The death toll from last Friday’s attack on Taverna du Liban, a Lebanese restaurant popular among expatriates in Kabul, has reached 21. The murdered foreigners include an American academic, the Lebanese head of the IMF’s Kabul office, two Canadian auditors and the restaurant’s owner, Kamal Hamade. The rest of the victims are unnamed ‘Afghan nationals’, many of them undoubtedly the cheerful young members of staff who would bring out extra dishes at no charge, who smiled when they mispronounced English words and waited to see if I would correct them, who were underpaid but happy at least to have a job. They were shot dead by two gunmen who got in after a suicide bomber destroyed the front gate and main security barrier.
I went to Taverna several times when I was in Kabul last year, for the hummus and the chocolate cake, for the convivial atmosphere. It’s the violence in Kabul that makes the news, but before last Friday Taverna represented another side of the city. Expats go to restaurants like Taverna to feel as if they are somewhere else, an option not available to the vast majority of the residents of the war-torn city. Taverna was often full of locals, but a lot of the restaurants in Kabul won’t let you in unless you show a foreign passport at the door. The armed guard at another popular place once told me I needn’t worry because they didn’t let Afghans in. I asked him what he meant. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you,’ he said. ‘I just meant that you could enjoy your evening without worrying about Afghans bothering you.’
Aside from the injustice of it, the segregation leads to suspicion. Most Afghans – poor before, even poorer since the Nato occupation – couldn’t afford to eat at these places even if they were allowed through the double-gated doors. Taxi drivers go in circles trying to find the often unmarked restaurants; chauffeurs are told to wait in their cars as their expat employers dine inside the fortified walls. Afghans would ask me: ‘What is it like inside that place? What do you do there?’ After the Taverna massacre, the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack on the ‘hotel’.
Taverna and many other restaurants popular with foreigners are in Wazir Akbar Khan, where Kabul’s upper-middle class lived in the 1970s; it’s now the site of Nato’s Green Zone. According to the US military’s counter-insurgency paradigm, Taliban insurgents embed themselves in the civilian population, turning innocent people into human shields and getting them killed. But it is the Green Zone that is embedded in the heart of Kabul, placing soldiers and civilians within deadly range of each other.