No Derailing Progress Now

Taverna du Liban represented the new Afghanistan.  It was a place where foreigners relaxed and the newly free and wealthy class of Afghans spent their evenings.  The owner was, by all accounts, a fantastic fellow who treated every patron like a dear friend.  Chocolate cake of his own creation was often given out with compliments at the end of meals.  No wonder the place was always packed on Friday nights.  No wonder it was targeted by the Taliban.

I have felt relatively safe my entire stay in Afghanistan, as do most foreigners living in Kabul.  I take very few risks and spend most of my time hard at work in the school.  Other expats I know here walk the city alone and hail local taxis without a hint of fear.  Its safe to say that a lot of people that decide to come here probably have a bit of a skewed risk v. reward center in their brain, but once you arrive and experience the Afghan hospitality its hard not to find yourself at ease.

Taverna du Liban was the sort of place that even folks like me, with a conscious risk management scheme running through our heads, would visit.  It was on a police patrolled street in Wazir Akbar Khan that is closed to vehicles at night and guarded at the ends by police posts.  Once you walk past the police post you find yourself on a quiet street lined with steel doors.  Knock on a door and a guard slides a window to check you out before he will open the door.  Once he does open the gate you are in an airlock style holding area.  Two guards are common, at least one with an AK or the like.  He watches as his partner checks your bags and person for weapons.  Once satisfied they radio to another guard to let you into the restaurant.

On January 16th, 2014 I was on the same street as Taverna du Liban once was.  We considered eating there, but decided on another popular spot on a few doors down.  This cafe serves all sorts of fair from Afghan to Italian to plain old burgers.  Once through the airlock security you are in the picturesque image of a Middle Eastern courtyard.  The arches and doors festooned with delicate wood carvings.  The moon hangs overhead just as it does everywhere else in the world.  Inside the light is dim, candles everywhere on tables, sills and inside metal chandeliers.  Turkish style bukharis keep the space toasty.  When we walked out later that night on the 16th our taxi was a bit late and we enjoyed the brisk air while the police nearby watched a video on a cell phone.

On January 17th, 2014 Taverna du Liban was assaulted and the street was chaos.

Three Taliban carried out an impressively executed attack on the eatery.  Due to the high police presence they must have known the patrol pattern and snuck in via narrow back alleys.  The first attacker wore the bomb and sacrificed himself destroying the double layer of steel doors.  The guards died first.  The two other attackers rushed in spraying waves of automatic bullets into the dining area.  The killing went on till the police responded and shot the attackers.  By that time 21 people lay dead or mortally wounded.

Among the 13 departed foreigners were the local IMF head, EUPOL employees, UN employees, and others.  These were people who were here not to fight a war, but to build a nation.  The Taverna offered them a small break from the pressures of their work.  In the Taverna they happily dined side by side with Afghans, 9 of whom met their end that night just the same.  Among the expats present was a Russian whose work entailed opening a dialogue with the Taliban.  Instead, they gave him an early funeral.

I learned about the attack just after it began thanks to friends on Twitter.  While I don’t hear of attacks that often I sort of assume subconsciously that they happen sporadically.  Most don’t get reported, which I find odd due to the heavy media presence here.  Due to my lack of sensitivity to such kinds of news I hardly spared a thought for it and had no idea it would turn out to represent a significant change in Taliban tactics.

That night we had a roundtable discussion on human rights, specifically those pertaining to children, education and women within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals.  We welcomed a guest from Human Rights Watch who, after a brief discussion, answered the students’ questions for more than an hour and a half.  Their questions impressed both our guest and I.  We discussed the need to not only build schools, but to make sure they are close to villages, have working toilets, have books and quality teachers (70% of Afghan teachers do not meet the minimum requirements).  We also talked about how to open dialogue with stubborn people that cling to conservative views about educating women.  We talked about the effect rampant poverty has on attendance rates.  Towards the end one of the two boys in the room asked, “As a man what can I do to make men and women equal?” leaving all the adults present floored.

Well over the allotted time we had asked of our expert guest, as moderator I had to call the discussion ended, but certainly not closed.  I was immediately swarmed by students upset that they did not have time to ask their questions.  I never seen students so eager to crack on through tough subjects with such depth and engagement.  Dinner was getting cold upstairs, but the students seemed not to care.  They split into packs around teachers and on their own to keep talking.  One student remarked to me that she had never been able to talk about these topics before.  A dam had burst and these girls were happily trying to swallow every drop of knowledge rushing forth.  By the time the basement light shut off dinner was hard and cold, but no one cared.  It wasn’t till the next day that I found out that the students’ exuberance may have saved my life.

Our school’s President had planned to invite all of us staff and our guest out to eat after the talk.  Her chosen restaurant: Taverna du Liban.  When the talk went over time and the conversations continued to swirl she forgot about the idea.  On her way home though, her parents called in a panic for she had told them we would be celebrating the talk at the Taverna.  They were watching the breaking news reporting the attack on their television.  While we likely would have arrived at the Taverna just after the attack started and therefore promptly turned about face, that means we still came pretty close to at least witnessing a massacre.

