Losing Kabul: A Bombing's Legacy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stian Lysberg / AFP / Getty

The site of a bomb attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul. One suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at the entrance of the hotel.

Kabul's Serena Hotel offered visitors to the Afghan capital a lot more than a place to stay. For the thousands of foreign journalists, aid workers, teachers, medical staff and entrepreneurs who have made the war-ravaged city a temporary home, the Serena was an oasis of tranquility. Its cafe served a good cup of coffee in a land of tea; its spa was a place for a hot shower in a snow-bound city where constant power outages reduce bathing to a bucket of water heated on a wood-burning stove; its gym offered a safe place to exercise in a country where women don't jog.

Last Monday, four militants, at least one of whom wore a police uniform, charged the Serena security gate. One detonated his explosive-packed vest at the entrance, and another threw a grenade into the baggage-screening room. A third attacker was fired on in the arrivals court, which appears to have detonated his suicide vest, while a gunman rampaged through the marble halls, spraying bullets until he reached his destination, the gym. Eight people died, including a Norwegian journalist, a Filipino spa employee and an American.

The multi-pronged attack, more reminiscent of al-Qaeda raids on U.S. compounds in Riyadh than the usual haphazard Taliban bombings, heralds not only new tactics, but new targets. Until now the insurgency in Afghanistan has focused its attacks on foreign military convoys, diplomatic enclaves, government installations and Afghan security forces. No longer.

On Tuesday Taliban spokesman Zaibiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the bombing, telling the Associated Press by phone that the insurgent group would increase attacks against venues frequented by Westerners. "We will target all these restaurants in Kabul where foreigners are eating," he said. "We have jihadists in Kabul right now and soon we will carry out more attacks." The Taliban's new targets don't show up on international assistance budgets or diplomatic mission logs, but they are the infrastructure that sustains the Afghan support effort. Those who congregate at the Serena don't live in fortified compounds walled off from the country they have come to assist; most rent local houses and patronize neighborhood grocery stores, where their dollars go directly to the local economy, rather than being siphoned off by corrupt officials. By targeting foreign civilians and restricting their ability to interact with locals, the Taliban is chiseling away at the fragile connections that keep Westerners committed, and Afghans happy to host them.

In April, the U.S. will deploy a mini-surge of 3,200 marines to boost the overstretched coalition military units already in place. While the troop commitment is welcome, it may also trigger a rise in attacks such as the strike on the Serena. "The Taliban cannot fight us face to face. So they continue killing people this way," says Amrullah Saleh, head of Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security, which is investigating the attack. "An enemy who cannot hold territory, an enemy who can find no refuge among the people, has no other recourse but suicide bombing."

As U.N. security officials and NGOs review safety regulations, the responsible response of many foreigners may be that the very venues that give Kabul its soul are off limits. Their freedom to roam the streets of Kabul, meet friends — both Afghan and foreign — at a restaurant or café, is likely to end. Already, the Australian embassy, which had been based at the Serena, has decided to move to a secure, isolated compound. This doesn't just limit fun for the foreigners; it walls off the understanding and communication that comes with spontaneous interaction. More barricades may bring the Westerners safety, but it also brings us one step closer to Baghdad.

—Reported by Ali Safi/Kabul