CBC News Online | Mar. 1, 2005
Canadian troops patrolling the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, face a city that is much freer than it was under the Taliban.
There was optimism after the United States and the Northern Alliance drove the Taliban from power in November 2001, but in recent months hope has faded.
There are some who are doing well: government officials and their supporters as well as entrepreneurs who serve the growing international community of soldiers, aid workers and bureaucrats. But the majority of the thousands of people of Kabul are still living in absolute poverty.
There are now goods in the marketplace, ranging from the latest electronics to fresh fruit and vegetables. But most of Kabul's citizens cannot afford to buy them.
Even the well off are relatively poor. A government minister or senior bureaucrat gets about $50 US a month, others a lot less. It costs about $40 US a month to feed the average large Afghan family.
The Kabul police force numbers 15,000, and experienced officers are supposed to get $40 US a month. Often they go for up to three months without pay. So it is not surprising that reports say many of the police are corrupt, patrolling the streets by day and committing crimes at night.
And there is continuing violence. In the summer of 2003, a suicide bomber killed members of the German peacekeeping force, and an engineer working for the Red Cross and an Italian tourist were murdered. In all the cases, hardline Islamic fundamentalists were suspected. There is, however, growing resentment of westerners who work for aid agencies, the UN, foreign governments and businesses because they have their own quarters and their own shops which sell goods most Kabul residents cannot afford.
For over two decades, Kabul's people lived through bombs, invasions and unstable governments. The effects are obvious. Kabul is not the thriving metropolis it was 25 years ago. Government buildings have been destroyed and houses haven't been repaired in years.
Road building and repair projects, one of the first relief efforts, are going nowhere. Reconstruction of the bombed-out city is proceeding at a snail's pace, at best.
Reconstruction has barely started outside of Kabul one of the reasons many Afghans are coming to resent the new elite of Western advisors.
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's Foreign Minister, says international donors pledged $4.5 billion US at a conference in 2002, but only $2.8 billion US had been received by the middle of 2003. A second international conference estimated Afghanistan needs another $15 billion US to rebuild.
Kabul is the 3,500-year-old cultural and economic capital of Afghanistan.
The city has been ravaged and plundered in many wars. It first became the capital of Afghanistan in the eighth century. Mongol emperor Genghis Khan captured the city in a bloody invasion in the 13th century. Kabul was made the capital in 1504, and modernized. Parks were developed, monuments were constructed and it was established as a major trading centre.
Much of the city has been destroyed and rebuilt over time so it's now a blend of old and new historic monuments built by long-dead emperors and 20th-century high-rise office buildings.
It is home to more than two million people, about the size of Montreal. The population is largely composed of Pashtuns and Dari-speaking Persians. The city lies in a triangular valley, 1,800 metres above sea level, between the Asmai and Sherdawaza mountain ranges. Strategically, Kabul is well-connected, to the former Soviet states in the north and to Pakistan in the east. It also commands passes in the north through the mountains of the Hindu Kush and south through the town of Ghazni.
Major industries in the city include food-processing and furniture-making plants, marble works and wool mills. It is also a key part of Afghanistan's opium industry which supplies the raw material used in the production of heroin.
Kabul was the centre of military activity after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a pro-Soviet, communist government. That invasion was spearheaded by highly trained Soviet troops who were airlifted into the capital. But the Soviets soon became bogged down fighting a guerilla war with the mujahedeen, holy warriors, in the city and across the country.
It was Islamic militants from outside Afghanistan who came to fight the Soviets and later would form the core of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. The Taliban was born among the Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion.
The Taliban government gained control of Kabul in 1996, imposing an austere, authoritarian and unpopular regime. The Taliban was accused of massacres, torture, rapes and staging public executions.
Since the Taliban were driven out, Afghanistan's new army has managed to maintain control in Kabul. But beyond the city's limits, government control is spotty.
Area: 647,500 km sq. (same size as Manitoba)
Population: 28,513,000 (2004)
Head of State: Hamid Karzai
GDP (2003): $20 billion US (est.)
Exports to Canada (2003): $618,889
Imports from Canada (2003): $9 million
Median Age: 17.5
Life expectancy at birth: 42.46
Ethnic groups: Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%
(Source: CIA World Fact Book, Government of Canada)