Last Tango in Kabul
While war raged across Afghanistan, expats lived in a bubble of good times and easy money. But as the U.S. withdraws, life has taken a deadly turn
In the heart of Kabul's heavily guarded diplomatic district, down a quiet side street, sits a dilapidated two-story building fronted by a beige boundary wall topped with razor wire. Its front entrance is a gaping hole blocked with corrugated iron, and its windows, missing their glass, have faint scorch marks at the corners, like raised eyebrows above sightless eyes. The alley to the right is pocked with bullet holes. The place is abandoned now. These faint signs of violence are all that's left to mark the 21 people who were murdered inside last winter.
La Taverna du Liban. It was a popular restaurant that I had visited often over the past six years I've lived in Kabul. Restaurants like this, along with private homes and guesthouses, comprised the hidden archipelago of expatriate social life in the capital. They always had a bit of a speakeasy feel to them. Alcohol is illegal in Afghanistan, but places that catered to foreigners were allowed to serve it to non-Muslims. There was rarely any signage, though the sandbags and heavy steel door were a giveaway. You'd knock and a little metal grate would slide open to permit a once-over. The door would swing open and you'd be admitted into the vestibule for a body and bag search; if you were a young Afghan male – or looked and spoke like one, like I do – you might face some questions about your business there. Finally, you'd be let into the restaurant proper. Most of these places look like a cross between a backpacker cafe in Thailand and a World War I bunker; La Taverna, with its reed mats and Christmas lights lining the walls, was pretty much par for the course.
I'd never seen it empty. It was one of the few expat restaurants in Kabul whose fare would have justified its existence anywhere else: tart tabbouleh, falafels that arrived crispy and steaming hot, baba ghanoush made with eggplants that had been roasted to the proper point of smokiness, and a constant supply of fresh, fluffy bread to scoop it all up with. The Lebanese proprietor, Kamel Hamade, liked to hang out in the corner, where he'd keep an eye on the waiters and send over complimentary appetizers and desserts to guests. You always left stuffed.
It was also one of the diminishing number of places in the city where you could get beer or wine, served discreetly in teacups. And because it was in the heavily guarded Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, it usually kept its place on the constantly changing "green" lists of sites that those who worked for embassies and NGOs were allowed to visit. And that meant business, especially on a Friday night.
On the chilly evening of January 17th, a couple of weeks into what President Barack Obama had promised would be the last year of America's war in Afghanistan, a man walked up to the entrance of the restaurant and, as diners sat down to their meals, blew himself up, killing the guards and caving in the front door. Two more attackers followed, weighted down with ammunition and carrying assault rifles. There was nowhere to go. Some of the Afghan staff managed to jump from the roof, but everyone else was massacred at their tables, including Hamade, who tried to put up a fight with the pistol he kept in the restaurant. The whole thing lasted nearly two hours before the attackers were killed by the police. Among the dead were two young Americans who worked at the American University of Afghanistan, Lexie Kamerman and Alexandros Petersen. It was Petersen's fifth day in the country.
The attack shook the city's expat community; pretty much all of us had eaten at La Taverna. One of my housemates had been planning to go that night, but had canceled at the last minute. It could have been any of us, and it made personal the anxiety that surrounded the impending U.S. and NATO troop withdrawals. Despite what you heard on the news, the city, until now, had been reasonably safe for foreigners. We all wondered: Was this the end of the Kabul we knew?
The massacre came at a time of growing hostility toward foreigners in Afghanistan, some of it fueled by Afghan politicians who have blamed the West for the country's problems. Outgoing president Hamid Karzai, in particular, has been increasingly venomous, drawing parallels between U.S. airstrikes and Taliban attacks on the capital. On March 8th, at an International Women's Day event, Karzai, whose administration has been marked by controversial prosecutions of women for "moral crimes," made a gibe at the foreigners' expense. "Afghan men shouldn't test their strength against the women," Karzai told his audience. "If they're so strong, they should go test it against America."
