How 20 years of conflict have reshaped Afghanistan’s capital and life in it

The heavily fortified compound of the Central Bank of Afghanistan in Kabul.
The heavily fortified compound of the Central Bank of Afghanistan in Kabul.

At the center of Kabul, a city of traditional bazaars and tattered shopping malls, horse-drawn carts and crumbling streets thronged with automobile traffic, lies a heavily fortified district that is a mystery to most Afghans.

What was once a cluster of key offices and compounds has evolved into a 21st-century fortress encircled by blast walls, checkpoints and security cameras, creating what for many is an impenetrable urban void known as the Green Zone.

Fortifications expanded rapidly after the start of the war in 2001. The Green Zone became an obstacle to ordinary urban life, causing a daily traffic nightmare that radiates throughout this sprawling city of more than 4 million people. In Kabul, it is felt as an alien presence, a source of deep resentment — and an indelible legacy of two decades of U.S. military intervention.

If Afghanistan had enjoyed political and civil stability over the past century, central and southern Kabul would be on every tourist’s itinerary, incorporating neighborhoods of elegant villas and tree-lined streets, a grand boulevard serviced by a narrow-gauge rail line and the ancient city along the Kabul River, with courtyard homes decorated with elaborately carved wooden screens.

Kabul, circa 1975.
Kabul, circa 1975. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Instead, ordinary Afghans see a bristling phalanx of T-walls that turn the city’s streets into canyons of concrete.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lorenzo Tugnoli photographed the streets and neighborhoods near the Green Zone over the past several months. His photos trace a route around the enclave — which houses embassies, dignitaries and international organizations — and south to the palace where Afghanistan’s last kings hoped a parliament would preside over a Western-leaning, modern country.

Starting at the U.S. mission, a tribute to an anti-Taliban fighter

Massoud Square is named for Ahmad Shah Massoud, a powerful mujahideen leader who fought against the Soviet occupation and later against the Taliban. His assassination on Sept. 9, 2001, presaged the al-Qaeda attacks two days later in New York and Washington, an ominous overture to 20 years of anxiety, war, occupation and insecurity.

A column honoring Massoud sits near the U.S. Embassy in a traffic circle that serves as a vital connection from Airport Road to the city center.

To the south of the square, the old road is now blocked. After the sun rises, traffic snarls at this key nodal point of city life.

As concrete expands, disappearing public space

Today, urban life is improvised in the shadow of blast walls. Along the perimeter of the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, concrete intrusions take over sidewalks, rendering pedestrian life chaotic.

A shop set up along a Green Zone wall in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Outside the Green Zone, shopkeepers set up business wherever they can find space.

Public space becomes alien and disorienting, said Ajmal Maiwandi, head of the Afghanistan office of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

“It is a stressful thing to be out in the city, because there is no clear path, no clear way, through the town,” Maiwandi said.

Triggered by violence, an even more fortified perimeter

The T-wall — a blast-proof, reinforced concrete barrier that looks like an inverted “T” — is the primary architectural tool of security experts, the de facto urban designers of central Kabul. Like the fractious city states of Renaissance Italy, Kabul evolved as a city of small districts and subdistricts, a dense archipelago of well-defended domestic compounds. The T-wall has updated the urban pattern of medieval Afghanistan for a neighborhood of 21st-century outsiders.

A fortified area outside the German Embassy in Kabul. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

In May 2017, a massive truck bomb exploded near this site, outside the German Embassy. More than 90 people were killed, and hundreds were injured.

Afghans responded with protests against the government’s inability to secure the city, while the Afghan government responded by expanding the Green Zone that defends foreigners. T-walls proliferated.

At the gateway to the elite, trade thrives

Commerce still clusters around Malik Asghar Square. On one side of the security barriers there is a frenetic world of street vendors, a popular shopping mall and a checkpoint giving access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the executive palace.

On the other side is a world of parks, palaces and gardens.

“You would love walking in the city before these walls,” said 64-year-old Nik Mohammad Sangar, who has spent almost his entire life in Kabul. “You could walk by the palace without being stopped by checkpoints.”

“I really miss old Kabul,” he said.

Malik Asghar Square is usually snarled by traffic for much of the day. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Ahmad, a 29-year-old taxi driver who because of security concerns spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, said the ever-expanding fortifications have made his work more difficult.

“We have to spend an hour and a half to drive a one-hour distance,” he said. “The traffic jams mean we lose financially.”

In southern Kabul, a university braces for another assault

In August 2016, militants blew a hole in a defensive wall around American University of Afghanistan. Gunmen entered through the breach and killed 13 people, including seven students and a professor. The university responded by erecting blast walls and guard towers and consolidating students and staffers on campus, according to Scott Brant, the university’s vice president for operations and administration.

The perimeter of the American University in Kabul. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

“We don’t want any of this,” Brant said. “We want what you have generally around the world, where people can come and go as they please, a nice, permissive environment, but it is just not feasible.”

