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by Anand Gopal

Like Baghdad, Kabul Now a Capitol Under Siege (2006)

(IPS) 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 capitol 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 center 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 center, 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."

Government officials point out that only central Kabul and areas of political and strategic importance are protected by checkpoints, and the markets and other areas surrounding the city center remain as bustling as ever.

According to some of the shopkeepers in the affected areas, however, the government's efforts are misdirected. "What kind of strategy is this?" Shawary asks. "If terrorists bomb everywhere in the city, does that mean the government will close all of the roads, so that we can't go anywhere?"

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.

While there has been no comprehensive polling on the question since an October 2007 Environics poll that found that 51 percent of Afghans feel safer than they did four years before, analysts say that a series of high profile attacks this year have dented optimism.

In January gunmen stormed the luxury hotel Serena in downtown Kabul, shocking the city's foreign community.

In April, snipers nearly assassinated President Hamid Karzai during a military ceremony, prompting many observers to wonder how the insurgents managed to infiltrate such tight security. After the attack on the Indian Embassy in July, the largest such bombing the capital has seen in years, Afghan security forces went on high alert.

Hamed Asir, assistant director of the National Union of Journalists, says that the high-profile attacks have served to put fear in the back of everyone's minds. "Kabul is becoming a garrison city as it prepares for each attack."

However, Halim Kousary of the Afghanistan Center for Conflict and Peace Studies suggests that the increased security is actually working, despite residents' perceptions and the losses to businesses.

"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, even if they are not in danger."

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 percent 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."

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Albion Monitor   August 15, 2008   (

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