Guest Post: A Different Perspective on Kabul’s Restaurant Raids

by Joshua Foust on 5/10/2010 · 22 comments

This email comes via an aonymous westerner who was worked extensively in Afghanistan for about a decade. In case anyone somehow divines the western’s identity, these views are the westerner’s alone, and not representative of the westerner’s employer. —eds.


josh, re the kabul liquor raids, i’d say this:

it was not a surprise that l’atmosphere was raided. the surprise was that it took so long to happen. the raid itselfwas probably predictable.

yes, it’s sad. but the sadness is that part of the raid was heavy-handed or even criminal — if the waitresses were violated as reported.

there are other ways for a governing force to implement shifts in what will be socially tolerated. and then to allow the necessary little vents. hell, it’s long been possible to get cold beer even in gaza, under the nose of hamas. and the northern alliance home team helped score cheap vodka for visitor’s western habits — in 2001. similarly, in 2001-2002, a western alcoholic i know suffered only a little in jalalabad. when he asked hard enough, and paid enough, whiskey for him appeared. courtesy of the muj.

eight years later, it’s not really sad that l’atmoshphere has had part of its business plan slapped.

that part of the business plan — selling insane amounts of booze publicly to westerners at night while running a mediocre restaurant, and a big patio, thereby creating a place for journalists and contractors and diplomats to arrange, um, crosspollination — was in no one’s interest besides the owners and whoever was getting paid to protect them.

a raid — or worse, a bomb — has felt inevitable for years.


l’atmosphere was always the perfect symbol for anyone who wanted to smack around the idea of the west. that’s why it’s a rational target for the government if the government wants to flex some muscles.

have you been there? in its context, the place was, in a word, disgusting.
it was embarrassing to go there at night and see how many patrons acted – like children, basically, spoiled children — and to think that the afghan staff was watching it all. word of the nighttime nuttiness at the bar certainly traveled outside the place’s blast walls. and it certainly did no good to the western reputation. it was like the worst college club on earth.

i’m no puritan. but drinking while working has its places. and when in afghanistan, westerners, if they want to get drunk, should not cluster and misbehave so flagrantly in groups in front of afghans. kabul is not tehran. there is no large local population, no big “sector” outside of foreigners and a few of their lackeys, that wants places like that.

the military has it right — when in afghanistan, keep it dry, or at least create the appearance of sobriety and restraint.

i don’t expect ngos, journalists , contractors and diplomats to follow a no-alcohol policy. too many of them lack the discipline and they tend to set themselves above rules. and they like their social salons. but they should at least be sane enough to keep things lower-key than supporting cattle-call drinking sessions at the ankles of a weak government that is trying to fight off an islamic insurgency. if i were a western ambassador, i would have led an effort to ban all diplomatic presence in any restaurant or club given to the atmosphere at ‘latmosphere.

you know what was also embarrassing? i read somewhere — was it on registan? — that a “longtime scribe” called the place “a barometer” of the western presence.

my first reaction was to wonder who that scribe is, and what kind of field reporting he/she does. my second reaction was to think that maybe, accidentally, that remark has it right. and it’s another of the many reasons there has been so little real traction in winning over afghans over the years, at least not nationally.

the liquor raids have a character that is very disturbing. what they show of police conduct is a disgrace, though also unsurprising. but the decision to put pressure on clubs that mint their coins by providing atmospheres that are counterproductive to the efforts to help a shaky government and to align more closely with the afghan population? this is arguably good afghan policy.

let everyone who thinks they love l’atmosphere howl that it is hard to find a place to drink and screw. boo-hoo. as a drinking hole, the place undermines what the west is trying in the short-term to do.

Just to clarify, I don’t believe any writer on has ever called l’atmosphere a “barometer” of anything. —eds.

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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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The Quiet Kabul Expat May 11, 2010 at 12:59 am

I find myself agreeing with your anonymous emailer.

I have been in Kabul some years and rarely visit the watering holes that “serve the expat community”. In reality they serve a particular group of expats who are out for big money in their employment and big “fun” when they are not at work.

There are many internationals in Kabul who are actually here because they are committed to the future and people of this country. Most of these rarely visit the raided institutions.

In agreement with your emailer, they are embarassed by the behaviour of some of the regulars at those places. And, yes, the Afghan staff, cooks, guards, etc., are witnessing all that takes place. In the minds of some Afghans this is living proof of the debauchery of the west and confirmation of the worst things said about westerners by more conservative Muslims.

I have had chats with Afghans working in these situations. Often they are young men who are not conservative Muslims -but they generally shocked by the behaviour they witness. They are also shocked by the amounts of money being spent in the places where they work. Many Afghans earn as little as $US100 – $US200 per month working in restaurants. One told me that a group of 6 – 8 expats at L’Atmosphere would spend more than $US 1,000 per night on meals and drink.

