The attack on the restaurant La Taverna du Liban, a favourite among Afghans and internationals in Kabul, has hit close to home for many working in and on Afghanistan. With 20 Afghans and foreigners killed while having dinner, it was one of the bloodiest and most ruthless strikes of the Taliban in years. This was an attack on foreign civilians targeted merely for being foreign – a rare occasion in the Afghan war. Kate Clark and Christine Roehrs (with input by Martine van Bijlert) summarise what happened and look at whether the incident may be a game changer, with particular consequences for aid work.
(This piece has been amended on 21 January to complete the list of victims and to correct the number from 21 to 20.)
Yesterday night’s attack (17 January 2014) on the Lebanese restaurant, La Taverna, in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, has left at least 20 people dead – 13 internationals and seven Afghans according to the current count. This was another in a series of, still rare but increasing, attacks on soft and fully civilian targets; this time one that was frequented mainly by international aid workers, diplomats and journalists as well as members of the Afghan government and middle class.
As news continues to come in, it has as of now (Saturday evening) been confirmed that the dead included the well-liked Lebanese owner of the restaurant, Kamal Hamade (read an obituary here) and three restaurant guards, 21 year old Amruddin, Ikramuddin and Muhammad Wasim; the resident representative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Wabel Abdallah, who was also Lebanese; three UN staff including UNAMA’s senior political officer, Vadim Nazarov, a Russian former diplomat who had worked on Afghanistan since the 1980s, and two women working with UNICEF, health specialist Nasreen Khan from Pakistan and nutritionist Basra Farah (sister of the prominent Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah); 22 year old Haji Amin, an Afghan trader who was back home from Dubai with his wife of a few months, Wazhma; two drivers, Zabihullah, who worked for Jalalabad Customs, and Muhammad Ali, father of seven, who worked for AWCC who were both killed by the blast as they waited outside; a Danish member of the EUPOL mission whose family asked for her not to be named and her British security guard, Simon Chase; another Briton, Dharmender Phangurha (Del) Singh, who was due to stand in elections to the European Parliament in the spring and, along with a Malaysian victim of the incident, Gnanathurai (Gnana) Nagarajah, had been working with the advisory firm Adam Smith International as an adviser; two Canadian accountants who had visiting Kabul to audit development projects, Peter McSheffrey and Martin Glazer; and two Americans who worked at the American University in Kabul, Alexandros Petersen and Lexie Kamerman.
The accounts of two of the Afghan kitchen workers who survived (see here and here) suggested at first that none of the diners made it out alive and that the owner ran down into the restaurant with a gun when the blast happened, trying to defend the diners. Later, however, it seemed as if two diners escaped, suggested by the fact that the employers of the two drivers mentioned above are not on the list of the dead.
An early statement by Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed at 21:20 pm on 17 January said that “most of those killed are senior people from the invading country Germany”. So far, however, no German casualties have been confirmed, by either the German Embassy or foreign ministry; according to a statement sourced to ‘diplomatic circles’ coming in during the evening via German media, the German government “now does not expect German casualties anymore.” It had taken a long day until the government came up with at least this careful statement. The German community in Kabul is one of the largest expat communities, with many Germans working with Afghan and international NGOs and governmental development organisations.(1)
Justifying civilian casualties with civilian casualties?
On the morning after the attack, another Taleban statement gave more information about the Why. The Taleban claimed the attack had been in revenge for a US air raid in the Ghorband valley of Parwan on Wednesday. According to ISAF, that strike had been defensive and was called in after an Afghan-led force, that included US Special Forces, had come under fire during an operation aimed at “capturing several high valued targets known for Taliban activity and disrupt(ing) a high-threat insurgency area” (see more reporting for example here and here). The operation and ensuing loss of life outraged the Afghan president. The Afghan news agency Pajhwok reported on 17 January that a “fact-finding team, assigned by President Karzai, found 13 civilians, including four children and three women” killed. (ISAF itself had said two civilians had been killed, along with one of its own soldiers.)
Taleban statements, however, cannot be taken at face value (for an earlier AAN analysis of the Taleban’s politics on claiming and denying responsibility see here). It seems highly unlikely that an attack like this could have been decided and staged within two days of the Ghorband air strike, given that it involved operationalizing a suitable suicide team of three, gathering the necessary intelligence of the specific area (Wazir Akbar Khan is a fortified neighbourhood due to the presence of many embassies and other international organisations), organising the weaponry, making everyone familiar with the location, etc. (NDS officials also claimed the attackers had maps of the location and “knew who was visiting Taverna”, although how they deduced this is not clear.) The Taleban’s claim that it was a revenge act rather looked like an opportunist afterthought – an attempt to justify civilian casualties with civilian casualties in front of the immediate and overwhelmingly negative reactions from internationals and Afghans alike for having attacked people who were peacefully sitting over their dinners. Even though the Taverna has always been a place with a mixed clientele (both Afghan and international), it seems the Taleban’s real aim was to target random foreigners only because they were foreigners. That has been a relatively rare occurrence in this war. The headline of one of the Taleban claims quite bluntly lumped foreign civilians in with the military: “Dozens of invaders killed in martyr attack on restaurant popular with foreigners in Kabul”.
