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Monday, April 28, 2008

Kabul still not "Baghdad"

KABUL (Reuters) - While President Hamid Karzai may have narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in central Kabul on Sunday, in many ways the Afghan capital is remarkably calm and orderly for a city in the midst of war.

With the winter past and spring sunshine bathing the surrounding mountains and tree-lined streets, one could be forgiven for thinking a healthy ceasefire was in force if it were not for the checkpoints, very occasional gunfire, and heavy security surrounding government buildings and embassies.

Sunday's dramatic attack by a group of Taliban militants on a military parade, killing three and alarming Karzai and invited foreign dignitaries, was a powerful reminder of the deadly threat insurgents can land in the heart of Kabul.

But by comparison with Baghdad, that other capital at the centre of a war zone where U.S. and British forces are trying to quell an insurgency, Kabul feels far more stable and at ease considering the years of conflict it has suffered.

For foreigners in Kabul, the fact they can jump in cars and drive around, take walks in the evening and go out to restaurants

-- even though a five-star hotel was hit by a suicide attack in January -- immediately sets it apart from Baghdad.

In Iraq, the threat of kidnapping or car bombings -- which also occur in Kabul -- makes venturing outside a potentially lethal exercise that most avoid except under the most pressing of circumstances.

Baghdad has become a city of concrete, with 14-foot (four meter) anti-blast walls surrounding many buildings, offices and ministries, blocking off whole streets or districts, and turning even straight-forward journeys into confusing mazes.

It is not uncommon to see heavily armed U.S. troops, backed by armored vehicles and low-flying helicopters, carrying out raids in central Baghdad, fingers nervously on triggers.

By contrast in Kabul, Afghan security forces are the major presence on the streets, politely manning checkpoints, running night-time checks on drivers and even enforcing traffic regulations, although many locals still ignore them.

"Having lived in both Kabul and Baghdad, I can say with certainty that it's very, very different," said a British diplomat, explaining how it would be inconceivable to drive oneself around Baghdad or meet an Iraqi contact at a restaurant, both of which are eminently doable in Kabul.

"People here live in a very normal way. They have dinner parties, they drive or walk around. You can live without excessive levels or security, without a small army having to protect you, as is the case in Baghdad."


A surprising recent development on a busy junction in one well-off district of central Kabul has been the installation of a traffic light. As far as long-term residents of the city know, it is the first to be installed in the past six years.

At first no one paid any attention to it. But with a little strict monitoring by whistle-blowing traffic police, the light is now enjoying some success, to the amusement of Kabulis.

The light even has an electronic display telling drivers how long they have to wait until it turns green again, and pedestrians how long they have to cross the road before the onslaught of traffic resumes. For the record, it's 53 seconds.

In Baghdad, the traffic lights that do exist have long since fallen into disrepair or been shot to bits. One resident of the city says her eight-year-old son learned about traffic lights in kindergarten, "and has always dreamed since of seeing one."

To a large extent the difference in the security situation between the cities is explained by the nature of the conflicts.

The Taliban have always had, and continue to have, a strong presence across southern Afghanistan, but have struggled to gain a foothold in the capital.

In Baghdad, Sunni and Shia Muslims both have large populations in the city, fuelling the sectarian side of the conflict, with the city now divided up by competing factions.

The possibility of more intense violence in Kabul -- like Sunday's attack and a suicide bombing on a luxury hotel in January -- always remains. But for the moment, at least, it is a city enjoying the bounties of spring with relative calm.