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Taliban threat changing life in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban are beginning to put a serious dent in my social life. The weekend was a series of broken engagements, as one friend after another bowed to safety concerns and went into lockdown.

A proposed gathering of journalists at the Gandemak, one of the most appealing bars in town, was cancelled when nobody showed up.

Dinner on Friday had to be shelved when a security firm put its foot down and refused to let my friend, bureau chief for a major American news organization, leave the house.

I did manage to host a buffet on Saturday night, but the amount of muscle parked outside my house had the neighborhood in an uproar.

The reason for the general anxiety was an alert sent out by a local organization that monitors the security situation around the country. Kabul was due for a big hit, they warned, with insurgents planning an assault on a guest house used by foreigners in the center of town. The location of the target was not clear, but the unofficial networks were buzzing.

In the event, nothing at all happened. It was a mercifully quiet weekend, made all the quieter by the enforced isolation. After all the fuss of the past few months, the Taliban really don’t even need to attack any more — all they have to do is circulate rumors that they are about to strike, and everyone cowers behind their walls.

I don’t blame them. On my way home from a media conference this evening I passed the scene of the last major Kabul offensive — the two or three blocks around the Kabul city center that were hit last weekend, on a Friday morning. All the windows on one side of the slick new building are gone; the emerald facade around the corner has gap-toothed holes where glass is missing. Former houses are now just piles of rubble, and the famed “three-foot crater” caused by the bomb blast has been turned into a lake by the recent rains.

In January 2008, in the wake of the horrific attack on the Kabul Serena hotel, I was one of a merry group of free spirits who haunted the empty restaurants of Kabul. We went to a different establishment each night for a week, usually making up the entire clientele of the place.

“Lightning never strikes twice,” we told ourselves, reveling in our independence and perhaps, in hindsight, our foolhardiness. We scoffed at the rest of the expatriate community, who worked and lived under the harsh thumbs of security firms, vowing over our pizza and red wine that we would never bow down to terrorist threats.

What a difference two years can make! We now know that lightning can, indeed, strike twice, at the very least. The Serena has now been hit three times over the past two years, making its designation as safe housing of choice for the United Nations and other international organizations a grim joke.

Bombs have exploded morning, afternoon, and evening, rendering inoperative our previous assumptions that terrorists are done by noon.

I wonder what would have happened if things had been this bad when I first arrived. I was nervous enough in the fall of 2004, in the wake of a suicide bombing on Chicken Street, the kidnapping of three U.N. workers, and dire threats to disrupt the presidential elections.

But Kabul was pretty secure then. I used to take city cabs alone. My rudimentary Dari would get me from place to place relatively unscathed, sometimes with a few benign adventures along the way. I would never dream of getting into one of the yellow-and-white cabs now without an Afghan escort, preferably large and male.

I used to wander all over town on foot, another pleasure that has slowly gone by the wayside. I barely go out to do my own vegetable shopping any more — not because some security firm has told me I cannot, but because the atmosphere on the streets is becoming more and more threatening. I stick to supermarkets these days, with packaged tomatoes and men with guns standing guard outside.

I cannot bear the thought that Kabul will eventually turn into Baghdad, 2005, with all of us corralled inside a Green Zone, unable to make contact with the outside world. Kabul, my home for the past five years, has been for me a city of occasional deprivation and frequent delight, where my work, friends, and life are centered.

But I have no thought of leaving — not yet, anyway.

Perhaps I am like the proverbial (and surely apocryphal) frog in the water. They say if you put the poor amphibian in a pot of boiling liquid, he will jump out immediately, saving himself (I have not put this to the test). But place him a cool vat and gradually turn up the heat, and he will relax until it is too late to do anything about it.

I am pretty sure the water is still fine. But I hope I notice before the steam begins to rise.