A Luxury Facility for Military Contractors Endangers Afghan Civilians
By Mohammed Harun Arsalai and Mohsin Momand Khan
Originally published in the Nation
Kabul, Afghanistan—As talks to end the nearly 18-year US war in Afghanistan inch closer to a signed deal, the Taliban is flexing its muscles—making it clear the insurgents can still strike at will, practically anywhere in the country. In the past week, the Taliban launched a major offensive in Kunduz, taking over much of the city, and also conducted attacks in Badakhshan, Balkh, Takhar, Farah, and Herat. But the attack that seized US headlines was an explosion on Monday night in the capital city of Kabul, where a Taliban suicide bomber targeted the luxury international Green Village compound. After the explosion, Taliban gunmen stormed the compound, killing an estimated 30 people and injuring at least 100 others.
While the Taliban’s still-frequent attacks on Afghan civilians are often glossed over by the news, the Green Village bombing drew international attention. This is likely because the high-security compound hosts NGOs and foreign contractors, some of whom work with the US military. But the majority of casualties in Monday’s attack were civilians from the area, a poor community that would otherwise be of low priority for Taliban aggression. The contrast between Green Village and its surrounding community, Pul-e Charki, is stark: In the streets, young children gather recyclables and widows beg with their hands out, hoping to receive a bit of charity. But behind the compound gates, international workers residing at Green Village are offered amenities like an on-call dentist, a dry-cleaning service, and a fully equipped spa.
In the face of this dramatic inequality, the Pul-e Charki community rallied the morning after the attack. Hundreds of local residents, including victims’ families, gathered in front of the compound gates to assess the damage and demand answers. As the crowd grew, some pushed past security and rushed the structure, pelting stones and setting fire to some 40 vehicles.
While the government stated that over 400 people were safely evacuated from Green Village, one occupant disputed that assertion to The New York Times, claiming that residents hid in safe rooms throughout the Monday night attack and into Tuesday morning. But it is possible that 400 residents were evacuated while others remained inside: Green Village advertises 1,800 rooms in total, keeping further details about the compound’s occupancy shrouded in secrecy. Area locals know neither how many people reside at Green Village nor how many organizations do business there.
Most descriptions of Green Village in the media are vague, with the Times calling it “a fortified compound of foreign nationals,” and the Associated Press identifying it as “home to several foreign organizations and guesthouses.” Green Village calls itself “more than just a hotel” on its website, and goes on:
Green Village is not just a safe, secure and protected refuge in Kabul. It’s more! We strive to give you an environment that is friendly and relaxed, providing you the ability to conduct your business in peace. Ideally located with close links to Kabul Airport and main business landmarks, Green Village Hospitality stands amidst a large secure facility containing gardens, relaxing areas, and restaurants. An oasis of cool and green, this 1800-room outstanding residence and business centre gives international contractors, NGO’s and business people a focal point of regional business and social life.
A Green Village employee contacted by The Nation refused to disclose who owns or operates the compound, stating: “I’m under strict orders to not give out any information whatsoever.” But according to an October 2017 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report, the operator of Green Village is the international hospitality and security corporation Stratex, which in August 2017 entered into an Administrative Compliance Agreement (ACA) with the US Army to resolve allegations of bribery. The ACA doesn’t expire until August 2020, and the Green Village website is hosted on a Stratex domain, indicating that the corporation still operates the compound.
Among Green Village’s occupants is the military contractor Gardaworld, the world’s largest privately owned security services company. The Canadian-based Gardaworld provides training, security personnel, and war vehicles to the US military, boasting a global workforce of “92,000 highly trained, dedicated professionals [to] serve clients in North America, Africa, and the Middle East, including Fortune 500 companies and governments.” Among other NGOs, the United Nations Development Programme has also operated there, according to UN records.
Between the massive wealth disparity the compound represents and the high profile of its occupants, Green Village draws attention to the Pul-e Charki neighborhood. As a result, many locals feel that the compound endangers their lives.
“I don’t want them here! I don’t want the foreigners’ camp here!” shouted Ahmadzai, a 43-year-old resident of the area, during the Tuesday riot. In a comment to The Nation, he added, “As long as they are here, we will die. So many innocent people have died in all these years because of this camp, and others will die if this camp is not moved from here immediately. Someone needs to force this compound to close. If the government won’t do it, our community will gather and do it ourselves.”
As the riot began, security forces at Green Village tried to stop the crowd from storming the compound, and eyewitnesses estimate that guards shot up to 15 people—including the local Malik, or community leader. Many others were injured in the fighting between locals and compound security.
“The compound security started shooting indiscriminately into the crowds of people. They shot our leader Malik Zai twice! This is it, we’ve had enough,” Ahmadzai commented. “The government better move or dismantle this compound or we will die trying to do it ourselves.”
Sarwar Jan, a 28-year-old farmer who also joined the protest-turned-riot, was at home praying when the Taliban bombed Green Village. He lives across the street from the compound.
“We got a call from my nephew telling me that he had been shot in his head in the crossfire on the road while heading home,” Jan said. “He’s a poor guy who sells fruits and vegetables, and he has to risk his life because these foreigners are here.”
The Pul-e Charkhi road, where Green Village is located, lies on the outskirts of Kabul. In addition to military bases, compounds, and a notorious prison, the road is lined with small shops, petroleum pumps, and mud homes where civilians try to live in peace.
“We lost everything,” Ahmad Farid, a 35-year-old worker in a construction goods warehouse, said of the recent attack. He told The Nation that he had finally fixed his home after the last attack on Green Village (in January) but after the blast, he now has a home with a collapsed roof and no windows.
“The camp has been here since I started working here almost 10 years ago,” Farid added. “We don’t know who owns the camp, what is happening inside, and there [are] zero relations between the local community and those who run the Green Village compound.”
Farid said that the community is sick and tired of the constant attacks and emphasized that Tuesday’s protest was not the only one. Locals have several times protested the compound in the past.
“We protested and went to the compound to force the compound authority to sit with us the last time there was a blast there,” Farid explained, referring to the January attack. “They said they would leave in one month, but they are still here. Instead of leaving, they built two or three more walls for protection for themselves. They have done nothing at all to safeguard or support those of us whose lives have been destroyed by their presence…. Not one single representative of the camp has ever come to meet with us to ask if we need any security or anything else.”
As the Taliban continues to launch attacks amid peace talks with the United States, the unrest at Green Village brings a key question to light: Even if the US military withdraws its troops, what will come of the roughly 25,000 private contractors it employs in Afghanistan?
“These people make millions upon millions of dollars and we all know this…but obviously our lives are not worth a single dollar to them,” Farid said. “There won’t be peace in Afghanistan as long as the US military and these contractors helping them are here—the Taliban have made this clear.”