The K-Town ‘Kabubble’: Thoughts on Expat Security in Kabul

2014 has started out as a bloody year for Kabul. A number of high-profile attacks have shaken up the city, especially its community of Western expatriates. Two of the attacks, on the Lebanese restaurant La Taverna Du Liban and the Serena Hotel, clearly intended to communicate to foreigners that none of their cherished getaways are safe.

Outside La Taverna du Liban. Photo: S. Sabawoon, European Pressphoto Agency

Outside La Taverna du Liban. Photo: S. Sabawoon, European Pressphoto Agency

Weapons used by attackers at the Serena Hotel. Photo: Anja Niedringhaus, AP

Weapons used by attackers at the Serena Hotel. Photo: Anja Niedringhaus, AP


The fact that the Serena, La Taverna, and their ilk are prime targets for the Taliban is something that I have been saying since I arrived in Kabul over a year ago.

Like many Westerners arriving in Kabul for the first time, I was quickly introduced to the alcohol-fueled cloistered world of Kabul’s expatriate scene. I am hardly a puritan when it comes to alcohol consumption or bedroom funtivities, but I recognized almost immediately that something was terribly wrong with the expat community in Kabul, both in terms of how they viewed their own place in Afghan society and how they viewed risk management.

Let’s start with how most foreigners view Kabul; in expat lingo, Kabul is often referred to as the ‘Kabubble’, which alludes to this notion of the closely-knit community of expats who frequent alcohol-serving restaurants and underground clubs together.

The way that I interpret the ‘Kabubble’ is an attempt by the expat community to carve out a little ‘home away from home’ by trying to replicate the social life they enjoyed in their countries of origin. Problematically, the very much for-profit security sector indulges this desire, and we get a bit of the snowball effect where risky behavior leads to more risky behavior, and so on and so forth.

The end result is that there are a handful of institutions that have made it to the vaunted ‘approved’ list of social venues for security sector companies. Expats are funneled to these locations, thereby ‘fattening the pot’, so to speak, for a Taliban attack.

I'm living in a conservative Muslim country with an active religious extremist insurgency - TIME TO GET SHITFACED WITH MY PEEPS!

I’m living in a conservative Muslim country with an active religious extremist insurgency – TIME TO GET SHITFACED WITH MY PEEPS!

What is darkly ironic is that the security sector so cloisters those it has pledged to protect that when they do have leisure time, they desperately want to leave their guest houses (perhaps more aptly referred to as ‘gilded cages’) and see other people. The security sector does not allow its principles to leave their houses and interact with their neighbors and members of their local community. They do not allow their principles to move around freely and become a true member of the neighborhood or city where they are living.

In short, the security sector makes life for the average Western aid worker more like a military deployment rather than simply a change in residence. So when the expat aid worker wants to get out after spending the week restricted to their guest house, their office, and the vehicle that takes them back and forth between the two, their security department will only give them permission to visit the venues on the ‘approved list’, also known as the list of places that the Taliban is probably performing reconnaissance missions on at any given moment.

So with this introduction, here are some of my notes on the Kabuli security sector:

The ‘hard target’ vs. ‘soft target’ dichotomy is a fucking joke: In security sector lingo, a ‘hard target’ is a heavily fortified/guarded person or position that would be very difficult to kill, be it a person, or breach, be it a location. A ‘soft target,’ in contrast, would be somewhere or someone with few security measures.

This dichotomy is bullshit in Kabul, or at the very least grossly misrepresented.

The only true hard targets in Kabul are the military bases – the ISAF military bases – the Western embassies, some Afghan Government ministries, and the airport. Every other location can be breached, and any person can be killed.

An unconventional insurgent fighting force is always going to have an enormous advantage attacking their chosen target. Why? Because the attacking force has all the time in the world to perform reconnaissance on the target and choose the time and method of the attack. The use of explosives – and even more devastating, the use of suicide bombers in vehicles or wearing vests – can easily throw off any type of security scheme, regardless of the perceived strength and depth of the fortifications and the number of security guards. It is simply impossible for these security guards to stay sharp when they might be standing post for three years without any incidences, and then find themselves faced with an overwhelming attacking force that may have already blown them to pieces before they even realized an attack was underway.

In short, outside of my aforementioned list of hard targets, no walls can save you, no blast doors, no armed guards, and no pistol on your hip. The only thing that can protect you is not making yourself someone the Taliban wants to kill, individually, and not putting yourself among a group of people that the Taliban wants to attack, collectively.

Stop segregating foreigners: The Taliban is a fairly media savvy organization. They have a spokesman who reporters call after every attack, and generally they care about making the international news cycle. As a result, they have an affinity for the spectacular. Killing random foreigners out having kabob at local restaurants or buying bread at a local bakery does not cut it. Moreover, it’s easy to plan an attack on a stationary target – e.g. La Taverna or the Serena Hotel –  that is regularly inundated with foreign patrons. It’s much more difficult (and has less reward in terms of media spectacle value) to attack a single foreigner, like myself, who only eats in local restaurants and picks them randomly based on whichever one is closest at the point when I get hungry.

It would be extremely easy to walk up to me on the streets of Kabul and gun me down. I don’t carry a weapon here and never would. What would be rather annoying for the Taliban is stalking me for days to get to the point where they could shoot me.

Stop making lists of ‘approved locations’ for expats to go: The safest place for me to go get dinner is at the kabob restaurant around the corner from my house. Is it on any security company’s ‘approved list’? Of course not! Guess which establishments were on countless UN/NGO ‘approved lists’ – you guessed it, La Taverna and the Serena Hotel. I have previously made exceptions to my own risk management policies to visit aid worker friends at restaurants on their security department’s ‘approved list’, but from this point forward, if I know that an establishment is on the security sector entity’s approved list, I will not fucking go to it.

If you see other White people, time to get the fuck out (GTFO): In my experience, White people are really just as tribal as Afghans (the many ethnicities that there are), Arabs, or any other ethnic group. White expats like to hang out, and have a drink or two, with other White people who they feel like they have some kind of cultural bond with. The problem is, once a couple of White people get together to have a discreet drink somewhere, they start calling their friends over, getting rowdy, playing music, etc. etc., and all of a sudden the Taliban has a nice fat target of Whiteys to lay waste to.

So in summary, if I am out in Kabul and see one of my distant kin from the Tribe of the Pales Faces, I ask myself if I am somewhere where I absolutely have to be, e.g. a business meeting. If I absolutely cannot avoid being in the same room as another White person, then I just accept the admittedly infinitesimally small increase in risk and take comfort in the fact that my risk management practices, overall, put the odds of survival heavily in my favor.

As a final note, let me say that however clever I think I am in minimizing risks to my personal safety, I know that luck can be a biyotch and I am not invincible. One day I could find myself at the wrong place at the wrong time and get smoked.

I just want to say now that Kabul is one of the most incredible places to live in the world, and regardless of anything that may happen in the future, I could never have any regrets coming to live in K-Town.

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