A few words on Kabul

Our convoy consisted of two SUVs.

SFC J, Army LTC L, Obaidulla our interpretor, and I were in the lead vehicle. Air Force LTC F, Navy Seabee CE1 G, and infantryman SGT B were in the second.

We knew weíd have a problem following our route inside Kabul, as part of it had been announced to close for ANA parade practice. Units from all over the country would be practicing for a large parade later this month, on April 28th, in honor of Islamic Independence Day (or Victory of the Muslim Nation, depending on your source).

Weíd hope to bluff our way past the guards at the entrance to the closed off street, but it didnít work, and Obai, our interpreter, took us another way. Good luck for me, as the detour was through a market area that even at seven in the morning was packed with people. All we could do was crawl along, giving me plenty of time to absorb the sights.

Kabul, the nationís capital, sprawls throughout a valley. Itís an ancient city, a potentially beautiful city, that in some ways still exists in the 15th century as much as in the 21st. Pushcarts and donkeys are common, sharing the roads with buses, trucks, and taxis speeding by.

The relatively few apartment buildings look decades old, of gray Soviet influence, and dilapidated. The tallest building is the government Communications Building, at 18 stories, and the elevators donít work.

Most of the city has no electric power, sewage, or running water. I havenít seen a working traffic light. There is no postal service, which is good, as the streets donít have names and the houses donít have numbers. War damage is still evident, notably at the Kingís Palace, though Iíve read that far more damage in Kabul was caused in the 1990s by Afghans fighting each other for power than was ever caused by the Russians.

As it appears today, March 2005 

Close-up of corner

That said, I have a lot of optimism for this country. My impressions of the Afghan people are of course superficial, based on only six months and of mostly those who work near or with Americans.  

Still, some things are obvious. Theyíre hard workers and remarkable entrepreneurs. They will open a shop anywhere thereís a few square feet of available space. Kabulís streets have hundreds of rusting CONEXes (steel shipping containers) where one can find something to buy or get repaired. Though unheated and without electricity, the CONEXes are a bit higher up than the many pushcarts at the bottom of the economic ladder, and have two important advantages aside from their low cost: they can be securely locked at night, and they can be picked up and moved somewhere else if a city official or landowner demands it.  

Kabul, though not as devastated in war as was Seoul , can remind one of that city, and Afghanistan can easily Ė or not so easily -- give hope it will also succeed as has Korea and its bright, industrious people.  

Of course, Korea has but one language while Afghanistan has 47, of which two (Pashto and Dari) predominate. Literacy in Korea has always approached 100% while in Afghanistan it is 32%. Though Koreaís women were important to their countryís rebuilding, working in shops, factories and even on construction crews, almost none of Afghanistanís women are permitted to work outside the home.

Koreans are a homogenous people. Just two names, Kim and Lee, make up 36% of all surnames in Korea (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_name).  Meanwhile Afghanistan is made up at least seven ethnic groups (http://www.afghan-network.net/Ethnic-Groups) who have always competed -- recently, to the death -- for their slice of the too-small Afghan pie.  

Finally, Korea evolved into a democracy after decades of military rule, often autocratic but generally in the interest of their people. Afghanistan is a new democracy. President Karzai was elected just a half year ago, in late 2004.  National assembly elections are scheduled for later this year. This country has a fragile democracy, and some a little more cynical than me would say that puts it kindly.

Update, 4 January 2015. I watch 60 Minutes, learning that Kabul has been transformed since 2005.

Kabul, Afghanistan
CBS News

Gen. John Campbell: This is a perspective people don't get. Kabul at night here. The lights.

Lara Logan: When I came into Kabul for the first time with the Afghan forces, when they took the city from the Taliban in 2001, there wasn't a single light --

Gen. John Campbell: Just take a look at the highway lights.

Click here for the transcript.


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