The news of the bombing of La Taverna du Liban, a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, reached me while I was following a pre-deployment course for a EU mission in Libya. I think I knew Kamal, the owner of the restaurant, who died in the assault; if it was the same man who set up the restaurant somewhere in 2004-5 (and it seems so from this personal account), he was a hearty, generous man and I regret his death, especially for his children.
This attack was the most deadly one for the international civilian community in Afghanistan since the post-Taliban international involvement began. Afghan police reports 21 dead, of which 13 internationals and 8 Afghans (ABC news).
Several of the people following the EU-course, a group of seasoned international civilian experts, knew some of the victims, and we discussed the event at length, especially as security is a main item on the agenda of this course.
La Taverna was one of a handful of restaurants where security officers of international organizations and embassies let expats go. These restaurants, like the offices and residences of these organizations, are all heavily protected. Several rings of defenses (checkpoints, sandbags, concrete walls, metal turnstyles, security valves, body checks, metal detectors, vehicle checks, cameras etc) surround each such building, often cutting into public space.
Many areas in central Kabul where foreigners choose to live have, with the collusion of the Afghan government, been turned into military camp-style zones where Afghans are not even allowed inside except if they can prove they have a valid reason. Residents of these areas have had to close their shops, suffer body checks when going home or receiving guests, or make detours of miles because of these obstructions. In addition, the fortifications scar the Kabuli cityscape. I have documented some of these obstructions on this post on my blog. The same developments have taken place in Baghdad, Somalia and other conflict zones where the international community is engaged.
As a result of these security arrangements, internationals can hardly interact with local society. Most of their knowledge about Afghanistan is gained through the internet. They are locked to their laptops in small rooms, often working and sleeping in the same place – and they hate it. Many of them feel security is a terrible limitation on their capacity to do the work they came to do, but ‘there is no alternative’. This opinion was voiced frequently in the discussions with the course-mates.
From a security perspective, the current policy, which boils down to ‘isolation’, has several drawbacks. First, all eggs are being put in one basket. If internationals could eat anywhere (and there are a lot of good places to eat in Kabul), there would be less high-net worth targets in one place. Second, targets become more attractive. For some reason, security officers keep believing that fortification measures will deter attacks. But the reality proves the contrary. The Taliban and other ‘terrorists’ have shown time and time again that they precisely go for the most difficult targets, such as the Serena Hotel in 2008. This kind of showing-off has a good PR effect, because the targets are places where ordinary Afghans can’t go anyhow, it shows that nothing is safe from the insurgents and it delivers good images for the media, allowing their attacks to go viral.
Another aspect highlighted by some of the course attendants is that living in a ultra-protected environment decreases the security awareness of internationals. Always shielded from danger, they do not recognize a threat when faced with one (and may freak out when presented with perfectly normal Afghan situations). In the six years I lived in Kabul, I roamed the city freely, and thus remained aware of dangerous places and situations – there were fortunately not so many. I knew I was in a place which is not perfectly safe so I was always on the lookout, I behaved courteously and with circumspection and kept a low profile.
A central question which remains largely unaddressed is: how can you effectively work in an environment you’re not tuned-in to? When the Taliban regime fell, I was part of a small but effective team of political affairs officers working for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). We all had terrain knowledge and local networks, and most of us language skills. We were allowed more freedom by our Head of Mission, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, than other UN staff members. We could take taxis instead of UN cars, and come and go inside and outside Kabul as our work required. We had to keep UNAMA’s administration informed of our movements, but did not need to file ‘movement requests’. We could thus meet people freely, collect information and conduct the negotiations that were important for the mission.
Our security officer was, at first, a wizened Briton who had worked a lot in the field. He allowed us this freedom and, often over a friendly drink at the UN bar, would collect our impressions and information about what was going on in the country. He cherished us as important information sources for his work.
Then he was replaced by a new security officer, whose main concern was the liability he had, should anything go wrong. He was not familiar with Afghanistan and not very interested in the country either. He didn’t pick our brains for information; the official ‘security briefings’ provided by the military and intelligence forces were sufficient. He went by the book and wanted us to do the same. He eventually prevailed over Mr Brahimi, who as Head of Mission had ultimate responsibility over our security. It became more and more difficult for us to go out and meet Afghans. Our information grew weaker, the isolation of UNAMA grew.
During my last visit to Kabul I found out that all UN agencies have been put together on a giant compound where they live and work, well outside Kabul, close to the military installations of NATO and other Afghan and international security sites. All eggs in one basket, in an obvious place for insurgent attacks. I couldn’t find an Afghan, even those working in high positions with the international community, who could tell me what UNAMA does nowadays – this huge, expensive UN mission has become almost completely irrelevant in political terms. We joked that in a few years somebody would break into the UN compound and discover it was entirely inhabited by zombies, sending copy-paste e-mails to the rest of the world, who had not noticed the transformation.
Duty of Care
As we were taught during the pre-deployment course for EU personnel about to be deployed to Libya, the EU has ‘Duty of Care’ over its staff members. This means that it has responsibility over our safety, so we must follow stringent security rules, much stricter than those of the UN or any other agency. If you want to go to buy some fruit at the corner shop you must file a movement request more than 24 (some say 48) hours in advance, which is examined and hopefully cleared at diverse levels; then you leave the compound in a convoy of two armoured cars (cost more than 200.000 Euros each) with two drivers and two close protection officers, with your helmet, body armour and ‘grab bag’ within reach in the car. And a few other security measures like communication devices. In your grab bag you must have food, water and clothes for a day, copies of the visas of all neighboring countries, money, an extra phone etc.
Now Tripoli is a big, rather safe city. There is no war, no enemy, just rivalry between armed militias that sometimes erupts into gun fights, usually with few victims. Yes, there is always the threat of violence targeting expats: kidnappings, carjacking, mugging and terrorist attacks… but hey, isn’t that what we signed up for? Isn’t that why EU staffers and almost all other internationals get ‘hazard allowance’ on top of their salaries?
A new paradigm for security
I want to make a case for a different kind of security: one that passes through integration, not isolation. As recent posts I wrote in Kabul demonstrate (see here for example), I feel perfectly safe in Afghanistan. I have built up a solid network of Afghan friends, whom I can rely on to get me out of trouble. I stay away from places like La Taverna du Liban, despite the friendliness of its deceased owner, because they repeal me as much as they do Afghans. The security is hostile, it makes the place uninviting, and I always feel like a target inside.
As travelers to Afghanistan have pointed out repeatedly over the past few centuries, Afghans tend to take very good care of their guests. It’s a point of honor (namus) that nothing should happen to your guest; if he is injured or even inconvenienced, that is a blemish on the host’s reputation.
So, if we are there to help Afghans, why not work with this protective hospitality? If we can’t deal with it, or for some reason forfeit their trust, or fear we may have forfeited it, we should ask ourselves: why are we here?
It’s quite amazing, really, that Afghans put up with so much hostility and distrust from the internationals working in their country, with all the barriers to their daily movements and the humiliations they suffer, as we attempt to increase our security through isolating measures.
Really, our real safety would be much better if it was based on cordial and trustworthy relations with Afghans (or Iraqis, Somalis, Libyans etc) and full awareness of the society we’re operating it, through language skills, cultural knowledge, and streewise behaviour
This is what I call the paradigm of safety through integration.