KABUL — Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.
Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multistory apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled, and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.
But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum.
The few old friends who remain stationed here, mostly professionals from international agencies, are either away for the holidays or shuttered inside guarded compounds, ordered by security consultants to avoid public places and unable to visit the projects they sponsor.
The Taliban is back — this time not as the wary but proper official hosts who periodically issued visas to Western journalists and officials during the Taliban’s five-year rule from 1996 to 2001. Now they are cold-blooded insurgents who have been preying aggressively on the capital since a new civilian governmenttook office in late September.
In the past two months, the militants have bombed or stormed foreign symbols and sanctuaries around the city — aid agencies, guesthouses, even a performance at a French cultural center, while warning that they will treat Western civic activities exactly as they would military enemies. Among the targets were three compounds where I had once shared meals and laughter with friends — now long gone — who cared about Afghanistan and had no plans to leave.
Despite the superficial urban bustle, the atmosphere in the capital is tense and eerie. In the past several weeks, I have not seen a single Western face on the streets. Not in the brightly lit supermarkets where shelves are stocked with cornflakes, cat litter and blue cheese to accommodate foreign customers’ quirks.
Not in the antique shops where international visitors once came to sip green tea and bargain over lapis lazuli earrings, brocaded nomad costumes and prayer rugs stitched with military scenes from the Afghan holy war against Soviet Russia. And not in the capital’s legendary bookstore specializing in English-language works — although the owner, in a true act of faith, is remodeling and expanding his cave-like quarters into a spacious modern emporium and cafe with WiFi.
For the first time since ATMs were installed here several years ago, there is no one in line to use them, and they are not constantly running out of dollars. The once-thriving radio cab business is so dead that when I called for a taxi to ferry me to a U.N. office, the dispatcher was asleep and the driver said I was his first customer in days. I have not had the courage to drive by the Lebanese restaurant that was my cherished retreat for years, until it was destroyed in a Taliban siege last January that killed the owner and every patron inside.
I have spent other Christmases in Afghanistan, always a private occasion in a strict and insular Muslim society where converting to Christianity is both a capital crime and a sign of presumed mental derangement. But this holiday season seems especially desolate. There is no hint of festive cheer in the air, and even the snow, which usually blankets Kabul’s drab gray streets by mid-December, has stayed away.
The only Nativity scene I have encountered was in a refugee settlement on the outskirts of the city, where I ventured on Christmas to interview people. I poked my head into a mud-walled cave and beheld a mother with a baby swaddled in a cradle. A goat and a calf were keeping warm in the same room, and two buffalo were lowing in the next enclosure. I tried to explain to the camp leaders what this sight meant to me, but they were politely baffled.
New Year’s is another hopeless cause. In Afghanistan, which still observes the ancient solar calendar, this is the year 1393, and Naw Roz, the Persian new year, will be celebrated several months from now when the spring equinox and the planting season arrive. In years past, there would have been various raucous New Year’s Eve parties among the resident haraji, as all foreigners here are called, but this year? Fewer, more muted, and held under lock and key.
That’s probably just as well, and not only because such gatherings would be a natural target for the Taliban. Although a few officials are trying to put up a good front, there is little to celebrate at the moment. As the clock ran out on 2014, the new American-brokered government failed to produce a cabinet, the last NATO combat forces officially departed at midnight Wednesday, and the insurgents were howling at the gates of the city. Perhaps the spring will bring signs of change, but for now it seems wise to remain circumspect, lie low and huddle under thick winter clothing as invisibly as possible.