Behind the security walls is a modern campus of contemporary academic buildings. But the students, who are mostly Afghans, live in two different worlds — the safety bubble of the university and the country outside, where carrying anything that links them to the university, or the American presence, can put them in danger of attack by militants.

They make the best of the security measures, said Victoria C. Fontan, vice president of academic affairs at the university, “because they know that this architectural safety is also an illustration of the freedom they have to think and interact together.”

Built on dreams of a new capital, a palace languishes

The main campus of American University faces Darul Aman Boulevard, created in the 1920s by the reform-minded King Amanullah Khan I. Just as the British created New Delhi apart from the old city a decade earlier, Amanullah Khan dreamed of a new capital removed from the cluttered, densely populated core of old Kabul.

Darul Aman Palace was one of several buildings finished before civil war forced the king into exile in 1929.

Maintenance work continues at the palace while it is mostly unused. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Reduced to ruins by fighting between rival mujahideen factions in the 1990s, it haunted the city as an empty shell before a three-year restoration was finished in 2019.

It has been incorporated into another security zone that includes the new Afghan parliament building. But the palace and its grounds remain mostly unused.

On the southern edge of the Green Zone, more high-profile targets

Pashtunistan Square was the site of a major Taliban attack in 2010. Traffic once flowed around its distinctive, multitiered circular fountain. Today, the roundabout is clogged with taxis waiting for passengers and its blast walls have become billboards for public service announcements.

Taxis in Pashtunistan Square. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

“I can see you! You who takes a bribe is a nonbeliever,” reads one billboard lining a wall that serves as a cordon for the presidential palace, the Justice Ministry and the Central Bank.

“These walls have done no good for the security of the city,” said Farhad, who is one of many beverage sellers in Pashtunistan Square and who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, out of fear for his safety. “Instead they cause inconvenience to the ordinary people.”

The ministries and office buildings that ring Pashtunistan Square have been the target of attacks over the years, including the Ariana Cinema. The Taliban shuttered the theater while in power, and after it reopened it was struck by a suicide bomber in 2010.

In the Old City, imagining a new Kabul

The heart of old Kabul was a warren of houses and markets along the Kabul River. The Old City lies just outside the Green Zone, but ongoing security measures have put it mostly off limits to the diplomats and Western workers who live in the security bubble.

The Old City is home to a large Shiite population, and its Abu Fazl Mosque was the site of a terrorist attack in December 2011 that killed dozens of Shiite worshipers.

Vendors in the Old City. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Since the Americans arrived, the capital has grown enormously, with some 2 million new residents in the past 10 years, according to Sasaki, an international architecture and urban planning firm hired by the Afghan government to create a new city plan for Kabul.

But while the population growth has been rapid, the Old City is also a reminder of the relatively short span of the American presence in Kabul — just 20 years, in a city that has lasted centuries.

The Sasaki plan imagines a major transformation of the Green Zone, pictured here to the right of the Kabul River, and Darul Aman Boulevard if the city’s rapid, unregulated growth can be channeled and directed — and if stability prevails.

On the eastern perimeter, relics from another time

Less than a mile from where we began in Massoud Square is Abdul Haq Square. Massoud and Abdul Haq were commanders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which came close to creating a diverse, multiethnic unifying force in parts of Afghanistan.

But that was more than 20 years ago, and the monuments to both men will be a discordant reminder of a distant past if the Taliban, which is in peace talks with the Afghan government, plays a major role in the next stage of Kabul’s urban evolution.

Abdul Haq Square. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Outside the fortified zone, a different kind of legacy from the Soviet era

The Soviet presence in the 1980s brought almost a decade of suffering and instability to Afghanistan, but it also left behind a legacy of hospitals, schools and housing, including this development, known as Macroyan, near the Green Zone.

They may look bleak, but these boxy, mass-produced towers are popular places to live, in part because they form self-contained, relatively defensible neighborhoods.

The neighborhood boasts one of the few housing developments in Kabul serviced with central heating.

Discarded pieces of a checkpoint on the side of the road near Kabul's Mahmud Khan Square, on the eastern side of the Green Zone. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

The formal American presence in Kabul may be drawing to a close, and the U.S. legacy remains tenuous. The Soviet occupation is not remembered fondly, but it left behind some public services. The United States invested in the Afghan government, but even the form of governance could change drastically in the Afghan peace talks — leaving only the remains of its security architecture in cities such as Kabul.

About this story

Philip Kennicott reported from Washington. Susannah George reported from Kabul. Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.

Map sources: Maps4News and OpenStreetMap. ESA Sentinel 2 imagery used for greater Kabul map. Satellite image of Green Zone provided by ©2021 Maxar Technologies.

Editing by Olivier Laurent and Jennifer Amur. Copy editing by J.J. Evans. Graphics by Laris Karklis. Design and development by Allison Mann and Gabriel Florit. Digital operations by Maite Fernández Simon. Additional editing by Armand Emamdjomeh, Tim Meko, Virginia Singarayar and Courtney Kan.