We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Holy shit what am I getting myself into? (this is not meant to be funny)
(Courtesy of the Thorn-Tree online discussion thread)
Introduction: Afghanistan is Awesome. There, you heard it here first folks. It is a truly amazing destination, abound with stunning scenery, a proud fantastic people and we’ll all admit it, a real sense of adventure to it. But it is a truly dangerous place. It is somewhere that the uninformed, unprepared and the just plain unlucky can run into very real trouble.
Afghanistan is a war zone.
Alright you knew that already, but it is a point that just cannot be underscored enough. This is not an attempt to scare you off or pretend that going to Afghanistan is some banzai kamikaze suicide mission. The most important things to note are that 99% of incidents won’t ever get reported, what you will hear about will literally be the tip of the iceberg, and chances are the things most people worry about, are the minor risks, and the mundane are the more serious.
Chances are you will be in and out so quickly you’re luck will hold, but you need to realise that your situational awareness is extremely limited if not blind once in country, and you are just going on a wing and a prayer.
All this information is provided to you free of charge, so in the event you end up one legged from a mine, kidnapped, found beaten to death in a ditch with your severed penis in your mouth, or on Al Arabiya TV in an orange jumpsuit, that’s how liable I am for it. Use this information at your own risk. It is a heads up, it is not definitive, up to the minute or guaranteed. You’ve been warned.
Some specific threats:
Note: This is a quick overview of specific items and areas, this is not and does not intend to be a definitive list of Afghan threats and highly susceptible to change. The bad guys learn faster than we do.
Suicide Bombers (Vest and VBIED) This is the one most tourists to Afghanistan seem to get all worried about, but in reality, bombs should be the least of your worries. To be involved in a bombing of these types you would have to be extremely unlucky. These can hit anywhere and everywhere in Afghanistan (In fact are more likely in Kabul and the North where security into towns is weaker), but try avoid crowds where possible. They will often divert their target if they see westerners in the area also.
VBIED’s are always going to be a danger near government buildings and any official gathering. These are the big guns of the taliban and relatively rare, but extremely deadly when they occur.
If you see or hear a bomb, do not go to the area to have a look, as there will usually be multiple bombs in the area to target Afghan’s who just can’t resist having a look and first responders (Ambulance and security)
Leave as fast as your legs will carry you…
Roadside bombs & Road Mines: These are a growing threat in Afghanistan along major roads, but as of the time of writing, in the roads most used by tourists, particularly the main highways from Kabul to Mazaar i Sharif, from Pul i Kumri to the Tajik border and Islam i Qala to Herat they are not so much an issue due to traffic numbers.
BE WARNED: Anywhere off these roads is “Indian Country” and the risks will multiply greatly as the traffic flow decreases, both in terms of IED’s, mines and roadblocks.
For tourists the most noteworthy areas for IED’s and mines are probably the areas surrounding the Hazarajat (Bamiyan province), as well as the Hazarajat itself. CF forces have begun reporting considerable increases in the finds of IED’s and TC6 Anti-Tank mines along the roads, including in very close proximity to Bamiyan and the road to Band e Emir and the number of attacks on New Zealand personnel have gone from effectively zero to considerable, in what was (and probably still is) the “safest” province in Afghanistan.
The common misconception that all Hazara are anti-taliban and friendly is extremely wrong as prominent Hazara militants have thrown in their lot with the Taliban and operate often with impunity from Dai Kundi and surrounding regions, heavily backed by Iranian arms, including the mines.
The areas East and North of Herat in particular are like the Wild West and amongst the more dangerous in the country. As the roads here are few, poor, dirt and often used by ISAF and CF, they are probably the most IED & mine ridden for tourists to encounter.
Anti-Personell Land Mines and other forms of Un-Exploded Ordnance (UXO)
Assume absolutely everywhere in Afghanistan that doesn’t receive considerable amounts of foot traffic is a potential minefield. Often an area will be marked with some form of simple local signage to indicate known quantities of uncleared mines and UXO’s. This is typically in the form of red paint on rocks, or sometimes sticks with red ribbon or the top painted red. BEWARE: Often the warning will be only a few drips of paint on a rock, often covered in thick dust and unless you are actively looking for them, they are easy to miss.
Particular areas to be careful of include dry riverbeds, drainage ditches, dykes, irrigation channels and anywhere else where water and gravity will combine to wash the UXO and channel them towards. Also be weary of any footpaths in or around Afghan National Police compounds, as they will be used for foot patrols and often mined.
NEVER EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER trust an Afghan telling you an area that you are not extremely sure of is okay to walk.
Afghan’s will tell you what they think you want to hear and cultural issues will cause them to always err on the side of giving the Faranji (Thats you) what they want. It is a twisted form of hospitality, unless they are 100% sure there are mines there, they won’t tell you it is dangerous.
The flip side is most Afghans simply don’t know where the mines and UXO are after thirty years of war, and there are a lot of one legged Afghans to testify to the fact.
