A Murder in Kabul

When a war gets personal

21 people were murdered last night in a restaurant in Kabul.

That’s what’s left of the lede I’ve been writing and rewriting all day. For once I don’t have an angle, or a YouTube clip, or a bunch of GIFs that can help me make sense of this. For once I don’t have a convoluted array of pop culture references to explain how I feel about what happened last night.

When I write about Afghanistan, I mostly hold it at arm’s length. I manage to bang out a couple of thousand words at a time because I’ve found a niche that lets me talk about this place without getting too personal. Part of that’s because of the job I do, and I’ve chosen to not write about that or the people I know for a variety of reasons, both professional and personal.

So I find a way to retreat behind objective analysis of Taliban peace talks, or take on the Lord of the ISAF latte and assorted wonks and their baseless assertions that we’re winning a war we had no idea how to win in the first place. Or I put together playlists and listicles that might help take the edge off this place, if only for a little while. Because to do otherwise means I have to think about places like Taverna du Liban, and Kamal Hamade, and another murder in Kabul.

For once I don’t want to try to analyze this . For once I’m not doing an “explainer” of what this means/does not mean for the future of foreign intervention in this country. For once I could care less about the implications for transition, or the elections, or about how many troops will be left in Afghanistan at the end of the year.

Because this time it’s not at arm’s length. Because this time it didn’t happen in some far off province where I’ve never been. Because this time, and not for the first time, the war got personal.

It’s personal because La Taverna was a place all of us knew well. It’s personal because at some point nearly every expatriate that’s been through this town met Kamal. It’s personal because of the ridiculous amounts of free food and the chocolate cake.

It’s personal because the expatriates who died yesterday were here trying to do some good. Because they believed that their purpose here was to help Afghans make Afghanistan a better place. Because like me they hoped to make a difference here, and by many accounts, that’s exactly what they were doing.

I know we foreigners have made more than our fair share of mistakes. Far too often genuine good gets lost in the pointless acts of the Noble Order of White Helpfulness. I am aware that this is, in many ways, the graveyard of good intentions.

But once you get past the blast walls, the poppy palaces, and the Flower Street Cafenistas, what you’ll find are some true believers. Cynical, jaded, and sometimes frighteningly pragmatic about this country’s future, they are smart people who are here to help, and do so competently. People who sincerely believe that Afghans and Afghanistan are going to be just fine.

Contrary to the popular image of the mercenary hordes descending upon this country en masse, some of us come here and manage to not make things worse. We eke out something resembling a life in the Kabubble. We chafe at our security restrictions and our curfews, and find a way to be a part of this place even so.

So it jars us when the violence hits this close to home. I’ve listened to my fair share of stories of lives forever changed by this war. My Afghan colleagues have broken me more than once recounting violence suffered at the hands of both the insurgents and the coalition. I’ve had coffee with an old friend here on what turned out to be the last day of his life.

Those days, like yesterday, are the days when the war gets a little too close. When it’s more than sterile facts and disembodied figures. When it has a face, and a name, and all that’s left when the smoke clears is twisted rubble and memories that fade all too soon.

Today the war got personal.