Canada’s diplomatic corps in Kabul did not go thirsty.
Hospitality forms show embassy staff and dignitaries drank plenty of booze while posted to Afghanistan, an Islamic country where imbibing is not just taboo, it’s against the law.
The embassy consumed close to 3,000 bottles of alcoholic beverages from mid-2007 to last November. The tab for the beer, wine and hard liquor was at least $20,000.
The Canadian Press obtained hospitality diaries from the Canadian embassy in Kabul under the Access to Information Act.
The forms give the Foreign Affairs Department the cost of the embassy’s food and drink orders, along with guest lists and descriptions of lunches, dinners and other functions.
It is not clear whether the department provided all the hospitality forms. While there were dozens of forms in 2008 and 2010, there was just a single sheet for all of 2009.
Foreign Affairs also did not provide any forms for all of 2006 and the first half of 2007 – even though they were requested – so the booze bill could actually be much higher.
Still, the paperwork offers a glimpse of the social side of Canadian diplomacy in the Afghan capital, where alcohol can legally flow on embassy grounds.
There were sendoffs for departing staffers and shindigs to welcome new ones. The embassy entertained visiting generals, diplomats, journalists and politicians.
They nursed Gordon’s Gin and white rum from Bacardi. They sipped red and white wines. They didn’t always drink beer, but when they did, they preferred Corona, Heineken and Beck’s.
The kidnapping of CBC journalist Mellissa Fung did not postpone an October 2008 barbecue to welcome a new staffer to the embassy.
“Despite the host’s absence (due to the kidnapping of Mellissa Fung earlier that day), the event succeeded in transferring contacts to Adrian Norfolk, enabling him to get a strong start as political counsellor,” says a hospitality diary entry from Oct. 12, 2008.
It was not the same for Canadians serving in the country’s restive south. Booze was banned at Kandahar Airfield and at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City. Soldiers, diplomats and civilians stationed there had to wait until holidays or special events for a cold one. And there was little danger of getting tipsy with a strict two-beer limit.
By contrast, the hospitality forms show diplomats in Kabul could go through several bottles of wine in one sitting.
The embassy is one of Canada’s largest diplomatic missions. Foreign Affairs would only say that alcohol expenses vary from embassy to embassy.
But a report by the department’s inspector-general on Canada’s embassy in Beijing, another large mission, may offer some perspective.
The inspector-general’s office was left scratching its head over some of the functions there.
“A review of hospitality diaries found that programs were not always completing the form in a manner that clearly linked objectives and results to key priorities,” says the report, released this month.
“In a few cases Canadian officials were the only guests, whereas the intent of hospitality should be to establish, expand and leverage local contact networks.”
The inspector-general has not done a similar review of the mission in Afghanistan’s capital. But many hospitality diaries from Kabul appear to be for staff functions or to entertain visiting Canadian Forces brass.
Canada’s embassy in Kabul is in the wealthy Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood. The affluent enclave is home to embassies of other countries, including the United States.
Blast walls, sand bags and razor wire surround the complex. Armed Afghan security forces stand guard at boom barriers and checkpoints along the tree-lined street leading to the embassy, where the Canadians sometimes played road hockey under the shadow of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains.
A few years ago, staff built a bar on embassy grounds, stocked with sofas, a pool table and a wooden bar counter.
Beyond the fortified walls of the embassy, there is no shortage of watering holes around Kabul for the many diplomats, aid workers and journalists who call the city home.
At one time, some popular hang outs included the Tex-Mex restaurant La Cantina and the Gandamak Lodge, a guest house with a British pub in the basement set up by a BBC journalist a decade ago after the Taliban regime fell.
Under Afghan law, anyone caught drinking alcohol can be fined, jailed or whipped. But these punishments are rarely handed down.
Drinking did cause a diplomatic hangover for at least one foreign country.
In 2009, the American embassy in Kabul banned all alcohol from a nearby camp where its private guards lived following allegations of drunken brawls and lewd behaviour that put U.S. diplomats in peril.
Earlier this month, the security company, ArmorGroup North America, paid the U.S. government $7.5-million to settle the allegations.