Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sniffer Dogs & Security Checks In Kabul

Sonya Hepinstall is the Reuters Editor for Political and General News in Asia, based in Singapore, and travels throughout the region. In the following story she reports on security conditions in Kabul.

Reuters reports:
Dog slobber was my first worry. Then I saw the surgical gloves. I had arrived in Kabul in time for a briefing at the NATO command in Afghanistan, but instead of going directly in we appeared to be headed for a dusty sports field.

Did the commander give his briefings in the open air?

"Sniffer dogs," I was informed, as we placed our video cameras, mobile phones and tape recorders in a long line on the ground.

I need not have worried about the dog; the Labrador that nosed through the equipment and bags showed a delicacy and professionalism that would be much admired in any human airport screener.

It was an appropriate welcome to Kabul, where the security threat is both very tangible and a bit unreal.

Kabul is not Baghdad, where foreign journalists are confined mostly to their hotels and compounds and suicide bombings are legion.

Once inside the fortress-like compound -- that's where the surgical gloves came in for what to my relief turned out to be a routine body search -- General Dan McNeill repeated the mantra that suicide bombings targeting civilians are not "part of the Afghan culture."

Perhaps, but Afghans are no strangers to violence. Thanks to its location at a cultural and trade crossroads, the country has been fought over for centuries.

Kabul particularly bears the scars of the period from 1992 to 1996, when warlords fought over the capital after mujahideen fighters had defeated a decade of Soviet military occupation.

Buildings in the centre of Kabul remain pockmarked with bullet holes from that fratricidal fury or stand imploded in the shelling that rained down from surrounding hills.

The once-opulent Dar-ul Aman palace at the edge of the city is now a crumbling ruin and a reminder of the suffering of that time. Not that people who lived through it have to be reminded.

One man who was a teenager at the time recalled how his family lay flat on the floor when the night's shelling started; it would not have helped in a direct hit but it gave them a chance against shrapnel and glass.


Today Kabul is a bustling, noisy place, with roads far too small for the increasing number of cars and markets full of produce and goods.

With unemployment of at least 40 per cent and the economy not improving as fast as many had hoped, security is the least of many Kabul residents' worries.

Violence is still a part of city life, however: in the first days of May, a roadside bomb hit an army bus in the capital, killing the driver and wounding 29 people.

A senior intelligence official told us recently that police had defused a car bomb a few blocks from our office.

One quarter of the 4,000 people killed last year -- the worst toll since U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 -- were civilians, although the violence has been largely confined to Taliban strongholds in the south and southeast.

In Kabul, restaurants favored by the numerous foreign contractors, officials and journalists, not least because they sell alcohol otherwise banned in the Islamic state, are hidden discreetly behind the walls of nondescript buildings.

The seeming normalcy of a night out at one restaurant was given the lie when the clientele cleared out at 9.30 p.m. to meet a 10 p.m. curfew.

U.N. staff must check in with their security staff via radio in the evening no matter where they are in Kabul.

Ordinary Afghans have no such protections, but they show no signs of being cowed.

"Every other day you hear about bomb blasts and worsening security," said one woman out for a picnic with her family at a Kabul lake. "But that's not all life is about."