This past week I spent most of my time in Kabul as I had to travel there for my work. It was a chance to get out of KAF for a bit and to also see a bit more of Afghanistan. Flights out of KAF leave on a frequent basis and so getting to another part of the country out of KAF generally isn’t a problem. However, this is probably one of the few places in the world where you cannot board a flight unless you have a gun with you!
Since the aircraft is a military plane and not a regular civilian one that most people are accustomed to, there are several marked differences. Military aircraft such as the one I flew in requires everyone to sit with their backs to the outer wall and facing into the center. There are no individual seats and it is more of a bench seating style. Also, there are very few windows on the aircraft and those that do exist are relatively tiny and really do not offer a chance to peek out and take in some of the scenery.
Given the nature of the threat posed to aircraft in Afghanistan certain precautions must be taken on take off and landing. The pilot is required to maneuver the plane in such a manner that it takes a series of steep dives and inclines as well as a few very sharp bank turns in order to avoid any potential gunfire from below. This can be quite an experience inside the plane and it is a ride that can, in some instances, keep pace with rides at any amusement park. At certain points, your stomach is left a few hundred meters above you while at other times the forces pushing on you during a sharp turn or incline can leave you feeling that you are half your size but double the weight.
As for Kabul itself I had the chance to see a bit of the city from inside a well-protected armored car. It is surrounded by mountains on all sides and the landscape is actually quite beautiful. However, Kabul is a city that looks as one might expect given its past history of decades of conflict. Destroyed and damaged buildings dominate the landscape and any infrastructure that does exist has long since passed its estimated lifespan. The streets are filled with Afghans who sit at their roadside vegetable shops or walk to the plethora of wells in the city to get their daily fill of fresh water. It is clear that poverty is not an isolated problem, but is a way of life.
One of the first things of note is that traffic laws do not seem to have made their way into Afghanistan as of yet. It is each car for itself with vehicles swerving in every direction. This is quite a harrowing experience given the constant threat that exists for suicide bombers said to be riding around the city. Further, the road must be shared not only between cars and other motor vehicles such as motorcycles, but bicycles are also very common as are donkey carts. It is not an unusual sight to see a line of vehicles following a parade of donkey carts as they also negotiate themselves through the chaos. Yet nobody seems to mind.
Many of the military camps are located inside what is referred to as the “Green Zone”, a heavily defended area in the middle of the city that also houses much of the Afghan Government buildings including the Presidential Palace. This is perhaps the most developed portion of the city and one can spot many military and diplomatic personnel from many different nations driving about, albeit still in armored vehicles.
In all, Kabul is a city with much potential that has yet to be realized. Its location in the mountains of Afghanistan provides a beautiful backdrop to the city but much work must yet be done in order for the city itself to match its adjacent natural beauty. Signs of progress are there, but at this point, one must know where to look to find them. Hopefully in due course, we will be able to stand in the middle of the city, take in the view and think “bright future, big city”. But for now, this simply is not the case.