As the sun sets over Kabul, the city's hustle and bustle is replaced by shadows and darkness. And with twilight emerges a new criminal network - members of the city police.
"They knocked at my door, introduced themselves as policemen, showed their identities, and looked around. But they returned at night to loot," says Naeem Khan, a grocery-shop owner in a working-class neighborhood of Kabul. "The Americans and Afghan government are chasing big personalities like Osama and Mullah Omar. [But] for us, these are a bigger threat; for us, these policemen are Al Qaeda."
Some 50,000 men now serve in Afghanistan's police force, with around 15,000 in Kabul alone. Most are uneducated, and belonged to various mujahideen groups until President Hamid Karzai appealed to citizens to join the police and national Army to keep order.
By day, these young recruits can be seen at every roundabout, shopping area, and government building, wearing dark green uniforms, carrying Kalashanikov rifles, and shouting through megaphones in either Persian or Pushto.
But by night, their out-of-uniform exploits raise fears - a result, observers say, of a force that is disorganized, untrained, and perhaps most important, underpaid.
Afghan officials lay part of the problem at the feet of Western donor countries that have not fulfilled promises to organize and help fund the police force.
"Donor countries are not releasing required funds so we cannot afford to give policemen their salaries," says Afghan deputy interior minister Hilaluddin Hilal. "Providing security and peace to Afghans is our priority. But we cannot do much with our pockets empty."
Two months ago, Mohammad Sufaid, a car dealer, found himself the target of dishonest police. A relatively wealthy man, he has a cement and concrete house, while neighboring homes are made of mud and wood.
"They entered saying they wanted to search the house. Once inside, they pointed their guns at me and [my family and] started collecting valuables from the house," Mr. Sufaid says. "I recognized one of them. I shouted 'you are a policeman.' Then they opened fire and killed my young nephew."
Sufaid reported the incident to police officials, but nothing happened. A few days ago, he saw one of the assailants in a police uniform guarding a roundabout. "I just shied away myself," he says.
"Thefts by these 'robbers' are routine," he adds.
Some police may be abusing their powers simply to make ends meet. Those who remain dutiful to their job wonder how long they can continue.
One of these "good cops" is Haroon Mohammad. The young Tajik sweats profusely standing at a busy roundabout where he is guarding a construction site.
"From six in the morning to six in the evening, I stand here, but I have not gotten my salary for the last eight months," he says. For the first three months, he did receive around $35 as his monthly salary. But he hasn't been paid since, and the government recently slashed wages to less than $17.
"I cannot loot people or take bribes like my colleagues. So if I do not get paid soon, I will leave and sell fruits like my father," says Mr. Mohammad, who is having trouble feeding his younger brother and himself.
A senior policeman, Abdul Majeed, is also not getting his salary. He was trained as a policeman during the communist rule of Mohammad Najibullah, but fled to Pakistan after receiving bullet wounds fighting against Taliban.
"A policeman is human and has to feed his family as well - with an empty stomach and starving children, he cannot afford principles," says Mr. Majeed, trudging back to his duty post. "I am not a thief but no angel either. Who in this world would refuse money when desperate?"
Afghan officials say International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has started its training program for policemen but blame the Western donor countries for not fulfilling their promises to organize the police force.
"When [police] and their families are hungry, they become looters," says the Afghan minister.
After decades of war, the central government is also fighting the culture of the gun. Social analysts talk about deep-rooted blood lust in Afghan society, and feel the urgent need to train a proper police force before issuing them the uniforms and weapons that give many a power rush.
Observers say if the illegal activities of policemen are not checked, the lawlessness may take Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan back into the era where warlords wreaked havoc on the country.
After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the various mujahideen groups fought battles among themselves that kept entire cities hostage. Warlords set up their own checkpoints, controlled the areas at gunpoint, and demanded money from local people.
The lawlessness became one of the main factors in the rise and acceptance of Taliban in the country. The Taliban were seen as a reprieve from the violence and mayhem of warlords.
"Today these policemen are thieves, tomorrow they will become warlords, "says Wali Ullah, a local Afghan journalist. "Peace and security in Kabul is essential as this is a gauge of the overall situation of Afghanistan. If Kabul becomes weak then Karzai's authority will weaken."
After the fall of the Taliban, around two million Afghans from neighboring Pakistan, Iran, and other countries returned to Kabul, the dreamland of Afghans.
But for Mr. Khan and Sufaid, dreams already seem to have soured.
Now people in crime-ridden neighborhood have started guarding their rooftops in the night. The beautiful starry nights of Kabul, celebrated in literature and history, have taken on a different tone for these residents , who live in fear of policemen-cum-thieves.
"As the sun sets in Kabul, we lock our doors, and pray for the sunrise again," says Mr. Khan.