In Kabul, Shattered Illusions

“Well, at least we’re not in Baghdad,” we used to say when confronted by the vagaries of the Kabul winter. No heat, sporadic electricity and growing disaffection among the population might make us uncomfortable, but those of us living outside the smothering embrace of the embassies or the United Nations had relative freedom of movement and few security worries.

And of course we had the Serena hotel. Its spa offered solace, a gym and a hot shower; we could pretend for a few hours that we were in Dubai.

But a week ago last Monday, Taliban gunmen burst into the lobby, one exploding his ball-bearing vest, one running to the gym and spa area, spraying bullets as he went. Eight people died, and several more were wounded.

It was a rude shock for those of us who used to feel superior to those who cowered behind their reinforced walls, venturing out only in bulletproof glass surrounded by convoys of big men with big guns.

We shopped on Chicken Street for carpets and trinkets, we dined at the shrinking number of restaurants that still serve alcohol. We partied at L’Atmosphere, “L’Atmo” to its friends, the “in” spot for the international crowd, and had our hair and nails done at the Nova salon. And we patted ourselves on the back because we knew the real Kabul.

None of us was prepared for what happened at the Serena. The Taliban are following a new strategy, their spokesman announced. They will go after civilians specifically, and will bring their mayhem to places where foreigners congregate.

So much for L’Atmo.

I am no stranger to the insurgency, having spent three years in Afghanistan and much of the past 12 months in Helmand Province. Helmand, center of opium and Taliban, may be the most unstable region of the country. It is also the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan, with British troops clashing frequently with the rebels.

For the past several months we have been hearing that NATO is winning, that the insurgency is running out of steam. Each suicide attack is a last gasp, a sign that the Taliban are becoming desperate.

As the enemy melts away only to regroup, we are expected to believe that this time, surely, they will stay put in their hideouts. The head of the Afghan National Security Directorate described the Serena attack as a sign of the Taliban’s weakness. “An enemy that cannot hold territory, an enemy that has no support among the people, has no other means than suicide bombing,” the security chief, Amrullah Saleh, told assembled reporters.

But those of us who have covered the steady decline of hope in Afghanistan over the past three years know where the relative strength lies.

Not with the central government, whose head, Hamid Karzai, has largely lost the respect of his people with his increasingly bizarre behavior: weeping at the plight of children in Kandahar, begging the Taliban to send him their address, confessing that he is powerless to control the warlords, auctioning off his silken robe to feed widows and orphans.

Not with the foreign troops, who have been unable to provide security or usher in the development that Afghanistan so desperately needs. Civilian casualties, often hushed up or denied, have made NATO a curse in some parts of the country.

Not with the international assistance community, with its misguided counter-narcotics policies, high-priced consultants and wasteful practices. Out of the billions that have supposedly come into the country, only a trickle has been used to good effect.

The Taliban, under whose brutal regime Afghanistan became an international pariah, are steadily regaining ground. Even those who deplore their harsh rules and capricious behavior welcome the illusion of security they bring in their wake.

The United States Agency for International Development was talking about “relocating” some of its contractors to Dubai, at least temporarily. A Norwegian friend made plans with us for dinner one night, “provided I am not evacuated.”

Soon we will all be living in reinforced compounds, gathering for desperate, Masque of the Red Death parties, with guests being searched at the door.

Not me. I will be back at the Serena as soon as the blood is mopped up and the windows repaired. I’ll try not to fall off my exercise machine every time a door slams or a car backfires.

But I’ll miss Zeenia, the Serena’s sunny massage therapist. She was shot and killed on that terrible Monday.

Jean MacKenzie, the Afghanistan country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.