Even a week later, such proximity to unfathomable tragedy has not changed my comfort level or outset one bit.  This may sound strange.  You know what?  I think its incredibly strange.  On face, it makes sense the Taliban would attack a restaurant filled with expats and Afghans who accept their presence.  This is an important year for Afghanistan with the elections fast approaching and the NATO force draw-down looming on the horizon.  That also means its an important year for the Taliban.  The Taverna massacre is a statement from them.  They are saying no foreigner is safe in Kabul even now while the soldiers are still here.  Imagine what could happen when the troops pull up stakes.

The more I read about the attack and references to past attacks I realized that such an assault is new territory for the Taliban.  All the bombings in my time here and for a good while before were on Embassies, foreign Mission headquarters, NATO controlled bases, etc.  In other words; symbols of Western power in Afghanistan.  These places are heavily fortified and bombings rarely rack up a body count.  There are other explosions and bursts of violence in the city, but this is the first time in a long time that an establishment that is a part of regular life has been attacked.  A supermarket near the Taverna was attacked in the past, but this recent tragedy is different.

It demonstrated a ruthless efficiency that suicide bombings on concrete blast walls do not.  It targeted a thriving local business that, while filled with important foreigners, also contained many Afghans.  It highlights the persistent danger the Taliban represent, but it also represents their loss of nationwide power.  While certain variables could open the door for them to retake power after the NATO force departs, not many expect them to.  They weren’t expected to assume control in the ‘90s either though, so this expectation has to be a cautious one.  If the new President happens to be weak and corrupt they may see a path to rule again.

Still, the Taverna du Liban suggests that they are not what they once were.  It shows their fearsome capabilities, but it exposes them as the gang of thugs that they are.  They were happy to attack a place of recreation enjoyed by Afghans and foreigners alike.  This is not the act of a coming revolution, it is the act of a desperate ruffians carrying out their own agenda.  I have found the Afghan people to be just as distraught over the massacre as the global community.  All good souls in Kabul grieve for the lost.

This brings me back to the strangeness of my lack of fear.  The past few days have helped me understand this lack of change in attitude.  On Thursday night I watched as 8 young boys and girls and a handful of adults, foreign and Afghan alike dressed to the nines and filled taxis on their way to my colleague’s wedding.  They were out all hours and returned to me working in the office with a roast chicken they had acquired for me.  The kids were delirious with the joy of celebration, the memory of a brutal massacre of civilians just 6 days earlier the furthest thing from their mind.  Friday, still less than a full week after the killing, I went with 30 plus girls to go bowling at an alley that would put any back home in Vermont to shame.  The kids aren’t great bowlers, but man do they have fun.  They’re just kids and despite the violence they see or hear of every handful of days they’re just living their lives the way any kid would.  They go to school, they study, they have dreams, they play games, they laugh, they cry, they sing and dance.  Make a video of their daily life and transpose it next to the same of a kid in Vermont and the differences will be geographic, not substantive.

9 days later, Sunday, and another bomb went off, this time a single suicide run on a bus carrying Afghan soldiers.  At least 2 soldiers and 2 civilians were killed with more than 20 injured on the road in the eastern Kabul neighborhood of Karte Naw.  All the victims were Afghan.  The same morning, another bomber hit a bus full of Afghan civilians on their way to a wedding party in the Achin district of Nangahar Province.  One person is confirmed dead and eight wounded.  My car was passed in the street today, Monday, by two fire engines on their way to a blast that has not yet been reported.  How news of these events can move so slowly in the capital of all places is beyond me.

This indiscriminate killing of Afghan civilians by the Taliban highlights the UN assertion that the Taliban are responsible for more Afghan civilian deaths in this war than any other party.  The Taliban claim that this recent wave of violence, the most pronounced in my time here, is a response to recent U.S. airstrikes in Parwan Province to the north that took civilian life.  Looking at the body count of Afghan civilians killed in their attacks, this is very clearly just an excuse that they can hardly believe in themselves.  Even with the great number of foreign deaths at the Taverna, more Afghans have been killed this week by the Taliban in Kabul alone.

So to the owner of the Taverna du Liban and all his fellow restaurateurs, to the students and their unbridled love of learning, to the expats and Afghans who spend each day working to improve justice, education, public services, and industry I say Kabul has too many people that love their freedom for the Taliban to reconquer this nation.  The provinces may be a different story, but in this city I can’t but doubt the populace would rousingly reject the violent minority that is the Taliban.  They are now but criminals pursuing their own twisted interests while something like normalcy plods along each day.  While complacency would be folly with such a potent source of conflict in this society’s midst, I think every Kabulian is well within their right to dream of a bright future so long as they are willing to work towards achieving it.

As I raise the parting glass (of juice anar) to the senselessly slaughtered, I say if they can hear me, ‘The change you were a part of will clamber forward galvanized by your loss.  There are too many people here living a better life for them to go back to old ways.  You were a part of something special.’

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