ABC Facepalms

by Joshua Foust on 9/23/2009 · 6 comments

Just think about the blinders it takes to write about Kabul like this:

Think of Kabul and you might well think of armored cars bombed out buildings and bullet-proof vests. But behind the blast walls, this city is flush with discrete oases, where one can indulge in a steak tartare or relax with a Swedish massage.

OMG! British food in Kabul! How Ironic!

OMG! British food in Kabul! How Ironic!

I hear the goat is fabulous. What follows is a description of what a white American woman can get once she’s past those blast walls (don’t forget the razorwire!), layers of husky security guards, and metal detectors. It sounds fabulous, except for the severe risk of abduction. But even as an American, Clarissa Ward can’t help twisting the knife:

Besides Fine Dining, Kabul is Great for Relaxation and Shopping

A nice mean out at one of Kabul’s finest restaurants does not come cheaply, particularly if you choose to wash it down with a glass of wine. An average meal at the restaurants mentioned above will set you back about $50 a head (if you order a bottle of wine). That may not sound like much to a New Yorker, but for Kabul it’s very expensive indeed.

Afghanistan’s per capita income is about $430. In an entire year, the average Afghan earns enough for eight meals, give or take, at these fabulous restaurants. These meals that didn’t even cause Ms. Ward to blink, because, hey, New York right?

Much as she crows about Kabul’s prospects as a venue for the same generic ethnic food you get at a schlocky chain restaurant in Tyson’s Corner, or paying $50 for shepherd’s pie and a glass of beaujolais, or even the abundance of lapis lazuli marked up 1000% above what you’d pay outside of Kabul… I mean, really what the hell is this anyway?

Suffice it to say, precious few Afghans will ever be able to experience such decadence, hidden behind the walls of the foreigners trying as hard as they can to avoid mingling with the country they’re occupying. The piece could have been interesting had there been an ironic twinkle somewhere, or an understanding that it’s ridiculous that such things are locked behind guards and razorwire for the rich foreigners while millions live in squalor in the hills… but no, Clarissa Ward thinks Kabul is a great place to be if you have a network TV channel funding your personal security detachment and an expense account at the Serena.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Transitionland September 23, 2009 at 6:16 pm


dennis September 23, 2009 at 7:28 pm

yeah really whats the point. i would go there to help out with a project or something. but not to go there just to do a travel log. or whatever the hell this was. was this about corruption?

anan September 23, 2009 at 7:34 pm

dennis, the point is that Joshua has gone native . . . good for him . . . the ISAF and the civilian surge need to go native too.

BTW, Joshua’s critique so fits into the image of the “Western Tourist” in many Asian countries. I suspect that Africans and Latin Americans feel the same way.

Nice post Joshua.

dennis September 23, 2009 at 7:56 pm

anan. thank you. I’m old, blind, and dim.

Narcogen September 23, 2009 at 9:03 pm

All these points I think are well taken, but I also think it’s worth trying to look at what could be realistically expected.

The expensive food she’s enjoying is “generic” and the restaurant “schlocky” but at the same time it is “decadence” that is out of the reach of the average Afghan. Is it decadent because it’s good (although still generic) or because it is expensive?

Is the author’s attitude towards this expenditure bad and insenstive because the things she is describing are out of the reach of the average citizen? Would it actually be better to adopt a more native attitude towards expenditures, as I have seen many expatriates do, seeking out the cheapest meals, cheaptest taxis, cheapest stores, and haggling and bargaining to avoid paying what they perceive as a “foreigner tax”?

I know the piece offends you and I can see why. I can also see why ABC would want to run it. Regardless of accuracy, many people have difficulty actually caring about people who are significantly different from them, and imagining places they have never been. I also think there is a certain insensitivity to attempts by newsgathering agencies, or by NGOs, to “raise awareness” of situations around the world that deserve attention because of suffering in those places. The approach that “those places are not so completely different from home” may not be entirely accurate, and the author may not even be aware her piece is being used in that way; she may just be writing another travelogue as far as she is concerned.

karaka September 24, 2009 at 5:38 pm

I agree with Narcogen.

Regardless of accuracy, many people have difficulty actually caring about people who are significantly different from them, and imagining places they have never been.

Let’s be honest–the concern that no one is paying attention to the American presence in Afghanistan is a valid one, and if vapid pieces insensitive to the real economic struggles of the Afghan people and the security threats that American troops are working every day to contain means that the next time I mention Kabul in a conversation–and people know where the fuck it is–is just fine with me. I have more important things to read than something like this, sure, but I’m not convinced that I could talk about attempts to further the growth of the ANSF without people asking me what the “A” stands for. I’d rather people be aware of something idiotic than not aware at all.

(Or what Narcogen said, more delicately.)

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