The South Asia Channel

Dear Taliban: I See What You’re Trying To Do, But It’s Not Working

Reporting for this piece was made possible by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

When you cover conflict zones as a reporter, you come to expect occasional spasms of violence as a matter of course, and you take them in stride. We don't have the capacity to lament every person in every incident that passes during war, so one of the residual tragedies is that people rarely get the memorials they deserve. Even if we just picked the innocent ones, there would still just be too many.

But I'm still getting emails and text messages about this past weekend's attack on La Taverna du Liban; friends and relatives I haven't heard from in months are checking in to make sure I'm OK, which has made it hard to not keep thinking about it. And I'm still seeing the images of bodies under chairs that a friend sent me. People shot while they were trying to hide, as if the wicker chairs could stop bullets, but such is the blizzard of adrenaline, blinding you when someone is trying to shoot you. Those pictures are evidence of what is beginning to feel like a trend with the Taliban: These days, they seem only interested in shooting at people who can't shoot back.

Another thing about the pictures: They graft neatly onto my own memories from the restaurant -- the chairs and tables, the pattern on the floor. It's as if I'm reminiscing about an evening I spent there, except that there is a part of it I've only just remembered, the part where I stepped out to take a call or go to the washroom and came back to find my friends all dying under the furniture.

Part of the special impact of this attack is, I have to concede, that the people who died looked like me. Were like me. The Taliban calls itself an Islamic Emirate, but usually they kill mostly Muslims.

But there was something else too, which took me a few days to understand.

*

As a rule, I don't make generalizations about Afghanistan. There is such a diversity of experience here that there's just not much you can say that would be true for more than a minority of the people, with one exception. There's one cliché you may have heard about this place, and that has been borne out again and again in my experiences. It's that all Afghans -- regardless of ethnicity, religious sect, or province -- regard hospitality like it's something sacred. I have been invited, taken almost by force, to be a guest at lunch in the homes of people fasting for Ramadan, but who insist that I eat because to them, my comfort is more important than their own.

I've been given alcohol by people who have never, and would never, let a drop pass their lips, not even cough medicine. Our faiths are different, but usually they don't care; if I'm happy, then to them, it's a duty fulfilled. The feeling I often have when I meet Afghans is that as a foreigner, I'm the most important thing in the world to them.  

Early on in my time here, I saw people drinking and carousing in Afghanistan as offensive. I was ashamed by the email invitations to parties at this or that embassy, this or that guesthouse, in which hosts bragged about how much debauchery would take place.

But within a few weeks, I was a regular. And while often the way in which foreigners behave here is indeed offensive -- it's true, sometimes, we behave like servicemen on shore leave -- I was offended on behalf of Afghans without ever asking them if they themselves were offended. So I started to. And I found that usually, they weren't. The response I often got was something along the lines of "we would never do that, but you enjoy it, and it doesn't bother us that you do."

And that's why this weekend's attack is so troubling to me. It's not the first time Afghan civilians have been killed because of their work with foreigners, not even close. Still, the thing that we're missing is that this was such a graphic example of people dying because they were taking care of their guests. At Taverna, I never felt like the Afghans working there were anything other than happy to see us happy, even if we were taking part in something they themselves never would.

And it got them killed.

Now, the U.S. is getting fed up with Afghanistan's president, and vice versa. Relations are not good, especially now that it looks like we meddled in their elections in 2009, making a half-hearted attempt to unseat current President Hamid Karzai, and started a street fight we didn't finish. I heard Karzai was livid after those excerpts of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' memoir first came out a few weeks ago, that to his inner circle, his message was something like, "See, this is the America I've been telling you about." So maybe we won't sign this security agreement, and then all the U.S. troops will leave, instead of just most of them. Maybe the Taliban will, eventually, have a chance to come back. And probably that's what this attack was about -- scaring us all into leaving.

And sometimes I think, what if we did? What if we just handed it all back to the Taliban? What would they do? Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written extensively about the war in Afghanistan, once described the Taliban to me in a way that I now describe it to others: "They were a reaction," he said. "Once they took power, they didn't show much interest in actually governing." It's not just that they turned this place into one big prison, shipped dynamite in from other countries to destroy their own most precious artifacts, and shot women in soccer stadiums -- like anyone's god would consider that a reasonable thing to do. It's that they had no idea how to run a country and weren't really interested in doing it anyway. They presided over drought. People didn't just die because the Taliban killed them, people died because under the Taliban, they starved. So now I wonder, do they really even want to take the country back? Would they be happy taking care of Afghans, the way Afghans take care of us -- the Afghans they now busy themselves with killing?

For a while there -- the past two months in particular -- it felt like we were on our way out. The agreement was going to fail, America was going to leave wholesale. Most of my friends say this weekend's attack will accelerate that process. But I don't think so. To me, it's the opposite. To me, the Taliban just reminded us all that our work here isn't finished. They've reminded us that we owe it to the Afghans, who keep risking their lives helping us rebuild their country, to stay.

And they reminded me of a going away party I once had at that restaurant. I'd been in Afghanistan five months, maybe six, doing a little rebuilding work on the margins; I'm sure I made little impact, but I was trying. And that was enough for all my new Afghan friends. They all came out to say "thank you," each of them in the earnest way people say it-a lot of eye contact, usually a hug-when they really think you've done something substantial for them. The waiters came by and smiled, and afterwards, they gave us free chocolate cake, like they always did at Taverna. And that evening turned from a going-away party into a three-hour testimony for why I should stay.

So I did. I moved back a few months later and I've been coming back ever since. And I think, or maybe I just hope, that on Friday at Taverna, what the Taliban showed us more than anything else is how our work here is not yet done. They reminded us why we need to stay.

Jeffrey E. Stern is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has appeared in Esquire, Time, Slate, the New Republic, Newsweek, the Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

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