Despite intense fighting, Afghan capital begins removing blast walls that protect, but impede

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Even as conflict rages in Afghanistan, authorities are trying to make life in the capital a little more normal by removing or repositioning Kabul's ubiquitous concrete blast walls.

Work crews this week began tackling the 10-foot (3-meter)-tall concrete barriers that ring government buildings, embassies, banks and other potential targets in the Afghan capital and sometimes block vehicle and even pedestrian traffic.

The goal is to improve the flow of traffic through the congested city, whose population has tripled to 4.5 million since the Taliban were ousted in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Removal of the walls makes Kabul look less like the capital of a country at war.

In Iraq, a similar move by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki backfired. A drop in violence last year prompted al-Maliki to order most blast walls removed even as critics accused him of lifting security measures prematurely for political purposes.

Walls in Baghdad went back up after a huge bombing in August 2009 that killed about 100 people.

Nevertheless, with attacks in Kabul only a fraction of those in Baghdad, President Hamid Karzai this month ordered the removal or repositioning of the walls in response to public complaints that the security measures are making their lives harder.

Kabul resident Ahmad Mujahed said the walls actually make him feel less safe. He's happy with Karzai's order.

"We want (the government) to make the people feel safe, and the barriers should be moved to allow the people to walk around the city freely," Mujahed said.

Mula Hashim, a trader pushing his handcart through chaotic traffic, agreed.

"It is a very good idea. The roads get bigger, and the people can walk without restraints," Hashim said.

Work crews outside a police recruiting center in eastern Kabul on Sunday lashed steel cables to iron hoops embedded in the walls' upper edge and used cranes to move them away slab by giant slab. Some were loaded aboard trucks for storage, while others were simply shifted back from the street.

Even when the relocating is done, plenty of blast walls will likely remain, along with sandbagged checkpoints, bales of razor wire and thousands of assault rifle-toting security guards.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said walls outside the police and border police headquarters had been the first to be moved out of the way of traffic. The national government and Kabul municipality were coordinating on what other walls to move, with the ultimate goal being freeing Kabul of the eyesores entirely.

"We want to finish soon, but it will take time," Bashary said. "We first want to give people more space to move, then get rid of the altogether."

Removal of the walls carries major political significance for Karzai, who needs to show Afghanistan's beleaguered people that he can bring about real improvements in security and quality of life. The campaign also comes amid increasing moves by the president to assert his authority over Afghanistan's security situation, even with 120,000 foreign troops still in the country.

In a similar vein, the president last week ordered private security companies to cease operating in Afghanistan within four months, prompting a backlash from the U.S. and its allies who rely heavily on contractors to guard supply convoys, installations and development projects.

Complaints have mounted that the firms are poorly regulated, reckless and effectively operate outside local law.