For Afghan hotel owner, dreams meet violent reality

April 16, 2012

On Monday morning, after an 18-hour standoff with insurgents, Afghan officials discovered the first combatant’s body where the four-star restaurant was supposed to be. Another was found in a would-be suite, not far from where the picture window was to be installed. Three more attackers had been killed near stairwells and hallways where fine flooring and carpets were to be laid.

In an apparent prelude to the launch of their spring offensive, insurgents had seized an unfinished eight-story hotel in central Kabul and used it to stage an attack on the city’s diplomatic enclave.

The building from which they fired rockets and rifles was a construction project that an Afghan family has spent a decade planning in exacting detail. When Mohammad Hashim’s relatives returned to their project after one of the most gruesome attacks in this city’s recent history, their brainchild was littered with the detritus of a complex urban assault — one of at least seven attacks that paralyzed eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, leaving four civilians, 11 police officers and 36 insurgents dead.

The family finds itself torn between the Kabul of architectural sketches, in which a gleaming hotel rises skyward, and the reality of a city in the insurgency’s cross hairs.

One of the attackers reportedly told interrogators Monday that he was a member of the Haqqani network — a group whose assaults on the capital have undercut confidence in the city’s long-awaited revival.

Many Afghans have moved the bulk of their wealth overseas rather than gambling on a city that represents a tantalizing target for insurgents and that may have to contend with future assaults without the presence of Western combat troops.

Building a luxury hotel in Kabul had seemed defiantly optimistic, despite the rapid infusion of wealth since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and the accompanying surge in conspicuous consumption, with mansions, shopping centers and elaborate wedding halls going up.

Hashim recognized that. He’d seen other projects fail, knew that sporadic attacks could jostle the sense of security here. But he and his brothers were sure they could make their investment work. They hired a Turkish architect, who drew a tall white building surrounded by an idyllic rendering of Kabul. They watched it rise, story by story.

But on Sunday afternoon, with the insurgent attack underway, the $7 million investment suddenly felt hubristic.

“I wish we’d never started this project,” said Hashim, one of 10 brothers who share ownership of the property. “The place we wanted to be beautiful and comfortable was used to kill people.”

Early Sunday afternoon, Hashim got a call from one of his workers, who said that a black Toyota Land Cruiser had broken through a gate around the building’s perimeter and that insurgents had taken over the concrete skeleton of the hotel.

“I told him to stay calm, not to try to escape,” he said. “Then I put down the phone and I panicked.”


Taliban begins spring offensive (The Washington Post/Staff reports)

Hashim, who is also a member of parliament, and his brothers started construction of the hotel in 2008, aiming to build a place that would attract Western diplomats and businessmen as NATO’s formal footprint in Afghanistan begins to shrink.

It would rise above the skyline of central Kabul, they imagined. It would be clean and modern and, above all, a sign that the wealthy family was not afraid to invest in their country at an uncertain time.

But when the U.S. Embassy was attacked from an unfinished commercial building in September, Hashim said, he grew worried. From the top floor of his hotel, he could see several diplomatic and military installations, including NATO’s headquarters. Hashim began to think that his family’s ambition had made the hotel a target — that he might be undertaking his dream project in the wrong city.

The brothers hired a small team of guards. But they were quickly overpowered Sunday.

When the footage of their building began appearing on Afghan television — fuzzy images of unpainted concrete and metal beams and flashes of gunfire — Hashim struggled to accept that his premonition had materialized.

When his phone started to light up with calls from concerned friends, he turned it off.

As the standoff went on through the night, “I could feel every single bullet that was fired,” he said.

Afghan security officials and their NATO trainers fought the insurgents until early Monday. A few hours after the last insurgent was killed, government officials allowed journalists to tour the building. The five bodies remained where they had fallen: young men in traditional clothing who had been snacking on cashews during the attack.

President Hamid Karzai on Monday blamed the attack on “an intelligence failure for us and especially for NATO.”

The Pentagon acknowledged Monday that its intelligence sources had shown the Haqqani network was planning large-scale, simultaneous attacks in Afghanistan this spring but that there was not specific information about where and when the strikes might occur.

In the aftermath of the attack, Hashim said he thought to himself, “If I can sell this place right now, I will.”

But as the day went on and Kabul’s brand of normalcy returned, he changed his mind. The family would move past this, he said. They would build the hotel with big glass windows and comfortable beds. Hubris or not, they would have their hotel.

“We will not be defeated by traitors,” he said.

But Hashim knows that the security challenges are likely to intensify. A hotel in central Kabul for Western guests is likely to become a target. The brothers have added soundproof and bulletproof walls to their plans, hedging in their own, small way against the men who overran their building Sunday.

“We want to invest in our country,” Hashim said. “But we don't know when the bloodshed will end.”

Staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
Comments
Show Comments

Get the WorldViews newsletter

Sign up for daily updates from WorldViews.

Most Read World