In the spring of 2007 I was contracted by the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center to travel to Afghanistan and carry out a study on the spread of suicide bombing in that country. As can be expected, it was a grim and at times harrowing job traveling the country in the footsteps of suicide bombers, interviewing witnesses, locals in the targeted communities, and security forces to establish targeting patterns, overall strategy, geography of attacks, motivation/inspiration, etc. The job made me jittery and more than a little paranoid about being targeted by one of the bombers who were wreaking havoc throughout Afghanistan at the time. That, combined with the inconveniences of travelling across the mountains and deserts of one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, took its toll on me.
Fortunately, my host, a member of President Karzai's family who ran a think tank in Kabul, told me that there were several restaurants and watering holes in Kabul. These catered to the thousands of foreigners, mainly Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) employees working on various projects as part of America's largest nation building project since the reconstruction of post-World War II Europe. This was news to me as I had spent most of my time on previous trips to Afghanistan living in the remote provinces of the north with Dostum "the Taliban Killer," an Afghan warlord whom I have written about previously.
I did not really know what to expect as I was driven down the unlit streets of Kabul's Wazir Akbhar Khan neighborhood to my first destination, a French bar and restaurant known as L'Atmosphere. When we arrived at the restaurant there was nothing outside to give it away except for the presence of several armed guards with flashlights. As we entered the non-descript, typical walled edifice on the pot-holed, dark street, however, we went through a metal detector and had our passports checked. It was reminiscent of entering a speak-easy bar in the Prohibition era. Once through the blast walls we entered the outdoor courtyard of the restaurant.
Nothing prepared me for the shock of entering this other world. In the middle of the courtyard was a pool in which men and women swam together in the warm night in swimsuits and bikinis (something unimaginable in hyper conservative Afghanistan where men and women don't mingle and women are forced to wear burqas). There were two bars serving cocktails, wine and beer (Afghanistan is an Islamic state and Muslims are not allowed to drink) and an outdoor and indoor restaurant serving exotic French food that would be welcome fare in Paris. The clientele ranged from UN workers and war correspondents to contractor soldiers working for DynCorp or Black Water and NGO employees. I remember having a wonderful Steak au Poivre with a red wine and momentarily forgetting all the horrors of the war and poverty that lay outside the walls of "L'Atmo." That was until a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter clattered overhead and brought me back to reality.
My next stop the following week was at a bar and restaurant called the Ganndamack Lodge. This was a British style pub built in the compound that Osama Bin Laden used to rent out for his family that was named for the defeat of a British army in the 19th century. One could actually get a pint of Guinness in the venue where Bin Laden may have planned 9/11 (See the link to their website here.) My favorite feature of the pub was the rows of antique muskets and Enfield rifles that the owner, a former British soldier, had collected over the years from his journeys throughout Afghanistan.
Following that I had the surreal experience of dining on a bona fide American filet mignon steak at Red Hot Sizzling, an American Tex Mex restaurant. Other forays took me to a Chinese restaurant where the imported Chinese waitresses doubled as prostitutes, the Deli Durbar Indian restaurant, and my favorite, a fine Lebanese restaurant called Taverna du Liban. There one could sip a fine Lebanese wine while dining on humus, tabouli, baba ghanoush, and delicious kabobs.
There were other restaurants as well ranging from Mustafa's, which was run by an eccentric Afghan-American from New Jersey who drove an imported Camaro through the streets of Kabul to several venues serving mouth-watering Afghan food (although these did not serve alcohol or pork since Afghans dine there). I was told that this was the golden age of Kabul nightlife as thousands of homesick foreigners danced, drank forbidden alcohol, and dined on Western food to forget the realities of the warzone around them.
But I must say that on more than one occasion I worried that these oases of Westernism ("decadence and sinfulness" in the eyes of the Taliban fanatics) would make an inviting target for suicide bombers. The benefits, however, seemed to outweigh the potential risks and I kept going to the restaurants and bars to mingle with foreigners, drink forbidden alcohol and eat something besides Afghan food for a change. I remember the nightlife in Kabul, which I also enjoyed in 2009 while working at ISAF (NATO's International Security and Assistance Force), fondly.
It was therefore heartbreaking to open the pages of the newspaper on January 18th and find that my favorite venue, the Taverna du Liban, had been attacked and destroyed by Taliban terrorists the night before. In exactly the sort of scenario that I had envisaged, a suicide bomber had cleared the path through the security gate for Taliban executioners who then burst into the restaurant hunting down and systematically slaughtering foreigners. It was by all accounts a bloodbath. The dead included a high ranking German official, the representative of the International Monetary Fund in Afghanistan, the United Nations' senior political affairs officer and a British Labour Party candidate for the European Parliament. Two Americans working at the American University in Afghanistan were also killed in the attack which took the lives of 21 foreigners. It was the single deadliest attack on foreign civilians in Afghanistan since the war began. Among those killed was Kamal Hamade, the congenial Lebanese restaurant owner who personally greeted me and all his guests. He was shot dead while defending his beloved restaurant with a pistol.
I can imagine the ripple of fear that has surely coursed through Kabul's expat community as the news of this unprecedented assault on their world spread. Sadly, I believe the terrorist outrage against this brave band of foreign civilians who traveled from their safe homes to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan presages future attacks on the safety bubble of Kabul. As U.S. troops are coming home in waves, ending America's longest war, the Taliban insurgents are becoming emboldened and moving closer to the capital. I believe the bombing is also a metaphor for the whole house of cards we have built in Afghanistan with American tax payer dollars and blood. It remains to be seen whether the democratic Afghanistan which we have built in the sands of Central Asia will, like the Taverna du Liban, be destroyed when we withdraw our final troops later this year.
Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime and Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America's Longest War.