Tom Tugendhat retired from the British Army after serving on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently as military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff. He is the PPC for Tonbridge and Malling.

If you want to win in Afghanistan, you’ve got to get out more.

In 2005 I was in Kabul helping to set up the National Security Council.  Unusually, I didn’t live in the secure embassy compound but in a house in Wazir Akbar Khan, the expat district next to the Taverna du Liban, surrounded by families of wealthy Kabulis and other expats

Most nights we went out to eat at the restaurants that had been set up to cater to an increasingly expat clientele.  Like camp followers of old, entrepreneurs came with the foreign armies and, in Kabul at least, development workers whose foreign earnings boosted the economy.

Within moments of leaving my front door you could meet a Thai lady who had been in East Timor and had followed the UN with her collection of young, South East Asian waitresses.  A Frenchman who had begun life as a poet and artist but had moved into aid work had settled down to import wine, cheese and other staples that allowed him to claim his menu was European.  And a Brit who had decided to abandon security work and, instead, tax the other tax-free former soldiers by charging them extraordinary prices for Newcastle Brown Ale, Tetley’s and anything else he could lay his hands on.

These places usually lasted long enough for one of the owners to get into trouble with the local powerbrokers, and decide to cut their losses and leave.

To a greater or lesser degree they all sold the same thing: escape.  For a few hours you could pretend you weren’t in Central Asia and could instead indulge in whatever gastronomic passion you felt sated your momentary wanderlust.

I can’t say it ever worked for me.  The few Afghan restaurants were my favourites.  One, run by a quiet Hazara family served the best kabuli kabobs and mantou in town.  The small chunks of fat-tailed lamb sprinkled with spices or ravioli like shapes with sour cream are delicious reminders that Afghan cooking is, all by itself, international.

Many of the foreign-owned restaurants served alcohol and many restricted access.  While not specifically forbidding Afghans, most Kabulis would have, at best, felt unwelcome with the dartboards and the aggressive drinking.

That was never true of the Taverna du Liban (which was attacked recently).

Set in a discreet side street and with no obvious advertising, it gave an essential space for meetings and conversation.  A places for friendships to grow away from the office and for the essential underscoring of the work of reconstruction to begin: the process of learning about each other.

Once, on one of the cool, perfect evenings which Kabul is famous for, I asked one of my Afghan friends what was the difference between us and the Russians.  He thought about it for a while and then, drinking deeply of the whisky he was enjoying in my garden, said: “We knew the Russians better.  We would go round to their houses for dinner.”

The misunderstandings that have marked our time in Afghanistan have many causes: language, culture, and even prejudice.  They couldn’t all be easily overcome but sitting together for meals would certainly have helped.  I wonder how many lives would have been saved if we had been bolder from the start: after all, the security fences that stopped us getting hurt, also stopped us knowing so much.

14 comments for: Tom Tugendhat: How different Afghanistan might have been if we had ventured beyond our security fences

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