Three days later, a Swedish reporter named Nils Horner paid a visit to the burned-out shell of La Taverna. Fifty-one years old, with snowy, receding hair and a mellow demeanor, Horner had been in the capital for only two days, on one of the few short trips he made each year as the Asia correspondent for Radio Sweden, the country's public broadcaster. The day he landed, he had gone to meet a local journalist named Sardar Ahmad, who ran his own media company, Kabul Pressistan. Horner wanted to do a story on the attack, and Ahmad set him up with a translator and a driver. There had been a cook who had survived the massacre; hoping to find a way of contacting him, they went to another Lebanese restaurant nearby.
Around the corner from La Taverna is the main road, called Street 15, a bustling avenue lined with embassies and foreign-media offices, patrolled by armed guards. It seems like the last place you'd expect trouble. But as Horner spoke to a guard at the second Lebanese restaurant, a man approached him, raised his pistol, and fired a single shot into his head. Horner crumpled to the ground as his driver and translator watched in horror. The assailant, along with a companion, sprinted away. Despite the fact that there were guards along the street, no one stopped them. The murder was never claimed by the Taliban, and remains unsolved. "He didn't do investigative reporting," Caroline Salzinger, Horner's editor, tells me. "Not the kind of stories where anyone would have taken any offense."
It seemed a clear message to the internationals: You are not safe on our streets. You are not safe in our restaurants. You are not safe in Kabul. But the La Taverna massacre was just the first in a series of escalating and baffling attacks against civilians, of which Horner's own murder would just be the next in sequence. The blows came one after the other, like a hammer setting a nail: six attacks in four months. By the end of April, more foreign civilians had been killed in Afghanistan this year than foreign soldiers.
The killings continued this summer: Two Finnish aid workers were slaughtered in July, and then on August 5th, U.S. Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene was gunned down in Kabul – the highest-ranking officer killed in the war. The violence brought to the surface what has been growing more and more obvious: The West is desperate to get out. NGOs and embassies, already in the process of drawing down their activities, have closed up like clams under drastically heightened security restrictions. The boomtown Kabul of the Surge has come and gone like a dream. But even a president's promise to end a war can't lop history off into neat little chunks. We are leaving behind a country whose fate is more uncertain than ever, where during a contentious election, two rival candidates have declared themselves the rightful president, where murders in broad daylight go unsolved. The American Era is ending in Afghanistan, but what will we be leaving behind?
Ringed by spindly ridges serried with mud-walled houses, Kabul is a perpetually dusty city. The dry Himalayan air is acrid with fumes from its traffic of taxis, shabby old buses and shiny new SUVs. But the mountain light stays pure and striking, glinting off the unfinished glass and concrete midrises downtown, as bored police stand at the checkpoints, watching bicyclists in traditional robes pass by. Blast-walled and barbed-wired, with streets that are empty by 10 p.m., it's a city whose social life takes place behind closed doors.
When I first arrived in 2008, the city's expat scene had an open, piratical feel to it. Loud white men in cargo pants and wraparound shades still swaggered about with guns on their hips on the unpaved streets, which were constantly gridlocked. If you were broke and unemployed, like I was, you could stay in the Mustafa Hotel, next door to the Ministry of Interior, for 20 bucks a night, along with junkie freelancers and ne'er-do-well mercenaries. It had a frontier vibe, where the adventurous and the desperate might find opportunities denied them back home.
But the world soon descended on Kabul. A year after being elected, President Obama traveled to West Point and announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. America would double down on what would become the longest war in her history, and would do so in what has become our way of war in the 21st century: tens of thousands of soldiers and contractors living on massive, logistics-heavy bases, and billions of dollars in quick-fix spending disbursed through private, for-profit companies.
By 2010, the Surge was in full swing, and suddenly Kabul was the place where every ambitious aid worker, war correspondent or diplomat wanted to be. At the top of the food chain were the big swinging dicks of the Defense and State departments: oversize egos like Gen. David Petraeus and special envoy Richard Holbrooke, trailing hundreds of hand-picked satellite staffers. You came for a year and made your career.
But Kabul was a magnet that attracted all sorts, including those on the delusional, egomaniacal quests that America's crazies seem to have a near monopoly on. At a bookstore in Kabul, I met a white-bearded Californian in his sixties who told me that he was trying to find a guide to take him, for free, into Pakistan's tribal areas so he could capture Osama bin Laden, and in doing so, focus the world's attention on a program for regional peace that he had developed. Just a few weeks later, a Coloradan named Gary Faulkner, on a similar mission, was captured by Pakistani security forces in those tribal areas, carrying a pistol and a 40-inch sword.
