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Afghan Daily Life Offers New Opportunities, Old Problems

March 18, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: In a country with few paved roads, you can still ride in luxury. Omar Farouk Trading Company first started selling cars in Kabul 30 years ago, but this is a new day for Afghanistan, says manager Mir Alam.

MIR ALAM, Farouk Trading Company (through translator): During the Taliban, we had to shut the business down. Now that we have the present government, we can do our business freely. We are free.

MARGARET WARNER: Across the street is the Ansari mall, a thin slice of gulf glitz in Kabul and home to the country’s only escalator. There’s even a shop selling musical instruments, banned in the Taliban era that ended with the U.S. invasion seven-and-a-half years ago.

On nearby streets, girls are walking to school, a sight never seen in Taliban days. On other corners, men hawk phone cards. There were virtually no cell phones here in 2001; today there are 8 million.

And citizens of this still-conservative Islamic republic now enjoy a proliferation of newspapers, radio, and TV channels, including an “American Idol”-style program on Tolo TV, “Afghan Star.”

But the contradictions of this new Afghanistan are apparent just a block from Tolo TV, at an upscale restaurant called Boccaccio. This oasis of continental cuisine is owned by a U.S.-educated Afghan, Mohammad Yousif Rafik.

Typical of the Afghan emigres who’ve returned to rebuild his country, he’s proud to have brought what he calls a European standard of quality control to Kabul. But partly because he wants to serve alcohol, he caters predominantly to a foreign clientele, who arrive with their security details.

He buys all his food in Dubai, and he almost never lets in anyone wearing loose-fitting Afghan dress, because it could hide a weapon or suicide vest.

MOHAMMAD YOUSIF RAFIK, restaurateur: Because most of the special people come, they put their helmets down, they put their gears down, and want to have a dinner and relax. And, basically, I know every single person sitting behind another person, who they are, and that way my customers will feel comfortable.

MARGARET WARNER: After a kidnapping attempt, Rafik doesn’t even feel secure himself. He keeps his family in Dubai and commutes three to four times week.

Yet it’s a painful contrast with the life most Afghans live. At a Kabul roundabout, we met scores of men looking for work, many skilled laborers.

ABDUL MANA, day laborer (through translator): My kids are crying. They had nothing to eat this morning. Now I have nothing to take back to my children.