Security fears paralyse Kabul

It used to take Esmazari 15 minutes to cross town in his faded mustard Corolla. But the police shutdown of nearly half of Kabul’s major arteries, in response to a spate of suicide bombings that ripped across the capital city in recent months, means that today Esmazari’s taxi spends a full hour to make the same trip. “My business has plummeted because of all these blocked roads,” says the taxi driver, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. “The situation is

very bad. The whole city centre is clogged and full of checkpoints.”

The state of high alert following a summer of rising insurgent activity is wearing on Kabul citizens, say observers and residents. Many blame the increased checkpoints and closed roads for falling business, yet at the same time some residents say that the heightened security does not make them feel safe. Authorities cordoned off the area around the Indian embassy in central Kabul after a massive car bomb devoured a chunk of its facade last month. Both the embassy and the Ministry of Interior lie on this road — one of Kabul’s main arteries - and the cordon has been extended to make the whole road off-limits to most vehicles.

Similar checkpoints block other key roads in the city centre, such as the area near the foreign ministry and the embassy neighborhood. “After the police blocked the roads, we lost all of our business,” says Ghulam Rasoul Shawary, who owns a stationary store near the Indian embassy. “We’ve complained many times to the government and asked them to allow potential customers through” the checkpoints, “but they don’t care. The government doesn’t care about this nation.”

Syed Nazeer, another merchant whose business is in a tailspin after the heightened security, adds, “The government is only blocking roads to protect themselves, not the people.” Despite the security precautions, many residents still do not feel safe. “I feel that I could die at any moment if I’m at the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Shawary.

However, Halim Kousary of the Afghanistan Center for Conflict and Peace Studies suggests that the increased security is actually working. “There were far more suicide attacks in Kabul in 2007 than in 2008. This year the number has fallen dramatically, and the police presence might be a factor in this,” he says.

Some NATO officials argue that the perception of security is different from actual security. “The majority of the violence is occurring in specific districts of the country,” says one senior NATO official. “When Afghans read about violent incidents elsewhere, they tend to feel insecure about their own situation.” Others, however, say that while the security presence in Kabul is making suicide attacks more difficult, insurgents are quickly adapting. Data released by the Pentagon reveal that roadside bomb incidents involving coalition troops hit a four-year high during the April-June period.

The data does not include attacks against Afghan security forces, which have also suffered heavy losses from such bombs. Moreover, according to data from the Vigilant Strategic Services of Afghanistan, a security consultancy agency, attacks in Kabul have jumped 35% in 2008 compared to the first half of 2007. “We have nowhere to run if things get worse,” the merchant Nazeer says. “But staying here is getting increasingly difficult.” — IPS