The first time I stayed at the Serena Hotel, I asked for a room without an outward-facing window. This was in 2007, when anyone could drive straight up to the entrance, meaning the five-star hotel lacked what security professionals call stand-off distance to protect against VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices), a.k.a. car bombs. And so I wanted as much concrete between me and the street as possible.
A couple of weeks after I left, gunmen jumped the wall and killed four people in the hotel gym in which I’d worked out every day.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the street approaching the Serena — as well as the Serena itself — is lined with Bremer walls, giant pillars of steel-reinforced concrete that stand 12 feet high. Vehicles are shuttled into a corridor between two blast walls about 75 yards from the main entrance. Passengers then must get out and let armed guards conduct an extensive body search, which is then followed by a pass through a metal detector and x-ray machine. You then walk to the hotel entrance while the vehicle is searched again. It’s kind of like a TSA security checkpoint, except all 50 or so guards have AK-47s.
The Serena, like much of the rest of Kabul, has become a fortress. But this past Thursday, gunmen still managed to infiltrate the hotel — analysts have suggested that some of the security guards may have been complicit in the attack — and kill nine people, including four foreigners and two small children. The Taliban fighters reportedly snuck through security with guns hidden in the soles of their shoes, then remained hidden in a restroom for several hours before initiating the assault. Presumably, they waited to ensure large numbers of people — many of whom were celebrating the start of the Afghan New Year — would be dining in the Serena’s three separate restaurants. After a shoot-out that lasted several hours, Afghan Special Forces killed all four attackers.
The Serena is only the latest of Kabul's social hotspots to be attacked this year. On my last day of a trip to Kabul this past January, I went for a celebratory lunch at La Taverna and ate incredible Lebanese food — dolmas and hummus and roasted chicken — along with other foreigners. La Taverna was a popular place for aid workers, journalists, and various Westerners who wished to socialize outside of their gated compounds. Patrons first had to enter a metal shack manned by two guards carrying machine guns who would frisk you before you could then enter the courtyard into the restaurant.
'If I am stopped, they will take my phone and see names of Americans like you, and kill me.'
On Jan 17, three days after my meal there, La Taverna was attacked. Taliban fighters detonated a VBIED outside the entrance, killing the security guards, then rushed the restaurant and fired upon the patrons. Twenty-one people were killed, including 14 foreigners and two Americans. In contrast to the clandestine, soft entry of the Serena attackers, the La Taverna attack used the equivalent of what special-operations forces call a hard entry. The ability of the Taliban to adopt different tactical approaches speaks to their increased sophistication — and that's an ominous sign for Afghanistan.
NOWHERE LEFT TO GO
Some of the best parties I’ve been to have been in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Partying in war zones is the norm, as people really do tend to live each day like it’s their last — you get bombed because you might get bombed. In Kabul, the place to go was L’atmosphere, which I'd always found filled wall-to-wall with journalists, spooks, contractors, drug dealers, Chinese prostitutes, and aid workers. It was the real-world equivalent of the bar from Star Wars (Chalmun’s Cantina in Mos Eisley, for all you fan boys). Heinekens are about $14 each, and liquor costs even more, but nobody complained about the exorbitant prices because there were women not wearing burkas who had cute accents. But when I went to L'atmosphere on a Friday night in January, there was a grand total of seven customers. What used to be a packed underground bar was now a ghost tavern. The perception among Westerners in Kabul is that L’atmosphere is a soft target, and therefore not worth the risk.
The aftermath of a Taliban attack on the restaurant La Taverna
There is almost nowhere left for foreigners to go in Kabul. Afghanistan has become a perpetual security state where you are locked up inside for your own safety. Foreign aid workers and embassy staff are no longer allowed to leave their compounds. At the American embassy, a sprawling compound in the middle of the city, there are four security perimeter rings; American staff cannot travel farther than the second ring. One State Department official called it “prison,” then added, “the only times I see Kabul is on my drive in from the airport, and two years later when I’m paroled and head back to the airport to go home.” The only nightlife option for embassy workers is the bar on the grounds, aptly named The Duck and Cover.
Most NGOs also forbid their workers from leaving their residences, except occasionally in armored vehicle convoys. Heavily armed vehicles patrol the streets. At night soldiers keep vehicles a safe distance away by pointing laser sights from their .50-caliber guns at anybody on the road. Since fewer foreigners travel around the city, businesses that were once supported by them are being forced to close. Even more troubling is that contact between NGOs, embassy workers, and Afghans has been reduced, eliminating a vital source of information exchange and mutual problem solving.
There are two giant white blimps hovering over the city 24 hours a day, equipped with high-tech optics and cameras, including night vision. These $45 million dirigibles feed data back to a US command center that attempts to watch every nook and cranny of the city 24 hours a day. Often though, as was the case during the Serena and La Taverna attacks, the blimps merely serve to document the violence in real time.
LESS PARTYING, MORE MISTRUST
Kabul is actually considered to be one of the safer places in Afghanistan; in more and more of the country, the Taliban is able to operate with impunity. A long-time Kabul journalist, who asked not to be identified for his own security, told VICE News that it is no longer possible for him to drive freely outside the city. “There are Taliban checkpoints everywhere to the south. If I am stopped, they will take my phone and see names of Americans like you, and kill me.” Not only is he trapped within the city, he is increasingly trapped within his own house. “It is a prison within a prison.”
There are many common metrics to determine how safe or unsafe a city is — the number and frequency of attacks, incidences of various crimes, homicide rates — so “ability to party” seems like a pretty imprecise measure. In Kabul though, there are undeniable implications. The international community, charged with rebuilding and restoring Afghanistan, is increasingly isolated in their bunkers and armor-plated vehicles. The empty streets of Kabul at night mirror those of cities with the highest murder rates in the world, like Tegucigalpa and Ciudad Juarez. There are now both psychological and physical walls between the people of Afghanistan and the international community there, which fosters animosity and mistrust.
And so after 11 years of war and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, the prospects for Kabul — and the rest of Afghanistan — are as dim as your chances for a fun Friday night out.
Follow Kaj Larsen on Twiiter: @kajlarsen