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Gray Man in Kabul, Beyond the T-Walls

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Probably one of the oddest reactions I received while living and working in Kabul outside the wire wasn’t from the Afghans all around me, but was instead from my former infantry colleagues. Some of them were in the private security industry, while others had their DD214 and were scot-free. To a man, they would ask me, “What? You mean outside? Is that even allowed?” It was to be one of many more interesting experiences I had as I stepped foot in a country in which I had only ever been an armed combatant.

We talk about living a low-profile lifestyle in the United States and especially in the private security world. When we travel abroad, those of us who take the dangers of the world seriously go that extra step when walking around the Eiffel Tower or hitching a ride in a Tuk Tuk in Thailand. However, places like Kabul bring a completely different meaning to living a low-profile life, while working or living as a private citizen in a country in the midst of its fourth decade of civil war. Many of the important rules to follow here are very specific to Afghanistan, but there are certainly rules that can be applied universally to our readers across the United States and the world.

Kabul itself is a very unique city. Although more international money has poured into the country than the Marshall Plan in Europe (adjusted for inflation), the city is still reminiscent of the old world. For the most part, there isn’t a single working traffic light within the city limits. The social fabric is very much still community based, with trust being of utmost importance in the majority of interactions. Although there are banks, people keep their money at home. What may seem common knowledge in the West when it comes to such issues as hygiene, electricity, and most safety standards simply isn’t present at all. The government itself is, at worst, seen by many citizens as a corrupt, dysfunctional, and even destabilizing element within the country and, at best, a force that can’t dramatically impact change — whether a two-decade-long Taliban insurgency or keeping the lights on at night.


Upon this backdrop we have the threats, which can seem at times to be overwhelming. Yes, there are the suicide bombers. Yes, there’s the Taliban and now Daesh. But within the city limits possibly the most imminent threat that has the capacity to do the most damage are the organized crime syndicates. These criminal enterprises are spread throughout the city, and at times there’s very little that the Afghan Uniformed Police seem to be able to do to counter them. Indeed, many Kabulis feel that certain police districts actually cooperate with the criminals at times.

With an understanding of the contextual threat in the city, we can begin our discussion on maintaining a low-profile attitude. For foreigners (and Afghans alike), the largest threat in the city is being kidnapped for ransom. The thing to understand about this violence is that it isn’t random. Kabul criminals don’t go walking down the street looking for a soft target. They plan for it in advance, often methodically. They find insiders to help, ensure they have both a getaway vehicle, and have a safe house to flee to. Oftentimes insiders help them tremendously.

Is there random, senseless violence that might kill or maim you? Of course there is. Sometimes when suicide bombers can’t get to their target because of a security checkpoint, they detonate their wares right on a crowded street, killing dozens of civilians. Tragic? Yes. Random? For sure. But as mentioned before, the average Kabuli is more likely to die of a water heater exploding while taking a shower or being ejected from the front seat of a car with no seatbelts during a traffic accident.

A perfect example through my first month of living and working in the city was that not a single gunshot or explosion was heard (although there were suicide bombs, none happened in my vicinity within earshot). Yet the taxis I took almost slammed into little boys jolting across the road on two occasions, and a cook that worked in my building was very lucky to be several feet away from a pressure cooker that took chunks out of the kitchen he was in.

A private security guard walks down a street in the predominantly Hazara district in southern Kabul. He has a 75-round drum locked into his rifle.

One point that we can’t ignore in these non-permissive environments is the issue of race and gender. Without a doubt, people who have complexions that from afar can match local ethnicities can move more fluidly than those of specific Caucasian or African descent, especially young males in Afghanistan who aren’t fluent in Dari or Pashtu. Hispanics, Asians, and Arabs almost have a free ride at blending into the social landscape, especially if they can pick up Dari. I’ve frequently heard of Hispanic Americans who, if wearing common enough attire in Kabul, would actually experience Afghans mistaking them as locals. The second issue is that of gender. Being a woman in Kabul does make a difference when it comes to disappearing in a crowded street, due to the presence of a hijab. But more importantly, foreign women are generally speaking not as threatening as foreign men when being viewed as targets for kidnapping or being associated with an intelligence agency. Indeed, possibly the two longest foreign-born residents of Kabul from an English speaking country are two American women that spent the majority of their lives in the city, first coming to the country before the Soviet invasion.

Never Totally Safe

So how can you attempt to make a living in this centuries old Silk Road pit stop? The first realization is that you can never be completely safe — not from the targeted kidnappings, senseless violence, or being electrocuted in your bedroom. You must acknowledge that you can be safer in most situations, but there’s never a total guarantee of safety and security. For the record, there have been thousands of Western tourists and workers since 2011 who have lived successfully in the country for every Westerner who’s been killed in the violence. In this article, we’ll discuss some hard rules that have been proven to work most of the time. Have other pale faces done differently? Of course they have, and this is by no means an exhaustive answer to being safe in Kabul.


Going back to the white or black male reference, the most important realization you must make is that you’ll be perceived as a spy. Everything you do, or don’t do, is scrutinized as such. You’re automatically an elevated target because you’re simply assumed to be working for a foreign intelligence organization, and thus valuable for cash or clandestine knowledge. Lower-class Afghans will immediately assume it; higher class ones will make jokes about it with you. This is the inevitable backdrop that you’ll exist in. We’ll refer to this as Rule No. 1.

