Continued from “Dinner with A Taliban Commander”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 15
James, Aram guesthouse, 3 a.m.
I’ve been worrying about Amala, ever since we had lunch at an Indian restaurant where she told me the dreadful news about her colleague from Bangladesh. Sohrab had worked on microcredit under her supervision, and he’d only recently set up a branch somewhere in the south-west of the country.
* * *
‘Have you heard about Sohrab?’ Amala said.
‘Your colleague?’ I was spooning dhal on to my plate.
‘No,’ I said, expecting to hear that he had left for a job elsewhere. ‘I haven’t heard anything.’
We were having lunch at the Delhi Durbar, an Indian restaurant within walking distance of both our guesthouses. The restaurant operated from a building clearly built originally for residential purposes, for there were five separate small rooms now converted into private cabins for clients to eat in. The general atmosphere was seedy, and annoyingly they turned on the heating only after we’d entered one of the private rooms. The waiters were dressed in white suits and bow-ties with bright red earmuffs to keep them warm. Periodically they would dash out of the restaurant into the cold across an unkempt garden to a storeroom to fetch the drinks. Temperatures in Kabul had suddenly dropped over the past few days.
Amala said, ‘He’s been kidnapped.’
‘God!’, I froze in the middle of transferring chicken curry on to my plate. ‘Why? I mean, why him?’
‘The Taliban have issued a statement that charging interest is haraam. For some time now, we just speak of a loan repayment, avoiding any mention of interest. But perhaps we left it a bit late. Now they’ve accused us of anti-Islamic activities and have demanded a ransom for his release.’
‘Fifty million Afghanis.’
‘So?’ I broke off a piece of poppadum.
‘DRAC won’t pay. It’ll set a bad precedent. They are talking about closing down the whole project.’
‘As I’ve been saying, you should go back,’ I said, unable to hide my frustration and anger.
‘Jonathan is there.’
Jonathan Brent was security adviser for the Dutch Rural Aid Conference, or DRAC. An ex-British army officer like myself, he had seen combat in a few places. He lived in the Iftar guesthouse and oversaw security arrangements for the charity’s branches across the country. I had met him a few times, and liked and respected him.
‘What’s Jonathan going to do?’ I said dismissively. ‘It’s not safe for you any more.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Amala, with a touch of asperity.
It’s the reason I love her so much. Raw courage. Understated idealism shining on her face. If only she could see herself the way I see her.
Amala said, more softly: ‘I’m safe, James. My gender is my safety. They won’t kidnap women. It’s anti-Islamic.’
‘It might be,’ I agreed, ‘but I don’t trust them to be consistent.’
‘Do you know how Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, first came to prominence?’
‘A warlord fancied a girl and when her parents didn’t accept his proposal to marry her he kidnapped a girl here. The mullah launched a rescue operation and they killed off the warlord. He became a hero. It’s un-Islamic, he said –’
‘And what,’ I interrupted, ‘happened to that tenet a few years ago when those Korean women were kidnapped?’
‘That’s true.’ Amala nodded. ‘Times change.’
‘You’re just making my point for me. Times change, principles change. You are absolutely not safe and should go back home.’
‘There’s another reason I’ll be safe,’ Amala said. ‘My skin colour.’
‘What does your skin colour have to do with your safety?’ I managed not to tear my hair. Sometimes she infuriated me.
‘A great deal. My grandmother was Kashmiri, so I’m much fairer than your average Bangladeshi woman. I wear Afghan women’s clothing. Anyone seeing me on the street would assume I’m an Afghan.’
‘But you hardly speak Dari.’
‘True,’ she admitted, ‘but I speak Urdu. I could be Pakistani.’
‘And would that help, you think?’
‘Of course it would. I could be a daughter of someone important from the Pakistani Taliban.’
‘Here we go again. What would the daughter of a member of the Taliban be doing in Kabul?’
‘Okay, I may not be his daughter, but I could be a relative. Don’t you see?’
‘So, with regard to Sohrab’s kidnapping, you think his darker complexion went against him and made him a target for kidnapping?’ I said.
‘Yes.’ Amala spooned aloo matar on to her plate and pulled off a portion of a garlic naan.
‘You’re underestimating them, Amala. The Taliban see the car you travel in. It has DRAC written all over it, doesn’t it?
