To the many problems that afflict Kabul–leveled neighborhoods, broken water systems, mined fields, power outages–a new one must be added: traffic jams. During the morning rush hour, the narrow streets of the Afghan capital clog with vehicles–the white Land Cruisers favored by international donors, the black SUVs preferred by military commanders, the Soviet-era buses crammed with commuters, the yellow-and-white Toyota Corollas that serve as taxis. On some days, the traffic grinds to a complete halt, the idling vehicles belching out black diesel fumes while their drivers angrily pound their horns. Adding to the chaos are the hordes of bicyclists who recklessly thread their way through the lanes, miraculously avoiding collisions at the last moment.
While endlessly annoying to those who must navigate them, Kabul’s bustling streets actually seem a cause for optimism–a sign of revival after twenty-three years of war, upheaval and isolation. There are other encouraging signs. The city’s bazaars–winding clusters of ramshackle wooden stalls–brim with raisins and walnuts, tomatoes and bananas, scallions and spinach. Every day, open-backed trucks enter the city packed with families and their possessions–refugees returning home from years spent idling in Pakistan and Iran. Young boys on the street hawk issues of Kabul Weekly, an independent newspaper that offers news, gossip and gentle criticism of the government. And every night families gather to watch Afghan TV, back on the air after years of Taliban blackout. The newscast even features a woman announcer–a bold declaration that a new era has begun in Afghanistan.
Yet just beneath the surface are many causes for concern. Outside the gates of the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Kabul stand clusters of disheveled, dispirited men desperately seeking work. While some women have boldly doffed their burqas, the vast majority remain fully cloaked, and Westerners are frequently accosted by formless blobs in blue insistently seeking handouts to feed their children. The city’s poorest neighborhoods, on the southern outskirts, have been hit by a crime wave perpetrated by armed gangs believed to be linked to Islamic extremists. Awash in Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the country has recently been rocked by a series of violent attacks, including an assassination attempt on the defense minister, the murder of a United Nations aid worker and revolts by poppy growers against the government’s eradication efforts. Such acts seem particularly ominous as Afghans prepare to convene a loya jirga, or grand council, in June to select a transitional government and write a new Constitution.
The one thing standing between Afghanistan and total chaos, it seems, is the presence of the international community. Long ignored by the outside world, Afghanistan is now being invaded by it. Daily, two filled-to-capacity UN planes fly in development experts and humanitarian workers from Islamabad, Pakistan. In an effort to combat rampant malnutrition, the World Food Program (WFP) is providing food to more than 6 million Afghans. The Danes are helping to de-mine the country, the Germans to rebuild its water and sanitation systems, and the Japanese to reconstruct its housing. In the Marco Polo restaurant, a modest but well-lit establishment that serves the usual Afghan fare–lamb kebabs, fried chicken, sautéed spinach–NGO officials squawk into their global-reach telephones, directing relief efforts. Most visible of all is the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), whose green armored vehicles periodically roll through the city, their rifle-at-the-ready troops scouring the streets for any hint of trouble.