Friday nights are usually pretty busy at the Taverna du Liban, Kabul’s first and still most popular Lebanese restaurant. Other eateries featuring hummus and baba ganoush can be found, of course, but the foreigners who flock to the Taverna are interested in more than the excellent kebab.
They come for the décor, heavy on dark, carved wood and colorful ceramics; they stay for the complimentary chocolate cake that arrives without fail at the end of every meal.
Most of all, they appreciate the relaxed, friendly atmosphere, where wine is served in teapots, and the silver-haired owner drifts among the guests, bringing them new dishes to try, frequently accompanied by his enormous and bad-tempered cat, an Afghan stray that he adopted and loved unreservedly until it died a few years ago.
That is the way it used to be, in the old days — until yesterday, in fact — before the Taliban stormed the beloved Taverna, killing at least 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. The victims included owner Kamal Hamade, who, according to news reports, had grabbed a gun and gone to battle the attackers. They shot him dead.
The restaurant, located in the heart of Wazir Akbar Khan, the tony diplomatic district that is home to many embassies and dozens of top officials, had been a fixture in Kabul since about 2006.
It had gone through more than a few security scares during that time, and had acquired a wall around it, a locking gate, and armed guards to make the patrons feel safe. It was on the “approved” list even for the notoriously finicky US Embassy, whose staff are largely restricted to their fortress-like compound.
No US diplomats were on hand Friday, however, according to one embassy source.
This is among the worst incidents of violence directed at foreigners since the start of the war in 2001. Other notable episodes, such as the attack on a UN guesthouse in Kabul in 2009, or the 2008 storming of the luxury Serena Hotel, may have been more spectacularly headline-grabbing, but resulted in fewer casualties.
This was more than a random attack on a popular watering hole. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying that it was payback for a coalition airstrike in a province just north of Kabul.
As the Taliban put it:
“The attack was in retaliation to the massacre carried out by foreign invaders two days earlier in Parwan province's Siyah Gerd district where the enemy airstrikes destroyed up to 10 homes, razed several orchards as well as killing and wounding up to 30 innocent civilians mostly defenseless women and children.”
The insurgents had targeted the Taverna since it was “a restaurant frequented by high ranking foreigners … where the invaders used to dine with booze and liquor in the plenty.”
Among the dead were the representative of the International Monetary Fund in Afghanistan, a top UN official and two teachers from the American University in Afghanistan.
The international community was quick to condemn the attacks; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called it a “horrific attack,” and IMF head Christine Lagarde said that “we at the fund are all devastated.”
The UK’s Labour leader, Ed Miliband, also weighed in. "People everywhere will be appalled and shocked by this barbarous act of terror deliberately targeting members of the international community living and working in Kabul in the service of the Afghan people,” he said in a statement.
The White House also reacted strongly, while plugging its own programs in Afghanistan.
“There is no possible justification for this attack, which has killed innocent civilians, including Americans, working every day to help the Afghan people achieve a better future with higher education and economic assistance,” the White House press office said Saturday.
The only one who seemed reluctant to comment was Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.
It was almost 24 hours after the attack before the Office of the President issued a statement, rather grudging and ungracious in its message:
"If NATO forces and in the lead the United States of America want to cooperate and be united with Afghan people, they must target terrorism," he said. The Afghan president further criticized his supposed ally, saying that America was conducting a "policy which has caused many sacrifices in Afghanistan and was not successful in the past decade."
Karzai had earlier condemned the airstrikes in Parwan Province which, he said, had killed eight civilians.
“How many more innocent Afghans have to die so it gets the attention of US officials?” said his spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
Relations have been quite strained between Karzai and Washington lately, and this reaction is unlikely to help.
The Americans have been trying to get the Afghan president to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that would regulate the status of US forces in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.
Now all eyes, and hopes, will be pinned on the Afghan presidential elections, scheduled for April, which Washington hopes will usher in a more cooperative administration.
The Taverna will be sorely missed, and Kamal Hamade will be sincerely mourned. Also on the list of reasons to grieve will be the loss of a sense of immunity, a feeling that the war is far away.
What ordinary Afghans have known for more than a decade is now being brought home to the thousands of foreign personnel in Kabul and elsewhere in the country: no one can feel safe in Afghanistan these days.
Journalist Jean MacKenzie worked as a reporter in Afghanistan from October 2004 to December 2011.