[Editorial Note: We're trying out formats for city writeup PDFs, between this and next month's Ken Writes About Stuff on Mumbai. Let us know in the comments how you'd like to see our city PDFs look going forward. This one, for example, resembles a more detailed version of the "Quick and Dirty" writeup from Night's Black Agents without adventure hooks. However we do it, we'll have Cat whomp up a lovely map; until then, here's a map of Kabul. -- Ken]
by Jonathan Turner
Terrorism. Drugs. Rival spy agencies. Ancient fortresses. A thriving black market in stolen antiquities. Dragons who live in the mountains. Welcome to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
Kabul’s 3000-year history is defined by conflict. Fought over by the Mughals, the Persians, the Ancient Greeks, the British Empire and the Soviet Union, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once. The current war between the international community and Islamic extremists is just another bloody chapter in the city’s story.
Arriving at the city’s airport, a visitor’s first glimpse of Kabul is drab brown buildings hunkering in a bowl of snow-capped mountains. At 1800 meters, Kabul is one of the highest capital cities in the world, and if the view of the Hindu Kush from the airport doesn’t take your breath away, the altitude probably will.
Kabul is always dry and dusty, and its semi-arid climate and altitude has given rise to its own irritating medical condition, the “Kabul cough.” In winter temperatures plunge to minus 20 degrees Celsius. Many people in the city live without electricity or heating beyond wood fires. A cold night in Kabul is a cold night indeed.
The war between the international community and the Taliban has left Kabul a city on edge, but it is still a vibrant and colorful place. In the streets, ubiquitous yellow and white cabs speed past old men leading donkeys and pick-ups loaded with soldiers. Busy bazaars and even entire streets of shops specialize in everything from antiques to fine Persian carpets. Anything can be bought for a price.
But the insurgency casts a constant shadow over the city. As Afghanistan’s foreign backers prepare to wind down a decade of military support, many Kabulis are worried about what happens next.
It’s not unusual in Kabul to be woken at dawn by the distant crump of a car bomb, followed by gunfire. Lots of gunfire. The struggle between the fairly weak Afghan government and the Taliban and other Islamist insurgents has seen billions pumped into the country by the west. High numbers of Afghan and foreign troops in Kabul mean the city is reasonably secure, but the insurgents know a high-profile attack there means embarrassing international headlines. The primary target is the “Green Zone”, home to the Afghan government, foreign embassies and the international military headquarters. Hotels and other places frequented by westerners can also be targeted though, and agents in the city might find themselves having a rude awakening one morning. Whether it’s the Taliban or the less well-known Haqqani Network, a “complex attack” normally starts with three or four groups detonating car bombs, either as distractions or to breach compound walls. They then then take over multi-story buildings near the Green Zone, or storm buildings in search of hostages. From rooftops they will indiscriminately fire RPGs, small arms and machine guns at any target that looks good. Such attacks are rare, but can last for hours or even days until the attackers are ferreted out. Elsewhere, the biggest threat is kidnapping. Westerners travelling around the city either adopt “soft” protection in the form of trusted local fixers or friends, or the more traditional safeguards of armored vehicles and lots of guns.
The Green Zone
Located in central Kabul, this is the centre of the international community’s footprint in the city, and the seat of the Afghan government. Agents using their old intelligence or government contacts, or searching for a reliable Afghan fixer, will have to get in here. A warren of concrete blast walls and checkpoints manned by Afghan security forces, this area is the focus for many of the attacks which penetrate the city’s “ring of steel”. But for many foreign embassies and their staff, life is fairly normal. Staff walk to work from apartment complexes in the zone, there are regular parties and even the occasion half marathon. All in the all, the area has a Disneyland feel for those who have come into the city from up country. Another famous landmark in the Green Zone is the Gandamack Hotel, named after the fictional home of George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous Afghan adventurer Flashman – and a real Afghan battle. The hotel was founded by a former BBC journalist, and is a home away from home for many members of the media and other ex-pats. The Hare and Hound bar in the basement is a popular watering hole, and aside from the usual hotel services, guests can also hire body armor. It doesn’t pay to be under-dressed on the back streets of Kabul.
Persian for “high fort”, this citadel stands watch over the city’s southern edge. A fortress of some sort has stood in this commanding spot since the 5th century, though the modern citadel was built at the end of the 19th. Run by the Afghan army, a small number of international troops are also based in the fort, operating specialist surveillance balloons. Unsurprisingly, Balla Hissar has been the scene of repeated and bloody fighting through the centuries, and the remains of burned out armored vehicles and abandoned fighting positions litter the hills around it. The original fortress had palaces and barracks in the upper level, while below was the infamous “Black Pit,” Kabul’s most notorious dungeon. Perhaps most interesting to agents is the network of tunnels and trench-lines in the hills around the fortress. With so much destruction and rebuilding in the fort over the centuries, anything – or anyone – could be buried there. They just have to find it.
National Museum of Afghanistan
Keeping the historical treasures of Afghanistan safe isn’t an easy job. The National Museum of Afghanistan, just outside Kabul, has been looted on dozens of occasions. Some of the worst damage was done during the civil war following the Russian occupation, when tens of thousands of objects were stolen and sold, many to overseas clients. The building itself was later used as a military base and destroyed in fighting, but not before courageous members of staff had moved or hidden its remaining collections. In the chaos, many thousands of items disappeared. Exhibits from the museum have since turned up across the world, some on the black market and some simply hidden away for safety elsewhere in Kabul. Their collection includes a huge number of coins, as well as frescoes, Buddhist sculptures, and Roman glassware. Some exhibits, such as a glass phallus said to be have to be touched by Alexander the Great, are absolutely unique. Huge parts of the collection are still missing, and may well be hidden around Kabul or in the hands of private collectors in the city. As the crossroads of Asia, almost anything might have passed through Afghanistan at some stage in ancient history and ended up here.