The international community is reeling from a dawn attack on a guest house in central Kabul that left at least five foreign United Nations workers dead and nine wounded. It was the deadliest assault on UN personnel in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. The United States Embassy condemned the attack, saying it left them ‘shocked and saddened.’
It goes without saying that the death of so many well-intentioned internationals is sad – even tragic. But no one should be shocked by what happened this morning. The Taliban said it would target anyone working on the run-off elections for the Afghan Presidency next week. Warning’s aside, it has been clear for some time that Kabul’s security is abysmal.
I’ve worked as a security advisor in Afghanistan since 2004 and every year the security situation in the capital and the broader country has deteriorated drastically. Sadly, foreigners living and working in Kabul are often unaware of how vulnerable they truly are. They are too blinded by a security façade that gives the illusion of protection where little may exist. Many guesthouses, for example, advertise that they are ‘UN approved’; a label which gives the impression that an establishment meets some sort of pre-determined security criteria. I’ve often wondered what it takes to earn that UN label. There are ‘UN approved’ guesthouses in Kabul I wouldn’t let my clients walk past let alone sleep in. I know of one guesthouse that has a plate-glass window facing the street. There are no blast walls, not even a ditch separating it from the road. A suicide bomber with a VBIED (vehicle borne IED) could drive right through that window and kill everyone inside. And the UN label is not limited to modest guesthouses. Kabul’s only five-star hotel, The Serena, is UN approved despite being the target of a 2008 suicide bombing that left six people dead. The Serena was also attacked by rockets this morning.
Many foreign agencies operating in Afghanistan do employ commercial security to protect their workers. The level of protection can range from budget local and so-called ‘third country’ guards to expensive British and American Close Protection teams (bodyguards). Again, the facades can be misleading.
Local Afghans and third country security guards such as ex-British and Indian Army Gurkhas are an economical option for cash strapped operations. But as is so often the case, clients get what they pay for. The reality is that most budget guards are not paid enough to stand and fight or even to stay alert 24/7. I can’t tell you how many I’ve seen asleep at their posts around Kabul in the wee hours of the morning. Some clients use a mix of local and third country guards overseen by a more expensive, experienced advisor to secure their compounds. This is only effective however, if experienced advisors are on location around the clock. It’s not good enough to have one overseeing daytime shifts only.
Western security teams are the safer bet. Many are staffed by highly competent individuals who know how to do their jobs. Here too though, bottom line considerations can compromise professionalism. Many managers back home are so worried about losing contracts that they’ll instruct advisors on the ground to ‘give the client what they want’ even if it’s dangerous. It is not unheard of for foreign workers to ignore the advice of their security teams and engage in high risk behaviour, such as dining out in restaurants, going shopping and sightseeing. The same attitude prevailed in the early days of the Iraq conflict. It changed after New Year’s Eve 2003; the night a Baghdad restaurant popular with internationals was levelled by a car bomb.
This morning’s attack in Kabul is a similar wake up call. Whether in a restaurant or asleep in bed, foreigners in the Afghan capital are not safe. There are ways, though, for them to increase their margin of safety. Listening to their security advisors is a good place to start. Limiting movements to only those that are necessary and not dining out in popular international restaurants are also recommended. It may sound monastic – and it is—but maintaining a low profile lifestyle in Kabul is more important than ever. International agencies may also want to consider pooling resources to pay for enhanced security and to share intelligence. Finally, managers of security firms can do their part by supporting their teams on the ground even if it risks losing a contract. Bean counters and hostile environments are not now nor will they ever be a good mix.