Kabul has always had an element of risk to it, but nothing approaching the threat level in the southern and eastern provinces. For Westerners specifically, the threat was two-dimensional. First is the possibility of criminal kidnap. This is actually a much greater problem for Afghans (a fact which goes unreported in the Western media), but it is still a concern. Fortunately, it's a threat that is fairly easy to counter. Kidnappers are (generally) in it for the money. They don't want a gunfight, because a dead target is worth nothing to them. So, taking certain basic precautions can reduce the level of risk to acceptably low levels. For instance, the presence of even one armed guard can deter all but the most determined kidnappers, and simply reinforcing the doors and access points to a residence will often cause them to look elsewhere for easier targets (hence the greater number of kidnappings of Afghan businessmen.)
The second threat in Kabul is the possibility of random violence, such as a car bomb or suicide attacker. If one is in the vicinity, there's little you can do, but the trick is to simply avoid those places and times when such attacks are likely. Never make appointments at any embassy or government building before mid-morning; stay well clear of ISAF/NATO convoys; keep away from public demonstrations and political rallies. Not that hard to do with a little advanced planning and keeps one out of the line of fire.
Then comes the attacks of last Wednesday, which forces everybody to reassess their prior assumptions and begin questioning their security procedures.*
*To be honest, people questioning their security procedures is actually good for business, since they usually decide that they need increased protection. One would prefer of course that it didn't take an event like this latest attack to convince people that maybe they should take this stuff seriously.
As the BBC article rather uncharitably points out:
The fact remains that the Afghan interior ministry clearly failed to stop that attack. Afghan guards should have been outside the guesthouse, protecting the UN staff inside. Were they? Did they attempt to do their job? If not, why not? All pressing questions for the UN.I can state as a fact that Afghan guards (ANP) were outside during the attack, guarding the gate as they are supposed to. I saw those guards everyday when I left my residence and they were as vigilant and as capable as anyone can expect.
I can also state that both of them are now dead, victims of a well-planned and effectively executed attack. The Taliban, if that's who the attackers were, wore ANP uniforms themselves, undoubtedly stolen or purchased from some corrupt district commander. Some of my guys, who witnessed the attack, tell me that the Taliban conducted a thorough recon of the area first, disguised as police, and then simply walked up and shot those two guards at point blank range.
They then blew the door down and were inside the compound in a matter of seconds. Very intelligently, they left one of their number on the street, behind the recently-vacated sandbag barrier at the entrance. So, when the real ANP rolled up,* they had to contend with a lone Taliban, fortified and well-stocked with ammunition. He was eventually taken down, but that bought enough time for the two inside to do a considerable amount of damage. It's actually surprising that there weren't more fatalities.
*Reaction time is something that always impresses me about the ANP in Kabul. As soon as anything happens, there's ten cops there in five minutes or less, and another fifty ten minutes after that. Within half an hour of the first shots being fired, there were at least a hundred ANP on the streets below me, suplemented by a platoon of Afghan Army Special Forces. Afghans, contrary to what you might hear, will come running to the sound of gunfire.
I have never been inside the Bakhtar Guesthouse, but if it's like most of the others here in Kabul the problem was not with the Afghan guards at the gate. More likely, it was the lack of a simple counter-measure on the ECP* that cost those UN workers their lives.
*ECP=Entry Control Point, i.e. a gate for people in the normal part of the world.
A single door may slow down the attackers, especially if it's reinforced steel. Explosives, of which there are plenty floating around, will knock down just about any door one can put up. However, the presence of a second door, also reinforced, inside the first and with a small, walled dead space in between, can make all the difference in the world. The concept of a simple, robust double-gate has been around since at least the time of the Roman republic. Force the attackers to breach not one but two doors at the ECP, and you at least double the reaction time for those inside. Not to mention that while the attackers are dealing with the second door, they are highly vulnerable to one well-placed defender overlooking that dead space. They didn't use to call them "murder-holes" for nothing.
Ironically, although the BBC asks whether the guards outside were doing their jobs, it was the lack of a guard inside that made the difference. External guards serve little purpose other than to deter petty crime and draw attention to the importance of the building. It's the internal guards, and the structures in place to support them, that will prove decisive in an attack like this one. A lesson the UN would do well to incorporate into the security assessments they will conducting over and over again in the coming months.