Bomb Blast Rocks Kabul

First there is chaos. You can't tell where the explosion was, because the sound echoes off the mountains that surround the city and the buildings that crowd it. It's a strange ventriloquism that has everyone believing the bomb was a block away. But the better part of a mile from ground zero, my windows and walls shake with the concussion wave and the fading reverberations that provide the only noise in the moments after the blast. Then come sirens and small-arms fire. There are plenty of people on the streets of Kabul with guns, and the roar of an early-morning car bomb riles even the most war-weathered security guards. Kalashnikovs begin spitting rounds at nothing in particular.

Today's bombing in Kabul is only the most recent in a string of attacks against the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police since the Taliban brought their quarrels with the government to the nation's capital. An attack on an army bus in June killed at least 35, another one in September at least 30, and there have been three suicide attacks here in the last week. The Taliban, always shrewd, maintain that collateral damage is the fault of NATO warplanes, and to back it up they take pains to avoid civilian targets. They believe it to be a matter of only semantic concern that not every passenger on a Ministry of Defense bus is a soldier, nor are those passersby unfortunate enough to be near the target at the moment of detonation.

In a sense they've got it right: the whispering that goes on among witnesses to the recent bombings condemn the Karzai administration for its failure to protect the people, rather than the Taliban for killing them.

Today's bombing was carried out by a VBIED, or Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device. A small car laden with explosives pulled up to an army bus and detonated with such force that it peeled off the roof of the bus and wrenched the front so forcefully that the engine assembly rotated back over the cab, so that the two front wheels came crashing down behind the driver. It killed 13 people and injured another seven—or 20, depending on whether you listen to witnesses, the defense ministry, or local journalists. Everyone here has an ulterior motive, a reason to over- or understate the number of dead and wounded. An Afghan friend once told me that Afghans are like chickens; you can kill hundreds of them and no one cares. Indeed, after every bombing the victims' lives quickly become less important than their deaths. If in no other way, this fact unites the country—the martyr who takes the lives as a political statement, and the member of parliament who exploits them for political currency.

Afghans hate their ministers for holding dual citizenship, believing it to be proof of compromised allegiances. But Afghanistan no longer needs outsiders to ignite ethnic tensions. Whether the Iranian government is really funding the huge Shiite seminary on Darulaman Road; whether or not Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency is really conducting political assassinations to further a policy of Pashtun domination—none of it really matters. Because Afghans tend to think according to their ethnic predispositions, and they will speak accordingly; no information from any source is without likely bias. Westerners have a hard time seeing the influence of ethnic allegiance, because Afghans pride themselves on hospitality, a central component of which is identifying what your guests want to see and then showing it to them. Racism is unappealing to Americans, who have little license for pride in their own history; to Germans, who generations later still harbor a collective, residual guilt; and to people from any of the other countries with a significant presence in Afghanistan.

In the streets near the site of the bombing, in the Chihulsutoon area of southwest Kabul, cars drive off the pavement to avoid the potholes carved out by artillery shells that fell during the civil war. The predominant sound of life and commerce in this economically depressed neighborhood is the scraping of undercarriages on the pavement and the careful shifting of cars between neutral and first gear. Now the road bears another scar of war: a crater several feet deep and roughly the diameter of a man.

The bombings in this country expose a kind of schadenfreude. Not joy in a neighbor's misfortune so much as the primacy of self-preservation, and relief that it's not your turn. Those who suffer around you are no more deserving of sympathy than you once were or will be soon, so people look toward the sites of the bombings with curiosity rather than concern. New visitors to Afghanistan think Afghans are numb to violence for having witnessed so much of it, but it's the opposite; each bomb summons a cascade of memories, which people try to ignore. A visit to the morgue after an earlier bombing left an Afghan friend sick and sleepless for a week, while we Westerners are in fact better equipped to bear witness clinically.

Still, throughout the city, there is a disturbing air of normalcy among Afghans in the minutes and hours after the attack. I think of the chaos of 9/11, of people running down the streets of New York with faces white from ash and fear. Here, minutes after the explosion I see a girl cross the street casually on her way to run some errand, wearing a New York Yankees hat.

The young men are a different story. After the wreckage of the bus is hauled away on a flatbed, hundreds of boys are summoned to the site. They're stopped a hundred yards away by a soldier who says there is an investigation going on, that the minister of the interior is on site, so no one can pass. The boys are eager; some try to scurry by the soldier, who responds by yelling at them, by throwing rocks at them, and by pulling his pistol from its holster and brandishing the weapon in the air. A half mile away convoys of International Security Assistance Force Humvees rumble up and down Darulaman Road, while here a solitary Afghan Army soldier armed with only an unimposing-looking Soviet-era 9mm tries to protect an investigation from a throng of onlookers.

The soldier gets word that the investigation is finished—it is only two hours after the explosion. "Burra," he says with resignation: "Go." The young men swarm past him, hundreds of young people on bikes and foot rushing gleefully toward the scene, where firemen are still hosing the blood and body parts too small for hand-picking into the open sewers that flank the street. The young men gather over the crater, look at the crumbled storefronts, pick up pieces of the bus left behind, sift through the open sewers for blood and bits of bodies.

In a taxi with all its windows and a tire blown out, sitting neatly on the driver's seat as if deliberately placed there, is the only remnant of human life: a pakol, the woolen cap known as the "Massoud hat" for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the American ally and avowed enemy of the Taliban who tried to warn the West of an attack, and who was slain by bin Laden's men two days before September 11, 2001.

Bomb Blast Rocks Kabul | World