The Night Everything Changed in Kabul
Ten years ago today, a brutal attack ushered in a dark new chapter in Afghanistan
The following essay is adapted in part from my book Passport Stamps. It contains some graphic descriptions of violence.
January 17, 2014, started as a typical Friday night for expats in Kabul. A small group of us were settling into a round of gin and tonics at the Associated Press bureau before heading to an Abba-themed party at the Russian embassy.
The alcohol hadn’t begun to wash away the stress of another week in Afghanistan when there was the sound.
It was that ambiguous low-frequency sound, something between a boom and a rumble, that made your stomach drop when you heard it. Immediately, your brain started scrolling through the menu of possible causes like Iron Man performing a system scan. The options, from most palatable to least, were a door slamming downstairs, an earthquake, a controlled detonation by Afghan security forces, a gas canister blowing up in an Afghan’s home, a rocket or mortar, or a suicide bomb. All but the last two were generally singular events after which there was silence.
We all paused, waiting for another boom or gunfire. It was maybe five or 10 seconds—time always seemed to freeze in those moments—and then there was gunfire. It was loud and crisp, clearly close by—maybe two or three blocks away.
The “normal” response would have been to move away from windows and shelter in the house. Instead, a few of us ran out onto the balcony to look for evidence of the attack—it’s what journalists do.
The initial burst of gunfire only lasted a few seconds, not even an entire magazine of an AK-47.
The echoes of gunfire faded into an unnatural silence in a city of millions. The pause gave us time to continue processing. The gunfire had clearly been nearby, but was it an Afghan security person firing in a panicked response to the blast, or was it attackers storming a compound after a suicide bomb blasted an opening in a door or wall?
Twenty or 30 seconds later, there was another burst of gunfire. It sounded somewhat muffled, most likely it was farther away, maybe a mile, maybe more. It lasted longer—several sustained bursts.
At that point it appeared we were dealing with multiple coordinated attacks across the city. That was rare in the Afghan capital. It hadn’t happened in my tenure there at least. But it was always a possibility, and frankly I sometimes wondered why that didn’t happen more often given the enormity of Kabul and the limited reach and capabilities of security forces.
After that second volley of gunfire, we abandoned our drinks and any thoughts of attending the Abba party. We began calling our Afghan producers and fixers.
It was a well-rehearsed routine, unfortunately. Our local staff called contacts in the Ministry of Interior, the Kabul police, and the intelligence service. The ex-pats turned to Twitter, searching for posts that might reveal the locations and targets of the attacks. We alerted our newsrooms and tweeted initial details ourselves.
The New York Times correspondent soon left to go work the story separately. Jessica Donati from Reuters, Yaro Trofimov from the Wall Street Journal and I stayed at the AP house with bureau chief Patrick Quinn, and we continued working the story.
The practical reality was in a situation of an ongoing attack, you were all going to end up with the same information and story, and no one was really going to scoop anyone else, so there was an incentive to pool resources and share information. Sure, Reuters and AP were going to compete to be first and faster with details, and we all were looking for exclusive angles, but when you were all together to start with in a situation like that, it just made sense to collaborate on piecing together the details.
I can’t recall how long it took before details triangulated and we determined that there was at least one attack taking place just down the street in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood that was home to embassies, news organizations, NGOs, and upper-class Afghans. While it was a target-rich environment, it was also one of the safer neighborhoods because the targets demanded increased security measures.
We knew a lot of people living in the neighborhood, so there was a concern in the back of our minds that someone we knew could have been a target or victim.
Yaro, Jess, and I headed outside to see how close to the scene we could get. Patrick bunkered down in the AP office with his staff and worked the phones and started filing the available details.
Yaro, Jess, and I walked the 100 feet down the street to the Journal’s compound to grab body armor from their stash. We donned vests and then set out farther down the street until we arrived at a crowd of Afghan and expat journalists who security forces had corralled at the end of one of the main streets in Wazir.
One of my Afghan producers was there, and he provided me the limited details he was able to gather to that point. It appeared the attack was taking place at one of the popular restaurants in the city frequented by the international community. The Lebanese Taverna was one of our regular haunts. I had dined there with friends about a week prior.
We plied security officers for information, and initially “very bad” was about the extent of what they would tell us. Pickup trucks full of police and other Afghan forces drove in and out of the street. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles sped by.
Afghan security at the scene would not allow us to walk down the street toward the restaurant, so Jess, Yaro, and I decided to walk back up the hill and then along a parallel street to see if we could cut down another street that would come out closer to the restaurant.
The three of us walked through the neighborhood in the chilly, smoky winter air as gunshots periodically rang out. We turned a corner and headed down the street to approach the restaurant. Suddenly, we heard men yelling at us. Maybe they fired warning shots, or maybe those were just shots being fired in response to the attack—fog of war.
We identified ourselves as journalists, but the security forces insisted we turn back. In the heat of an attack like that, you made a quick appeal to be allowed closer, but you didn’t push it. Amped up Afghan police officers—who were often the least educated, trained, and steady of the security forces—were not people you wanted to test. They generally had a shoot first approach in situations like that, and they fired off rounds like people giving away Halloween candy. Fortunately, they tended to have the aim of Storm Troopers, but still.
The three of us worked our way back to the main press scrum at the other side of the neighborhood and searched for details.
With little information available from the security forces and journalists there, we moved onto the next step of covering an attack—head to the hospitals to find survivors and get eyewitness accounts.
Outside the Wazir Akhbar Khan hospital, we encountered crying family members of Afghan victims of the attack. One man said he was the uncle of an Afghan driver killed at the restaurant. He did not know who the driver was working for that night.
