19 February 2010

Fear and loathing on the curry paste trail

Kabul's "poppie palaces," suggesting they are funded by the opium trade, often feature Pakistani architectural influences.

KABUL, Afghanistan—I can hazard a guess there has been a credible threat of an imminent attack in Kabul from the way in which local and national security forces have been behaving the last two days, stopping and searching more vehicles, requesting passports. Today I was texted the district in which the national assembly and some key ministerial offices are located has been placed off limits for my colleagues tomorrow (Saturday) for most of the day.

The Marjah offensive in southern Afghanistan in which at least 18 civilians were reportedly killed by U.S.-led NATO forces is bound to elicit some response from the resurgent Taliban coalition.

On the streets of most countries, authorities accept a photocopy of required documents like your passport. Afghan law apparently doesn’t recognize photocopied documentation of any kind, so the last few days the men in uniforms with guns—they could be police, army, Karzai’s own security service, or imposters—want our real passports. Now I don’t like putting my one and only passport in anyone’s hand, save a customs or immigration official in uniform in appropriately officious surroundings, and certainly not in the mitts of an underpaid military or police officer.

In Afghanistan and much of the developing world, both a western passport and the person holding it are commodities with very high market values. So I was not a happy camper resting my ass in a stationary minivan idling on a crowed Kabul street while a uniform with a Kalashnikov held our passports and bantered with our security man. For starters, a stopped vehicle is a much easier target for attack or kidnapping. Nor was I consoled that our security man, a nice enough guy who must have just re-permed his bottle-black tresses, was packing only a Nokia phone on his hip. And to think five minutes earlier I was going grocery shopping wondering whether I could find a particular brand of curry paste.

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