KABUL, Afghanistan-What's notable about Afghanistan's capital for a first-time visitor is the anomalies. You don't expect in a war zone to see a sculpture of frolicsome dolphins outside the airport entrance. Or flowers-traffic circles rimmed with geraniums, hospital grounds overrun by roses, and courtyards bursting with sunflowers. And you may have an idea that everyone is hunkered inside awaiting an insurgent attack when in fact the streets are clogged well before 7 a.m., and even Westerners come and go on busy side streets at dusk. Then the evening ends with the thunder of . . . thunder, and a summer rain.
June marked the highest casualty month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But for those who just live in this city, risk is a longstanding feature of daily life and security has become second nature. Life must go on. Non-governmental organizations with offices in Kabul have learned not to advertise with big signs, and they post their armed guards inside the gate, not outside on the street where they only draw attention. Western women don headscarves even before stepping off the airplane, but the number of full-length burqas, including the bright blue head-to-toe veils associated with the Taliban era, are less in number on the streets than you'd imagine.
Commuters have learned to dodge the convoys of the Afghan National Army and U.S. forces, while university students hurry to classes, unbothered by traffic snarls, heads bent over their cell phones. And Afghans have learned to work with Western presence in other ways too-by launching businesses that cater to its security consciousness. One, called Safe Taxi, screens drivers and hires only those conversant in English. The drivers have constant contact with a dispatcher by radio, tracking progress across the city and charting roads that are closed or unsafe as conditions change. The fare for a 40-minute ride across the city? Seven dollars.
Here the week's news of the largest leak in history of U.S. military documents seems like very old news. Pakistan's intelligence services are supporting the Taliban? "We knew that three years ago," remarked one Army officer here. (Journalists like Ahmad Rashid were documenting the Taliban-Pakistan link even before 9/11.) Civilian casualties? Those too have been documented and widely known in Afghanistan-and long-term Kabul residents tell equally of more harrowing stories of civilian casualties under the Taliban, and before that, the Soviets.
In the city a more pressing issue is accommodating the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have descended on the capital. Kabul has swelled from a city of about 2 million to perhaps as many as 5 million, I was told today. They are drawn by jobs or improved security, which is better than in the southern provinces. Hospitals are overcrowded, and streets and other infrastructure are stretched to the limit. Afghan police are needed to direct traffic at most major intersections during morning and afternoon rush hours.
That also translates into an overcrowded field for upcoming parliamentary elections. About 700 candidates are running for only about 40 seats that are up for grabs. Campaign posters line the city streets and tower over intersections. Each candidate is assigned a number and a simplified symbol, like shoes or neckties. The same number and symbol will accompany the candidate's name on the ballot-as a way to identify a candidate for a country whose electorate is more than three-fourths illiterate.
See these other reports from Afghanistan by Mindy Belz:
Police training | With accelerated training, the national police force looks to grow quickly to counter threats throughout the country
Fighting to survive | The country has been described as 'the most dangerous place to be born'
Traffic surge | A lack of driver training leads to accidents and challenges for U.S. forces trying to build an Afghan army
To hear Mindy Belz discuss this topic on the "Knowing the Truth" radio program, click here.