Sometimes the men in SUVs are construction contractors, members of the new Kabul elite with offices in posh districts where the streets were paved long ago. They tour the work sites several times a day, jumping out with bodyguards at their sides and barking orders on walkie-talkies as they clamber over dirt piles in shined shoes.
The intellectual godfather of the project is an Afghan of the old school, a gray-bearded engineer and deputy mayor named Abdul Ahad Wahid. Pointing to the city maps covering his office walls, he insists there is method in the madness that has turned parts of the capital — which was nearly destroyed during the civil war of the 1990s — into a combination strip mine, slalom course and battle zone.
But Wahid has little time to explain the finer points of Kabul’s master plan, which is gradually transforming the city’s infrastructure with support from Japan and the World Bank. He is too busy juggling work delays, traffic jams and a hundred other problems that arise when a small army of men and machines invades a densely crowded city and tries to shut down dozens of streets.
“The population has grown so fast that the entire city is congested. We have no alternative routes where we can send the traffic,” Wahid said. As a result, the project keeps falling behind schedule. “We are pushing the contractors really hard,” he said. “I told them we have to finish before winter. If they work two day shifts and one at night, maybe we will get it done by then.”
The abysmal state of Kabul’s many dirt streets, which turn to dust in summer and mud in winter, has been a source of public criticism for years. But now that they’re finally being improved, Wahid said, “we get nothing but complaints. In the past two years we’ve paved 400 miles of road, built five bridges and the first flyover in Afghanistan, and still nobody’s happy.”
Nazir Mohammed, 40, has worked at his family barber shop in Qalai-Fatullah for half his life. He has seen civil war destroy the street, and Taliban repression empty it. He, too, is unhappy about the mess outside his shop, and he fears the improvement will do little to salvage the city’s economy as foreign troops, aid and investment flee.
But like many Afghans, Mohammed has the resourceful instincts of a survivor. He has kept the twinkling lights turned on above his shelves of shaving cream and cologne, and he has laid a wooden plank over the abyss between his doorway and the street, just in case.