It all grew into a once-in-a-lifetime scene, grotesque and vibrant, as brash and cynical as the expats who formed it. At the peak of the Surge, between 2010 and 2011, there were thousands of foreigners living in Kabul. The vast majority were troops and contractors, but the rest got out enough to keep dozens of restaurants, bars and guesthouses thriving – all of them unaffordable, and in some cases explicitly off-limits, to ordinary Afghans. During the day you could walk the bazaars openly, and in the evenings your choices ran from embassy favorites like Boccaccio, with its imported steaks and waitresses, to Sufi, where staff in embroidered vests served local food at expat prices, to the bistro L'Atmosphere, with its DJ'd pool parties. And if you felt like staying home, the shops lining Flower Street all sold bootleg Heineken for $2, then $3, then $4 a can as the cops got greedier.
Every Thursday night – Friday is the traditional day of rest in the Muslim world – there would be a slew of parties hosted by the NGOs and embassies that served free booze and went very late, the most desirable – the ones with all the pretty interns and A-listers – always the subject of frantic guest-list negotiations. Escapism was the objective, with people cooped up all week in their compounds now blowing off steam. There wasn't much to do in Kabul besides work, drink and get high on cheap hash. There was plenty of sex, especially if you were a woman and liked meatheads.
"People had this idea that the rules that governed normal society were just out the window," says Tom A. Peter, a freelance journalist who lived in Kabul during the Surge. "You're at the center of this big world event, and in a weird way that social culture is all part of that – it makes everybody feel like they're really important." A heady mix of entitlement, adrenaline and alcohol led to plenty of fistfights, adultery and general bad behavior – like the contractor who, to one-up his drunken buddies, fired his pistol through the roof of a cab, or the time my friends and I accidentally burned down a warlord's cottage.
Of course, in the rest of the country the war was getting more and more violent, and the dead, mostly Afghans, were piling up. But it was easy to ignore it inside the Kabubble, as we called it. There were occasional, brutal intrusions like the attack on a pair of guesthouses in 2010 that killed 16 people, 11 of them foreigners, but normalcy returned quickly. Maybe it was the constant turnover, the fact that most people came and went after a year or so, but we were like a city of amnesiacs.
And it was, it must be said, all about the money. A lot of money, your money, to be exact. America has spent more than $700 billion on Afghanistan since hostilities began in the fall of 2001, most of it during the Surge. Out of the $104 billion appropriated since 2002 for rebuilding the country, $64 billion was earmarked in the past four years – this in a country with an annual GDP of $20 billion. There was so much money in Kabul that even with all the waste and corruption – by 2011 up to $60 billion was lost to fraud and mismanagement in Iraq and Afghanistan – much of it went unspent. Organizations were desperate to up their "burn rate" and clear out their budgets before the year's end so they could ask for more the next year. It was so easy to make money in Kabul that it felt like we were all citizens of some Gulf oil state. If you could string a few coherent sentences together into a grant application, odds were that there was some contracting officer out there who was willing to give you money, no matter how vapid your idea. Want to put on a music festival in Kabul? Here's a few hundred thousand. Shoot a soap opera about heroic local cops? A million for you. Is your handicraft business empowering Afghan women? Name your bid.
The Kabubble economy was so hot that kids out of college were making six-figure salaries, and former midlevel paper pushers were clearing a thousand a day as consultants for places like the World Bank. "All of your expenses are paid for, you don't buy anything, you're getting this massive salary that you bank," Peter, the journalist, says. "Do that for a few years and you've saved half a million before you're 30. You could basically class-jump, by going to Kabul."
It was the high life. People were flying to Sri Lanka for the weekend, or buying homes in the States. We had it good, even my friends and I, the second, or, to be honest, more like third tier of expats, the junior reporters and freelancers and entry-level NGO types. There weren't any jobs back home, and here we were, working our dream gigs. Some of us got killed or kidnapped, or lost our minds, but a lot more of us got rich or made our careers.
Then, as abruptly as it came, the party was over.
