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The attack that burst the bubble

The attack on a Lebanese restaurant - a symbol of the "new Kabul" - was a wake-up call to Kabul's decision-makers.
Last modified: 18 Jan 2014 19:33
The Taverna was a symbol of the "new Kabul" [AP]

From big-name foreign journalists to high-paid expatriate researchers and rich Afghans with Western ties, following the live updates of last night's attack on the Taverna du Liban seemed eerily similar to dining at the Lebanese eatery.

In truth, I rarely went to the Taverna.  High prices, alcohol and clientele all put me off it months ago. It was the type of place where race and privilege were always on full and immediate display. This was no Lake Qargha, where Afghan families go for Friday picnics. It wasn't even the Intercontinental Hotel, frequented by mostly rich Afghans for decades.

The Taverna was a symbol of the "new Kabul". A city inhabited by locals. A city of returnee Afghans from the West. And a city of foreigners working as part of the NGO and media economies that have come to flourish since the US-led invasion. Three worlds that rarely ever come into meaningful contact.

Calculus of security

This was an attack on a steel-doored, high-priced eatery with armed guards where women could remove their headscarves and men could swig their beers as Nancy Ajram's voice echoed from the speakers.

Perhaps that's why so many spoke of Friday's attack as a "change". The Kabul bubble - the "kabubble" - had suddenly burst. Armoured cars, private taxis, road blocks and security pat downs were suddenly proven to be futile against an armed opposition movement.

War had come to those of us - rich Afghans and foreigners - who could escape to places where the realities of three decades of conflict could be temporarily suspended.

The attack had changed the calculus of security. And the coverage, with headlines like "including foreigners" and "IMF and UN officials killed in Kabul restaurant attack" reflected that.

There were online odes to "a precious light in the city" and the owner, whose "ebullient smile" was known personally to many of those covering the attack.

Reports of the death toll, 21, put the 13 "foreign victims" first; the Afghans were relegated to the status of "the other eight".

Will the friendships among "the other eight" be described as "a tragic twist" the way Wabel Abdallah, the IMF representative, and Kamal Hamade, the restaurant's owner, was written about? Nearly 24 hours after the attack, we still don't know who those Afghans are – neither their names nor their characters.

Status quo

Friday evening's attack was a wake up call to Kabul's decision-makers. It called out their repeated reassurances that 2014 was not the feared bogeyman.

Not for the unnamed dozens who die every month when their vehicles strike IEDs or who happen to be near the site of an attack. Not for those migrants who feel forced to leave and whom are shot at trying to enter Iran or whose boat capsizes trying to reach Australia and Greece. Many of these people could never dream of affording a 500 Afghani ($10) kabab.

For the Kabul establishment, Friday's attack put a group of people they see necessary to continuing the status quo and their livelihoods beyond 2014 into danger - expatriates and Afghans with two passports.

As such, Umer Daudzai, the interior minister, quickly suspended the jobs of several of the area's security officials.

For the Taliban too, the attack signified a change.

Wazhma Frogh, a women's rights activist in Kabul, pointed out, "if the same number of people were killed on a highway, in a village or province it doesn't buy insurgents any leverage to bargain."

In fact, a purported Taliban account on Twitter mentioned only "a heavy cas. toll of Germans" and left out entirely the eight Afghans killed, including a young couple from my fatherland of Logar.

With a post-2014 foreign troop presence in question, both sides of the Afghan conflict now know it is not night raids in Maidan Wardak that make headlines. Nor is it 10 members of the same family killed by an IED in Herat.

In reality, the attack changes little for the ordinary Afghan who likely had not heard of the Taverna.

A fact both actors in the conflict know all too well. But for the wealthy - both foreign and Afghan who are able to escape to the bubble - the attack could leave many of us questioning our presence in a nation where the war can seem to be off in the temporal or geographic distance.