KABUL, Afghanistan – Traffic in Afghanistan’s congested capital is worse than ever this month, with carloads of religious pilgrims arriving from the provinces to take flights to Saudi Arabia for hajj, and wedding parties scheduled back-to-back in ornate halls to beat the approaching winter weather.
But beyond family and religious obligations, this is a capital on hold. Economic activities, from office building projects to sidewalk shoeshines, are being held hostage to a messy and uncertain presidential election process that has dragged on since early August.
An electoral runoff has been scheduled for Saturday, but the crisis may deepen because the major challenger to President Hamid Karzai is threatening to pull out of the race today.
A solution can’t come too soon for Abdul Manan, 38. He sells PVC pipe for residential and commercial construction – or used to sell it before his business crashed to a halt two months ago.
“Everything has stopped – the investment from the donor countries, which affects government and private projects, which affects the big contractors and the small suppliers like me,” Manan said as he watched TV in his warehouse, surrounded by piles of dusty white pipe. “Everyone says they are waiting to see what happens in the elections.”
It’s the same story in shops and offices across this crowded city of about 4 million. Until spring, Kabul was a rapidly if unevenly developing metropolis where muddy, unpaved streets were lined with new glass offices, supermarkets, mansions, neon-lit wedding halls, and banks with ATM machines.
Now, supermarket managers whose shelves once burst with imported goods say they are running out of canned peas from Europe and scrub brushes from China. Store owners have withheld new orders, and cargo truck shipments via neighboring Pakistan have been suspended while a Taliban insurgency rages on both sides of the border.
Academics say some international conferences and foreign-funded research projects have been postponed or canceled until a new government is installed. Fewer visitors are coming from abroad, and more-affluent Afghans are starting to send their families and their capital overseas.
On the city streets, where veiled widows beg for handouts, small boys swing incense burners for alms and scavengers with donkey carts search through garbage heaps, the trickle-down effect is palpable.
“A lot of the wealthy people with nice shoes have left, because they’re afraid there is going to be fighting over the elections,” said Mohammed Bashir, 26, who has been shining shoes outside a mosque in Kabul’s Shar-I-Nau district since he was a teenager. “I don’t care who wins,” he said. “I just want things to be secure and settled again.”
The fear of political chaos has grown with each passing week. The presidential election, already delayed since May, was finally held Aug. 20 but was ultimately found invalid because of widespread fraud.
The crisis has set off a protracted dispute involving President Karzai, his leading challenger, U.N. officials and Western governments. The country is in political limbo, and Afghans are worried that ethnic violence will tear the capital apart, especially if challenger Abdullah Abdullah pulls out of the contest.
Making matters worse, Taliban insurgents have targeted the election process. They rocketed polling stations and cut off voters’ fingers during the first round; now they are attempting to sabotage the runoff, which some analysts say may be canceled at the last minute.
On Wednesday, a Taliban suicide squad stormed a Kabul guesthouse where more than 20 election workers were staying. The assault left 12 people dead and residents bracing for an escalation in urban warfare.
Diplomats, journalists and the Afghan political elite are obsessed with every nuance of the electoral drama. Rumors fly daily of secret meetings, deals and threats between the main political actors. But most people here have more personal worries, demands and hopes on their minds.
“Tomorrow is my wedding party, and it will happen to me only once in my life. Nothing could matter more,” said Zarla, 18, a bride who was getting a facial massage in a noisy salon. “I’m going to vote because we need peace in our country, but right now I only want to look beautiful.”