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82 KABUL •• Climate

the capital in April 1992 and straight away fell into a murderous battle for control of the city. Kabul’s residents slid into a nightmare. Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Tajiks nomin- ally controlled the presidency and most of Kabul, but they were immediately attacked by the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose preferred military tactic was the mass shelling of the city. Also jostling for power were General Dostum’s Uzbeks and the Hazara militias. At different times, all fought with or against each other, but the effects of these ever-changing allegiances held little meaning for Kabul’s suffering population.

The factional fighting devastated Kabul,

which was divided into a patchwork of competing fiefdoms. The west and south of the city were flattened under continu- ous bombardment, and countless atrocities were committed against civilians. Around 50,000 Kabulis lost their lives between 1992 and 1996, and a flood of refugees left the city.

The puritan Taliban might have been welcomed as a group that could return the rule of law, but they quickly disposed of this notion. Their first action on capturing Kabul in September 1996 was the public


Since the fall of the Taliban, Kabul has seen a huge influx of aid money, foreign experts and re- turning Afghan exiles and refugees. Promises of reconstruction were made and expectations from a battered population were high. Compared to the rest of the country, Kabul was in a bubble of international attention with a booming economy. And yet in May 2006, a traffic accident involving the US army precipitated mass riots across the city, with anger vented at the international com- munity and government alike. What went wrong? In one respect, the expectations of Kabulis were too high. Kabul’s infrastructure was not only shat-

tered by war, but was originally designed for a much smaller city. Many refugees chose to return to the capital to seek work, rather than their home province, placing a massive burden on the city. At the same time, many international organisations have proved ineffective at delivering ser- vices, either duplicating each other’s work or inadequately consulting with locals on implementing projects. Of the scores of organisations that flooded into Kabul in 2002, many had little Afghan experience, and spent a lot of money on start-up costs or just reinventing the wheel. Landlords were quick to capitalise by hiking up their rents – a house in Wazir Akbar Khan costing US$200 a month in September 2001 was US$3000 six months later. With the white Landcruisers favoured by many NGOs such a visible symbol of the international presence, they have made an easy target for mullahs and politicians. The MP and former planning minister Bashar Dost created shockwaves when he called for the majority of international NGOs to be closed down, with many others agreeing with the Afghan proverb that derided them as ‘cows that drink their own milk’. The expat lifestyle has also been the target of popular ire. The free availability of alcohol to foreigners and the many Chinese restaurants that had opened purely as fronts for brothels were

among the first subjects of attention from the new Afghan parliament. Western journalists have hardly been able to resist either, finding easy stories amid the ‘party scene’ that has flourished as a response to tight security measures and six-day working weeks. Popular frustration is also vented at those in power, with the government regularly derided as self-serving and corrupt. Several large-scale land-grabs took place following the formation of the interim government, with powerful ex-mujaheddin figures and others close to Hamid Karzai implicated in lining their pockets by illegally evicting residents. The construction boom, with myriad ‘poppy palaces’ sprouting across the city, has further highlighted the creation of an Af- ghan elite separate from the mass of Kabulis, who have seen few of the benefits of the economic boom. As their name suggests, many of these luxurious villas are the products of another sort of ill-gotten gain. Kabul’s exploding economy has been driven by the dollar, having an inflationary effect on the price of basic commodities. One side-effect of the influx of NGOs has been to draw qualified Afghans away from the public sector. A teacher earning US$40 a month could earn seven times that as a translator for an international organisation, weakening Afghan institutions. Not enough has been done to bolster the state, either by foreign donors refusing to disburse monies to the Afghan government in favour of funding NGOs, or by allowing NGOs to direct policy or become providers of services in place of the state. Capacity building still has some way to go. Progress is being made, and there are many NGOs doing valuable work, and fostering strong ties to the communities they work in. But as the riots of 2006 demonstrated, wider discontent could cause the bubble to burst yet.

lynching of the former communist presi- dent Najibullah. The illiterate Taliban held a strong distrust of Kabul and its educated Persian-speaking population, and ruled the city with a harsh fist. The Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Police quickly squeezed the life out of Kabul, beat- ing women for wearing high heels under their burqas, and imprisoning men whose beards were too short. Mullah Omar only visited Kabul once, and Afghanistan’s capi- tal effectively returned to Kandahar. Under American bombardment, the Tali- ban fled Kabul in November 2001 and the Northern Alliance walked back in to power. Another army followed, this time of aid workers, contractors and returning refugees. Reconstruction continues, but it’s a slow and often very frustrating process.


Kabul’s mountain location gives it a gener- ally pleasant climate. Babur thought so too, noting that ‘within a day’s ride from Kabul it is possible to reach a place where snow never falls, but within two hours one can go where the snow never melts.’ Summer temperatures reach a maximum of around 33°C in August, although the high altitude means that nights are cold enough to war-

rant wearing an extra layer and a blanket on your bed. Temperatures drop to just below freezing between December and February, when there can be heavy snow. Heavy rain and snowmelt can cause problems for Ka- bul’s creaking infrastructure, and thick dust turns quickly to mud. One drawback to Kabul’s mountain-

fringed location is that dust and pollution is easily trapped in the atmosphere, reduc- ing the air quality considerably.


Kabul sits in a plain ringed by the moun- tains of the Hindu Kush at an elevation of 1800m.

Little remains of Kabul’s old city. The

mountains of Koh-e Shir Darwaza run south along the city, topped by the old city walls, and leading in the east to the royal citadel of Bala Hissar. The mountains of Koh-e Asmai (popularly known as TV Mountain) and Koh-e Aliabad loom in from the north, pinching Kabul in two. The Kabul River flows between this gap in the mountains, and further divides the city. To the north is Shahr-e Nau (New City), centred on its eponymous park and Pashtuni- stan Sq (Charahi Pashtunistan). Near the edge of the park are the new glass landmark

KABUL •• Orientation 83


Many Kabulis don’t know the names of streets, and many addresses are given only relative to a major road or landmark. Formal street-naming plans have been mooted, but have been mired in controversy – many Ka- bulis have found the renaming of Great Mas- soud Rd in particular poor taste, given the destruction of Kabul by the mujaheddin. Charahi (crossroads) are commonly used as landmarks, so it’s useful to know the names of the major junctions when asking directions or catching a taxi.

buildings of the (blue) Kabul Business Cen- tre and the (green) Kabul City Centre. East of this is the prosperous Wazir Akbar Khan district, home to many embassies. The bustle of the city increases the closer

you get to the river. Kabul’s commercial heart beats at Mandayi Market around Pul-e Khishti Bridge, and Jad-e Maiwand, the most traditional areas of the city. Swathes of Jad-e Maiwand were flattened during the civil war, making it a popular subject for photojournalists. Unlike much of Kabul, it remains largely untouched by the recent pell-mell development.

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