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Afghanistan Journal

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, who just returned from assignment in Afghanistan, shares his observations about life in a country now in its third decade of war.

September 6, 2009 at 3:02 AM

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Autos, air and Kabul

Posted by Hal Bernton

KABUL

After the Taliban fell, many people in Kabul quickly embraced change. Girls returned to schools, music returned to the streets and a gusher of aid money created new economic opportunity for some.

My Afghan colleague, Hashim Shukoor, does have one fond memory of the bygone days of Taliban rule. Back then, there were far fewer cars around Kabul, so you could still move easily about the narrow streets of Kabul.

Today, with a swelling population estimated at more than 2.5 million, this city is choked with cars.

Driving through Kabul, we move from traffic jam to traffic jam. Even when bumper to bumper, drivers still manage to jockey for position, and poke into small openings that allow small bits of forward progress. This driving is accompanied by a constant bleating of horns. Amid all these cars, bicyclists, pedestrians and the occasional donkey cart try to make their way through the streets.



Many of the cars are older models, some of which run on leaded gas. Toyota Corollas are are a popular model. They are often imported from Dubai, and there is plenty of demand to push up prices. One 1996 model with more than 150,000 miles on its speedometer fetched nearly $7,000 earlier this year.

The car boom has helped created some of the worst smog in the world.

Kabul is ringed by mountains. The pollution builds up in the summer as automotive fumes mix with factory smoke, dust and other bad stuff that gets into the air.
From kabul

A smoggy dusk as seen from a hillside overlooking Kabul

This smog has a real bite. Stalled in traffic today, the fumes reeked like a gas spill at a service station. My eyes stung even after I returned to my guest house room.

Afghanistan government measurements of this smog make Los Angeles air appear almost pristine.

The average level of sulfur dioxide in the Kabul air is more than 900 times higher than the U.S. air quality standard, according to Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency statistics that were detailed in a National Public Radio report about Kabul air pollution. that aired in January.

There is a big increase in respiratory problems, and in January the Afghanistan health minister labeled air pollution a major threat, estimating that it resulted in an additional 3,000 deaths each year in Kabul.

"We don't have only terrorism as an enemy, we also have silent enemies and they are air pollution and environmental problems which cause silent and invisible deaths," said Mohammad Amin Fatimi in a January statement released by the Ministry of Health.

Election update

I wrote this weekend piece that examined some of the fraud allegations that surround the presidential election of Aug. 20

Some of the polling site results were posted on the Web site of Afghanistan's election commission. All those numbers made me think of Justin Mayo, a Seattle Times colleague who is a pro at computer assisted reporting. I was fortunate that Justin, half away around the word, was willing to do a bit of number crunching, which helped flesh out some of the details in the story. In this Internet age, he could just download Afghanistan polling results from his desk in Seattle.

As of this evening, the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, has nearly 49 percent of the votes tallied so far as I reported in this story. In the days ahead, Karzai is very likely to push past the 50 percent threshold that eliminates a run-off election against strongest challengers, Abdullah Abdullah.

But before the vote is certified, an investigation into allegations of fraud and other election misconduct must be completed. That could take weeks, and result in some votes being thrown out.

In the meantime, the fraud charges keept mounting as Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall reported in this New York Times article. A senior Western diplomat alleged that as many as 800 polling sites were fake, and never opened on election day but still delivered thousands of votes to Karzai.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About the author

Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000. He has roamed widely around the Northwest for regional reporting and to help in the newspaper's military coverage. His oversees assignments have taken him to Russia, Algeria, Aceh Province in Indonesia and Iraq in December of 2003 and January of 2004.

Related links

Afghan News Center
Pajhwok.com: News of Afghanistan written by Afghanistan journalists.
McClatchy News Service: Dispatches from Afghanistan and beyond.
Talking with the Taliban: A Toronto Globe and Mail series.
Foreign Policy Blog on Afghanistan
Michael Yon: Embedded blogger Michael Yon posts front-line dispatches.
Washington Post's Afghanistan/Pakistan site
Abdulhadi Hairan: Afghan writer reflects on events in Iraq
GlobalPost's Taliban project: Features wide-ranging coverage of Afghanistan.