Whilst the protocol of the raids may have been lacking, we are (after all) living and working in an Islamic state. A state which is trying to balance extremist views with more moderate ones. If you cannot accept the realities here, then go and work somewhere else! (The obscenely high salaries, of course, may not be so easily available elsewhere.)

I have little pity for those operating establishments like those which were raided. They have done well, with huge profits, in a country where substantial numbers of people live in poverty.

mark May 11, 2010 at 1:24 am

nice post. Likewise I am no puritan but this sounds rediculous. Do these patrons have any common sense?

anan May 11, 2010 at 1:24 am

Nice post. Nice comment by The Quiet Kabul Expat too.

Foreign Female in Kabul May 11, 2010 at 1:41 am

Seems like the email missed the real disturbing part of the raids. Who cares about alcohol, but what about human rights? What about those poor waitresses from Boccaccio’s who were arrested for prostitution, dragged out of their safe spot, taken first to a disgusting hospital where they endured violating vaginal checks with dirty instruments only to conclude 3 had been married and the other 3 still virgins – but yet still they were thrown in the basement of the MOI for 72 hours scared and frightened. Not knowing if they will be raped, beaten or killed.
Maybe it’s hard for a man to get it but that is one of the most degrading things a woman can go through. And I’m even disgusted that it didn’t get a mention here. These poor women come from impoverished countries with starving families, so they choose to come to Afghanistan to help feed their parents and children. They have work visas and pay Afghan taxes (most expats don’t). To say these raids were justified is a slap in their faces. If the MOI really had a problem, they shouldn’t have issued the restaurants liquor licenses to begin with. I agree that the expats that drink themselves to a stupor are a disgrace but these women were not.
And in this female’s opinion, this is when my optimism for the country turned to pessimism. With a government that can so openly violate human rights and get away with it, I’ve given up in helping because the effort will be futile.

dh May 12, 2010 at 1:24 am

The email from the woman above echos 100% my opinion and I saw zero out-rage from these so called, “not a purtitan’ from the men. By the way, I earn as much back in the states as I do here. Further to the payment of tax, most of us all pay 38% or more tax back in the U.S. based on our salaries. The Afghan government and people get free money from USAID, US Military to build their country, education them and provide jobs to the locals. On the restaurant itself, don’t care. I’ve eaten there, food is good, place is as clean as any and in the group of a few when we have eaten there or other restaurants, we tip 15%. Those locals working in these restaurants are earning about what Americans earn in the U.S. and depend on tips just like in the U.S. Life has improved in this country, human rights haven’t. Look at the kids working the streets. Where’s the outrage regarding women and children. The Afghan government uses the US $$ for theirselves and extends precious little to their own common man and woman population. God helps those who help theirselves and the US helps everyone. People need to stop being so hard on Expats, especially, when the Expat population in whole are not a bunch of drunks trying to out party each other. It is only a few.

Ian May 12, 2010 at 7:12 am

“God helps those who help theirselves and the US helps everyone.”

Jesus and Benjamin Franklin are in an expat bar in heaven right now, laughing their asses off.

Reader May 11, 2010 at 2:49 am

They get kicked off the work compound, the restaurants close, now where will these fun-lovin’ expats go?

“barometer!” ha, ha…

Afghan Hunk May 11, 2010 at 6:49 am

I am totally agree with you (Foreign Female from Kabul). The government official wouldve possible rape them all those virgins for sure. Its a corrupt government anyways.

Tabestan May 11, 2010 at 7:12 am

This article is typical from the expat who belives he knows what afghans think. you are way too simplistic. Most clients in l’Atmosphere were aid workers and journalists. It is true that some security contractors used to go there just to get pissed and get into fights, but it’s way too easy to put everybody in the same bag.

No alcohol to respect locals? If you don’t drink or are drunk on the streets, I don’t think there’s a problem with having a beer once in a while.

And please don’t tell me those places are not allowed to sell alcohol because it’s “immoral”. We don’t hear our afghan friends complain too much about bacha bazai and 12 years old girls married off to old men.

Tabestan May 11, 2010 at 7:18 am

I bet the author of this email is one of those “aid workers” who sits in an office all day typing reports…
But yeah, let’s blame the military…

Bluey May 11, 2010 at 7:49 am

L’atmo does not have female wait staff and it’s always filled with as many elite Afghans and Halfghans as it is with westerners. So is Boccaccio’s for that matter – which is open again, with all the waitresses seemingly unscarred.

Once Karzai gets over his pre-Peace Jirga anti-western binge things will return to their regular jolly, boozey way. I then look forward to continuing this conversation with all you anonymous expats over a cold Tuborg by the L’atmo pool.

Kabul Expat May 12, 2010 at 12:18 am

The waitresses at Boccaccio’s are all new. The arrested waitresses have left the country.

