The new Kabul Serena hotel rises in the middle of the city, a palace of sandstone, built around gardens that even in summer’s drought gleam green.
Step inside and you step out of Afghanistan. The central air conditioning produces a perfect temperature, the inlaid marble floors are a soothing cream and, miraculous for a city where open sewers crisscross most neighborhoods and dust coats every surface, the place smells clean. Croissants and hand-twisted Danish pastries fill the baskets in the cafe -- a far cry from the flat oblongs of Afghan naan bread sold everywhere outside.
But getting into the Serena compound isn’t easy. Armed men pace its fortress walls and watchmen examine cars for bombs before allowing them to drive through massive metal gates. Like Afghanistan itself, the hotel is perched precariously on the edge.
Afghans look at the new affluence with an air of disbelief. The Serena’s prices are far beyond their means, and there is no hint in its well-appointed reception rooms of the violence that haunts many Kabul neighborhoods: a government worker kidnapped here; a grenade thrown into a shop selling Western music there.
Still, in many ways, the capital has an air of openness and vibrancy it lacked four years ago when I last was here. Nearly 2 million people have returned to Afghanistan, the vast majority to the Kabul area. Many city women eschew burkas, walking on the street with just a white veil on their heads, their faces uncovered. The stores are flush with the latest flat-screen TVs and computers. There’s hardly a Western soldier on the street.
New buildings sprout like weeds -- planning is unheard of. Whole enclaves of flashy three-story palaces in white with green or salmon trim, guarded by 10-foot-high gates, dominate once modest residential neighborhoods. Kabulis believe the buildings, built by onetime mujahedin commanders, are funded by drug money.
Four years ago, the city’s northern edge was a ramshackle bazaar of fruit sellers and empty lots. Now it booms with construction. There’s a burgeoning wood and carpentry trade; in small shops workmen crowd cheek by jowl cutting window frames, and in the adjacent lots traders heap loads of wood from the country’s southern forests.
Just a few miles beyond, the Shomali plains -- raped by Taliban in the late 1990s, the grapevines and fruit trees chopped down, the farmers’ houses smashed and burned, the fields sown with mines -- have been reborn. Now partly de-mined, the orchards have begun to bear fruit again and castles of mud bricks rise amid the greenery.
All this activity gives the city a busy feel, a confidence, the past mingling with the present, pushcarts wedged on sidewalks next to high-speed printers.
But an unease haunts the capital as well, a mounting apprehension, a mood similar to what I witnessed in Iraq a few months after the U.S.-led invasion, when the euphoria of the first weeks without Saddam Hussein evaporated in the desert air.
In July, a bomb targeted a busload of Afghan national army soldiers barely 10 minutes away from the Serena. No one died but 35 were injured, and five or six suffered severe burns. In a city that hadn’t seen bombings in more than a year, the attack was among four blasts in two days.
For anyone with a memory of the early days of the insurgency in Iraq, the piles of shattered glass and charred metal, the government targets, the multiple bombs in the capital, seemed all too familiar.
Much else seems reminiscent of Iraq as well. At night, the moonlight illuminates the neighborhood where I stay, providing more light than the few generator-powered bulbs that hang in my neighbors’ kitchens.
There’s a vulnerability to Kabul -- just as there was in Baghdad in the early days. I walk through the city imagining myself as a suicide bomber and know I would find no shortage of targets. Some ministries have only a flimsy metal gate like those at railway crossings. Bored guards barely glance at your bag as you walk through the front door of government offices. At the airport, you can pay $1 to have the guards forgo the search altogether.
I still go out to buy fresh bread for breakfast and dinner, but I hurry a little. I feel a slight skip in my pulse when a car slows as it approaches me. A few days ago, I visited a widow’s sewing workshop in a pastoral village on the city’s outskirts. As I was leaving at midday, the woman who ran it took me aside.
“Where did you leave your car?” she asked. “You should drive to the door next time. It’s not safe for you. It’s easy to grab a foreigner out here. They burned a school last night.”
