physical security measures can help. In terms of the overall safety for the Afghan capital, the new vehicle barriers at the city’s gates and the K9 teams would seem to be positive steps and will be the most visible changes in Kabul’s security architecture. Otherwise, it seems the new measures are actually aimed at the already well-protected, despite claims by officials to the contrary. One security expert told AAN that the Palace was committed to protecting its citizens and boosting Kabul’s security, but that the availability of foreign funding was affecting where the plan was being rolled out. Moreover, although some diplomats and some government ministries will become safer, others, including the majority of international NGOs and the vast proportion of the population, will see little improvement in their security and a possible deterioration. As with T-walls, closing streets and thereby exacerbating traffic congestion, demolishing homes so that by-passes can be built and emptying some existing checkpoints to concentrate efforts elsewhere, it appears that, at present at least, the many will bear the cost of better protection for the few.
The major institutions in the green zone, both foreign and Afghan, are the obvious targets for the Taleban and Daesh, but not the only ones. Better security in those areas could lead to the insurgents seeking easier or softer targets to attack, or using different methods, outside the better protected zones. See, for example, the increase in magnetic improvised explosive devices (MIEDs) used against vehicles in the last two years, in Kabul but also elsewhere. Whoever is on the periphery of highly defended areas will also find their risk of being caught up in an attack has increased. The 31 May 2017 attack was a case in point, with foreign or Afghan government installations the intended target, but Afghan morning commuters comprising almost all the victims, after police guards at an existing barrier stopped the truck bomb entering the green zone.
It is also important to recognise that security is not limited to insurgent attacks. Citizens also suffer from criminality, and according to one of the security experts AAN spoke to, this has recently seen a “slight uptick” – here better policing could help – and racketeering and extortion when the police, themselves are often the perpetrators. (See here AAN analysis of inefficiency and corruption in the Ministry of Interior.
Concerns have also been raised by fire fighters’ and ambulance drivers interviewed by AAN as to whether their vehicles will actually be able to drive beneath the new metal gates. There will be other knock-on effects, as well, not just increased congestion for everyone, but for emergency services in particular. It can already take hours for ambulances and private cars carrying the wounded through the heavily congested Shahr-e Naw to reach the Emergency Hospital. One of the key response institutions in case of attack, can now only receive wounded people from one direction.
The Zanbaq Square atrocity rightly led to demands for greater protection, not just from diplomats, but from many others living in Kabul. However, after looking at the details of the new security plan, the question remains: whose security will it protect? At the moment, at least, this is not a Green Belt for all.
(1) Pajhwok news agency reported that also present at the meeting were Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, National Security Advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar, Attorney General Farid Hamidi, Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG)’s acting director Abdul Baqi Popal and senior security officials.
(2) Then Kabul Governor Hamid Ikram (he retired in mid-September), went even further at the GMIC press conference, suggesting that the security scheme would be extended not only to Kabul city, but to other provinces, as well. If true, this raises the question of whether a security plan designed for Kabul (with its specific layout) could simply be copied and applied to other cities in Afghanistan.
(3) Different, or possibly additional locations for scanners were reported by Tolo on 6 August 2017: Arghandi, Sang-e Nabeshta and Kotal-e Khairkhana. Haq Nawaz Haqyar, deputy security chief for Asmayi Zone 101 of Kabul said the police was also trying to install them in Dasht-e Pichari, Gul Bagh, Butkhak and Tangi-ye Tarakheil.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020