Afghan private security guards outside a downtown Western-style restaurant. Note the cheap optic on the AK-74 with the guard at center. 5.45mm rifles aren't rare among Afghan security personnel, but the scarcity of 5.45mm ammo, among other issues, make them less sought after.

Be vaguely truthful with what you tell people and what you wear. Numerous Afghans have insisted that I tell people in conversation that I’m German or Czech instead of American. You’ll come to find out that “American” is almost a dirty word among many Afghans. The historical narrative we’re fed in the United States is that we triumphed against the Soviets through our support of the Mujahideen. The reality is that many Afghans today, especially Kabulis, wish that the country had just become a sleepy dictatorship after the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, every intervention (or lack of intervention in the case of the 1990s Taliban) just brought continued civil war, corruption, and worst of all, the “Jang Saw-Lar” (warlords). While in the city, I’ve also been asked if I was Russian, Iranian, Turkish, Spanish, and Afghan-American, but never American directly. I’m not sure if this was because I had a command of Dari or the idea of a white U.S. national walking around the city didn’t fit with my appearance.

You need to be truthful, because if you aren’t, you’ll immediately confirm suspicions of Rule No. 1. And unlike the United States where a Czech could probably get away with saying they’re Ukrainian, Afghans actually have more experience traveling to Europe than we do. Many go for university education, immigration, or business. Thus, the chances of running into an Afghan on the street who might respond with a string of German after you say you’re from Hamburg is actually quite probable. The other point here is to not go “totally native” with traditional clothes. It might fool people from afar, but upon closer inspection the question begs to be asked, “What are you hiding that you’re trying to look like us?” Back to Rule No. 1. Even if you get the clothing down, your mannerisms of growing up in New York will be extremely hard to exchange with Afghan ones, such as playing Frogger every time you cross the street.

Wearing a face mask can help obscure your identity if you have trouble blending in, but this will only work well on days where pollution is heavy and everyone else is wearing one as well. If not, you go back to sticking out like a sore thumb.

However, you don’t need to give out your social security number. You can be both truthful yet vague at the same time. When getting dropped off in a taxi, offset the destination from your home by a block, so you walk an additional block to your home rather than getting out right in front of it. If asked what part of the city you live in, respond with the general area but not the street name. The old city doesn’t have a uniformed postal system so this is very easy to do. These vague responses work both ways too. In a worst-case scenario, it confuses those wishing to do you harm. However, it also protects the people around you. If confronted by a criminal element that presses them for information, they can honestly say they don’t know the exact location of your home.

Avoid Targeting

As previously mentioned, there are very few standardized ways to stay safe around the city. However, there are three very concrete ways to avoid becoming a target.

In many Kabuli establishments, personal weapons are left at the entrance with the guard. This is a weapon cubby card from Kardan University.

The first is to avoid other clear targets such as Afghan government and security forces. This includes checkpoints, deployed forces, areas of government control, etc. Local Kabulis realize this and sometimes vary their routes in order to stay away from any potential political target. This strategy can mitigate the majority of the attacks that are focused on these positions but usually claim innocent lives as well.

When it comes to targets, another important target class to avoid is other foreigners, especially Caucasians. So many Westerners used to travel to Kabul and stayed in their isolated communities that they nicknamed it the “Kabubble.” The Kabubble was mostly in the diplomatic zone that is now in the Wazir Akbar Khan part of the city. Unfortunately this congregation of bars, secretive night clubs, and other forms of importing Western forms of entertainment eventually led to numerous attacks due to the soft targets. Although the deaths were tragically unfortunate, the bottom line is you can’t come to a conservative, undeveloped, strictly enforced Islamic country and expect to continue a lifestyle that you enjoyed in the West. Nor can you associate regularly and in large groups with such Westerners as well. At the end of the day, this creates targets for the “bad boys,” as one local storekeeper liked to refer to them.

An armored SUV going through repairs at a local auto shop outside of Kabul University.

Third and perhaps most often overlooked is calling attention to yourself. Christian missionaries are notorious for breaking this rule, because again, you simply can’t come to a Muslim-majority country like Afghanistan and start proselytizing without any repercussions. It’ll literally get you killed, as it has many missionaries and their families. Engaging in projects that draw negative attention, especially negative religious attention, is a surefire ticket to leaving in a coffin. Groups and individuals latch onto this attention and see it as a way to boost their own image that they “killed the evil foreigner who was disrupting Afghan values.”

Time as a Weapon

Last but not least is the subject of time. Apart from actually being armed, time is your most effective weapon, if used correctly. A longtime expat in Kabul once remarked, “I’ll go to any random restaurant in the city, even in some of the bad areas, but I’ll make sure to only be there for 20 minutes at the most.” It goes to show that if knowledge is power, then time is the proverbial outlet the power must be connected to. On the other side of the good guy spectrum that you’re in is an equally human bad guy. This network has to create plans, commit to them, speak amongst others about decisions, evaluate risk, and look at possible contingencies when it comes to attacking or kidnapping a target. If by the time any of this goes into action, you’ve completely left the picture or made yourself unimportant, then you’ve won. However, if you leave this window of opportunity open and free, then you’ve given the enemy an accomplishment.

A Western security contractor gets in his armored vehicle.

Hopefully, you’ve found this unique perspective on living and working as a foreigner in Kabul interesting and enlightening as an examination of conducting a low-profile life in a high-threat environment outside of the United States. I certainly found it fascinating and appealing to be live in Kabul as a civilian beyond the T-Walls.

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