A scene from the Afghan capital Kabul (file photo) (courtesy R. Kober)
Afghanistan's government has decreed that the United Nations, the American embassy and other organizations in Kabul must clear concrete security barriers that block the streets by Saturday. The decree, issued last Friday, comes following pressure from the newly formed Afghan parliament and public complaints over the heavy traffic jams caused by the barriers. The foreign groups are expressing concern and saying that the security situation does not permit that.
Prague, 5 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Mohammad Yousef, a Kabul resident, recently told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that the removal of the security barriers from the streets of the Afghan capital is good news.
"Currently it takes sometimes three hours, or 2 1/2 hours, or at least 45 minutes to take a sick person by car to the hospital," Yousef said. "The reason for it is that public roads are blocked; the streets are one way, [and] it causes traffic jams. We are happy about this government's move, if applied it would be really positive."
Most Kabul streets are full of security barriers and large concrete anti-blast blocks aimed at protecting foreign organizations, embassies, foreign military forces, security firms, and others.
They have been set up as security measures against the insurgent and terrorist attacks that have risen in the past four years since the fall of the Taliban regime.
Some organizations, such as the U.S. Embassy, have even closed off whole streets around their premises.
In addition, whole districts are shut off during visits by foreign dignitaries or when senior Afghan officials travel across the city.
Many Kabul residents complain about the inconveniences caused by the security barriers, including heavy traffic jams and city congestion. Some say the anti-blast blocks and barricades make the city look like a war is raging there. Last month, angry local residents and displaced street vendors staged a protest against a security barrier set up outside a newly built hotel in Kabul. The barrier was reportedly removed.
But foreign organizations consider the blockades essential for their security. In recent months, suicide attacks have increased in Afghanistan, with several cases happening in Kabul.
A suicide car bomber detonated near a U.S.-led military patrol in the southern city of Kandahar on 2 January. As a result, one U.S. soldier and two Afghans were wounded.
The United Nations is one of the organizations concerned by the Afghan government's order.
UN chief spokesman in Kabul Adrian Edwards told RFE/RL that security barriers are still required.
"We are in a difficult security environment which certainly hasn't improved during 2005," Edwards said. "There have been a number of suicide attacks. Within the UN here, I think none of us would wish to be behind these barricades, we would prefer things could be open as we are in some other countries. However there have been necessary for our security, that's why they are there."
Asked whether the UN will comply with the order and remove its security barriers, Edwards said that the UN is awaiting more information and clarification from Afghan authorities. He expressed hope that the issue will be solved during discussions with Afghan officials "quite quickly."
The Afghan government has said it is determined to remove all the barricades. The directive of the government says that "blocking the footpaths, streets, and roads is illegal" and that no one has the right to create obstructions.
The government has also warned that it will take action against any organization that does not comply.
Afghan government spokesman Karim Rahimi, however, told reporters in Kabul on 3 January that there will be only a few exceptions. He gave no details.
"Based on technical considerations, there maybe will be only a few locations where the removal of security barriers could cause security problems," Rahimi said, "but in general all these obstacles will be removed."
On 2 January, Interior Ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanezai said that "right now, the only exception to the order is the presidential palace."
It is still unclear whether the U.S. Embassy and other foreign missions will abide by the new rule.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor was quoted by AP as saying that American officials are aware of the directive and that they are continuing to "work with the government of Afghanistan about access and security issues in public spaces around the embassy."
A U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Mike Cody, said Afghan officials had indicated they would study the situation further and revisit the issue later with the parties involved.
With just a few days remaining before the deadline for removing the barriers, RFE/RL correspondents report that most concrete barriers in Kabul still seem to be in place.