Metin May 11, 2010 at 8:13 am

@Foreign Female in Kabul
though never been to Afghanistan, as a person lived in relatively traditional society I think emphasis must be on western aid workers’ behavior. “Human Rights” promoted by westerners is a vague thing, at least in traditional societies. It is often mistakenly perceived as indoctrination/promotion of homosexuality, prostitution and ‘decadent western culture’ aimed to destroy local traditions. Those aid workers from west seam to be behaving exactly as perceived – so they are doing wrong favor for the idea of human rights protection indeed.

Turgai Sangar May 11, 2010 at 9:33 am

“It is often mistakenly perceived as indoctrination/promotion of homosexuality, prostitution and ‘decadent western culture’ aimed to destroy local traditions. Those aid workers from west seam to be behaving exactly as perceived – so they are doing wrong favor for the idea of human rights protection indeed.”

It does not happens often but we agree, with maybe one nuance: that in some cases, the perception is not mistakenly but rightly.

Nathan Hamm May 12, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Which means you’ve also got a rare moment of agreement with Karimov’s government, which trumpets this message loudly and often.

Turgai Sangar May 13, 2010 at 5:59 am

Well, Nathan, I know it does to placate the corrupt munafiq traditionalists. Fine. We say it from a different perspective.

Nathan May 13, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Agreed. I just had to be a bitch 🙂

Turgai Sangar May 11, 2010 at 9:34 am

Some scenes described here very much remind those in the expat hangouts of Bishkek and Dushanbe (e.g. Port Saïd at the time). Besides new rich, you also meet another kind in that kind of places: young (wannabe) westernized locals who think they’re pretty cool and whose main channel of social promotion and hope to get out of the country is to profiteer from the expats.

“Do these patrons have any common sense?”

Mark: In a way they do fit into a rationale: part behaves so deliberately to humiliate the population and the Muslims in particular. It’s a form of occupation and cultural flag-planting. And people know and resent it: the local staff at those places (guards, cleaners, … ) live outside and talk.

“But yeah, let’s blame the military….”

Tabestan: I understand your frustration in the sense that aid workers are indeed often the worst — together (at least in my experience/observation) with bozos from consulting firms (cf. the once familiar sight in Bishkek of the pot-bellied fifty-something EU-IFI consultant with a local teenage concubine).

Several will agree that part fo the expats, especially in this unpopular part of the world, are people who are either dumped there or who are on the run for personal problems and unemployment at home.

Toryalay Shirzay May 11, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Foreign Female in Kabul and Tabestan,

Thank you for highlighting the plight of women in Afghanistan and for bringing into focus the hypocrisy of the Afghan government.The Afghan government under the influence of islamic fascism raided these Western restaurants to show the Afghans they are on high moral grounds while ignoring the oppression and imprisonment of Afghan women in their houses and the molestation of young boys.All the while the Afghan society and the its corrupt evil government tolerate these blatant evils which many of them even take pleasure at doing so.Please watch the PBS Frontline documentary on the abuse of boys and women in Afghanistan.You will notice large Afghans gathered to enjoy abuse of children.Watch all the details carefully and you will see the perversion of an entire society brought about by the practice of Arab-Islamic customs,habits and beliefs forced on the Afghans by the brutal bloodthirsty Arab armies in the 7th century AD.

Kabul Expat May 12, 2010 at 12:25 am

Anyone who thinks the majority of expats party like crazy in Kabul has never either never lived here or lived here as a member of the extravagantly overpaid consultant subculture.

A typical expat’s Thursday night involves going to a friend’s house, eating dinner, having a few beers, and sitting around talking while a bootleg DVD plays in the background.

Even the “wild” aid worker parties are anything but. For the most part, they consist of people standing around awkwardly with weak drinks, talking shop, and not dancing.

It’s a little like being a bookish college freshman living on work-study in the most dangerous college town ever.

Fnord May 12, 2010 at 3:02 pm

First of all, theres a difference between drinking and bingedrinking. 3 drinks in the afternoon is different to nude conga. I think thats kind of the point of the post.

Foreign W in Kabul, its not that I dont agree with you that the treatment of the women is a disgrace and a insult. But thats just the nature of our allies over there. Hey, they legalized inter-marriage rape.

Afghan female May 14, 2010 at 6:11 pm

From this discussion, one thing is certain that a glass of wine and beer is the essence of ‘socializing’ for the expats in Afghanistan- but my question is that why are then you guys chose to come and work here. While I understand some level of ‘development committment’ at the same time we all can understand the greed of thousands of dollar salary and luxurious lives in Kabul. When we go to western countries, we work all our own chores and get crazy but no one helps however, more than those women in Boccaccio, I feel bad for the cooks and cleaners and drivers that run day and night for the luxury of expats lives in Afghanistan. I have seen them working till late even in Ramadan and the way they are being treated by the ‘human rights workers’. I cant believe this level of hypocrisy to treat poor people like slaves and then call for others human rights- its because of this manipulation that even the ones that wanted to work on human rights cant do anything in Afghanistan, because the dollar aid workers have spoiled our lives.

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