Tag Archives: Kabul

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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My account of the June 22nd battle at Qargha Lake, Afghanistan

Disclaimer: this is my personal recollection of the events of the June 22nd, 2012 attack on the Spugmay restaurant at Qargha Lake, Afghanistan. If you want the official report on this event, I suggest you consult an official news source (like the New York Times article here).

I hate to write the first of my planned blog posts on Afghanistan with the account of yesterday morning’s events. This trip has been one of the most eye-opening, fulfilling travel experiences I have ever had, and I do not want to give it an aura of danger that, quite frankly, did not exist at any point during my time in Kabul, Herat, and Panjshir.

As my host in Kabul, Tom, told me before coming here, living in Afghanistan is like having the opportunity to see real-life movies. What Tom meant by this is that if there is an attack in Kabul, you can make the decision to witness death and destruction on a level that most Westerners would only ever experience in the cinema. The key thing to remember though is that it is a choice. For most Western journalists here, you choose to go to where the violence is at. That was certainly the case for us yesterday.

Let’s start at the beginning; at 4:30 am on Friday, Tom was woken up by a national news radio program that called to inquire about the hostage situation at the Spugmay restaurant at Qargha Lake. Tom had gone to bed at 11 pm on Thursday night, about a half an hour before the insurgents stormed the restaurant. Although he was completely unaware of any details of the attack, he took several moments to catch up on the events that transpired overnight and then provided some situational analysis. Upon conclusion of the interview, he began making calls to find out more information about the situation. At around six he woke me up to see if I was interested in going to the site of the attack. Of course I was, and by around 6:30 we had a driver picking us up to take us to Qargha Lake.

We passed by about three police checkpoints before getting to the outer military cordon, at the base of the Qargha dam, just below where the gun battle was taking place. At this point I was introduced to Tom’s journalistic modus operandi in Afghanistan, which is to let the Afghan journalists assess risks (as they can do better than Westerners) and follow them when they decide to move. This method of risk management first led Tom and I – in tow behind a gaggle of local journalists – to the top of the hill overseeing the lake, then to the bottom of the hill on the road to the restaurant, and finally to a shore-side outdoor lounge area. This location came with a very convenient brick wall right along the shoreline that served as excellent cover for the twenty or so reporters that had massed together.

Covered position behind a brick wall with eyes on the restaurant.


I would say we were about 600 or 700 meters away from where the fighting was taking place across the lake – likely out of range of most automatic weapons being used in the battle – but we could still hear the occasional stray round cracking overhead. It was at this point that Tom called his Afghan partner, Zubair, to ask him to contact the Taliban for a comment about the attack. This is how we learned that a spokesman had claimed Taliban responsibility, saying that the restaurant was a target because it was popular with foreigners and Afghan government officials who go there for “illicit fun.” The spokesman also said that the hostage takers had killed a number of foreigners and government officials, which later turned out to be false.

We waited for several hours as the gunfight between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army (ANA) ran its course. During this time I was able to fully appreciate how big Twitter has become in breaking news. Everyone was tweeting; the Western journalists were tweeting, the Afghan journalists were tweeting, and the Afghan security forces were following the tweets. Through the grapevine, I heard that one Afghan journalist was grossly exaggerating events by tweeting that ‘shrapnel was flying overhead,’ ‘bullets were cutting down tree branches,’ and he saw a soldier ‘die in front of his eyes.’ This same journalist was not ten feet from where I was sitting, hiding under a table no less. None of these tweets were true. When I asked one Western journalist about this lack of integrity, he sighed and said simply that Afghan journalism was “still evolving.” As it turned out, one of the leading Afghan military commanders on scene that morning was following these disingenuous tweets and reprimanded the Afghan journalist to the point where he looked like a sullen, embarrassed school boy for the rest of the morning.

It was also during this long waiting period when many of the other journalists asked me, as the new guy, who I was “with.” Well, despite my best efforts, I had not been able to obtain press credentials for the trip, so I would just reply that I was a “tourist.” One time I  replied in a very weighty tone of voice, “I’m with Asda’a Burson-Marsteller . . . [leaning forward solemnly] public relations.” None of this was going over well with the cadre of seasoned Afghan and Western correspondents on scene, so Tom advised me to just tell people that I was a freelancer. If you’re wondering how I managed to be involved in any of this without some kind of press identification, it’s because no Afghan security personnel asked for them. Seriously, at no point during the day was I even asked to present my passport.

As the fighting started winding down around 10 am, the Kabul police chief, General Salangi, started giving remarks. Needless to say the remarks (in Dari I presume) were unintelligible to me, but like one of those scavenger fishes that attach to sharks, I meandered through the crowd and collected whatever scraps of information I could get from the real journalists. Apparently, a van of Taliban fighters had made there way to the site from the mountains of Paghman, taking a route which avoided any military or police checkpoints. With no fortified entrance and only three lightly-armed security guards (all of whom where killed), the restaurant was no doubt considered a ‘soft’ target by the Taliban.

The Kabul Chief of Police speaks to the press


The choice of launching the attack on a Thursday night (the beginning of the weekend inAfghanistan) guaranteed that the restaurant would be crowded. As of the writing of this blog post, it appears that the victims (numbered at 20 in the latest official statements) consisted exclusively of restaurant employees and well-to-do Afghan patrons of the restaurant.

At around 11 am the fighting had finally ended and the mob of journalists now assembled was allowed to move up to the gate of the restaurant. There soldiers were being led in victory chants by a senior Afghan commander, which soon turned into more interviews with commanders, civilian leaders, and witnesses who were on site. Unlike in the West where hostages would immediately be sequestered and treated for shock, the Afghan military actually paraded around two young Afghan boys, no older than ten years old, who had been rescued by the ANA. Within an hour of having their lives in peril, they were put in front of a throng of reporters to answer questions. I guess it makes me a hypocrite, but my concern for their mental well-being did not stop me from taking a thousand pictures of them during this impromptu Q&A session.

ANA celebrates victory


 

ANA soldier


 

Police cordon off entrance to the resort while it is cleared for booby traps


 

Rescued boys are paraded before the press


 

 

ANA commander after leading victory cheers


The last part of this narrative is my account of the inside of the restaurant itself. If you have a sensitive stomach, I would perhaps stop right here (and certainly before the photos at the conclusion of this paragraph). It has been several years since I have personally seen the body of a man killed by severe trauma; I didn’t enjoy it then, and I didn’t enjoy this part of the experience yesterday. I was there to take photographs though, and thus I sallied forth as best I could and documented everything I saw with my camera.

Really, it could have been worse; there were no dead women, and no dead children. Just men, two who’s ammunition belts gave them away as insurgents, one potential insurgent, and eight who were clearly civilians. It was ugly business walking around the burnt out rooms and blood-stained verandas, imagining the lovely time guests were having before the Taliban arrived. Walking through the kitchen, you could still see chicken in the fryer and boiled meat in a giant pot. No one had any idea this was coming.

I don’t really know enough about this country to comment further. This is what I saw that day, and maybe at some point in the future I’ll be better able to understand this horrific violence. For now though, I can only share what I saw as accurately as I can with whomever may be interested.

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