Deadly attack hits home

Bombing at Kabul restaurant will further isolate foreign visitors

  Scott Taylor

  Scott Taylor

The deadly Jan. 17 attack against a Kabul restaurant that left 21 dead, including two Canadians, struck rather close to home for me personally.

While I had not met either Martin Glazer or Peter McSheffrey, the two Canadians killed in the bombing, I have dined at La Taverna du Liban while reporting from Kabul.

I returned from my latest visit to Afghanistan on Dec. 15 and, knowing the angst felt by my own family while I’m away on such ventures, I could well imagine the shock and sorrow that impacted the friends and family of McSheffrey and Glazer.

This was the deadliest attack against foreigners to date in the 12-year intervention in Afghanistan. Despite the official press lines that Kabul is safer now than before, the exact opposite is true.

I have made six trips into Afghanistan since 2007. On all occasions, my team and I have travelled unembedded, without the protection of NATO troops.

To mitigate the risks to ourselves, we spend more than eight weeks growing our hair and beards in preparation, in order to better blend in. We wear local clothing, travel in local taxis and carry any cameras and equipment in nondescript cloth shopping bags.

While most meals are furnished at the guest house we stay at, there is always a natural desire to socialize and network with the ex-patriots plying their various trades in Afghanistan.

To cater to that need, a number of establishments quickly sprouted up in the Afghan capital in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. toppling the Taliban.

Although Afghanistan remains an Islamic Republic with a strict ban on the consumption of alcohol and mixed gender socializing, these types of diversions are exactly what many of the aid workers and diplomats are seeking during their off hours.

All of these restaurant-bars are incredibly discreet, with unmarked entrances and copious amounts of private security guards on hand.

They are always packed to capacity on Thursday nights, as Fridays are the only day of rest in Afghanistan.

One of the ex-pats’ favourites is L’Atmosphere, which boasts such fare as a “catch of the day” seafood special in the landlocked Central Asian country. There is also a lit swimming pool, where patrons can paddle about while diners eat at candlelit tables around the patio.

L’Atmosphere was a favourite haunt of Canadian ambassadors. Both Chris Alexander, Canada’s first (and youngest ever) ambassador, and his successor, Arif Lalani, were frequent patrons of this swank establishment.

It seems incredibly decadent that Westerners can indulge themselves in such forbidden luxury while right outside the guarded gates legless beggars plead for a single Afghani, worth about two cents.

As it was, our limited budget kept our visits to these bars to a minimum. However, there is some advantage to being able to frequent such places.

For it is at these clubs that those bunkered down in the completely fortified Green Zone can venture out to rub shoulders with some of those foreigners who venture further afield. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are based in Kabul, but send their operatives into the countryside.

At Thursday night gatherings at these Western clubs, they can furnish the Green Zone bunker dwellers with some actual insight into what the situation is like outside the wire.

In recent years, however, as Kabul has devolved into an armed camp of reinforced concrete blast walls, barbed wire and police checkpoints known as “rings of steel,” the foreigners have become ever more isolated.

Staff at the Canadian embassy and military personnel left in the Green Zone are no longer allowed to frequent places like L’Atmosphere and La Taverna du Liban. Their world now consists of visiting other embassies’ pubs within the Green Zone.

The Jan. 17 attack will have resulted in even more foreign agencies forbidding their personnel from visiting such potential targets. This means there will be even less contact with the reality outside for the Green Zone dwellers. Their only source of information now is what they tell themselves and those Afghans they pay to repeat it back to them.

The NATO turtle has now completely withdrawn into its shell — simply waiting for the termination of this doomed intervention in Afghanistan.