It was probably only a matter of time before the Taliban attacked Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. Perched on a hill in the western Karte Parwan district and visible for miles around, this concrete behemoth of a building is perhaps the most conspicuous symbol of 'modern' Afghanistan -- an icon that used to appear on the backs of the nation's banknotes. Loved and hated in equal measure by three generations of Afghans, the 'Intercon' was the first international luxury hotel in the country when it was opened in 1969 by the modernizing king, Zahir Shah.
These days the Intercon, refurbished five years at a cost of $25m, is more than just a hotel. Its upper floors serve as the headquarters of foreign NGOs; the conference rooms off its cavernous lobby are used so regularly for meetings with VIPs that they have become an important cog in the Karzai government's infrastructure. The road that leads to the airport has recently been repaved and widened; when foreign dignitaries are in town, which is often, it is partially closed to allow their speeding motorcades to reach the hotel unimpeded by local traffic. You can tell who tends to stay at the $150-a-night Intercon from its official website, which carries a direct link to the website of the U.S. State Department (tagline: 'Diplomacy in Action'), and a page of background information on the country.
As a target for the Taliban, the hotel's symbolic value could hardly be greater. The regime has always been aware of the risk -- which is what makes this attack so tactically impressive, as well as a devastating piece of propaganda for the Taliban. Hotels are soft targets, and have frequently been attacked in Kabul in the last few years -- particularly hotels favoured by foreigners. In one of the most infamous episodes in January 2008, a squad of Taliban disguised as policemen breached the city centre's Serena hotel, killing six, including two Norwegians.
The ejection of infidels from Afghanistan is perhaps the most consistently stated of the Taliban's political ambitions. After the Intercon attack a Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed that one of their fighters had called on a mobile phone, saying:
We have gotten onto all the hotel floors and the attack is going according to the plan. We have killed and wounded 50 foreign and local enemies. We are in the corridors of the hotel now taking guests out of their rooms -- mostly foreigners. We broke down the doors and took them out one by one.
This reported account is remarkable less for its similarity to the Mumbai hotel atrocity of November 2008 than for how far it deviates from what actually happened. Only one infidel foreigner -- a Spaniard -- has so far died as a result of the Intercon attack. The mobile phone caller seems to have been guilty of wishful thinking to the point of self-delusion. Why? And what is it about the Taliban and their convictions that make killing foreign hotel guests worth dying for?
Part of the answer lies in Islamic eschatology, and the coming of the Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer of Islam. According to the Hadith -- the traditional 'sayings' of the Prophet Mohammed -- the Mahdi will be accompanied by an army "led by mighty men, with long hair and beards." This army will come from the East, and march towards Mecca beneath a black flag; the hadith talk about "the black flags of Khorasan," an ancient term for Afghanistan. In other words, Afghanistan is no ordinary Muslim country, but the wellhead of the holiest army in Islam -- the Taliban. For true believers, therefore, the soil of Afghanistan is literally sacred, and the mere presence of infidels on it wholly insupportable.
The second and overlapping reason is that the Taliban are almost entirely a Pashtun organization -- and resistance to foreigners is written into the Pashtun DNA. They have fought off invaders for thousands of years, from Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great to the colonial British, the Soviets and, now, Nato. Violent resistance has always worked for the Pashtuns, who today are the largest and arguably the most successful tribal society in the world.
According to Ghani Khan, a famous mid-20th century Pashtun poet, killing and vindictiveness are a historical characteristic, a part of the national psyche. "When the Pashtun is a child," he wrote, "his mother tells him: 'The coward dies but his shrieks live long after,' and so he learns not to shriek. He is shown dozens of things dearer than life so that he will not mind about dying or killing. He is forbidden colourful clothes or exotic music, for they weaken the arm and soften the eye. He is taught to look at the hawk and forget the nightingale." As Pashtuns, in other words, the Taliban would probably have resisted to the death even in pre-Islamic times; Islam merely added the incentive of martyrdom in a sacred cause.
Some Pashtuns believe that "Khorasan" refers not just to Afghanistan but specifically to the 'Pashtun belt' that stretches across the south of the country and up into north-west Pakistan. No wonder the region is so steeped in the cult of martyrdom, and so thickly dotted with the shrine-like graves of the warrior fallen.