For middle-class Kabul district, the insurgency comes home


Shah Rahman stands beneath a portrait of revered Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud at his bakery in Kabul’s Qasaba district. The proximity of residential housing to large compounds associated with the Afghan Defense and Interior ministries — prime targets for insurgents — means civilians are increasingly in the crossfire. (Holly Pickett/For The Washington Post)

Nestled at the base of the craggy mountaintops over north Kabul, the middle-class neighborhood of Qasaba seems an unlikely place to be infiltrated by Afghanistan’s Taliban-led insurgents.

It is ethnically diverse, in a country where bloody battles have been fought along ethnic lines, and its inhabitants hail from a generation of civil servants who worked for Afghanistan’s communist government in the 1970s. But Qasaba — flanked to the south by Kabul International Airport and home to sprawling security compounds for Afghan and foreign troops — emerged as a key new location for insurgent attacks this summer.

Two brazen assaults here last month, including an hours-long siege of the airport launched from a residential building and a suicide attack targeting foreign advisers to the Afghan government, have residents worried that they are in the crosshairs of an insurgency that has long wreaked havoc in the rest of the country. As foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, this dusty district of small bazaars, pastel-colored mosques and Soviet-era housing blocs is bracing for stepped-up attacks on the major government centers in their midst.


Said Daoud cuts glass windows at his business across the road from the Afghan Ministry of Defense Logistics compound in Kabul. Militants staged two attacks in less than a week from this neighborhood. (Holly Pickett/For The Washington Post)

“There have been suicide attacks in other parts of the city, but this is new for us,” Qasaba resident Abdel Qassim, 28, said of the two attacks that took place here last month. Dozens of local children romped playfully by his side, while women hung back, coddling babies in the shaded gardens that line the residential street.

“No attacks have ever come as close as these,” he said.

In the first assault, on July 16, bullets and shrapnel from the battle between gunmen who laid siege to the airport and Afghan security forces tore into the modest apartments where Qassim and about 1,000 other families live. They emerged unscathed. But less than a week later, and just blocks away, an explosion from a suicide bomber attacking a nearby foreign compound rippled through the early morning calm.


People in Qasaba attribute the rise in violence to a newly paved road that they say allows militants to more easily slip in and out unnoticed (Holly Pickett/For The Washington Post)

For residents of Qasaba in Kabul’s northeastern reaches — where there are more watchtowers than trees, and more armored cars than Afghanistan’s famed, fragrant rose bushes — theirs is a story of a once-quiet community now grappling with the encroaching violence.

People here attribute the rise in violence to a newly paved road that they say allows militants to more easily slip in and out unnoticed, and to a large construction site that police said insurgents used to stage the airport attack after disguising themselves as workers.

“There are no police here, only at the juncture,” Abdel Kamel, a young journalist, said as he gestured toward the spot where the local bazaar that sells bread, sweets and petrol-filled jerry cans meets the main road.

Where the mountain slope reaches the paved highway several blocks away, the Afghan defense ministry’s main supply base, a vast compound encircled by earth-filled barriers, monopolizes the landscape.


Boys play soccer on a dirt road in Qasaba district. (Holly Pickett/For The Washington Post)

At sunset on this summer day, a commercial airliner took off with a roar, making a sharp ascent over the rugged peaks. Microbuses trundled up the steep mountainsides to ferry laborers home from work, the men bringing home pink plastic bags brimming with cucumbers, carrots and okra for their evening meal.

“I grew up with war, but the children,” Qassim said, trailing off. “We wish the bases would move.”

Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.

Up Close: This is part of an occasional series offering a fresh perspective, in words and photographs, on the people and places shaping today’s world.

Erin Cunningham is an Egypt-based correspondent for The Post. She previously covered conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor, GlobalPost and The National.
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