The Pulse

Kabul: Changing Amid Uncertainty

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The Pulse

Kabul: Changing Amid Uncertainty

A trip to Kabul reveals a city in flux, and one with an uncertain future.

A visit to Afghanistan is a never ending curiosity. No matter how many times one comes to this country it never fails to surprise. When I landed in Kabul a few days ago, I felt every bit as excited as I did on my first reporting assignment here in 2008.

In the last five years the capital city has witnessed many changes. Upon exiting the airport, a huge wedding hall with tinted glass grabs visitors’ attention. This structure was built in the last few years amid the city’s building boom, which has been in full swing since the departure of the Taliban in 2001. Wherever you go in Kabul, construction is underway, leaving you wondering whether people are really apprehensive about their future.

In the city’s north, multi-story housing complexes are springing up, while many returnees are constructing new houses after losing land during the Taliban’s reign.

Kabul’s building frenzy is just keeping pace with its burgeoning population. According to The New York Times, the city was built to accommodate around half a million people, yet five million call it home. One of them is my friend Amir, who has six brothers, all married. He’s currently building a new multistory house as their ancestral home has become too cramped.

To glimpse another major change to the city in recent years, one need only look to Kabul’s streets. Today a growing number of vehicles can be seen about town. According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network (ANN), a Kabul-based think tank, the city witnessed a tenfold increase in the number of vehicles on its roads from 2005 to 2010. Cars were almost entirely absent from Shahr-e Now, one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, as recently as 2002. There were even fewer vehicles on the road under the Taliban, who were notorious for confiscating them.

Traffic has led to a spike in the city’s pollution levels. Most of the vehicles sold in the city are used imports. The city’s swanky showrooms display second-hand cars. Toyota is perhaps the most visible brand.

Aside from the growing number of privately owned vehicles, in the last couple of years I have also noticed the growth of a car rental/mini cab company called Afghan Logistics & Tours. This is a welcome service in a country where trusting strangers is difficult and where getting around with an unfamiliar driver is not easy. The new company has won the confidence of many foreigners who now use the service without hesitation. It was a new experience for me to be able to arrange for a vehicle to go out to dinner without worrying about my security.

Meanwhile, advertising has also made its mark on the city, with billboards dotting the streets and mountains surrounding Kabul. Not long ago Mujahideen groups occupied these same mountains, from which they launched attacks on rival forces. Today their vantage points have been taken by ads for the city’s competing mobile networks. In downtown Kabul, billboards tout housing projects, government welfare schemes, Afghan television series, and university courses.

On the face of it, Kabul would seem to be a changed city. And on one level, this is true. But scratch the surface and you’ll soon detect undercurrents of fear and uncertainty. Residents of the capital are apprehensive about the city’s post-2014 future, when the majority of international troops are expected to leave.

My driver Shahpoor said, “I am not sure what is going to happen after 2014 but it is reassuring that Americans are not withdrawing all their troops.”

Ali, a shopkeeper next to my hotel, shares this view. He added, “It is not possible for the Taliban to rule Kabul again. The Afghan forces are capable of taking on the insurgent groups now. But who knows what will happen in the future.”

Time will tell whether Kabul’s hard-won progress will last. But for now, Afghanistan’s unpredictability keeps curiosity alive for the country.