A mirage called Kabul
By Jean MacKenzie
The International Herald Tribune
Thursday, January 17, 2008
‘Well, at least we’re not in Baghdad,” we used to say, when confronted by the vagaries of the Kabul winter. No heat, sporadic electricity and growing disaffection among the population might make us uncomfortable, but those of us living outside the smothering embrace of the embassies or the United Nations had relative freedom of movement and few security worries.
And of course we had the Serena, a lovely oasis amid the dark and gloom the Afghan capital. The hotel spa offered solace and a hot shower, a professional massage therapist and a relaxation room where we could pretend for a few hours that we were in Dubai.
On Monday evening, all of that came to an abrupt end when Taliban gunmen burst into the lobby, one exploding his ball-bearing vest, one running to gym and spa area, spraying bullets as he went. At least eight people died, and several more were injured.
For the rest of us, who viewed the Serena as a symbol of what Kabul could be, it was a long overdue wake-up call. Within the hotel’s shattered windows and pock-marked walls lie the remnants of our illusions.
We used to laugh a bit smugly at those who cowered behind their reinforced walls, venturing out only in bullet-proof glass surrounded by convoys of big men with big guns.
We shopped on Chicken Street for carpets and trinkets, we dined at the shrinking number of restaurants that still serve alcohol. We partied at L’Atmosphere, “L’Atmo” to its friends, the “in” spot for the international crowd – on Thursday evenings, what passes in Kabul for the beautiful people gather there to see and be seen. We drank lattes at the Kabul Coffee House, and had our hair and nails done at the Nova salon. And we patted ourselves on the backs because we knew the real Kabul.
None of us was prepared for what happened at the Serena on Monday. The Taliban have started to implement a new strategy, announced their spokesman. They will specifically target civilians, and will bring their mayhem to places where foreigners congregate.
So much for L’Atmo.
I am no stranger to the insurgency, having spent three years in Afghanistan and much of the past 12 months in Helmand Province.
Helmand, center of opium and Taliban, is arguably the most unstable region of the country at present. It is also the scene of some the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan, with British troops clashing frequently with the rebels.
For the past several months we have been hearing that NATO is winning, that the insurgency is running out of steam. Each suicide attack is a last gasp, a sign that the Taliban are becoming desperate.
As the enemy melts away, only to regroup again and again, we are expected to believe that this time, surely, they will stay put in their hideouts.
So it was with a bitter smile that I listened to the head of the Afghan National Security Directorate explain away Monday’s attack as a sign of the Taliban’s weakness. “An enemy that cannot hold territory, an enemy that has no support among the people, has no other means than suicide bombing,” Amrullah Saleh told assembled reporters.
But those of us who have covered the steady decline of hope in Afghanistan over the past three years know where the relative strength lies.
Not with the central government, whose head, Hamid Karzai, has largely lost the respect of his people with his increasingly bizarre antics. Weeping at the plight of orphans in Kandahar, begging the Taliban to send him their address, confessing that he is powerless to control the warlords, auctioning off his silken robe to feed widows and orphans – the once bright hope of the international community has dimmed and may soon flicker out entirely.
Not with the foreign troops, who have been unable to provide security or usher in the development that Afghanistan so desperately needs. Civilian casualties, hushed up or denied, have made NATO a curse in some parts of the country.
Not with the international assistance community, with its misguided counter-narcotics policies, high-priced consultants and wasteful practices. Out of the billions that have supposedly come into the country, a mere trickle has made any appreciable difference.
The Taliban, under whose brutal regime Afghanistan became an international pariah, is steadily regaining ground. Even those who deplore their harsh, arbitrary rules and capricious behavior welcome the illusion of security they bring in their wake.
“At least we have no thieves,” said more than one resident of Musa Qala, a town in Helmand that spent almost a year under Taliban rule. Musa Qala was recently “liberated” by NATO and Afghan troops, who promptly handed over control to a former Taliban commander.
We are all engaged in willful self-deception: We try to convince ourselves that things are getting better, while Afghanistan – and our hopes for stability in the region – recede further and further into the distance.
The United States Agency for International Development is talking about “relocating” some of its contractors to Dubai, at least temporarily. A Norwegian friend has made plans with us for dinner Friday night, “provided I am not evacuated.”
Soon we will all be living in reinforced compounds, gathering for desperate, Masque of the Red Death parties, with guests being searched at the door.
Not me. I will be back at the Serena as soon as the blood is mopped up and the windows repaired. I’ll resume my morning workouts and try not to fall off my exercise machine every time a door slams or a car backfires.
The one thing I will be unable to do is book a massage. Zeenia, the sunny Filipina who brightened my weekends with her smile and magic hands, was shot and killed Monday night.
Maybe Baghdad is not so far away.
Jean MacKenzie is the Afghanistan country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.