Kabul’s City on the Hill

The New York Times, Jun. 9, 2014


KABUL, Afghanistan — Just south of the city center is the most famous of Kabul’s many dun-colored mountains. It is called TV Hill, after the telecom and broadcast antennas that crowd its peak like needles in a pincushion. One of the most visible signs of the Western presence in Afghanistan, it is touted as a symbol of post-Taliban progress.

In fact, TV Hill is a microcosm of a nation divided. Conflict has made Afghanistan, a traditionally rural country, more urban. Since the beginning of NATO’s war in 2001, many people have left their home villages and moved to cities looking for safety and work. These waves of migration have left on TV Hill a kind of sociological sediment, with different groups of different means settling at different levels up the slope. The higher, the poorer.

On Saturday, Afghans will vote in the second round of the election to replace President Hamid Karzai. But for the 20,000 or so families who live on TV Hill, the runoff is yet another distant technicality with a mysterious influence on the minutiae of their lives.

One morning last February, several weeks before the first round of voting, my translator Qadeer and I set out to climb up the hill. The base, a dense warren of flat-topped houses, is home to former refugees of the civil war and the Taliban regime in the 1990s who returned to Afghanistan after the U.S.-led NATO invasion. That day, Wali Mohammad Safed, a tall and bearded middle-aged man, was taking a break from selling apples at his stall and puttering around his cement-and-brick house. It stood out against the tawny landscape of mud-walled homes.

I asked him how much it was worth. “Without NATO, it is worth $20,000,” he said. And with NATO? “Forty thousand dollars!”

For residents of the foothill, the word “NATO” is shorthand for the bounty brought by the international community. When Safed, an ethnic Tajik, first moved here there was no water or electricity. The foreign-aid boom brought both. Various development projects have cleared away mines, garbage and human excrement.

Karzai was a fool not to sign the bilateral security agreement with Washington, Safed lamented, referring to a pact that would have allowed a significant number of American troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond this year. Without continued assistance, he warned, the advances that have been made will come undone.

In addition to the Taliban insurgency, which remains undefeated, a major threat to stability after the U.S. withdrawal will be the state itself. Most institutions are rotten, eaten away at by incompetence and corruption. Yet President Obama announced late last month that only about 9,800 American troops would remain in Afghanistan by early 2015 and none by 2017.

Qadeer and I continued up the hill, wending through narrow passageways, trailed by children playing tag. We arrived at the house of Abdul Aziz, two stories of crumbling mud. Aziz said he had been jobless for several years since fleeing his home in Wardak, a province about an hour’s drive to the south, which the Taliban often use to stage attacks on the capital. He supported his family by purchasing food on credit, he said. The front pocket of his shalwar kameez was bulging with hand-scribbled i.o.u. notes.

Despite his money woes, Aziz said security was his most pressing concern. “If NATO leaves, what happened in Iraq will happen here,” he said. “Every night we saw the fighting on TV. This is our fear.” Aziz, an ethnic Pashtun, is a veteran of the civil wars of the 1990s. He, like other Pashtuns, fought Hazaras over which group would fill the power vacuum left by the Soviet forces, who had just withdrawn after a decade-long occupation.

TV Hill is roughly organized along ethnic lines, with mostly Tajiks settled at the base, Hazaras midway up and Pashtuns, the most recent arrivals, toward the top. Aziz lives lower down than most Pashtuns, but is poorer than his immediate neighbors.

As security concerns grow, the rest of Kabul is also becoming more Balkanized — Pashtuns in the north, Hazaras in the west. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, will leave behind deep divisions. Many Afghans still vote along ethnic lines. The runoff vote on Saturday is between Ashraf Ghani, another Pashtun, and Abdullah Abdullah, who is popular among Tajiks.

Further up the hill we met Nagieb, a 26-year-old Hazara who runs a small shoe shop in the city. The air was fresher at this height; the smog hanging over Kabul was beneath us now. He insisted we join him for a lunch of kabuli pulao, a traditional rice dish; his version contained radishes instead of the usual lamb. Nagieb said that the only way to escape TV Hill for the Kabul below was “by becoming rich or by dying.”

We pushed on. The wrought-iron balustrade that had guided us so far ended. We had to scale a cliff of trash. At the landing, heavy-set women carrying bags of rice and cans of oil were taking a break, breaths heaving. The air smelled of freshly baked bread and open sewage. Children were playing hopscotch near the precipitous edge.

Qasim, a teenage boy covered in scabs, was tending a small kiosk of goods stolen from the Bagram U.S. military base: frozen TV dinners, tortillas, Jell-O. He said he wished the Americans would go, even if that meant losing his supplies. “It’s enough that they were playing king in my country for over 10 years. It’s time they left Afghanistan to Afghans!”

If Qasim understood the roots of his anger, he might have mentioned the lawlessness in his home province of Kunduz, up north, where bands of pro-government militias extort money and favors from locals. But Qasim is only 15.

Our next stop, two-thirds up the hill, was at a Hazara neighborhood of a few dozen families, all related. Sayed Hussein, an old man with rheumy eyes, invited us into his house for a rest. He listed the family’s misfortunes: an eldest son who became disabled after stepping on a mine, a favorite son who fell off a roof while flying a kite, a wife with chronic pain from gunshot wounds. “The rich will always stay rich, the poor will always stay poor,” he said.

The light was draining from the sky as we reached the last accessible point on the hill, just below the antenna-spiked crest. No more children were trailing us. Qadeer noticed a woman squatting among waste and excrement, swaddling a baby. She had moved here six months ago, she said, and hadn’t left the mountain since. She didn’t know who was running in the election. Like most days, she was waiting for her husband to come home, stacking rocks to pass the time.

Read at New York Times.