“Who?” I asked.
She shrugged and shook her head.
Taliban, criminals, others who oppose the government. No one knows who they are: unknown assailants, men who hit in the night; men with guns, men with masks. Insurgency often looks like this.
As in Baghdad, there is rising resentment of the United States on the streets of Kabul. Why has America let its aid organizations contract with corrupt companies that keep it for themselves; why don’t they use more local labor? Why, in five years, are so many places, even in Kabul, still without electricity, still without drinkable water?
In May, the anger burst into the open after an American convoy careered into civilians, killing five people. A crowd gathered and rampaged through the streets, and the ensuing violence left nine more people dead and more than 90 injured, with the rioters shouting, “Death to Karzai!” and “Death to America!”
The disillusionment with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who increasingly is seen as an American puppet, and the sense that the government can neither protect the people nor provide for them are fueling the silent support for the Taliban in the impoverished villages of the south, parliament members say.
Afghanistan and Iraq are hardly identical cases. For one thing, the Afghans are profoundly tired of war and wartime life, and that may be their greatest hope for sustaining unity and forging a country. In Iraq, suppressed sectarian and ethnic tensions had simmered for decades.
But in U.S. policy there are echoes of Iraq, a similar desire to deny uncomfortable realities. Two soldiers attending a ceremony at the U.S. Embassy on July 4 dismissed the recent surge in Taliban attacks near the southern city of Kandahar.
“We’ve heard those rumors,” said one, “but we don’t know anything about it. I prefer to think about all the new schools that have gone up, all the children sitting in class, the roads we’ve built and all the trucks traveling on them.”
I prefer to think about that too, but the reports of what is happening in the south aren’t some fiction. These soldiers’ colleagues in the U.S.-led coalition announce Taliban deaths daily, six or eight or 10, even 40. And then in a sort of terrible body count competition, the military announces the deaths too of coalition soldiers, one a week, maybe two, sometimes more: a British citizen, an American, four Canadians. The unspoken message: “It cost them 40; it cost us one.”
And the schools the American soldiers say they are so proud of are being burned to the ground by fundamentalist elements. Two hundred have been destroyed, out of several thousand that were built after the Taliban fled. It is not a large number, but it is enough to discourage Afghan families in conservative areas from sending their daughters to class even if the schools in their areas are untouched.
Soon after I arrived, I climbed up to the top of one of the tallest buildings in downtown Kabul to look out over the city. We had to have a guard escort us to the roof and we found him on the 11th floor, sitting in a large concrete stairwell playing chess with a friend. He looked quite sad to leave his game, but then was proud to show off his view.
In one direction lay the former king’s palace, now home to Karzai, surrounded by ample gardens brimming with roses, a smudge of pink from that distance. Right below us was the Kabul River, really more of a marsh, but it has a certain gracefulness as it winds through the city. From this height you could see blocks crushed by bombs and never rebuilt and mosques and palaces let go to ruin.
Our interpreter pointed to a turquoise-roofed and blue-minaret-tipped mosque, and next to it a shrine. “That’s where a cousin of the prophet is buried,” he said with pride.
His description was so telling. In Iraq and Iran, they boast of the shrines where the prophet’s wives, daughters, sons and grandsons are buried, direct lines reaching back to Muhammad. Here, they had to make do with a cousin, extended family.
Afghanistan is out on the edge, even the edge of the Muslim world in some respects. The Greeks and the Buddhists passed through along with the Mongols and the Persians. Invaders have left traces here and there, but only the Afghans have prevailed, a collection of people united by forbearance against a harsh climate and harsher politics.
At sunset, the mountains hover at the city’s edge, dim in the summer haze like a Chinese painting, and it is possible to imagine how beautiful this place might have looked to its early kings.
Balanced again on the edge, Afghanistan’s remoteness is also its curse, making it easy for the world to forget the farmers in Shomali, their grapevines struggling to grow.