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Dangerous, yes, but Kabul has changed

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2003


KABUL, Afghanistan -- They gathered on the roof of the Mustafa Hotel here Sunday night to celebrate the birthday of one of the hotel's longtime guests. As 11 p.m. approached, about 25 people were dining on lamb kebabs, downing Australian lager and admiring the view of the mountains surrounding Kabul.

That's when the explosion rattled the Mustafa's iron bars and the windows they protect.

Partygoers anxiously dialed their cell phones for news. After 30 minutes or so, no one could determine where the blast had originated.

So they turned in for the night.

This is Kabul, 18 months after U.S. and coalition troops routed the Taliban and chased al-Qaida into the mountains.

It is chaotic and dirty and dangerous -- and by most accounts it is dramatically improved since Afghanistan moved into the world's consciousness on Sept. 11, 2001.

There might be no better place to judge those changes than in the stadium in Kabul. During the reign of the Taliban, it was used for soccer -- and regular executions and dismemberments.

On Tuesday, a pickup soccer game was under way at one end of the stadium. On the track, a pair of Kabul police officers practiced their marching skills in preparation for an upcoming parade.

Overlooking it all was a massive portrait of Taliban archenemy Ahmad Shah Massoud, the still-revered commander of the Northern Alliance forces. "Massoud the Great," as he is widely called, was assassinated two days before 9/11.

"You know, we have had very big changes here," said Rostam Kormand, a trainer of Afghan boxers who hope to compete in the next Olympic games. "It's like 180 degrees difference. For one thing, now I have a job."

There is still crushing poverty. Power outages are routine. Beggars fill the streets, and entire city blocks give testament to 23 years of civil war followed by the swift dispatch of the Taliban by U.S. troops.

And there is still violence, like Sunday night's explosion, which took place about 3 miles from the Mustafa Hotel on Jalalabad Road.

It is under investigation, but officials with the International Security Assistance Force suspect someone intended to blow up police or peacekeepers with plastic explosives. They missed, and there were no serious injuries -- just another hole in a road riddled with thousands of them.

Residents of this city of 2-million (roughly the population of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties combined) seem to take it in stride. And after surviving years of stifling authority under the Taliban, at times it seems Kabul has no rules.

The nightly curfew, which required residents to be inside from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., was gradually relaxed. About two months ago, it was rescinded.

The result is a cacophony of car and taxi beeps that starts before dawn and doesn't end until the middle of the night. Though traffic police patrol some of the city's larger intersections, only the timid pay attention to them.

There is alcohol. There is even an Irish pub that opens nightly, frequently under the watchful eyes of Islamic mullahs who gather across the street to protest.

In deference to Islamic law, the bars pledge to serve only the omnipresent Westerners working for aid organizations, the United Nations or news companies -- not Afghans. Afghans get served anyway.

Residential phone service doesn't exist, but the wireless age arrived in Kabul about a year ago. Today, wealthier Afghans, defined as anyone making more than $150 a month, carry cellular phones. All service is prepaid -- there is no credit in Kabul -- and the service does not extend beyond the city.

Many women wear the full-length burqa that defined the Taliban regime when it was required. But today there are sometimes blue jeans beneath the burqa, and increasing numbers of Afghan women are opting instead for head scarves and high heels.

Just three minutes from the stadium, you can see how far Afghanistan has to go. The refugee camps have shrunk, but they are there and they are filled with women and children.

"We have more freedom now," said Simin, 42, a woman who wound up in a refugee camp when her home was destroyed during the war between the United States and the Taliban. "But we need money. Many people promise us things, but still we have nothing."

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