Sardar Ahmad had been shaken by the Swedish journalist's murder. A fixture on the Kabul scene, he juggled a job as a reporter at the wire service Agence France-Presse with running Kabul Pressistan. A hard worker with an eye for business, Ahmad had spotted early on that the Surge would mean boom times for Afghanistan's fixers, and Pressistan, known for being reliable and efficient, had become a mainstay for visiting correspondents. Horner had been no different from the rest of them. On the day he flew in, Ahmad met with Horner to discuss the stories he wanted to do – short packages on the elections, women's rights, the attacks in Kabul, standard fare – and then, after setting up some meetings, had a young translator show Horner around. But not long after leaving the Pressistan office, the Swede was dead. "I just met the guy, I can't believe this," Ahmad's friend Courtney Body, an American freelance journalist, recalls him telling her soon after.
Like most of the city's expats and the small circle of Afghans who worked and socialized with them, Ahmad had been deeply upset by the massacre at La Taverna, a favorite spot for meeting clients. The Taliban had never targeted a restaurant like that before – in the past, they had been interested in military bases and embassies. Now the city's expat restaurants were practically deserted. Ahmad refused to go to any of them, and seemed to obsess over the possibility of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. "Every day, he would talk about how 'I'm so scared,' and I'd be like, 'Stop it,'" says Body. "And it was the craziest thing, because his fear came true."
March 20th was the eve of the Persian New Year, and Ahmad decided to take his wife and three kids to the buffet special at the Serena, Kabul's top luxury hotel. It was a hangout of the city's elite; that night, several members of the parliament were present in the restaurant. "It was the one place he felt safe," Body recalls.
The Serena had been hit in 2008 by a team of gunmen in one of the first Taliban attacks against a high-profile civilian target in Kabul. Since then, it had been built into a fortress, with concrete walls and metal barriers meant to fend off a car bomb. This time, the insurgents chose guile over force. Not long after Ahmad and his family sat down to dinner, four well-dressed young men arrived and passed through the metal detector and body search. After wandering the glass-and-marble hallways, they sat down at a table in the restaurant, ordered juice, and then departed as a group to the washroom. There, they pulled out the palm-size pistols that had been concealed in their shoes: tiny .25-caliber semiautomatics, like the kind Al Capone used to keep in his vest pocket. Pistols in hand, they came back into the dining room.
Ahmad and his family were first in their line of fire. His wife tried to shield her children, but, perhaps trained to make the most of their small-caliber pistols, the gunmen shot them at close range, before moving on to the other patrons. By the time security forces could stop them, they had killed nine people, including four foreigners.
Only Ahmad's youngest son, two-year-old Abuzar, survived, despite having been shot in the head with the rest of his family. Their horrific murders shook even the most hardened in Kabul's small media community, but there was barely time to process it before the insurgents struck again the following week, targeting a Christian center in the west of the city. The center ran a day-care program for the many Christian NGOs, whose staff often bring their families with them; the mass slaughter of children was probably only averted by the fact that the attackers – who were following in the wake of a suicide bomb – apparently got confused and ran into the wrong house, where a group of heavily armed American contractors and their guards were ready for a fight. In the shootout that followed, all the attackers were killed, along with two Afghan bystanders.
The Taliban seemed to be taking advantage of the world's attention on the presidential election to show they could still hit foreigners in Kabul. "We literally felt that on election day the whole city was going to be a ball of fire," says Body. "Because they were specifically targeting foreigners, they were trying to hit the children, and that's what was so awful and different about it." The police started closing down foreign guesthouses and restaurants in an attempt to keep expats inside their compounds, while the main election-monitoring groups announced that they were pulling their missions out of the country. When the Taliban hit an election-commission office near the airport on March 29th, the fighting closed the runway. Body had been due to fly out that day, and the airport was full of missionary families with their children who were trying to leave the country. "There was panic, the planes weren't going, we couldn't get other flights," Body tells me. "It felt like a desperate evacuation."
