TIME: Karzai's New Bunker


On a Kabul street with no name but alive with honking yellow taxis, something curious is happening. A new construction site has sprung up just outside the grounds of the presidential palace, with a formidable wall of soil-filled shipping containers stacked two levels high. The swarms of Afghan laborers say they don't know what they're building. American engineers shoo away anyone who asks about it. But members of the palace guard, charged with protecting President Hamid Karzai, say the construction sits above an aging bunker complex and that U.S. forces from the 769th Engineer Battalion are refashioning it for the President. "We're building an underground bunker for Karzai," a member of the battalion told TIME.

U.S. forces have been overseeing Karzai's security ever since July, following the assassination of one of his top ministers. But a September attempt to kill the President has heightened concerns about his safety. Karzai's U.S. backers worry about the threats posed by Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants as well as by unyielding warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. And so the U.S., it appears, is helping the Afghan President dig in.

A map of the purported underground warrens, drawn for TIME by an Afghan palace guard, shows a tunnel skirting the stone walls surrounding the palace. Small chambers run off the subterranean passageway. According to palace guards, the refurbishment plans include not just the underground presidential bunker but also a facility for U.S. forces and barracks for the new Afghan national army. Whatever the ultimate uses of the bunker, work on it is proceeding at an urgent clip. "If the U.S. engineers are not patrolling when we're working at night, we can steal a little sleep," says a laborer, Ghulam Sakhi. "But if they catch us, they kick us awake. They're always pushing us to work very, very hard, day and night."

--By Michael Ware