KABUL — Vibrant and chaotic, ringed by mountains and choked by smog, this Central Asian capital is at once all of Afghanistan in one city and nothing like much of the rest of the country.
Afghanistan’s ethnic groups are all represented here — more and more so as Afghans from the countryside continue to flock to the city, fleeing violence and unemployment. And yet this sprawling city of 5 to 6 million is a world away from the rural world most Afghans inhabit.
The braying of donkeys mingles with the constant beeping of car horns in air thick with the scent of grilled meat and diesel. Illegally built mud-wall huts scale steep mountainsides overlooking sparkling new high-rises built on a boom of international money. Maimed war veterans beg for money outside brand-new malls.
Once a sleepy capital, Kabul has seen its population explode since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, straining resources and causing traffic gridlock that can last all day.
The wedding-cake palaces of warlords and the high-walled compounds of aid groups look out onto gritty, dusty streets, where kids peddle chewing gum and charcoal-smoke blessings. Kabul’s open-air markets are bustling and colorful, with Kabulis haggling over everything from spices to electronics.
Perched at roughly 6,000 feet above sea level, the city is surrounded by mountains offering a dazzling backdrop that reminds a visitor why this used to be a tourist destination. But those days are long gone, and despite being spared much of the violence of the last 12 years of war, the city is nonetheless on edge, as international troops leave Afghanistan and war still rages in the provinces.