KABUL, Afghanistan — As the United States steps up its civilian presence in Kabul, residents of the ancient capital say they're beginning to feel like a city under siege.
Huge intimidating convoys of armored SUVs now are common sights in the city's growing traffic jams. Newly erected concrete barriers block off many buildings from nearby thoroughfares. Nearly every day, there's some incident involving security teams pointing guns out of windows at frightened commuters.
"I have not faced an incident myself, but in front of me I saw foreigners shoot and kill two people in a small bus. We feel like we are condemned in our own country. They came from thousands of miles away, and my car can't go in front of them. We are not happy about this situation," said Mohammad Aziz Azizi, age 45, the head of a cultural society.
For anyone who's visited Baghdad in recent years, the feeling is familiar: the tension of never knowing when violence might break out, when a wrong turn or a moment of inattention might bring one face-to-face with a security guard whose first priority is to protect the life of the person he's assigned to.
The irony is that most people agree that Kabul is safer now than it was a few months ago, when criminal gangs were targeting the wealthy for kidnapping. Some officials say that crime is down by 40 percent, thanks to new leadership at the police department's criminal investigations directorate.
"The security has gotten better than last year," said Zulfiqar, a 24-year-old shopkeeper who asked not to be identified further for security reasons. Still, he acknowledged discomfort at what's become of his city as hundreds of American officials arrive, bringing with them civilian contractors, nongovernment organizations and security teams.
"When I see the foreigners I feel bad," Zulfiqar said. "My Afghan compatriot cannot drive on the road. The Americans honk their horn, take out a pistol and tell you not to move."
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, concedes that providing security has its costs. The key is to have the new measures in place for as short a time as possible.
"Sometimes the trappings of security can be a two-edge sword," McChrystal said. "On the one hand, the presence of lots of security guards, the presence of blast walls, the presence of things can make people understand that there is security."
However, the goal, McChrystal said, is that "over time, what you really want is for life to get back to normal. Over time, you really want to get them to a point where you don't need blast walls and you don't need weapon-toting military. You want to go to regular police. ... The more normalcy we can get, I think, is really important for the psyche of the nation."
In the meantime, Afghans find a disturbing new reality: In their own city, they're often seen as the threat.
It's not just State Department employees who come with their own security details outfitted with huge SUVs and pointed weapons. Afghan government officials now travel in similar fashion, leaving drivers flummoxed about what to do to get out of the way. Some convoys pull up to sedans and point guns at the drivers, others set up checkpoints with varying rules on how not to get shot and still others simply close off roads that Afghans once traveled freely on.
Three of the six major roadways in central Kabul are no longer open; each closed after a major bombing targeting foreigners since the war began in late 2001. The latest closing happened in January, after a bombing outside a coalition base and the German Embassy killed four Afghan civilians and wounded 19.
To take that road now, an Afghan must have an official identification card, either from the government or coalition forces. Two police guards stand at the beginning of the road, waving in those who flash the appropriate cards. The rest take a circuitous route to get to the other side of town.
What worked yesterday may not work today, however, making travel in the city a maze of rules.
Earlier this month, the driver of a 1995 Toyota Corolla found that his ID was enough to get him past the police officer. He sped swiftly through the checkpoint, only to be stopped again behind a long line of cars. Someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was leaving, and everyone had to wait 20 minutes for the armored convoy to pass. In the back of each vehicle, a man brandishing a rifle pointed it at the stopped cars.
The next day, the same police officer told the same driver of the Corolla that he couldn't pass because the rules had changed, and now he had to have a placard posted in his windshield. The driver cajoled the officer and eventually passed.
As he drove on, an armored SUV came from around the corner and screeched to a halt in front of the Corolla, the grill of the SUV meeting the eyes of the driver. A Western-looking man leered at the driver even from behind his sunglasses, a telltale sign that a foreigner was behind the wheel.
The driver cursed. "We call these GMCs," an Afghan passenger said to an American in the car. "What do you call them? S-U what? They are so big."
Some of those who ride in the convoys say that they have no choice, noting that colleagues have been kidnapped and a threat can pop up anytime. Some privately grimace that security contractors who worked in Iraq are bringing their practices here, even though the security situation doesn't warrant it.
Besides affecting the capital's psyche, the unpredictable encounters with the convoys are shaping how people view democracy, observers said.
"In the mind of the Afghan people, democracy is tied to the arrival of the foreign forces," said Wahed Mughzada, a political analyst. "They don't like it."
That's contributing to growing calls for a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw, said Ashraf Ghani, a leading candidate in next month's presidential elections. He's suggesting that the U.S. withdraw in seven years.
"The Afghans want the use of forces to be predictable. They feel they are not being heard," Ghani said. "The pre-eminent issue is justice."
A few days after passing the police checkpoint, the Corolla made its way to southern Kabul. On the way back, traffic had come to a standstill. As the cars crept closer, it became clear why: A large bulldozer was planted in the middle of the road as an Afghan man directed its driver where to drop a blast wall.
A few hours later, the Corolla was headed home. The driver came to a concrete-block wall, topped with barbed wire. A man stood guard with a rifle. The driver turned around to find an alternative road.
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read McClatchy's national security blog, Nukes & Spooks.
McClatchy Newspapers 2009