I went back to Afghanistan this past winter after an absence of seven years. Flying this time on a commercial airline—one of several that serves the country—I encountered a Kabul transformed, and almost entirely for the better. This came as something of shock. I follow news and events Afghanistan quite closely, and this abundantly obvious, indeed unmissable, transformation generally has gone unnoticed or unmentioned by those whose very job it is to report and comment on the country.
The new international terminal isn’t ritzy, but it is partly solar-powered and has free Wi-Fi. You don’t feel like you’re flying into a war zone or a city traumatized by terrorism until you exit the terminal and walk several hundred yards, in sight of watchful Afghan army soldiers and Humvee gunners, to get to a parking lot that is too far away for even the largest vehicle bomb to do much damage. Then you get onto a highway that, like all the main roads in central Kabul, is of astonishingly good quality for this part of the world, and it’s packed with traffic. Seven years ago, when I traveled with International Security Assistance Force foot patrols through town—inconceivable now that all security in the city is run by Afghans—most of those roads were quiet, full of potholes, and largely free of civilian vehicles.
The physical and economic growth of the city was immediately apparent. From the middle of town to the suburbs, Kabul has been astonishingly altered by the arrival of shiny shopping malls, vast wedding halls, and restaurants. There are huge new suburbs spreading out across what was recently farmland or desert. Some are planned and boast rows of 20-story apartment blocks. Others, illegal and slum-like, spread up the slopes of the city’s surrounding dun-coloured hills and, lacking running water, look and smell like Brazilian favelas.
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