Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Has the “Kabul bubble” burst?
Wednesday’s attacks on foreign U.N. workers at a guest-house in a normally secure area of Kabul shook the nerves of everyone in the city. Rightly or wrongly, the community of Western journalists, aid workers and security contractors often make the crude comparison between working in Baghdad and working in Kabul. All seem to agree that they prefer living in the latter, where they can travel around with relative ease, visit bars and restaurants and go to parties across town.
Kabul is, despite the concrete barriers and armoured vehicles, a beautiful city, nestled among towering mountains. None of the many restaurants and coffee shops frequented by foreigners have been attacked so far. Only the luxury Serena hotel has been hit by Taliban attackers before, the latest also on Wednesday when it was hit with rockets intended for the presidential palace.
Before Wednesday, driving in the Shehrpu or Shahr-e Now districts, which the guest-house straddles, did not require a second thought. It would be laughable actually to think that these areas were high-risk. They are populated by “narco-mansions” a nickname for the gaudy, ostentatious palaces built by powerful Afghans and occupied by governors or foreign companies. Shahr-e Now, or “New town”, is home to bustling market parades, popular Afghan restaurants and bright, colourful street lights at night.
All the mansions have some form of security, mostly private contractors guarding heavy iron barriers or sitting in guard boxes by the front door. Shahr-e Now is where Kabul comes alive and where Afghans socialise.
Most attacks until now have been targetted at military convoys, embassies or government ministries. It’s natural for someone living and working in Kabul to steer clear from a block of U.S. humvees or armoured off-road cars and people try to avoid hanging around the diplomatic buildings, which tend to be surrounded by concrete blast walls.
Guest-houses, however, have never really been seen as target. Perhaps security experts would argue otherwise, but it is safe to say they are not at the top of an insurgent’s list of places to attack. The Bakhtar guest-house is relatively low-key. Many had not heard of it before the attack. It is on a well-known but unremarkable side street, surrounded by other houses. Its green iron door was not distinctive at all.
The attack on Bakhtar showed perhaps that the Taliban are turning to relatively low profile targets because they have little hope breaching the vast, heavily fortified military bases of foreign forces or well-protected embassies.