KABUL — Standing beside a traffic-choked roadway on the city’s industrial edge, the air heavy with diesel fumes and jittery unease, Matiullah Ibrahimkhel looks strangely relaxed performing the most dangerous job in Kabul.
A potbellied 31-year-old commander in the Afghan National Police with a big smile and welcoming air, he oversees the outermost post in the “Ring of Steel,” a series of fortified checkpoints designed to separate the nation’s government from those who wish to destroy it — individuals with suicide vests and murderous intentions who take refuge among Taliban sympathizers just outside Kabul’s porous city limits.
While Kabul remains firmly in government hands, the threat overhanging the system has been on full display since hundreds of Taliban fighters last month overran the city of Kunduz, which lies only about 150 miles to the north.
There has been no such concerted assault on the capital, but two years ago Ibrahimkhel survived a suicide bombing, walking away from a battle with insurgents at a popular shopping mall with chunks of shrapnel in his arm and leg, as well as the respect of his colleagues.
His is the most perilous post the Afghan National Police has to offer, one that pays about $200 per month. When he’s not inspecting vehicles or arguing with Pakistani truckers, he can be found taking a break on a bench outside a rusty shipping container turned into a convenience store, from which flows an endless supply of cold Mountain Dew — his beverage of choice. The air is hot, the anxiety high and the conditions harsh, but Ibrahimkhel claims he wouldn’t trade his days for a dull post patrolling a quiet neighborhood in the city.
“I like hardship, and this is a hard job,” he said. “Personally, I am not scared, but my family is calling my phone three or four times a shift to check on me.”
A few miles east of Ibrahimkhel’s post lies a rough neighborhood with a reputation for violence. A hundred yards west, a sprawling compound housing foreign contractors and known as the Green Village beckons would-be bombers behind concrete blast walls. Because of its history of suicide blasts, the area is known as the “Valley of Death.”
Sandwiched in between, Ibrahimkhel and his five-man squad spend their days with assault weapons at the ready, peering into passing vehicles stuffed with fruit, farm animals and nervous passengers bound for the city. They keep an eye out for missing license plates, tinted windows and suspicious signs that they cannot exactly put into words.
In a single day, thousands of vehicles will roll past them, each one a potential threat that must be sized up in seconds. Most drivers are merely traveling in and out of the city for work, but the officers must remain on guard. Theirs is a job as exhausting as it is frightful. But at checkpoints across the city, officers said they are ready to give their lives to keep bombers at bay.
“A nurse can treat one person. A doctor can treat one person. But if we die stopping a suicide attacker, we can save many lives,” said Nasratullah Mohammadi, a police deputy.
To that, Ibrahimkhel added: “This country is like my parents, like my mother, like my father. I work for the safety of this nation like I work for my parents.”
It has never been easy to be an Afghan police officer. While commanders are quick to say morale is high, in the past the ranks have been diminished as recruits returned to their home towns rather than endure low pay, long hours and brutal working conditions. In addition to worrying about the Taliban, they must also worry about gaining the trust of a wary public.
And yet, security experts said, since the ring was established in 2009 by the European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan, there has never been a more precarious time to be an officer patrolling the streets of Kabul than the present. As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s new government struggles to gain a foothold and the nation’s security situation worsens, so too, does the pressure on police.
“If Kabul was a house, its walls would be surrounded on all four sides by enemies right now,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a security and military analyst. “The problem for police is that there are holes in the walls.”
In recent months, those holes have allowed a wave of major suicide bombings, including a blast in late August that killed 12 people and wounded 67 others. Weeks earlier, the city saw its deadliest day on record when a series of attacks killed 65 people and wounded hundreds more. Dozens of the victims were police cadets who were killed when a suicide bomber disguised as a police officer detonated explosives among them as they were returning from a lunch break.
Ibrahimkhel’s men — and more than 800 others at dozens of Ring of Steel checkpoints across Kabul — are the first line of defense in a city under siege, making them the first targets as well.
For the fragile Afghan government, each suicide bombing reverberates beyond its blast zone, chipping away at the people’s diminishing trust in their leaders. Stopping a bomber means preserving the precious public support that remains, said Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
“Kabul has always been a target and an aim for insurgents,” he said. “It’s been a tough year, and the main focus for the enemy has been to disappoint people with their new government, to show that even a new government won’t be able to stop them.”
The threat may be increasingly extreme, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to identify. On any given day, there are about 500,000 vehicles on Kabul’s streets, according to Col. Raees Khan Sadeq, a commander who oversees 37 security checkpoints — and that doesn’t include vehicles arriving from outside the city.
There is no proven tactic for identifying or stopping a suicide bomber in the sea of vehicles, officers said. If the officers are lucky, they will receive intelligence reports suggesting an attack is imminent. As a last resort, officers have wrapped bombers in their arms before they could detonate their explosives in crowds and at schools, becoming instant legends. Those determined to stay alive said all they can do is hope for the best and take cover when the moment arrives, pointing to concrete barriers found at many checkpoints.
“It’s very challenging to stop someone who is willing to kill himself,” said 1st Lt. Abdul Kabir, commander of a busy Ring of Steel post. “When we put on this uniform each day, our family prays for us.”
Ibrahimkhel said the secret to leaving fear behind is his Muslim faith. He prays five times a day on a small prayer rug beside the shipping container. With prayer, he has learned to embrace the idea of spending his days on the fringe, where his abilities are regularly tested and his fate feels unwritten. A bit of bravado, never in short supply among a group of gun-toting Afghan men, doesn’t hurt.
“When a person puts on this uniform,” he said, taking a swig of Mountain Dew, “we look and feel like lions.”