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In Kabul, a rusting monument to years of bloodshed

KABUL — To understand the terror the Taliban has wreaked upon Afghanistan, head to the outskirts of the capital, down a lane of shin-deep mud, through mounds of garbage picked over by sheep and street urchins, over a putrid moat and past armed guards.

There you will find Shahrak police station — the final resting place for the wrecks that carried Kabul's car bombs.

Here lie the charred husks of more than a dozen vehicles. Like exhibits in a macabre museum, the ruined cars recall the violence that has consumed the city in recent years. To one side sits the skeleton of a Taliban truck bomb that targeted the Afghan parliament. Nearby, a suicide bomber's scorched turban slowly fades in the sunlight.

Years of pain are piled up at Shahrak.

"We are used to it by now," said police officer Miragha Gulbahari, holding the turban up for a reporter to see. "We have seen a lot of terrible things."

Afghans are hoping the terror ends soon. On Jan. 18, officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States met for the second time to plan a tentative peace process. Afterward, the four countries said in a statement that they had "made progress on a road map toward initiating peace talks with Taliban groups."

But Shahrak stands as a stark reminder of how far Afghanistan has to go and how hard it will be to strike a deal with the Taliban.

In contrast to several cities overrun by the Islamists in 2015, Kabul has remained firmly under government control since the Taliban fled in 2001. Yet a glance around this vehicular graveyard shows that even the capital is now well within the Taliban's deadly reach.

"This one happened about a week ago," said a young police officer, pointing to a shredded white Toyota Corolla. The driver had detonated his suicide vest on Jan. 4 near the Kabul airport but managed to kill only himself. A few hours later in almost exactly the same spot, a powerful Taliban truck bomb proved deadlier, killing one bystander, injuring dozens, shattering concrete blast walls and leaving a 15-foot crater in the road.

The double blasts brought the week's tally of car bombs to four, including another Taliban attack near the airport and a Taliban siege of an upscale restaurant frequented by foreigners and Afghan officials. Authorities said the string of attacks was both seasonal and a "negotiating tactic" ahead of peace talks.

"Whenever the summer is gone we have a decrease in attacks in the provinces, and then the cities become the target," said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi. "And whenever you hear about peace talks, you also see an increase in attacks."

But the recent uptick in suicide attacks in Kabul has left officials and analysts concerned.

"We have witnessed far more suicide attacks than in the past," said Atiqullah Amarkhail, a retired general who is now a security analyst in Kabul. "The security situation is deteriorating."

Sediqqi said having four car-bomb attacks in one week was "worrying."

"Imagine how they get ready for this, how they prepare themselves for this, how they assemble all these explosives in a truck and bring them," he said.

Sediqqi, whose ministry presides over local and national police, said car bombs continue to stump his officers.

"There is a big possibility that they make these bombs in some areas surrounding Kabul," he said, "but we do not know exactly where they come from or how they get here."

Wherever they come from, many of the cars eventually end up here in Shahrak. So, too, do the vehicles that were on the streets near the explosions.

"If the car bomb goes off inside the city, they bring the wreckage here so it doesn't disturb people," Gulbahari said. "If it happens outside the city, they just throw it on the side of the road."

Bystanders lucky enough to survive suicide bombings sometimes come to Shahrak to claim their damaged cars, he said. A blue delivery truck with its windows shattered and back blown off awaited its owner, a scorched load of charcoal still visible inside.

Cars belonging to the suicide bombers normally arrive in much worse shape. The twisted mounds of metal look more like avant-garde sculptures than automobiles, but they are stained with blood.

"Sometimes, when the cars arrive here, they still have human bits inside, usually belonging to the suicide bombers," said Gulbahari, a veteran traffic officer with a thick mustache and blunt delivery. "In Afghanistan, police officers have to be like doctors. We don't get affected by the bloodshed anymore."

In addition to the wreckage from car bombs, the station's sprawling grounds also store thousands of vehicles towed after traffic accidents or for infractions. In fact, so many vehicles have suddenly disappeared only to end up impounded here that Kabul residents have wryly given Shahrak the nickname "Guantanamo."

Gulbahari gave a reporter a tour of the torched debris. He began with the Corolla that detonated near the airport, then pointed to an unrecognizable chunk of metal: the remnants of a car bomb that had targeted Shukria Barakzai, an outspoken member of parliament who ran a secret school for girls during the Taliban's reign. Three civilians died in the November 2014 blast, and Barakzai survived "only by magic," she told The Washington Post at the time.

Gulbahari stopped next to two charred cars, one stacked atop the other. The one on the bottom was damaged by a suicide attack last year, he said. The one on the top exploded near Shahrak several months ago after someone attached a magnetic bomb to its underbelly, killing the driver.

The tour ended with a grisly finale: a minivan burned down to a brown metallic shell. Last summer, the Taliban loaded the van with explosives and drove it toward the Afghan parliament building. When security forces shot at the attackers, the van exploded, rattling parliament and sending politicians scrambling for cover. After the blast, Taliban gunmen broke into the building but were killed by guards.

Even that powerful explosion was not the worst Gulbahari has seen, he said. The most devastating car bomb was used in a 2013 attack on the Supreme Court that killed 17 people and wounded at least 39.

Shahrak captures the strange limbo in which Kabul residents now live. Like peace talks, the front lines in the conflict with the Taliban are still far away. Yet the Islamists are nonetheless able to sow uncertainty in the capital, periodically puncturing everyday life with frightening suicide attacks.

A mix of anxiety and resignation washed over Najib Ullah as he stood in Shahrak's muck-filled lot. The 25-year-old taxi driver had come here to retrieve his red Corolla station wagon only to discover it was boxed in by an abandoned bus.

As he waited for help, his eyes fell on the mangled wreckage of the airport bombing. Ullah had often passed the smoldering aftermath of car bombs while driving passengers on the highway, but he had never seen one so close up.

"Everywhere we go," he said, "we have to be careful."
 

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