article

10.29.09

Shattering Kabul's Calm

A militant attack a U.N. guesthouse in the Afghan capital did more than kill eight civilians. Elise Jordan on the bombing that paralyzed aid workers—and struck fear in the hearts of expats.

Yesterday around 5:45 a.m., New York University doctoral student Wazhmah Osman awoke to loud, continuous gunfire as militants ambushed a United Nations guesthouse near her home in the center of Kabul. From her bedroom window, she saw the large residence engulfed in flames. Intense fighting—weapons fire, bombs, explosions, and a militant standoff—lasted for the next two hours. A huge cloud of smoke quickly gathered over Kabul—a horrific and terrifying experience, Wazhmah wrote in an email, reminiscent of her Brooklyn view of the Manhattan skyline on September 11th, 2001.

As Afghanistan’s runoff election between incumbent President Hamid Karzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah approaches in the coming week, the spectacular ambush, unlike any other aimed at the international community in the history of the eight-year conflict, claimed at least eight lives, six of whom were U.N. staffers and expatriates.

“It has been eight years and these bastards are outsmarting not only Afghans but everyone in the world,” my Afghan friend in Kabul writes after the attack.  “All we see in Kabul is the brick double walls around the ministries and the key international executives getting thicker and taller and roads are being closed for public transport because of embassies and other powerful people.”

The Taliban took credit. "This is our first attack on U.N. staff in Kabul because of the elections," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the Los Angeles Times. "And we will continue the attacks."

Kabul is temporarily paralyzed. As a result of the ambush, nonessential U.N. staffers were ordered to evacuate, and most international workers cannot freely circulate in the city by order of their host companies and organizations. Although many international workers fled the country during the first election, joined by Afghan elites who instead of voting left for the safety of Dubai or Delhi, violence surrounding the election now continued in the form of suicide car bombs and rocket attacks—and yesterday’s brazen attack on U.N. workers has disrupted the freedom of movement enjoyed in Kabul.

The unprovoked assault marks the first against an international residence—the same kind of place I called home for part of the past year. I first visited Afghanistan for an extended stay last fall as a National Security Council staffer on loan to Commanding General David McKiernan’s staff. Upon arrival to Kabul, I observed the different lifestyles of the city’s inhabitants: Some were confined to fortified bases and embassy compounds while other expatriates and Afghans traversed the city. Unlike my experience in Baghdad, where internationals seldom roamed freely—most were secured in the Green Zone in trailers and restricted to movements highly choreographed with armored convoys—Kabul has been largely immune to the rural insurgency in the restive South and East.

Ted Sorensen: Afghanistan Is Vietnam

Walter Russell Mead: Why We Need Deals With Shady People to Win in Afghanistan

Christopher Buckley: It’s Time For Us to Leave Afghanistan

Michael Smerconish: Musharraf on Fixing Pakistan and the Afghan Surge
Many expats in Kabul live in fortified mansions protected by armed guards and serviced by ample household staff—the type of guesthouse inhabited by foreigners attacked yesterday. (Plenty of well-intentioned Afghan exiles and internationals arrived in Kabul in early 2002, during what was considered a golden era of security in Afghanistan, albeit a time when most homes lacked roofs because of decades of war and few had running water or electricity.)

Living in a house in the middle of Kabul may sound like a hazardous pursuit—only recently has it became dangerous and deadly—but plenty of Americans and internationals have lived in downtown and surrounding Kabul for years. If I covered my head, moved around the city with local friends, and made educated travel choices, I, like most expatriates, could go almost anywhere unscathed.

“It has been eight years and these bastards are outsmarting not only Afghans but everyone in the world,” my Afghan friend in Kabul writes after the attack. “All we see in Kabul is the brick double walls around the ministries and the key international executives getting thicker and taller and roads are being closed for public transport because of embassies and other powerful people.”

It is a fair point—for the past eight years in Kabul, violence rarely impeded the surreal lifestyle enjoyed by international workers in Kabul. War unfortunately defines Afghanistan’s recent history and overshadows the country’s stunning natural landscape and rich artisan history—a fascinating culture that still draws in so many foreigners.

Life in Kabul has charms—when the city is quiet and secure. Shopping abounds on the famed Chicken Street, travelled by Afghans and internationals alike for beautiful tribal jewelry; abundant local gemstones such as emerald, amethyst, lapis, and topaz; embroidered tapestries; bright raw silks; and intricately etched wooden furniture. Weaving in and out of dusty stores, avoiding the sewers lining the sidewalk and street, your purchasing power is ever-present to the burqa-clad women and children who now use Chicken Street as their base of operations for begging. (Children were among the victims of the suicide bombers attacking the street.)

In contrast to men and women in uniform, life for plenty of internationals in Afghanistan is not ascetic, although the potential of deadly chaos is always looming. Expats and elites frequent the gym at Kabul’s luxury Serena Hotel, which hosts journalists and dignitaries with generous expense accounts—a legitimate five-star resort with a great spa and pool but no alcohol. (The Serena was attacked by a suicide bomber in January 2008, with multiple casualties. And yesterday’s attack also included two rockets fired at the Serena, one detonating.)

There is recreation, too, for those in Kabul, but the dirt courts at the International Club are hardly conducive to tennis whites and the golf club is not exactly a well-groomed green.

This environment—a war zone, but with modern luxuries and progress—is a dramatic contrast from the countryside, where insecurity inhibits development and women are often still confined to the home. The brave men and women who were killed yesterday paid the ultimate price in their efforts to forge a better life for Afghanistan’s men, women, and children. They chose to live in Afghanistan and balanced sanity and safety against abandoning a worthy and necessary undertaking—the men, women, and children of Afghanistan who needed the international community’s support. As President Obama weighs a strategy to prevent Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation, yesterday’s ambush reminds us that time is of the essence and that the Taliban are not wavering.

Elise Jordan served as a director for communications in the National Security Council from 2008-2009. A former speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she lived and worked in Kabul, Afghanistan, for most of the last year.