This was the week that the White House rolled out the red carpet for Hamid Karzai. But while the Afghan president was wined—although he likely abstained from alcohol—and dined in Washington, his government has for the past few weeks been busy cracking down on restaurants and nightlife in Kabul.
In a shift noteworthy after years of leniency on Western establishments, Afghan police have conducted more than a half-dozen high-profile raids on popular eateries to discourage foreigners from drinking in the capital. They have booted out patrons in the middle of dinner and arrested waitresses on charges of prostitution. Authorities have also begun to advertise on television a special hotline that people can call if they see anyone in possession of alcohol or actually drinking.
“Lately it seems as though the Afghan government is intentionally making life for expats more difficult,” said Dan Lee.
During a recent visit to Kabul, it was clear to me that these tactics have put a damper on Kabul's vibrant after-hours scene and generated unease among Westerners.
"Lately it seems as though the Afghan government is intentionally making life for expats more difficult," Dan Lee, a 31-year-old New Yorker, who works on an economic governance project in Kabul, told me.
In addition to the clampdown on alcohol consumption, Afghan authorities recently announced restrictions to block access to Internet pornography and other websites deemed offensive to Islamic values. Afghan law prohibits the consumption of alcohol, but restaurants that cater to foreigners have been exempt from the law, allowing Westerners to enjoy a drink behind concrete walls and guarded checkpoints after dark.
Last month, however, Westerners took notice when dozens of Kalashnikov-carrying security forces raided a popular restaurant near the U.S. embassy where powerbrokers often meet. On the evening of the raid, diners reportedly included the French ambassador, American and Italian officials as well as employees of the United Nations.
The Afghan officers dragged guests from their food, confiscated thousands of dollars worth of alcohol and detained six waitresses from Bosnia and former Soviet republics, accusing them of prostitution. The following day, the waitresses were brought to a hospital in Kabul, where female medical staff performed invasive "purity" tests.
The same evening the police also arrested the French owner of L'Atmosphere, a popular restaurant with an expansive outdoor patio area with a country bistro feel, where Westerners gather to sip Chardonnay by the pool. And since then, they have raided several other restaurants and the offices of at least one NGO in the city. At the Gandamack, a popular British restaurant and pub, where sports memorabilia line the walls and the large-screen TVs are always tuned to soccer, patrons can no longer buy a pint of lager. The Gandamack, like many other places, has dried up as a result of the crackdown.
"It's the law," Gen. Abdul Ghafar, whose forces have been carrying out the alcohol raids, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's for Allah's sake."
But some say the raids are really a way to harass Westerners, noting that, in the city itself, checkpoints and tall concrete walls have proliferated since the country's disputed elections. Police now regularly demand that Westerners produce valid visas and passports when stopped. Lee, whom I met in Kabul, said police pull foreigners over without reasonable cause and "interrogate them, as if they pose a serious threat," he said, adding that he himself was recently pulled aside on a busy Kabul road and interrogated for more than half an hour by Afghan police. "It's simply a case of racial profiling and harassment," he said.
Restaurants and bars are the primary social outlets for many Westerners, who otherwise lead lives confined by security measures.
But even if the social release is seen as necessary to sustain a foreign work force, the crackdown is a reminder that Westerners are still in the Islamic republic. Carol Wang, a Texan who came to Kabul as an election observer in August and now works as an intern at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, say such outlets are important. When the raids happen, she said, "you're reminded again that you're not home [but] in Afghanistan."
Others in the expat crowd noted that the crackdown began as the relationship between Karzai's government and the White House reached an all-time low. Given that the Obama administration has since rolled out the red carpet for Karzai, embracing him in public this week, there is hope that life might get easier for expats in Kabul in time.
Elise Jordan is a New York-based writer who frequently travels to Afghanistan. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council from 2008-09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.