Unlike in Baghdad, where Westerners were largely holed up in the Green Zone in heavily armed compounds, in Kabul there was an assumption that the Taliban weren't interested in targeting foreign civilians, and that the real threat was against high-profile targets like embassies, military bases and government ministries. "It's very easy to kill foreign civilians in Kabul," says Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization. "There are enough of us around and about that don't live in fortresslike embassies. That possibility has always been there and they've never pursued it. It's the nuclear option because you can't come back from that and expect to be treated as any sort of legitimate group. There's always been a measure of pragmatism in the Taliban, a desire not to push the nuclear button by committing the kinds of attacks you see with Pakistan, Syria or Iraq."
When I arrange a telephone interview with the Taliban's main spokesman, known as Zabiullah Mujahid, his answers are less than reassuring. "In the past, most of our operations were focused on American soldiers who were based in the rural areas," Mujahid says. "Now they are no longer there, and they've gone to the cities."
But why did the Taliban feel justified in targeting foreign aid workers? "The invasion is not only military, it has a civilian aspect," he says. "The people who are from the invading countries and work as civilians here are also targets." He says that as part of their latest offensive, dubbed "Operation Khaibar," they would step up their attacks on foreigners – including a recent suicide attack that killed five foreign contractors in Kabul in late July. "All their places, whether hotels, guesthouses or offices, they will be attacked. They are part of our plan, and we will target and kill them."
These days, expatriate life in Kabul is a sad reflection of its former self. Diplomats and aid workers operate under drastic security restrictions that keep them from attending restaurants or private parties, a condition that has been prolonged by the drawn-out crisis over the presidential election and who will succeed Karzai. Several of the restaurants and guesthouses that sustained the expat scene here have closed down. "A lot of people reached the point where they were like, 'OK, I'm out, I'm done,'" says Luisa Walmsley, a media consultant living in Kabul. "You start realizing that you're really close to all this stuff and that it's just a matter of time that you're going to lose someone."
Kabul had finally lost its sense of distance from the war. As brutal as the other attacks were, it was Horner's that bothered me the most. He had been here only two days, and he wasn't working on anything sensitive – it seemed hard to imagine that he had been specifically targeted. But did that mean there were now killers stalking the streets of Kabul, looking for random foreigners to shoot in the face?
The Taliban have denied any responsibility for his murder. "This journalist was killed by someone for their own personal reasons," Mujahid tells me. Rather, an obscure group known as Fedai Mahaz, or the Suicide Attacker Front, told the media it had assassinated Horner, because he had been a spy working for MI6, without providing any corroborating details. ("It's the most ridiculous claim that I've ever heard," Salzinger, Horner's editor, says about the espionage allegation. "We are 100 percent sure that it's not true.")
Fedai Mahaz was a Taliban splinter group opposed to any negotiations with the U.S., though no one was sure how much strength on the ground it actually had. It was also known for making unlikely or even obviously false statements. "They jump to claim incidents without really having a battlefield presence, or providing supporting details," says Borhan Osman, a Kabul-based researcher who studies the insurgency. "They're obsessed with publicity."
Part of the problem was that no real investigative work had been done on the case. According to Body, Ahmad's friend, after the killing, the local station police officer who interviewed Ahmad and his colleagues was more interested in extracting a bribe from them than anything else.
There is another, even more terrifying possible explanation for Horner's murder. In recent years, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force began experiencing a phenomenon that became known as "green-on-blue" attacks, where their ostensible Afghan allies would suddenly turn their guns on them. At their peak in 2012, these attacks killed 64 troops and caused 16 percent of all fatalities. While some were premeditated, others bore a stronger resemblance to crimes of passion. Like mass shootings in the U.S., it was not always clear why an attack had happened. Hitherto, they had been directed against the military and its contractors. But in April, two brutal attacks happened to change that.
On April 4th, the day before the presidential election, two longtime veterans of the AP, the Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon and the German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, had set off with a government convoy that was delivering ballots in the province of Khost. As they sat in the back of their Toyota station wagon, an Afghan police commander named Naqibullah spotted the two foreign women. He walked over to the side of the car, shouted, "Allahu akbar," and emptied his Kalashnikov into the rear passenger door. Niedringhaus was killed on the spot; Gannon was badly injured but survived after being evacuated to a hospital. Naqibullah then surrendered to his horrified comrades.
