First impressions of Kabul

Our Washington Independent colleague Spencer Ackerman is embedded with U.S. troops on the Afghan-Pakistan border through Sept. 19. We’ll reprint his dispatches from the field over the next eleven days.

KABUL – A friend of mine who’s been to Afghanistan warned me several times against flying on Ariana, the national airline. Apparently she’s traveled with a flight crew that was noticeably drunk. My flight from Istanbul was far less eventful. Though it seems my fellow passengers didn’t believe in queuing in single file, preferring to test whether they can edge you out with a well-timed shoulder-led thrust. Apart from that, everything was placid.

Kabul is like no city I’ve ever seen. Leading out from the airport is the well-maintained Ahmed Shah Massoud Memorial Road, a rare thoroughfare of gleaming black asphalt named after the Lion of the Panjshir Valley — the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance leader murdered by Al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.

It’s fitting that Massoud should get the only stretch of road that could fairly be called bucolic: overhanging it and its byways are lush, deep green, leafy canopies, sheltering vegetable and electronics vendors from the summer sun.

But even along the Massoud road is decay and devastation.

The default color of Kabul is a bleached tan, fitting the collapsing clay and brick structures that line the streets, slouching down into the cracked stone sidewalks in defeat. Exposed rebar tops many buildings; it’s as if they rose a few feet out of the ground before giving up. Tin roofs are rare. Glass looks to be nonexistent.

Traveling east and eventually north from the airport on the way to the Bagram Air Field, about a half-hour outside the city, the more desolate Kabul appears. A jagged city surrounded by mountains, people seem to have scooped out places to live from the cliffs overlooking the streets.

In Baghdad, there’s no shortage of war-damaged buildings, but most of them, no matter how squalid, feature a satellite dish on the roof. But I saw not a single dish on the drive to Bagram.

I did see goats, that don’t pay much attention to their herders. Also two bulls that, not knowing what to do with the morning, butted horns in an idle test of strength.

Imagine if an American city absorbed a nuclear blast, and then another. Then dozens of years passed, after which the survivors flocked back to reconstitute civilization. That’s Kabul.