‘You’re a fine one to talk, James,’ she said, raising her voice now. ‘Clearly a foreigner and the way you walk around and expose yourself you’re almost as bad as K-Jim. You are the one who should leave.’
‘Let’s both leave,’ I said. ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Together.’
‘It’s getting cold, James,’ Amala said, as she gave me a soft shy smile, ‘but I’m not ready to be your bukhari.’ Her reference to the earthen stove that heated most Afghan homes both dismayed and delighted me. Dismayed, because it was a rejection; and delighted because it suggested that she may have at least imagined an intimate existence with me.
Couldn’t she have added ‘Not just yet’? That would have allowed me to dream on. I clung to the hope her smile seemed to offer me.
‘I just hope that Sohrab gets released,’ she said glumly.
We continued to eat our meal in silence.
‘I worry about you,’ I said.
Bile rose in my mouth at the thought of something happening to Amala, and I found I couldn’t finish my food.
* * *
Most of the aid workers based in Kabul are sitting ducks. The Taliban could take them out any time they wished. Penetrating Kabul is not difficult. They’ve done it before and they can do it again. And targeting the aid community is not hard either. Most of them live in what used to be large residences whose owners have converted them into guesthouses in a rough and ready fashion, breaking up large hallways and turning them into three bedrooms each with an attached toilet, then renting out each unit for a thousand dollars a month. Frankly, it’s cheaper to live in many parts of London. And this is supposed to be a third world country.
These entrepreneurs construct a kind of a ramshackle wooden guardhouse outside the guest accommodation, install a few guards with machine guns, and that’s it. Will these untrained guards hold out against a better-trained Taliban or al-Qaida attack? Not a chance. But then, what are the options?
After Sohrab’s kidnapping they beefed up the presence of the guards outside Amala’s guesthouse, increasing their numbers from two to five. And Jonathan, DRAC’s security adviser, convinced the guesthouse owner to take down the wooden guardhouse and replace it with a proper solid structure. Jonathan keeps a carbine inside the house and knows how to use it. Not that he could do much in the event of an attack, but still . . .
Thing is, in the current circumstances, the cost of providing security is just too high. To be honest, if you were to provide proper security to the aid workers – proper security, I mean – none of the charities would be able to afford it. If they were to budget for the kind of security they actually need, there wouldn’t be any money left for the real work. Each guesthouse would need a lot more money spent on it, to set up heavy-duty high wire fencing with solid brick perimeters and round-the-clock security by professional guards. The richer international organisations have hired professional western security companies to provide the services of Nepalese Gurkhas around their office compounds, but not everyone can afford this.
As for proper security on the streets, forget it. Even the United Nations is hard put to buy enough armoured cars for their staff, since each one costs upwards of half a million dollars.
* * *
There is now another reason for me to worry about Amala. Barry has close friends within the American and British intelligence community, and he has heard a report from them of a specially trained Taliban cell being sent to Kabul with a view to targeting specifically those who work on microcredit and elections.
The biggest player in these upcoming elections is the United Nations, but most of their staff live in a secure compound in Jalalabad Road guarded 24/7 by a team of highly trained professionals.
Barry says that is the intelligence – that it’s a group of no more than four or five Afghans. If that’s the case, they won’t think of taking on that big compound. It would be too hard a task to achieve. The International Security Assistance Force, which means NATO and the Americans, are just a short distance down the road, and, even though they are known to be slow to swing into action to protect others, their mere presence acts as a kind of deterrent for extremist groups planning an attack.
I’ve been here long enough to have a sense of the way the Taliban think, even if they are such a diverse and loosely connected grouping, and when I see it from their point of view I think why bother with a large-scale attack on a major target that carries a high risk of failure. Kabul city is full of smaller, softer targets, and a few killings there will still get them the first spot on the BBC and CNN.
There are several charities and aid agencies who are working on the elections that are due just next week. It makes perfect sense for the Taliban to target any of them. But – and this is where I start to sweat and worry – if the news is confirmed that this group wants to target those employed in the microcredit business as well, and if they want to send a message with one strike, then there are not so many charities that I can think of. Only one, as a matter of fact.
Perhaps I’m imagining things and worrying needlessly. I hope and pray that this is the case, but the fear will not disappear.
Continued to “Boot Camp, Taliban Style”