Context & Culture

Kabul Diary (2): A Ring of Steel Sheets


Finally, the long expected rain is falling in Kabul. But what’s good for next year’s crops makes life miserable for people in the cities. And for the first time, there were hours-long complete traffic break-downs in Kabul yesterday and today afternoon.

Although President Obama today announced that he plans ‘to finish the job’ in Afghanistan whatever that means in terms of a timeline, I found something else more important today: For the second consecutive day, there was a complete traffic break-down for hours in the afternoon today.

Long lines of cars, busses, bikes and handcarts were stuck along Kulula Pushta, Taimani and Qala-ye Fathullah Roads, throughout all of Shahr-e Nau, Sherpur and Wazir Akbar Khan (WAK). Nothing moved any more. There was a kilometre-long tailback. It looked like the Route du Soleil in France at the start of the summer vacation season after 14 July: People were standing next to their cars, smoking cigarettes, chatting, engines switched off. Only that there wasn’t much of soleil…

The potholes in Kabul’s mainly un-tarmaced or crumbling roads had turned into lakes of brownish water which sometimes are deeper than you expect and the non-paved pavements into ankle-deep mud. Many people walked home in between the stuck cars because the pavements were impassable.

The keepers of the unheated container shops wrapped themselves into their shabby pattus. The phone card vendors at the corners sheltered under battered umbrellas while the street children where just soaking.

Four factors contribute to the traffic chaos: First, the municipality has decided a few weeks ago that the side-ditches of Kabul’s roads should be repaired. The work is still ongoing in many parts of town and narrows down the space in the roads further. Where the work is finished the holes are not filled in again properly because machinery to do so is lacking. Secondly, ‘id-e qurban is approaching and expected to start on Thursday. So, more people than usual are out with their cars to do the shopping. And third, the police has put up more check-posts since the 28 October attack on the UN guesthouse, stopping white corollas one day and beige corollas on the next one. (Yesterday, there was an alert that a ‘suspect UN vehicle laden with explosives’ was around.) This operation somewhat euphemistically is called ‘ring of steel’.

The major factor, however, is the security-mania that has gripped the international community and, with a bit of a delay, the Afghan government. One road after the other is closed down: It started immediately after the US-led invasion with Chowk-e Ariana when the CIA took over Ariana Hotel as its Kabul HQ. Somewhat later, the beautiful to walk plane-lined road between the Arq (the Presidential Palace) and what is now called Chowk-e Shahid Massoud followed, to protect the Presidential Palace at one and the US Embassy on the other end and the ISAF HQ in the middle which has occupied the former Afghan Army Club compound. Around the same time, Dahan-e Nal Road (next to the Continental Hotel) was blocked for Marshal Fahim. The same went with the WAK lane where Prof. Rabbani’s house is. That was the beginning of a turnpike metastasis all over WAK, left and right of its main road. Then, the roads between UNAMA Compound B and US forces HQ Camp Eggers which formerly was an access to Amanullah High School, along the Foreign Ministry and along the Interior Ministry were cut off for vehicles – the latter after two car-bombs that hit the Indian Embassy. This was followed by the street between Camp Eggers’ other side and the German Embassy, also after a suicide car-bomb attack earlier this year. Now, also the backside of the General Attorney’s Office is barricaded, without any attack. (I am sure I still overlooked some others.)

The blockage of the Camp Eggers/German Embassy road I find particularly annoying. The attack was targeted at a tanker which pumps fuel into Camp Eggers several times a week. The tanker is not allowed into the camp, for security reasons, obviously. The military obviously prefers to put the civilian traffic in danger – and the Embassy on the other side of the road – rather than taking the trouble of checking the tanker and its driver and letting them into the camp. Or having their fuel trucked in with their own drivers. Well, this problem is solved now: No one can go through there anymore.

Some people speculate that the Taleban provoked this by targeting exactly these thoroughfares, in order to create anger in the population. But I doubt it. If they wanted to, they easily could have closed down Kabul completely by targeting the two final open main roads – through WAK Main Road (with the shameful detour through Sherpur’s ugly and illicit narcotecture villas whose millionaire owners apparently cannot spare the few thousand dollars which would be necessary to put some asphalt on them) and along the Kabul river between Masjid-e Du Shamshira and Pul-e Bagh-e Umumi.
Meanwhile, the walls and hesco barriers along closed and unclosed roads grow higher and higher and more and more into the roads itself.

Today, while it took us two and a half hours to drive from Kabul University to Shahr-e Nau, I overheard some young lads who were making their way through the rain and mud saying: ‘When the Taleban come back, the streets will be open again.’

I am not sure whether they really look forward to this. But the anger about these very visible signs of a growing distance between Afghans and those who came to help them is growing. Just an Afghan Ronald Reagan is still missing who would demand: ‘Mr Karzai (or McChrystal or Eide), tear down these walls. (Or move out of town, at least.)’

Remember the Afghan parliament’s decision to do so? It has high walls around it, too, since quite a while. I heard recently, that there was a decision by the MPs to lower them so much so that this abode of Afghan democracy is at least visible from outside. Might be a rumour, though.

By the way, the Afghan media hasn’t mentioned Kabul’s latest traffic chaos with a single word yet, according to my Afghan colleagues…

Tagged with: ,
Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Rights & Freedoms