You can't help but be impressed by Kabul's airport, which is in the middle of being refurbished. A fresh coat of salmon-colored paint, acoustic ceilings and fast laptops at immigration processing. In the departure lounge, there's even a reassuring bright yellow sign: "Renovation of Kabul International Airport. We apologize for any inconvenience caused during the renovation process." The sign is in English, not Dari. But never mind: you can still smoke anywhere in the terminal. You can't expect everything to change overnight.
Outside the airport, though, the illusion evaporates. For a start, the distance between the terminal and the parking lot is at least a hundred yards. No surprise there. On the average these days there is a suicide car-bombing a day in and around Kabul. The Taliban started firing rockets at Kabul. They go unreported in the news because they aren't doing damage. It takes the murder of NATO troops to generate a wire report, like last week's murder of six Canadian soldiers in Kandahar.
Driving around Kabul I came across a British patrol that had just been attacked by a suicide bomber in a Toyota Corolla, wounding two. They were lucky, and it never made the news. I wondered how bad the rest of Afghanistan is, and, as I usually do when I get to a new city, I casually asked around where I could go and couldn't go. Forget Kandahar, I was told. Even heavy armor is vulnerable to the new improvised explosive devices showing up in Afghanistan. Which means that you can't drive to Herat. Nor can you set foot in another dozen Afghan provinces.
How fast is Afghanistan unraveling? Westerners live in heavily protected enclaves, waiting for Armageddon to break out. They look a lot like Crusader castles. Western officials and military venture out only in armored Toyota Land Cruisers, easily recognizable by their electronic counter-measure domes and whip antennas. With no license plates, they barrel down the streets at high speeds, staying ahead of any potential suicide car bombers. They don't stop at police checkpoints extraterritorial status has its privileges.
Not surprisingly, the Afghans resent their second-class citizenship but so far tolerate it it's better than the savagery of the Taliban. On the other hand they wonder how long it's going to last. The insurgency that's the word a briefer at NATO headquarters used instead of the Taliban or al-Qaeda understands it needs to win over the hearts and minds of the average Afghan. Unlike suicide bombers in Iraq, the insurgents don't intentionally target civilians, although many have died in attacks. And this summer they have started to adjust their tactics, purposely operating from villages in order to provoke NATO air strikes and kill civilians. As one Afghan told me, "When you kill one Afghan, you kill his own tribe."
Only a fool would dare predict Afghanistan's future. But if the insurgents get their way, Kabul's renovated airport could get some real use in an exodus of Westerners.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.