Deadly Kabul restaurant attack throws aid work into peril

A discreet beer over plates of mezze was one of few comforts on offer to aid workers and diplomats in Kabul, but a bloodbath at a Lebanese restaurant could mean many foreigners leave Afghanistan when the country needs them most.

The murder of 21 people, 13 of them foreigners, in the Taverna du Liban on Friday evening has forced aid organisations, international institutions and consultancies to re-assess how they can continue to work in the city.

"We could all have been there," said Valerie Docher, head of mission for the French aid group MRCA, which runs health programmes in several Afghan provinces.

"We will have to ask questions in the coming days about our security. This attack will necessarily have an impact."

Docher said the response of many international set-ups would be to reduce trips outside their fortified compounds, and to further vary daily staff routines to avoid becoming predictable.

"But, at some point, it becomes clear that that is not enough," she admitted.

Kabul has been transformed since the dark days of Taliban rule, and one side-effect is a small social scene catering for wealthier Afghans and more adventurous foreign workers.

There is a modern bowling alley and a handful of restaurants hidden behind security gates and armed guards.

Foreigners have been targeted before at guesthouses, luxury hotels and embassies in the city, but hitting a civilian social venue appears to signal a new and ruthless stage of the 13-year Taliban insurgency.

"I am very worried, I think unless a miracle happens, my restaurant and many other businesses in Kabul may have to close," said Mohammad Azim Popal, manager of Sufi, which attracts a mixed clientele of locals and expats.

"When the attack happened, there were many foreigners dining here, but they left in hurry.

"I have called some of them to assure them and say that I will double the guards, but they are sceptical.

"My Afghan customers come with their expat friends, and with this attack I have lost them all."

Wrecked by decades of war, Afghanistan remains reliant on outside assistance despite billions of dollars of aid since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.

Foreign consultants help develop its tax system, aid groups run education and health projects, and embassies and the UN lobby against corruption and try to promote human rights, reconciliation and democracy.

But the insurgents appear set on banishing any international presence from the country as it faces a huge period of change and uncertainty with the US-led NATO combat mission ending this year and presidential elections due in April.

Foreign aid agencies face dilemma

"NGOs are wondering whether they keep teams of expats, whether the country is safe or not," said Florian Caillibotte, country head of Afghanistan Libre, an aid group that runs projects helping vulnerable young women and girls.

"This attack probably heralds a volatile period ahead of the elections, although it is difficult to know what will happen next."

The aid effort in Afghanistan has overcome disasters before -- 10 aid workers, including six Americans, were killed in Badakhshan province in 2010.

But experts say the latest attack poses an unprecedented dilemma for those on the ground.

"This was an attack on foreign civilians targeted merely for being foreign -- a rare occasion in this Afghan war," said the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a report released on Sunday.

"(It) may be a game changer, with particular consequences for aid work.

"(The Taverna attack) 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."

Organisations mourning dead colleagues released tributes to dedicated employees who choose to leave home and work in a dangerous environment to help one of the world's most troubled countries.

And, despite the deaths, there were many vows not to abandon Afghanistan.

UNICEF, which lost one Somali-American and one Pakistani employee, expressed its "determination to continue the work that our colleagues gave their lives for".

The American University of Afghanistan in Kabul announced it would hold all its lectures despite the loss of two US staffers.

"Such senseless violence flies in the face of the sentiments of our students and the Afghan people who share our grief," said university president Michael Smith.

"We continue to provide the high quality university education for which our students are so grateful."