'Welcome to Kabul': Taliban take over golden era British-built hotel

·4-min read
Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul
Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul

The Taliban member advanced across the lobby to shake hands and beamed a smile: “Welcome to our hotel,” he said.

Moments earlier fighters had raised the movement's white banner up the pole outside, setting the Taliban flag above one of Kabul's most famous buildings.

The state-owned Inter-Continental Hotel has been a landmark in the Afghan capital since the late 1960s, through decades of war and political upheaval.

The latest round of the hotel's turbulent history has now seen it returned to the control of the austere Islamist movement, after the fall of Kabul and the Taliban's shock return to power a month ago.

A Taliban functionary called Mohammad Abdul Samad Tayeb has been given the unlikely job of Taliban hotelier, as deputy head of the Inter-Continental.

Speaking to the Telegraph in his office at the 200-bed hotel, he said he had been appointed first along with a detachment of fighters to keep the hotel ticking over and ensure it did not get looted.

“The first day when we captured the hotel, it was like a military zone. It will improve more in the future,” he said.

Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul - CAMERA PRESS
Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul - CAMERA PRESS

The hotel's Facebook page makes it clear the hotel wants to get back to business as normal, offering luxurious service and what it says are rooms fit for a king. Recent posts since the Taliban takeover have advertised its coffee shop, restaurants and function rooms.

Staff said the Taliban had inherited around a dozen guests and already a couple of foreigners caught in the capital had stayed there, including a German guest.

Waiters in black shirt and trousers continued to fuss around the lobby coffee shop, but Mr Tayeb said the hotel was short staffed because large numbers had been laid off in the weeks prior to the fall of Kabul.

“We are welcoming our staff back,” he said.

Taliban guards may now be securing the hotel, but it is the Taliban themselves who have been its biggest threat in recent years.

The building perched on a hill and set among several acres of garden became a high-profile target during the Taliban's bloody insurgency, with gunmen twice breaking in to murder guests and staff.

In January 2018, the hotel was stormed by gunmen who killed 22 people, including 14 foreigners. That attack was blamed on the Taliban's Haqqani network faction, led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is now the interior minister.

An Afghan security personnel stands guard as smoke billows from the Intercontinental Hotel during a fight between gunmen and Afghan security forces in Kabul on January 21, 2018 - WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP
An Afghan security personnel stands guard as smoke billows from the Intercontinental Hotel during a fight between gunmen and Afghan security forces in Kabul on January 21, 2018 - WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP

Seven years earlier, the hotel had also been stormed, in another Taliban attack killing at least 21.

The hotel was built by British firm Taylor Woodrow and opened by the Afghan king in 1969. For many Kabul residents of a certain age it harks back to a golden era of the 1970s before the country was engulfed in war.

The hotel declares it is open to domestic and foreign guests, but with no commercial flights arriving in the country, it appears unlikely that many foreign guests will arrive soon.

The Taliban foray into the tourism industry comes as fighters, many armed, have been appearing around Kabul's leisure attractions too, with gun-toting officials seen in the city's zoo on Friday.

Taliban soldiers cradling AK-47s and M16 assault rifles mingled among families, a novelty experience for many of the young fighters from rural Afghanistan.

As visitors set up picnic spots in the shaded grounds, enjoying ice creams and salted pomegranate seeds, heavily armed Taliban gunmen peer into the enclosures housing lions, leopards, camels, wolves, ostriches and macaques.

Hotel Intercontinental staff stack chairs - CAMERA PRESS
Hotel Intercontinental staff stack chairs - CAMERA PRESS

After years of fighting in the countryside, the capture of the capital was the first time many had entered a large city, let alone a zoo.

They take selfies and pose for group photos, but the relative tranquillity is upended suddenly when one fighter grabs a deer by its antlers and his friends roar with laughter.

One Taliban member, 40-year-old Abdul Qadir, who now works for the interior ministry, said he was sightseeing with a group of male friends.

"I really like the animals, especially those which can be found in our country," he says. "I like lions very much."

Asked about the armed presence - unheard of in other zoos around the world - he says the Taliban were in favour of barring guns from the venue so that "children or women should not feel scared".

The zoo was long a haven for women, children and young lovers in a capital that has little public space for anyone but men.

A unit of six armed men from the Taliban's intelligence directorate - wearing full military fatigues, combat webbing bursting with ammunition and steel handcuffs, peaked caps and knee pads - huddle for a team picture with a turbaned mullah.

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