Doctors said they treated one Afghan worker from the restaurant for injuries from the blast, but we were unable to speak to that person to hear their account. Two bodies arrived at the hospital. Doctors said at least one body was brought to another hospital.
All the victims accounted for to that point were Afghan, but we sensed that was still preliminary information and the death toll would climb and likely include members of the international community.
By the time we returned to the AP bureau, the gunfire had long ceased and a small contingent of Afghan police kept journalists and others from getting any closer than a couple of blocks from the restaurant.
It was approaching midnight when we finally had most of the details. Around 7:30 p.m., a single suicide bomber approached the restaurant on foot and detonated an explosive vest out front, killing security guards and the Afghan driver sitting in his car.
The blast ripped open the security gate outside the restaurant and two gunmen ran inside and opened fire on the diners and staff. They murdered three UN staff, the IMF representative, two EU police trainers, two faculty members from the American University in Kabul, the Lebanese owner of the restaurant, and Afghan restaurant workers. Twenty-one people died in the attack, eight Afghans and 13 foreigners. Some were friends of ours.
It was a gut punch. We had to push aside grief and thoughts of how it could have been any of us in the restaurant that night and focus on reporting the story.
We worked until 3 a.m. Yaro and Jess had long gone, and Patrick and I were the only ones left at the AP house. One of the victims of the attack was a UN official who was one of Patrick’s closest friends, and Patrick was just devastated.
Some eight hours after we started our pre-party festivities, Patrick and I poured fresh drinks. Instead of drinking to loosen up and have fun, we were trying to numb ourselves and counteract the emotions and adrenaline. At 5:30 a.m., we finally crashed.
The next day, I visited the scene of the attack. It was gruesome. Blood stained the street. Bits of flesh clung to nearby tree branches 20 feet in the air. Windows of neighboring houses were shattered.
A few men were shoveling debris from in front of the restaurant as Afghan police officers surveyed the wreckage. A silver Toyota Corolla that had been parked out front was sitting in the street with the front end mangled and the glass blown out. One of the victims was the driver who was sitting in his car in front of the restaurant at the time of the blast.
The giant steel door to the restaurant was crumpled like a ball of paper. The police prevented me from exploring the inside of the restaurant.
As I stood there processing the devastation, I could hear the attack playing out in my head. First was the rumble of the blast. Then, the loud gunfire from the first attacker arriving at the scene. After that, the gunfire that sounded like it was somewhere across the city.
But it wasn’t. That gunfire was inside the restaurant, which is why it sounded muffled and distant.
To this day, I hear that sound in my head and know that was the moment the people in the restaurant were being shot to death.
As I was hearing that sound in real time, it was just another attack in Kabul, just another news story to cover. But that night set things in motion. None of our lives were the same afterward.
The Taliban issued a statement and claimed the attack was retribution for an alleged airstrike earlier in the week that killed civilians. They were targeting a restaurant “frequented by high-ranking foreigners where they used to dine with booze and liquor in the plenty.”
That part was true—diplomats, UN officials, journalists, and others regularly dined at the restaurant and partook of wine and beer served in white teapots.
Still, the attack was largely unprecedented. Over the years, the Taliban had staged attacks on some of the international hotels in Kabul, but generally Taliban attacks targeted military or government facilities. International civilians were generally considered off limits.
Again, there were exceptions, but for the most part, the danger for expat civilians was being in the wrong place at the wrong time rather than being targeted outright.
That all changed on Jan. 17, 2014. That night finally popped the “Kabubble,” as many of us referred to the city that often seemed removed from the conflict. While maybe the city itself and the security threats hadn’t changed that much, we changed.
In the days after the Taverna attack, Yaro, Jess, and I visited some of the grocery stores and restaurants we had frequented for years to inspect their security measures—blast walls and gates, safe rooms, exit routes, etc. It was something we should have done from the moment we each arrived in the country, but security was good enough and foreign civilians were generally not the target of attacks, so we deluded ourselves about our level of safety in the city and at places like the Taverna or some of the other clubs and restaurants.
In the weeks and months after the Taverna attack, the Taliban carried out numerous attacks in Kabul targeting the international community—often election workers as the Taliban had vowed to prevent the presidential election in April 2014.
Taliban militants attacked election offices and carried out a shooting inside the Serena Hotel in March, killing nine people, including Afghan journalist Ahmad Sardar, his wife, and two of his children as well as several foreign election workers.
The Taliban executed a Swedish journalist who was walking in the street. Militants tried to attack the offices of a western nongovernmental organization but hit a neighboring house occupied by Christian missionaries. An Afghan police officer—possibly influenced by the Taliban—murdered AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus and critically wounded reporter Kathy Gannon.
While the Taliban failed to prevent the election, it succeeded in drastically altering conditions for and the mood of the international community. Some aid and development organizations evacuated staff and reduced their activities. Many organizations restricted their personnel from leaving their secured compounds. The once infamous—and frankly somewhat obscene—social scene dried up as fewer people were allowed out at night and some restaurants and guesthouses closed.
Things grew bleaker over the course of 2014. While I left that December when NPR closed the bureau, friends and colleagues who stayed said things continued to deteriorate in the following years. As U.S. and NATO troops withdrew and handed over security responsibility to Afghan forces, perceived and actual security declined.
The Taliban continued attacking restaurants and hotels frequented by the international community, killing expats and Afghans who were trying to help the country. The mood grew darker, and people talked less about “winning” the war and more about how to prevent a hard landing.
Cliché as the expression may be, Jan. 17, 2014, was a turning point in Afghanistan. It was a moment when even some of the most optimistic members of the international community stopped to wonder what the mission was, where it was heading, what could be achieved, and if any of it was worth the lives of our friends and colleagues who died that night.