How to Drive Through Modern-Day Kabul

War and Withdrawal, Dispatch #2: Avoiding potholes, hustlers, and the Taliban in today's Afghanistan.
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NATO soldiers with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) arrive at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

KABUL -- Kabul is not kind to drivers. It's a city still expanding between mountains from which rival warlords used to lob ordnance at one another, and the legacy of those men who once laid waste to what was below remains here, on the streets, in the craters they left behind. Here, being a driver means knowing intimately -- feeling, even -- the history of a country and its conflict, as it's written in every little dimple in the street. And you can learn a lot about the place from the people who spend their days navigating it.

My first friend here was a driver, a kind, hilarious kid named "Aimal," but whose name was so often bungled by foreigners that he courteously offered to let us call him "Email."

Email worked the roads with such skill and precision that after our rides across the city I would get out of the car feeling actually inspired--he never hit a pothole, not a single one in all the time he took me around his country, and it wasn't because he was blessed with any kind of exceptional vision. He just seemed to know where they all were. He must have known by heart the location of every last surface anomaly, because there are no signs to tell you where a ditch or speed bump is, and in all the time he spent driving foreigners around his country, he never once bottomed out.

And Email modeled for me an attitude about the foreign presence that, over the years, I came to find generalizable across much of the population: He was gracious to foreigners, thankful to most of them, and friendly to the ones in his cars, but not the ones in armored convoys. Those he would taunt and tease; he would follow them too closely, and when they waved their weapons at him, or flashed their spotlights to blind him at night, he would anger quickly. "This is my country," he would say. "These are my roads." He was possessive in those moments, and he judged both foreigners by how they used his roads, and his leaders by who built the best ones. "Daoud Khan was great man," Email said once, "he built roads and they last 40 years. Now you know the roads are not great but okay; now they make road and one year, one half year later it's bad already."

Today, the roads in Kabul run the gamut -- progress has been impressive in places but uneven (this too is an apt allegory for the country as a whole). The municipality has widened, paved, and repaved roads, even invoking its own kind of eminent domain--in the fall of 2007, I watched people deconstructing their houses, pulling out all the wiring, salvaging every last piece of value from their homes, because they lived on land the government was claiming for a road that would connect Kabul around its perimeter.

I watched people disassemble their houses and carry them away, and I thought, how uniquely Afghan, leaving no square centimeter to waste, like how goatherds let their flock pick protein from the garbage, or how bicycles carry families of five or six, with one on the handlebars.

This brick by brick, wire-by-wire disassembly was a perfect portrait of the unique desperation and the unique resourcefulness of the Afghan people, I thought. And then a few months later, the mortgage bubble burst back in the States, and I saw Americans doing the exact same thing.

But now that road through Karte Parwan is built, and there are parts of Kabul that three years ago you couldn't reach without four-wheel-drive and you can now get to at pace. (For an overview of Kabul's city planning issues, see this piece by Kathy Gilsinan at our sister site, Atlantic Cities.)

There are also parts that haven't changed at all since the Taliban fell, and here's one of the counterintuitive things about roads in a warzone: It's not always the poorest neighborhoods that have the worst ones, sometimes it's the richest. Driving down the lanes that run between the "poppy palaces" is like driving down a mogul track. They're moonscapes of craters and ridges and often of standing water, because guards hose down the street to keep the dust from rising. These are streets you have to downshift to traverse, and you grind over the terrain that tosses you about like a toy, as you pass multimillion-dollar houses on either side. It's a common lament of the Kabul driver that people pay millions of dollars for houses, hundreds of thousands on fleets of armored vehicles capable of going off road, and not the twenty thousand it would take to pave the one that's there.

And it's one of the little tragic ironies that the big up-armored vehicles capable of making it over the craters are also heavy enough to dig them deeper. So after their cars make the roads worse, the residents of big houses wait for the government to come fix them, but the government has bigger problems than to provide municipal services to rich people it collects tax revenue from irregularly at best. Meanwhile, foreign donors like to pay for road projects, especially when they reach underserved populations, so some of the slums now have streets as smooth as silk. I like to think the streets represent something like democracy.

***

The roads can cost you in two ways. If you hit the ridges at speed, you break an axle.

So you slow down, but potholes draw beggar women, who will stand in the middle of the street if there's a wide enough ditch there because they know you have to move by at a crawl. So in a slow-motion pan, you move past the woman; you are provided a close-up of her head tilted pitifully, her outstretched arm, a smudge-faced child emerging from her burka, and you hear her sad, singsong lament. You give her money.

And sometimes there's more to her gambit. Last month while driving at night I heard a sound behind me like someone smacking a door panel with a broomstick, and then a woman shrieked. I looked in time to see a young boy in a baseball cap on the ground, rocking back and forth and holding a leg bent at the knee, while glancing up at the woman, like an actor who had forgotten his lines and was looking for a cue. "It's not real," said the man next to me. "They know it's a government car, so they try to get money." In the span of 20 seconds the scene was swallowed by a gaggle of onlookers five or six people deep, and I'm still not sure whether the injury was real, feigned, or suffered on purpose, but I did register this: The woman seemed more angry at the driver than she did worried for the boy. Everyone here has a hustle.

But to make it behind the wheel you can't concern yourself with such things. You assume kids are nimble enough to make it out of the way, because if you stop for them they'll ask you for money or try and sell you something you don't want. You drive aggressively and without mercy. You never let anyone pass, and you honk constantly because people here use more senses to drive than Americans do. They use not just their eyes but their ears as well to locate other cars, driving by sight and sonar, so honking constantly is doing your part. And you drive as fast as you can over the good roads to make up for time lost to the bad ones, or time lost to traffic, because in a city still besieged by Taliban attacks, sitting still in a crowd of cars is uncomfortable. When you break free, you fly.

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Jeffrey Stern is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has been published by Esquire, Time, The New Republic, Newsweek, and Foreign Policy.

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