Many people ask me about security in Kabul. Do I feel safe, and how do I protect myself?
When I answer, I always reference Baghdad. Even though bombs go off periodically in Kabul (I was not far away when a suicide bomb tore through a military hospital) I feel the Afghan capital is an oasis of calm compared to the Iraqi capital in the middle of the last decade.
True, a story was circulating during my stay in Kabul that the Taliban wanted to kidnap a foreign journalist; but unlike in Baghdad, there were not men with cell phones lurking around guest houses where foreigners stay, ready to relay the drivers' license plates to waiting cars manned by kidnappers. Nor are their casual gun battles on city streets.
A dusty city of low buildings, crowded outdoor markets, a few garish high rises, and some lovely parks, Kabul's most distinguished feature is the mountains that surround it. Kabul keeps functioning despite the occasional attack. Its rutted streets are constantly packed with cars, and small store front restaurants and shops on main streets stay open fairly late, often garishly lighted, although most city streets go dark at night.
The restaurants where foreigners go are heavily protected. Example: A metal bar blocks the road across the street where the Italian restaurant Bocacia is located. Security guards check all who enter, and an empty front room leads to a courtyard behind which is the actual restaurant; thus, if a rigged car tries to plow into the front it probably won't reach the diners, or such is the theory.
The waitresses, all Russian-speaking bleached blondes from Tajikistan with Asiatic features who wear tight jeans, say they aren't frightened. Perhaps they have protectors; besides foreigners, the restaurant is frequented by local warlords who seem to have their eye on these young women.
Guest houses, where most foreigners stay, also have several layers of protections. Mine, home to many U.N. and foreign aid agency workers, has a guard post outside, and a garage sized metal door that leads to another large, empty chamber which contains a second, small metal door that is opened only after a guard peers through. A visitor then is checked in a second ante room, proceeds into a courtyard, and finally reaches the reception room. A determined bomber might not be deterred, but the set-up gives at least the appearance of security.
I always wear baggy clothes and a headscarf, but never a burka, in Kabul, and my driver has an ordinary Afghan car - not the huge SUVs that are used by contractors.
At the airport, or at high level official venues like the presidential palace, security is intense, and women go to special checking facilities where veiled ladies give them a thorough – and I mean thorough - patdown. It's amusing to watch young, inexperienced Afghan women travelers giggle as they go through this treatment. Their laughter is a reminder that, despite the horrors Afghans have endured in recent decades, the current tension in Kabul does not approach the terror that engulfed Baghdad.