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Thursday, 21 March, 2002, 18:38 GMT
Ten years on: Kabul's new face
Damaged buildings in Kabul
Kabul still has the landscape of a war-ravaged city
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By Terence White
In Kabul, Afghanistan

Flying back to Kabul one decade after I first started work here as a foreign correspondent, I noticed a tall aircraft tail-fin lying on the airport grass.

It was the remains of a Soviet transport jet I saw blown-up while assisting the evacuation of the foreign diplomatic corps after the capital came under attack by an anti-government warlord in 1992.

British troops in Kabul
The presence of ISAF troops in Kabul seems to be a success
The Russians have recently returned to Kabul although they have not re-opened their old embassy, which is a squalid ruin occupied by scores of impoverished Afghan families who fled Taleban persecution on the plains north of Kabul.

By contrast the American embassy, located very close to my old office and deserted since the US pulled out of Afghanistan in 1987, is now a heavily guarded mini-fortress ringed by a concrete wall topped with razor-wire.

International presence

American military intervention in Afghanistan after 11 September has opened Kabul to a mass influx of foreigners: diplomats, aid workers, journalists and several thousand quasi-police called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The Americans are not part of the 18-member ISAF, the bulk of which is comprised of British army units, including a Gurkha detachment I met in south Kabul patrolling the ruins of the looted Kabul Museum.

"What organisation are you with?" they asked.

"I'm a tourist."

Astonished at this unaccustomed jest, a concerned British officer offered: "Can we give you an escort?"

It is the spirit of the people that has changed for the better rather than the landscape - that is still in abject ruins

I was astonished at the complete absence of gunmen in the streets of Kabul.

As a morale booster, the Kabul presence of the ISAF seems to be a success which could well be repeated in the provincial capitals should sympathetic Western nations contribute more troops.

Improving spirit

If the streets of Kabul are clear of gunmen, they are clogged with motor-cars, mostly the dilapidated yellow and white taxis that pollute the air with dust and diesel fumes.

A taxi-tour of Kabul quickly dispels any notion of reconstruction in this war-ravaged city.

More than anything else it is the spirit of the people that has changed for the better rather than the landscape.

And yet while many Afghan men have felt free to shave (or trim) their beards that were compulsory under the Taliban, most women still have not abandoned the burqa.

"Instead of the lash they now fear getting raped," explained an Afghan friend.

Wall posters now encourage children to go to school.

The only portrait posters to be seen in town are those of the famous anti-Taleban commander Ahmad Shah Masood, a victim of al-Qaeda suicide bombers.

Burgeoning black market

Perhaps the most thriving business community in Kabul is Chicken Street, where foreigners can buy imported Western foods, black-market alcohol and Afghan handicrafts including the burqa.

Chicken Street, Kabul
Chicken Street is the most thriving business community in Kabul
Close to Chicken Street there is a new hotel catering to journalists who are obliged to pay $100 a night, an outrageous sum for Kabul, but which helps to explain why street-wise beggars now squeeze foreigners for dollars.

Since there are no functioning banks, dollars and pounds are exchanged for the local currency (the afghani) in a mall that passes for a money market, where the daily rate goes up and down like a yo-yo.

"The afghani has no destiny," shrugged one money changer.

Having been witness to much of the 25 years of continuous war that has afflicted this unfortunate country, I fret about the destiny of Afghanistan.

See also:

21 Mar 02 | Business
Afghanistan's new economic start
08 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghans celebrate women's day
06 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghan women embrace new prospects
03 Dec 01 | South Asia
Kabul's papers go to press again
13 Jan 02 | South Asia
New era for Afghan television
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's clandestine army
24 Nov 01 | South Asia
Kabul women keep the veil
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