Three weeks later, on April 24th, a guard at the Cure Hospital, a modest compound run by a Christian charity on the outskirts of the city, shot and killed three Americans, including a doctor. The attacker was subsequently shot, but survived, after the doctor's colleagues operated on him. Afghan officials are usually quick to blame the Taliban for any incident, but the ones I spoke to admitted that they had been unable to find any link between the insurgency and the shooters involved in the Cure Hospital and Khost attacks. Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, also denies involvement. "It was good that the Americans were killed," he says. "We have started our investigation, but so far we don't have any concrete information."
"If he had links with the Taliban, then he would have gotten support from them, and managed to escape," says Sayed Hashimi, an Afghan police colonel, of the hospital shooter. "No, this was something that he decided to do on his own, for political reasons, because they were foreigners." For his part, Naqibullah reportedly cited an airstrike that had caused civilian casualties in his home district. According to an official who visited him in the intelligence lockup, he was incoherent and exhibiting symptoms reminiscent of a psychotic break – though it was unclear whether it was a pre-existing condition, or something triggered by the treatment he had received by the Afghan police, who are notorious for torturing prisoners. In a country that has suffered three decades of war, it's hard to tell exactly where the trauma is from.
Could some similar spasm of random violence have been what happened with Nils Horner? Two days before Horner's assassination, Afghanistan's vice president, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, had died at the age of 57 of a heart attack. That morning, following a ceremony at the palace, he was buried on a hilltop in Kabul, near the women's prison. Thousands of people showed up, and the mood began to turn ugly, with mourners denouncing both the Taliban and the foreigners. "Down with America," they chanted. "Down with the West."
Kabul's security services are heavily dominated by Fahim's network of former mujahedeen fighters – just the kind of men likely to be walking around Wazir Akbar Khan with a pistol in their pocket. Was it possible that, having come from the emotion of the funeral, one of them spotted Horner and shot him on impulse? The comfort with which the men jogged past several guard posts, and the fact that one of them was apparently wearing the olive-green pants of the Afghan security forces, point to the possibility that Horner's murder might have been a spontaneous insider attack – as well as that someone inside the Afghan military knows who they are.
"I don't feel like there is going to be an answer to who killed him and why," says Salzinger. "And we will just have to live with that." A Swedish police team has begun its own investigation into the case, but, according to Western officials I spoke to, no significant progress has been made. Horner's murder, like so many other deaths in Kabul, may remain unsolved.
The fact that Horner's brazen killing in downtown Kabul is still a mystery says a lot about the kind of police and army we've trained in Afghanistan. We've built them to kill the enemy; the greater task of upholding the law is too often out of their reach. "It's either some big horrible crazy thing that makes sense, or it's just madness," says Body. "And that's the hardest thing about this place, that you can't figure it out."
For all the schools and health clinics, it sometimes feels like the U.S. has managed to prop up only a polite veneer of democracy stretched over a naked and brutal landscape of power, the product of decades of warfare, gangsterism and the Pentagon's cynical expediency in choosing its allies. Instead of real commitment to the rule of law, we've had ad hoc responses that careened from crisis to crisis, each time tearing up the common playbook of laws and norms that form the basis for mature democracies. After John Kerry flew in to broker an emergency deal between the two Afghan presidential candidates, reports emerged that one side had been mulling a coup, an act that could have triggered a civil war.
Obama has been desperate to get out of Afghanistan. Karzai, with his paranoid refusal to sign a security agreement with the U.S., and the Taliban, with their vicious campaign against civilians in Kabul, have obliged him. Even with the recent catastrophic disintegration of Iraq's security forces, Congress has hardly blinked at the administration's plans for a drastically scaled-down presence, and a complete pullout by 2017. In the meantime, Kabul's expats are packing up. The days of the Kabubble are over, and for those who have watched the Surge come and go, it's hard to feel nostalgic for an imperial misadventure whose participants were more concerned about their bank accounts and careers than the people of this country.
But what will replace them? Afghanistan has no way of paying for its security forces and government expenditures. It's unclear whether its army can function without foreign advisers, but it's certain that it will collapse without foreign funding. The Taliban have outlasted the Surge, and are patiently waiting for the foreign troops to leave. Condemned by our mistakes, we find ourselves in history's bind, too demoralized to shape Afghanistan's fate, and yet complicit in it. As we're learning in Iraq, invading a country is much easier than leaving it behind.
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