Page last updated at 17:13 GMT, Wednesday, 12 May 2010 18:13 UK

Kabul strives to be a normal city

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is holding talks in the US following months of tension over his controversial re-election last year. The BBC's Nazes Afroz visits Kabul to see how much has changed since Mr Karzai was first elected in 2004.

Kabul office to let
Shiny glass offices have sprung up all over Kabul (Photos: Nazes Afroz)

As the plane made its final descent to land, my eyes were searching for the bombed and burnt skeletons of aircraft, which used to be strewn all around the runway.

I used to see this every time I came to Kabul and the images had left a deep imprint on my mind.

But this time it was different, the airport was neat and tidy with no carcasses of planes anywhere.

Last time I visited in 2004, there was just one tired-looking immigration officer sitting at the entrance to the terminal building to clear the whole plane-load of passengers. If you didn't dart across the runway to the top of the queue, it took ages.

There was no carousel for baggage - a few porters used to throw all the luggage through a hole in the wall. Nor were there any trolleys, so we had to lug our heavy suitcases full of broadcast equipment.

Kabul airport now has fully functional immigration-check counters and a proper baggage collection area, complete with conveyor belts and trolleys.

Skyline changed

There have been frequent Taliban car bombs and suicide missions on government buildings, hotels, guesthouses and shopping malls in Kabul over the past year.

There is precious little reportage on how life in the city is going on and, in some ways, thriving

So I had this eerie feeling that I would come across a city under siege, a city living in constant fear under a heavy security blanket.

But to my surprise, Kabul looked like any other very poor "third-world" country.

It was full of life, much more so than five years ago. The bazaars were buzzing and the streets clogged with cars, causing frequent traffic jams.

But that didn't seem to bother people much - the drivers would mutter a bit and crawl on while some bystander would come forward and help manage the traffic.

Kabul's roads are as rickety as ever, possibly more broken than five years ago. In some sections paved roads are non-existent - even in the centre.

But the skyline has changed unrecognisably, with shining glass towers sprouting up in many places.

Kabul kebab stall
Kabul's streets are bustling with life and roadside food stalls

Parts of the city which were devastated during the civil war in the 1990s have been largely rebuilt. Large construction projects are going on all over the city.

During trips to Kabul between 2002 and 2004, we used to see hundreds of foreign troops - Americans, Germans and Turks patrolling the city streets. The bulky troop carriers would crawl along the streets with soldiers perched on top with their machine guns.

Now, it's hard to see foreign troops in Kabul. The streets and government buildings are almost all guarded by Afghan armed police. But roadblocks and checkpoints at important intersections in the city centre have increased since 2004.

The increased security makes the expatriate community, mostly diplomats and NGO workers, very nervous. This concern came up time and again in my conversations with some of them.

But such anxiety was not so palpable on the streets. We drove round watching the city open until late at night - men, women and children were out and about like any other normal place. It wasn't so in 2004 - the city streets then were deserted after dark.

'One-dimensional view'

When I told my friends and family that I was going to Kabul, they were all very concerned. They asked me to be extra careful as they thought I was going to a city where the Taliban lurked around every street corner and attacked any outsider.

Kabul shop
One of Kabul's well-stocked food shops

Through various exchanges, I realised that their concerns stemmed from the largely one-dimensional coverage of Afghanistan in the international media. People in the West have a picture of a city under siege.

There is precious little reportage on how life in the city is going on and, in some ways, thriving.

The Shahr-e-Naw area of central Kabul is a good example. It's hard to take a stroll there, not just because of the broken pavements but simply because there are too many people! You need special skills to negotiate the constant flow of human traffic.

The intoxicating smell of kebabs being grilled and fresh naan bread being baked; tall glass buildings advertising office space to let: shop fronts displaying everything from dried fruit to guitars to Western wedding dresses and jogging machines - all paint a totally different picture of a city that's carrying on as normal, despite its difficulties, problems and security concerns.

I shared my observations with Afghan colleagues in the BBC World Service. Many of them returned to Kabul from Pakistan or Iran in 2002. They said their friends and families had been undecided about staying or leaving until 2005 or 2006.

"But now they have made up their minds," they said. "They have decided to stay and make their lives here."

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