The tactic was virtually impossible to defend against: send in a human bomb to clear a path and follow that with two armed attackers prepared to die in the course of killing as many people as possible. It was, in its own grotesque way, brilliant or, at the very least, so desperate that it was bound to succeed.
The Jan. 17 suicide attack on a popular Kabul restaurant has shaken the international community living and working in Afghanistan. La Taverna du Liban was more than a nice place to eat; it was one of the few places with security protocols that passed UN requirements, putting it on a meagre list of bars and restaurants where expats, foreign aid workers and diplomats could escape the monotony of life cloistered behind blast walls and barbed wire.
But in Afghanistan, where Taliban stratagems have crossed numerous limits of morality and ethics, the attack was perhaps only a matter of time. Arriving at La Taverna, situated in the heavily guarded embassy district, felt a little like walking up to a fortified speakeasy: a pair of glaring eyes would first stare out at you through a peephole in a heavy steel door.
If they didn’t dislike what they saw, bolts would grind loose and the initial set of doors would swing open. You would then enter a prison cell-like anteroom where armed guards would frisk you, check your bags, apologize for the inconvenience and usher you to the next set of heavy steel doors. Once past those, you would enter into a different world, a place where women could pull down their headscarves and shake hands, or even hug, male colleagues and friends. In that inner sanctum, you would witness an eclectic mix of diplomats, aid workers, and journalists from around the world relaxing around tables covered with mezzes and Lebanese delicacies.
All of that is now bloodstained rubble and charred memories. All of those precautions, diligently kept in place despite years of uninterrupted calm, proved insufficient against a suicide bomber who detonated his deadly cargo at the restaurant’s entrance, instantly killing all three armed guards. The Taliban fighters who followed then turned the calm elegance of the interior into a shooting gallery, unloading their AK-47s on horrified diners, some desperately taking shelter under tables, others frozen in their seats. A newlywed couple died in a hail of bullets, as did the restaurant’s much-loved owner, Kamal Hamade. His last act was one of bravery: after evacuating his employees, he grabbed a handgun from his office and ran into the line of fire to defend his guests. He could have escaped himself, but he chose not to.
By the time police finally managed to kill the attackers, 21 men and women were dead—eight Afghans and 13 foreigners, including two Canadians—the worst carnage the international aid community has seen in a single incident in Afghanistan, ever.
The Taliban has stated that the attack on La Taverna was revenge for the alleged slaughter of Afghan civilians in a U.S.-backed Afghan army operation two days earlier in Parwan, north of Kabul. Its spokesman this week also referred to those killed as “invaders.” Most, however, were in Afghanistan on humanitarian missions: four UN workers, one senior member of the IMF, two professors at the American University, and the two Canadian accountants from Quebec who were auditing Canada’s aid work in Afghanistan.
None were involved in the military campaign.
Calling them “invaders” is a loose usage of the term indeed. And yet, it resonates with many Afghans. Many here, though they may not support an act of terror like the one carried out at La Taverna, are nonetheless suspicious of the international humanitarian community. And that community has suffered for it.
Last year was particularly difficult. According to data complied by Aid Worker Security, 41 humanitarian workers were killed and another 41 injured in 2013, the vast majority of them Afghans. Going back even further reveals some startling numbers. Since 2002, Afghanistan has become a graveyard for aid workers, far outpacing any of its rival wartorn nations. On average, one in every four aid workers killed in the world is killed in Afghanistan.
That figure is likely to rise. “I am extremely concerned with this trend at a time when the country is in the midst of a difficult transition that may lead to increased humanitarian needs,” Mark Bowden, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, wrote in November 2013 statement.
Indeed, development work in Afghanistan appears to be headed toward a crisis, even without the impending withdrawal of foreign troops. The last years have been witness to an increase in drug addiction, a rise in child malnutrition, increasing violence against women, and a stagnant life expectancy (the average
Afghan is not expected to celebrate his or her 50th birthday). With a median age of a mere 18 years, Afghanistan is brimming with youth but suffering a barren job market. The need for humanitarian assistance has never been greater, and the environment never more perilous.
Deconstructing the causes behind these failures only heightens the sense of despair and pointlessness: aid work in Afghanistan is crippled by a lack of security, a reality that is likely to worsen in the aftermath of the attack on La Taverna. Restrictions placed on foreign aid workers have resulted in a dearth of human contact between everyday Afghans and the outsiders who claim to be here to help them.
Consequently, development projects have little chance of success from the outset. Agencies attempt to carry out needs assessments in some of the country’s poorest areas but, because of the dangers, must rely on data gathered by locals who either have an interest in how aid is delivered or themselves are too afraid to gather useful information. Aid organizations must then try to implement projects based on that corrupted data.
Regardless of success or failure, foreign aid workers are still paid their salaries. Some of that money, because of the restrictions facing workers, is spent at the few sanctioned bars and restaurants like La Taverna. But from the perspective of most Afghans, the foreign presence has done little to lift their country out of poverty.
This in turn breeds suspicion. As one former Afghan police officer turned Taliban militant said in 2012: “We see all this money coming into our country but no progress. Where is it going? I spent years working with these foreigners because I thought they were here to help. I then realized they were really just here to help themselves.”
To place all of the blame for the failure of nation-building on the backs of the builders is unfair. The Taliban has created the atmosphere of fear that prevents aid workers from doing their jobs properly. Most of those who lost their lives at La Taverna were genuinely in Afghanistan out of a desire to do good.
Others were men like Kamal Hamade, whose only fault was a limitless well of kindness and generosity that attracted people to his establishment. His death is the most poignant symbol of how distorted the perceptions of the foreign presence in Afghanistan has become. If he was an “invader,” we are all invaders. And then, the Afghan mission is truly lost.