By Sanjeev Miglani
KABUL, Sept 25 (Reuters) - The rows of bombed-out and upturned Soviet era-planes that littered the ground at Kabul airport when I left five years ago are gone.
But returning to the Afghan capital, which I last saw just before the spring of 2003 when it was starting to find its feet after the Taliban were driven out by U.S.-led forces, is both surprising and disconcerting.
"It looks better but it feels worse," says a Western diplomat, summing up his four years in Kabul.
We are sitting in a darkened Indian restaurant with its shutters fully lowered. Armed guards opened the door just a fraction to allow a small group of us in.
Before, when I came from New Delhi for a month as one of a stream of people on temporary assignment, I had spent an Indian evening in a run-down Sikh temple up a squalid back alley: a kind driver had deposited me there thinking I was homesick.
A tall Sikh in trousers and shirt uncharacteristically did not invite me in, but kept saying "we don’t really want anything, we just want to be left alone and allowed to practise our faith," his eyes darting up and down the street.
To me the very idea that Sikhs could be living here still after the years of the Taliban had been remarkable.
There were pock-marked government buildings and houses, and men and children with an arm or a leg amputated because of a landmine blast in the world’s most mined nation.
Former soldiers, members of the private army of one or other warlord who fought for control of Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out in 1989, walked the streets in military fatigues, figuring out a future now the war was over.
Now I’m back, most of that has gone.
There’s no more confusion in the small immigration control office, or at the baggage belt in a dark corner of the damp building. You are quickly waved through, your bags safely arrived, and whisked off in Kabul’s crisp early morning air.
Traffic clogs the dusty, potholed streets, people crane their necks out of cars hollering at each other to give way, smiling school girls in twos or threes wait by the roadside for a ride home in crowded minibuses.
Mobile phone shops have sprung up everywhere, and everyone uses the phones in a country where the landline network has yet to be rebuilt.
Shalwar-clad men stand at street corners selling Afghani currency for dollars in one hand and pre-paid phone cards in the other.
In the stadium where the Taliban conducted public executions, the grass has grown and there is a football game on between local boys dressed in red and blue, their shouts rising over the traffic. In streets where I remember seeing mudhouses cheek by jowl, mansions have been built.
But I look at Kabul’s high-walled compounds with their blast barriers, sandbags and concertina wire running all around to keep suicide bombers as far away as possible, and realise things can turn ugly very quickly.
Five years on, the walls of the embassies and other foreign organisations have grown taller, there are more checkpoints and more roads are either cordoned off completely or regulated.
I begin to feel the insecurity that the city lives with, and struggle to understand the contradictions of a place whose bustling streets belie a sense of foreboding.
"Back then we were seen as liberators after the darkness of the Taliban years, now we are probably seen as a necessary evil," says the diplomat in the restaurant.
An assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai during a military parade in April, a bombing on the Indian embassy in July and last month’s Taliban ambush of French soldiers outside Kabul have added to a sense of siege.
Over the next few days, I hunt for more people who can talk to me about the changes, particularly the expats who arrived with so much optimism after the fall of the Taliban.
I remember during my last trip lots of foreigners and Afghans who had spent most of the war years abroad had come back, and you could feel the sense of hope.
Even something as simple as listening to music, banned by the Taliban, seemed a luxury, a promise of good times ahead.
The talk then was of setting up schools, creating opportunities for women, establishing new media, rebuilding Afghanistan, brick-by-brick, well by well. Now the conversation is just as likely to be about bomb attacks.
"There is dynamism, there is money, but there is tension," says Anne Feenstra, an architect from the Netherlands who teaches at Kabul University.
"It is still the culture of the gun here, whether it is the Americans dropping bombs from a safe distance or the Taliban or the warlords. Nobody feels secure, nobody plans anything, you don’t know what will happen next year."
Everyone has been affected.
A woman covered in the all-encompassing blue burqa used to sit outside the Reuters office every day, arms outstretched for alms, one of the many who lined the streets. Denied education or work by the Taliban, they could do little but beg.
But she rarely comes now, the office guards tell me, because it’s difficult for her to get past the security checkpoint that has been set up on our street after a couple of foreign missions moved in. Once in a while the woman, whose face I have never seen and to whom I have never spoken, gets past a lenient guard.
"It has become more unsafe, that is the change that has taken place," says Abdul Rehman, our office guard who was here when I last came. He tells me not to venture out on foot in the evening even for a short walk.
If this is Kabul, the insecurity outside is worse. Bit by bit, large parts of the country have become no-go areas.
"Each month the red lines draw closer," says G.B. Adhikary, country director of Action Aid.
(Editing by Sara Ledwith)
(Kabul Newsroom + 93 799 335 284)