Symptom of a changing war?
The question remains if this attack may thus represent a new sort of targeting or a symptom of the changing nature of the Afghan war.
As AAN has reported regularly over the years, the Taleban target and kill civilians every day. The last UNAMA Protection of Civilians report for the first six months of 2013 (a new one is due shortly) detailed that a fifth more civilians were killed or injured in fighting compared to the same period in the year before. It also found that the Taleban and other insurgent groups were responsible for the bulk of civilian casualties, 74 per cent. The vast majority are Afghans. Those targeted tend to be government officials, mullahs or tribal leaders judged to be pro-government, women activists or alleged spies. The Taleban have also targeted foreign civilians, but almost always give some justification. The attack on the Finest supermarket in Kabul in January 2011 which killed eight people, including one whole Afghan family, allegedly targeted a senior Blackwater official. The Taleban claimed they murdered ten aid workers in Badakhshan in 2010 because they had been spying and proselytising – a patent lie. The attack on the IOM compound in Kabul last May was justified with the claim that the IOM had been harbouring CIA agents, and the attack on a hotel in Kargha in June 2012, where the Taleban had also hoped to hit foreigners but killed 15 Afghans instead, was explained as an attack on a place of immorality (see AAN reporting here and here). AAN’s Thomas Ruttig wrote about the real reasons behind the Kargha incident and others as:
…designed not to give the Taleban a military victory, but to catch the eye of the international public, to counter NATO claims that the Taleban have been weakened and are no longer able to pull off attacks, to throw dirt on the glossy picture of a smoothly progressing transition and to deepen the uncertainty among Afghans about their future.
Last night’s attack looked similar. Hitting random foreigners and the Afghans who socialise in the same places is a highly effective way of spreading distress and unease. It is therefore difficult to imagine that the many condemnations of yesterday’s attack – for instance Ban-Ki Moon’s demand that such “horrific“ and “targeted attacks against civilians“ must “stop immediately” – will shame the Taleban into rethinking. Unfortunately, the publicity may just encourage more such attacks.
Stricter security regimes compromise the quality of aid
This may also have been an attack on a soft target to put pressure on ‘harder’ ones. The Taverna strike falls in the middle of a heated political debate about the continued stay of international troops in Afghanistan. It might thus very well have been designed to shake the resolve of the US and other nations to insist on signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), as politicians and mediators have done repeatedly in the past few weeks (for example most recently on 17 January, see here), even after the Obama administration had officially stepped back from the deadline of the end of 2013.
But the international intervention in Afghanistan has not just been a military one. After the Taverna attack, particularly civilian international organisations may feel forced to change their rules and tactics – which entails the risk of affecting their ability to work. At least for the upcoming weeks, they are likely to tighten their security regimens even further, by declaring more public and private locations in the capital and elsewhere in the country off limits for international employees. This morning, security officers of two different international organisations, one non-governmental, one governmental, told AAN that until further notice all public places such as restaurants, bars or hotels were “out of bounds” and that they reviewed “security implications for any kind of outside contact.” This included tentatively also contacts with Afghan partner organisations such as NGOs and ministries, which, if implemented, threatens to confine most of the work to international compounds secured by high walls and barbed wire.
So, beyond the additional strain the attack puts on negotiations around the BSA, the incident also raises questions on how civilian aid, particularly through NGOs, can be provided – and elections monitored later this year – if soft targets are no longer off limits. It is a low profile approach to security that enables many international organisations to keep much of the aid work running in an environment that constantly shrinks access to Afghans and provinces. Decisions have to be made very carefully and they have to be made in the full light of information that will hopefully surface in the upcoming days, particularly about who was behind the attacks. It is unlikely that an attack on a restaurant will prompt international missions to stop their work, but the psychological effect is not to be underestimated. Pressure from home countries is likely to rise, demanding more restrictions or the withdrawal of personnel. But more security regulations and fewer personnel means even more compromises on the quality of aid and policymaking. It would widen even further the separation of Afghans and internationals and impact the already impaired ability of organisations to assess needs or monitor aid.
(1) According to the latest official figures (April 2013), there were 295 Germans working for German governmental development organisations and up to 60 more for German NGOs alone.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020