Kabul’s vice squads padlock foreigner speakeasies

KABUL, Afghanistan — My dinner companion had just swallowed the last of his apple pie and ice cream as several armed men entered the restaurant.

They looked alert and angry as they fanned through the brightly-lit dining area, passing tables populated by gaping diners sampling dinners, bottles of beer and wine costing the equivalent of an Afghan civil servant’s monthly salary. More men, speaking into walkie-talkies, started hustling diners out of the restaurant.

“What about our bill?” we asked as we were ushered out.

“Forget it, just leave,” the police officer told us.

At the exit, under harsh surveillance lights and a street littered with cement checkpoints, reinforced traffic-bars and armed guards, Afghan guests were being separated from foreigners and roughly questioned.

“Is there a bomb?” I asked one soldier using his Kalashnikov to wave people out.

“Yes, there is a bomb. Get out,” he mumbled back, ignoring me.

“It’s probably a shakedown,” a security man said as he tucked his client into an armored SUV and screeched off followed by a chase-car, a typical way of transport for international workers at risk of kidnap or assassination.

The search at Boccaccio restaurant was one in a series of up to seven raids carried out Tuesday on several foreigner-only restaurants serving Kabul’s foreign community of NGO workers, diplomats, journalists and spies. These speakeasies exist behind secure double-access doors in blocked-off streets. They are guarded by Afghan and private security forces and sport fully-stocked bars. Some, like the fashionable L’Atmosphere whose French owner was jailed Tuesday and released on bail, sport swimming pools around which bikini-clad aid workers and diplomats frolic.

“A number of raids were conducted by Afghan National Security Forces targeting restaurants which sell alcohol and employ female staff,” said an internal memo by the Afghanistan NGO Security Safety Office, a network set up to protect foreign aid workers.

Several foreigners were arrested, including a French citizen and Boccaccio’s Ukrainian female staff. Alcohol has been banned but tolerated in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

“The current raids should be placed against a backdrop of shifting sentiment towards the international community, especially since the 2009 election period.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was accused of vote-rigging during last summer’s election, setting off tensions between him and NATO that culminated in him threatening to “join the Taliban” if pressure on him continued to mount, according to a member of the Afghan parliament speaking to the Washington Post off the record.

The raids were the first since 2006, when government forces closed down a disco and several brothels operated by Chinese businessmen.

“According to Afghan law, should you catch someone drunk, you’re not allowed to swear or beat them but must take them to the nearest police station till they’re sober, then release them,” said Nassir Ahmad Farahmand, a lecturer of Philosophy at Kabul’s Talim & Tarbiat University. “But what the law says is one thing in Afghanistan and reality is another.”

The tightening moral climate comes ahead of an anticipated power-sharing deal between Karzai and the Taliban expected in a peace jirga scheduled for later this month.

“Karzai is pushing up a show to convince Hizb-i Islami [a militant group led by powerbroker Gulbuddin Hekmatyar] and the Taliban that he can turn the system ‘Islamic,’” said a Dubai-based analyst. “It usually has to do with which restaurant owners pay the officials and which don’t ... and the confiscated alcohol usually gets distributed among the police officers.”

Most Afghans are extremely traditional Muslims who are either ignorant of or exaggerate this quasi-underground scene’s goings-on. Rumors abound of bacchanalian parties unspooling behind the high walls and barbed wire.

“According to Islam, every person should have his own religion and culture,” said Lutfullah Haqqparast, a senior cleric. “But it shouldn’t be the kind of freedom that destroys the freedom of others.”

With further raids anticipated, Kabul’s several thousand-strong community of internationals will be spending more time in their well-protected villas and office complexes, behind bomb-proof cement walls and heavy private security. For the time being, the string of out-of-sight haunts where alcohol is served and Afghans officially banned have gone silent.

“Experience tells me it will blow over — why kill a cash cow?” said a foreign diplomat in Kabul. “But it clearly creates discomfort in the meantime.”