A Return Visit to Kabul: Is Time Running Out?

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Paula Bronstein / Getty

An Afghan man walks by blast walls near the Indian embassy, now a high-security zone

It was exhilarating flying back to Kabul after being gone for three years. The plane came in low from the east, in the coppery light of dawn, and I could make out the canyons of the Kabul Gorge where, in 1842, a retreating British army of 4,500 soldiers, accompanied by 12,000 family members and servants, vanished into the gorge and only one man, a surgeon's assistant on horseback, made it out alive. The rest were massacred or died in the snow.

Afghanistan is replete with grim reminders for those who would wish to rule it. The British were having a marvelous time in Kabul back in 1841: horse races, picnics, amateur theatrics (something British expats indulge in wherever they go) and lot of good grog and food. Meanwhile, the Afghans were seething over these madcap Victorians.

In fact, it reminds me a lot of how Kabul was when I was last here. The foreigners — diplomats, aid workers, journalists, assorted mercenaries and adventurers — disported themselves quite oblivious to the fact that this was a conservative Muslim country just emerging from the Taliban's medieval totalitarianism. You could find booze in shops. On weekends, you could go picnicking and horseback riding in the country. Many embassies moved into gaudy narco-mansions rented out by warlords loyal to President Hamid Karzai. For dining, you had a choice of Mexican, Balkan, Lebanese, Indian, Thai, American and Chinese restaurants. The Chinese places were often fronts for brothels, and off-limits to Afghans, but any Kabuli male would tell you feverishly which of these establishments were selling girls along with the noodles.

Three years on, Kabul has become a more sober, watchful city. The walls around embassies, aid offices and foreigners' guest houses have sprouted to around 15 feet high, and are often crowned with razor wire. After a few foreigners were kidnapped and shot by drive-by gunmen last year, it is now considered foolhardy to walk around the streets of Kabul. Booze is no longer sold openly. Many, but not all, of the brothels were shut down and the girls rounded up and flown back to China.

Car bombs now target NATO patrols, so you learn that it's a good idea to pull over and wait for the coalition convoy to rumble by to lessen the risk of becoming collateral damage. You try not to drive by the U.S. embassy or the Afghan ministries where the bombs also tend to go off. And so much for picnics and exploring the countryside: many of the roads out of Kabul are no longer safe for foreigners. That includes the one snaking down into the Kabul Gorge where the British were massacred. More surprising, it also includes the main Kabul-Kandahar highway, which was supposed to be a symbol to Afghans of the benefits of an American-backed government. If you're a foreigner or a rich Afghan, you can fly to Kandahar. Otherwise, ordinary Afghans have to take their chances with the Taliban and the bandits along the highway. "Three years ago" one foreign academic and longtime Kabul resident told me, "Afghans had hope for the future. Now they don't."

Hungry for Afghan pistachios, I stopped by a shop where the owner, a friend, assured me that everything was fine, thanks to Allah, for him and his family. Then, in a whisper, he told me that his brother was kidnapped and held for 20 days before the captors and the family could agree on a ransom. Now he and his brother, who survived the communists, a brutal civil war and the Taliban, are thinking about quitting the business and leaving Afghanistan. "It doesn't look good," he told me, and over the years I've come to trust his merchant's instincts above all the embassy pundits put together. He was worried by reports that President Karzai's supporters committed widescale fraud in the Aug. 20 elections, and this, the shop-keeper says, could re-open ancient ethnic grudges between the Pashtuns, most of whom back Karzai, and the non-Pashtuns who are rallying around his main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

Most Afghans in Kabul appreciate the international presence because of the relative stability it brings. Outside the capital, in the parts that haven't received the promised roads and schools and bridges, it is another matter. But all Afghans are furious over the high number of civilian casualties, especially the latest incident in which the Germans called in two NATO aircraft to bomb two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban — never mind that villagers were swarming the tankers for free fuel.

I sometimes wonder what provocation it would take to unleash the Afghans' latent xenophobia, as happened with the Brits in 1842. The bombing of the tankers can't help, nor did revelations a few days ago that U.S. embassy guards were caught behaving like lewd frat boys around a bonfire. Luckily, in both instances, American officials here moved swiftly to apologize and minimize the damage, but there's no doubt that Afghan resentment toward foreigners is rising fast.