KABUL, Afghanistan – On the northern edge of Kabul, down a road riddled with mammoth potholes, is a secure site that bears all the marks of a prison: high stone walls topped with concertina wire, police officers barking into walkie-talkies, forsaken visitors pacing the compound’s edge, waiting for a sign of hope.
Residents here call it Car Guantanamo.
Behind these walls are thousands of cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles and even bicycles, lined up in vehicular purgatory after falling afoul of the Kabul traffic police. Things that have landed cars in the slammer: illegal left turns, parking violations, involvement in fender-benders and, perhaps most egregious, failure to pay a bribe.
“I’ve been waiting two months to get my van back,” said Sayed Wahid, whose quest to reclaim it, after it was impounded for an expired international permit, propelled him on an exhausting odyssey through no fewer than six different government agencies. “How do you think I feel about the government?”
Wahid’s experience is far from isolated. Some Kabul residents describe efforts spanning many months and big money to free their vehicles, only to win back a chassis long since stripped down for its parts. Keenly aware of the horror stories, most people here go to great lengths to avoid any interaction at all with the traffic police.
Taken as a case study of trust in government, then, Car Guantanamo has only a grim prognosis to offer.
“Here in this country, there is no rule of law,” said professor Wadir Safi, director of the Independent National Legal Training Center. “Traffic incidents are the smallest part of it.”
Bad experiences with the police are, of course, not specific only to Afghanistan. But the stakes here are among the highest: The international community has poured more than a decade of intense effort and aid into building an accountable justice system in Afghanistan, calling it crucial to government efforts to draw support away from the Taliban and local warlords.
Despite that, most Afghans still say they have little faith that their government can honestly enforce the law. The rules are unevenly applied, punitive to those who can least afford it, and mostly irrelevant to those with money and power. Transparency International recently ranked Afghanistan as the third most corrupt country in the world, after Somalia and North Korea.
For their part, police officers – the most ubiquitous faces of government for everyday Afghans – insist they are doing their job.
“If someone makes a wrong turn, what should we do, give them a basket of flowers?” asked Gen. Asadullah Khan, the chief of traffic police in Kabul. “Those who break the law typically complain about the police.”
On the streets of Kabul, though, pessimism prevails. When it comes to accidents, the prudent driver is most likely to try, if at all possible, to settle the dispute on the spot, well before officers arrive.
And accidents are only growing more common. Kabul’s population has exploded over the past decade, and the mayor’s office estimates that there are 650,000 vehicles vying for the right of way on a network of narrow streets built to accommodate about 30,000. The city’s tricky traffic circles, omnipresent potholes and pedestrian overflow have created a knot of smog and frustration. International institutions have attempted to assist the city with traffic management, but progress can be hard to find.
The police force’s main strategy to thin the glut of vehicles has been to crack down on drivers without licenses, no longer simply fining them, but sending them to jail for up to six months. Cars without proper registration are confiscated and impounded – Guantanamo bound.
The traffic has become big business in Kabul, with the city raking in about $40 million a year in fees and fines, according to Khan.
Among the most notorious prongs of the traffic division is the Incident Unit, which rolls around the city from accident to accident, making determinations of blame and plucking errant cars from the road.
“The Incident Unit, they are now famous,” acknowledged Sidiq Sidiqqi, the spokesman of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police.
He even had his own experience to recount. Shaking his head, he told of how his government vehicle had recently been hit by another car. He quickly called the traffic police to the scene, he recounted. But both drivers became frantic, warning him that if the Incident Unit came, there would be trouble. The driver of the other vehicle quickly paid up for the damage and went on his way.
“We are trying to put programs and policies into place to fix things,” Sidiqqi said. “We have the funding. We just have poor training.”
As for the infamous impound lot, Khan, the traffic police chief, knows the widely held nickname for it. But he bristles and insists on using its official title: the Kabul Traffic Police Parking Lot.
By any name, it is busy. Every year, about 3,000 cars, 3,000 motorcycles and an undetermined number of bicycles are imprisoned in Car Guantanamo, according to government figures. Khan did not have readily available figures for how many are released, but suggested visiting the lot to ask people their thoughts about the system. A steady drizzle accompanied a throng of dejected car owners during a recent visit to the impound lot. The men stared at a half-dozen police officers stationed behind the gates, sipping chai and chatting casually.
Rows of vehicles fill the lot in varying states of degradation – scores of the omnipresent Corollas of Kabul, armored SUVs, a few colorfully painted Pakistani transport trucks. Hundreds of motorcycles line the edges of the mud lot. A mangled mass of metal sits in the center of the area, the size of several football fields, where wrecked motorcycles are piled. A confiscated bicycle pokes through the top of the heap.
The men waiting outside share similar stories. Illegal parking. Expired tags. Arguing with the traffic police. They have waited anywhere from a day to more than two months to retrieve their vehicles. Confused by the byzantine system, most simply plead with the police to return their cars. No luck there.
In November, Wahid had driven his van from Kunduz to Kabul when he was pulled over at a checkpoint in the capital. His license and car tags were clean, but a permit to cross international borders, though not needed for that specific trip, had expired.
For a moment, he said, he considered bribing the officer. He has regretted every day for the past two months his decision not to.
Wahid caught the bus back north to sort out his paperwork. But when he got back to Kabul, the Foreign Ministry officials would not accept it: They did not believe it was authentic. So he went for help to the traffic department, but that, too, proved fruitless.
A hustler by nature, Wahid tried a multipronged approach. He visited the Interior Ministry, the Kabul police chief and the Parliament, where he found a helpful member from Kunduz. He received letters urging the authorities to release his vehicle. When that failed to work, he applied again for his international permit with the government.
Now, $1,600 into his grim journey, he says he is still not sure he is any closer to getting his vehicle back.
He has been holed up in Kabul, borrowing money to live and taking the long bus ride to see his family on the weekends.
Despite it all, he somehow seems mostly unruffled. He simply doesn’t expect the government to work for him.
“What can I say?” he asked, plucking at the embroidery on his clothing. “This is not even a government.”