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KABUL: In this photo taken on Nov 20, 2023, Afghan men stand next to an Afghanistan map on the ground built by municipal authorities at Shahr-e-Naw Park. – AFP
KABUL: In this photo taken on Nov 20, 2023, Afghan men stand next to an Afghanistan map on the ground built by municipal authorities at Shahr-e-Naw Park. – AFP
Kabul changing: Safer, more somber
Traffic jams, pollution remain challenges for municipal authorities

KABUL: The streets of the Afghan capital have changed since the Taleban returned to power in 2021, becoming cleaner and safer — but more somber. Under Afghanistan’s Taleban leadership, Kabul municipal authorities have launched an ambitious program to improve life in the city of seven million, with aggressive tax collection funding roadworks, public monuments and clean-up campaigns.

They have also ruthlessly purged the streets of drug addicts, and rounded up beggars to differentiate between the “professionals” and genuinely needy. “Since the destruction of the republican government and the takeover of the Islamic Emirate, we have seen a lot of changes,” said Zia Wali, 43, a lifelong resident. “One of the biggest changes is that we are feeling secure now,” he told AFP. Crowded, polluted and bristling with security, the centuries-old city is squeezed into a basin ringed by mountains and sliced through by the Kabul River.

Open roads

During the 20-year rule of the former Western-backed government, parts of the city became heavily fortified as the Taleban regrouped and began attacking foreign and national targets. Many parts of Kabul are still “bunkerized”, with access fettered by barriers, barbed wire, huge Hesco walls, and security officers manning fortified concrete chicanes. But in the past two years Kabulis have regained kilometers of streets blocked by the decades of conflict.

“Those who were the cause of insecurity are now in charge of security,” said Amin Karim, an architect and former presidential advisor, calling it “their greatest achievement”. Nematullah Barakzai, the municipality’s cultural affairs advisor, told AFP that more than 100 roads that were closed to the public have been reopened since 2021.

Standing in the middle of a crossroads in the “Green Zone” — which used to house embassies, and residences for foreigners and the Afghan elite — Barakzai gestured to an avenue now open to traffic after the home of an ex-president’s daughter was demolished. More than 100 km of new road have been laid or resurfaced, a redeveloped central park in Shahr-e Naw boasts lush lawns defying the surrounding aridity, and greenhouses full of a million flowers are ready for spring planting.

Security threats have not disappeared entirely, however, and checkpoints once set up to counter Taleban attacks remain to thwart Islamic State militants — along with 62,000 surveillance cameras, according to the interior ministry. This has helped bring down petty crime, and Khalilullah, a 21-year-old apple vendor, says he now feels safe to go to and from work “even late at night”.

But traffic jams and pollution remain complicated challenges for the municipal authorities. On the northern outskirts, an old man on horseback rides past excavators building a four-kilometer expressway where brick shacks had clung to the rugged mountainside. Taleban authorities have also gathered private sector investment to revamp 24 roundabouts in an attempt to bring order to the anarchic traffic — although cars still navigate them from both directions. All will be solved though the city’s “10-year strategic vision”, Barakzai says confidently.

Changing atmosphere

While a grey smog frequently hangs in the Kabul air — particularly in winter — the atmosphere has changed in other ways too, becoming more somber. “Before, on Thursday afternoons and Fridays until late at night, the center was teeming with people,” said Karim. “The restaurants were full, you could hear music everywhere, young people were walking around, going to concerts,” he added.

But these days after nightfall, many Kabul streets are dark and deserted — as if the capital was under curfew — and even during daylight there are far fewer women about. Kabul — like the rest of conservative Afghan society — has long been male dominated, but Taleban authorities have introduced harsh restrictions that have squeezed women out of public life.

Thousands of beauty parlors, whose shopfronts were a colorful feature of Kabul’s streets, were ordered to shut, while parks, sports halls and gyms were also made off limits to women. Gone too is the daily sight of thousands of teenage Afghan girls and women going to and from classes since authorities shut down their schools and colleges. Humaira, 29, noted that women who did venture out were now dressing more conservatively — with black full-length coverings, scarves and masks now dominant. Still, she feels safer because she is no longer “harassed” in the street. If there is a glum mood in the city, it stems as much from money woes, says Ramisha. “The sadness you see on a woman’s or a man’s face comes from economic difficulties,” she said. – AFP

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