KABUL, Afghanistan — It could not even chase cartoons off the local television stations, but the blast that ripped through the Finest supermarket Friday afternoon sent far-ranging shock waves through the international community.
Details were sketchy —officials say that at least eight people died, including three foreigners and a child, with dozens more injured. The Taliban were quick to claim responsibility, sending out text messages to local and international media saying they were making good on their threats to target foreigners.
Initial reports were confusing.
Eyewitnesses say that a suicide bomber ran into the store with an AK-47, opening fie before detonating his explosive vest. But others claim that grenades were thrown, while some police officials speculated that a rocket may have caused the damage.
The entire first floor of the newly enlarged shop was destroyed by the explosion and the ensuing fire.
The incident was barely registering on the major local media: popular Tolo TV was carrying coverage of the Oscar nominees, while state-owned RTA was running a music program. Indian serials and Bugs Bunny dominated other Afghan stations, with editors apparently unwilling to interrupt regularly scheduled programming for what may have seemed a minor incident in an already violence-prone country. Even the evening news programs gave the explosion short shrift.
But within an hour of the blast, which occurred at mid-afternoon when many Kabul residents were profiting from the day off to catch up on their food shopping, almost every foreigner in Kabul had heard the news. All embassies, the United Nations, and other international organizations issued immediate lock-downs of personnel, the third this week. The first two were due to fears of street fighting because of an escalating political battle between President Hamid Karzai and the Parliament.
All in all, it is a difficult time to be a foreigner in Kabul.
“It’s finally happened,” said one American who works on a military base in central Kabul, his voice subdued and barely audible over the mobile phone. “They’ve hit the supermarket.”
Threats of attacks on Western targets have been so frequent of late as to have become virtually meaningless to those who actually live in the city. Last year foreigners were bombarded with reports of ominous “white corollas packed with explosives” that were allegedly looking for appropriate marks. But as the months passed with very few incidents, many relaxed their guard. While violence is up sharply throughout the country, the capital was almost unnaturally quiet.
All of that changed on Friday.
“It is too soon to say whether this is the start of a trend,” warned one Western security expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But it is the first attack on a specifically Western target in a very long time. I would imagine the other Western-style stores will be pretty nervous.”
The Taliban had been warning for months that they would carry out attacks in the capital, and the Finest supermarket is a powerful symbol of the Western presence.
It was one of the first Western-style food stores in Kabul, featuring everything from tortillas to tonic water. Finest recently was outfitted with modern scanners and cash registers, replacing the old system of hand-written receipts toted up on electronic calculators.
It also sported ATMs, with many foreigners stopping by regularly to top up their cash reserves.
The store is located in a busy roundabout in Wazir Akbar Khan, the tony district that caters to diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and other Kabul elites. It is no accident that Reuters and the Associated Press had reports out within minutes – their bureaus are within a few hundred yards of the store. The New York Times is just down the road, and the British Embassy is directly across the street.
It had already been a very tense week in the Afghan capital.
The police presence in Kabul had been stepped up considerably from Sunday, when Karzai had been scheduled to inaugurate the new legislature. The president canceled the event, saying he wanted to delay it for a month to allow a special court to carry out an investigation into allegations of fraud in last September’s Parliamentary elections.
The Parliamentarians threatened to open the session without him, and fears of violence spread through the city.
After prolonged negotiations, the opening ceremony finally took place on Wednesday, amid frequent police checkpoints. Over the past several months Kabul’s police have established what they call a “Ring of Steel” around the center, stopping and searching suspicious-looking vehicles, and often asking foreigners for identification.
But when the inauguration took place without incident, the police vigilance relaxed somewhat. On Thursday evening the normally ubiquitous checkpoints were less visible, and movement through the capital eased.
But the police were out in force on Friday. Kabul residents say the center of the city was all but blocked off after the bombing, with normally busy weekend traffic halted in the center.
The effect on the international community will be swift and severe. Diplomats and aid workers will almost certainly face greater restrictions on movement.
“It is common knowledge that the United Nations and other large international organizations are limited to about five restaurants in Kabul,” said the Western security expert. “Those places could easily become targets.”
One of the eateries he named was The Grill, a popular Lebanese Restaurant immediately next to Finest, which had been deemed safe by most security companies. The Grill is frequented by British diplomats, who make the 50-yard trip from the Embassy across the street in heavily armored cars, but relax inside the restaurant’s fortified walls.
Staff from the Grill, reached by phone, said the restaurant did not sustain any damage in the explosion, but decided to close Friday evening anyway.
“Everything is fine here,” said a cheerful voice on the end of the line, who did not want to give his name to a reporter. “We will be open tomorrow night. There is no problem. Welcome.”
But it is far from clear whether anyone in Kabul will be able to take him up on his offer.