Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Welcome to Kabul

Travelers remain a target in politico-religious conflicts, as today's bloody attack on the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul shows. The latest unconscionable assault on civilians by suicide bombers and gunmen follows February's attack on the Kabul Safi Landmark Hotel and the horrific 2008 hotel attacks in Mumbai. The common thread in all these mass killings is that they were launched by Islamist terror cells based in Pakistan who see travelers as soft targets.

Early media reports vary, as they always do amidst the chaos, on the number of attackers and victims in Kabul. It will take time to sort out the final toll. The Taliban have claimed credit, if that is the word, for carrying out the latest outrage, which they will dignify by calling an "operation.'' Afghan government officials and foreigners were reportedly singled out.

Protecting hotel guests is an especially difficult proposition. Hoteliers I have talked to say they want to have effective security consistent with hospitality; they don't want their hotels to look like fortresses. In some parts of the world, they already do. Hotels I have visited in and around Cairo, Egypt - where attacks on tourists are manifold and tourist sites and hotels are often staffed by uniformed Tourist Police - station conspicuously armed guards at the main lobby and have X-ray screening machines like those at airports. Alternate exits and entrances are often blocked off. In Mumbai, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, one of the hotels attacked in 2008, was flanked outside by an armored car, paddywagon and concrete street barriers when I stayed there in 2009, almost exactly a year after the attack.

Not every hotel wants to go to those lengths, but every hotel has to have a flexible and constantly updated emergency plan, just in case. Without question, organized violence against travelers makes traveling less pleasant and at times downright dangerous. So, welcome to Kabul, and welcome to the new normal. It will be like this for the foreseeable future.

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