On an ordinary weekday, the streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, fetid with clogged drains and crammed with carts displaying potatoes or used sweaters. Shoppers, school children and commuters on bicycles dodge and dart through the hazardous maze, often taking their lives in their hands.
As bad as that is, the ordeal just got much worse.
For the past two months, bulldozers and backhoes have been tearing up dozens of busy city streets, gouging deep gulches for new drainage pipes and dumping piles of gravel, dirt and tangled steel bars in the middle. Workmen swarm between lines of traffic, hopping in and out of ditches and shouting through the din.
The ambitious, $45 million project — financed largely by the government of Japan and supervised by the Kabul mayor's office — will eventually produce 60 miles of smooth pavement and modern drainage in an aged, war-savaged capital where the population has exploded from 2 million to 5 million in the past decade. For now, though, it has produced mostly chaos and complaints.
"I can't sleep at night because the machines are so loud, and I can't breathe during the day because of all the dust," said Mir Hazrat, 70, the caretaker of a mosque in the Qalai-Fatullah district. He and his friend Fahim Hasibullah, a legless land-mine victim in a wheelchair, spend their days on the sidewalk, watching the work inch ahead. "I just pray they get done before the snow comes," Hazrat says darkly.
The tumult is most intense along the 10-block commercial stretch between Qalai-Fatullah and Shar-i-Nau, which is lined with a hodgepodge of bakeries, barbers, fish markets, plumbing suppliers and fashion boutiques with mannequins in sequined gowns. Beggars, phone-card hawkers and onion-cart pushers complete the tableau, squeezing between stuck cars and mountains of rubble.
Mohammed Ismael, 65, owns a stylish real estate office on one of the worst-hit blocks. With no customers, he spent last week watching workmen pound metal struts into the ditch below his doorstep. "They should have done this years ago," he said. "Now the foreigners are leaving, business is dead, and I can't find a place to park my car."
Like every project here, the street work has created an economic pyramid that reflects the stark stratification of Afghan society today. At the bottom are the jump-suited laborers, some in their 60s, who earn about $8 per day digging ditches and carrying loads. Many said they were jobless before the project started.
"I feel very lucky to have this job," said Mohammed Karim, 38, leaning on his shovel. He said he left school after third grade, and has been working with his hands ever since. He spent years doing construction in Iran, but his visa expired last year and he was deported. His wife and six children live in northern Afghanistan's Takhar province, and he takes a bus to see them once a month. "I bring them money to buy food, and then I come back," he said.
Further up the ladder are the crew managers, safety inspectors and site engineers, who wear bright yellow vests and carry clipboards. They include Afghan university students working part-time and Pakistanis who have been brought by contractors because there are still not enough skilled Afghans to do technical tasks, even after a decade of international aid and education programs.
The safety officers and traffic police at each work site have a nearly impossible job. In a capital full of powerful men with big Land Cruisers and guns, asking aggressive drivers to wait for a bulldozer or take a detour can be futile.
"We get cursed a lot. I get in arguments with drivers and bodyguards all the time," said Mowahid Anwari, 29, an engineer at the Qalai-Fatullah site. "It's the government officials that give us the most trouble. They insist on getting through, and they don't allow us to get the work done."
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.