Also you will often see stencil painted ‘HALO Mine Trust verified’ and similar around Afghanistan in ruined buildings and the myriad of ruined armoured vehicles and tanks. This does not mean they are safe, or haven’t been booby trapped, it simply means that once, a few years ago, the HALO guys or someone like them came along, decommissioned the vehicle and checked it for ammunition, UXO and booby traps then.
Roadblocks, Banditry and kidnapping:
This is probably the most serious of the war-related threats and the most likely you are to potentially encounter. The area as a tourist you will probably run the risk of crossing these most are the areas west of Kabul to the Hazarajat (Bamiyan) and the area is festooned with these. These are not just your bog standard Pashtun Taliban (in fact the least of the groups here) but every man and his dog including Hazara militant groups and bandit groups. The primary aim of these is extortion and kidnapping. The overwhelming majority of victims to date have been Afghan, but finding a westerner for these guys is like winning the Euro-Millions, as the local bandits will happily sell you to the highest bidder, including Taliban and Al Qaeda elements.
Roadblocks with the intent of intimidating, kidnapping and or killing Afghans and anyone else unfortunate enough to cross them are spontaneous, short lived things, that are highly mobile and unpredictable.
General violence: The thing that you will probably see, and possibly encounter personally. Afghans have endured over thirty years of constant, brutal war, and this has had a lasting effect on the national psyche of Afghans violence always lurks just below the surface and can errupt from laughing to stabbing in literally seconds. They generally see violence, not as a last resort, but as a first resort to solving problems.
Every Afghan male will have a knife on him, every one, and they can and will use them with the most minimal of provocations.
Afghan men will kill each other of matters of honour, and the slightest, most abstract provocation can often be enough.
Along the same vein never be alone with Afghan men in areas out of public view, especially at night, never accept drinks that aren’t shared with the host (ie the same tea pot)
One related issue (for men too) is that of homosexual rape. Yes, you read that right, this is not as strange as it sounds. If you find yourself alone with an another Afghan male, Pashtuns in particular, be very aware that he quite likely may interpret your presence without other locals for company as an invitation for sex. They may also believe they have a right to take it anyway, and the idea of forcing submissive sex with another male is in no way uncommon.
Nobody talks about this due to it being haram in islam, but it is a serious issue, and not just one for women to be careful of. (That said don’t go around thinking you’re going to be raped by every male offering hospitality, like everything, just be aware)
Regions to know the risks in:
Kabul: You will probably come here at some stage. Beware of the dramatic upswing in violence and show-piece terrorist attacks recently, and be prepared for anything. Don’t walk around at night.
Panshir Valley, tomb of Massoud & Shomali Plain: Considered as close to ‘safe’ as Afghanistan gets, mines and UXO are the main issues here you will likely face.
Mazar & Balkh: These are probably the safest places you will visit, but beware the risks of kidnapping and general crime are still something you just cannot discount and keep your wits about you at all times.
Kunduz: Stop, change busses, keep going. Nothing good have ever happened to anyone in this shit-hole of a town. Drive through if you must, but just keep on going to Mazar, Kabul or Tajikistan.
Bamiyan & Band i Emir: The town itself isn’t the issue so much as the roads leading to it from Kabul are very hazardous, to the point of, at the time of writing, being very difficult to recommend visiting.
Herat & Central route to Bamiyan: Lovely city but the sights to the north of the city are along roads no less intense than anywhere in Helmand, Kandahar or Paktika provinces. Recommend using only the road to Iran or flying to Kabul/Mazar unless absolutely necessary. Even if it is necessary to leave by road north or east, think again.
Maimana (Herat-Mazar road): The Viking PRT here have about as much on their plate in the restive region as they desire, it is a rough area and taking potshots at passing vehicle is a popular taliban past-time here.
Jalalabad: Surprisingly to most people the area is rather quiet these days, but there are considerable local issues that mean you’re probably best to just keep away for now.
South of Kabul: Please don’t. Thankyou.
Firstly, please, for your own sake, don’t wear a pukul hat. You will look silly in it, and it is one of the easiest ways to spot tourists from a mile off.
Outside of Kabul it is generally a good idea to invest in a set of shalwar kamis.
Note: make sure you buy a vest for it, either the waist-coat style or the fishing style, but in Afghanistan, generally not wearing a vest is the western equivalent of walking around with either a propellor hat like a child or walking around with pink hotpants and a mesh shirt.
Only if you have considerable personal prestige (which you don’t) is it considered normal to wear one without it.
Generally speaking if you don’t they will think you’re either a stupid tourist, a Pakistani, a boy or effeminate and not necessarily in that order.
In Kabul you will probably feel silly wearing a full shalvar kamiz and vest, so best to go with the trusty David Attenborough uniform of a normal long sleeve shirt and trousers, usualy something like blue and beige or similar. have a look at what most of the Afghan men wear around Kabul and you’ll cotton quickly. (no punn intended)
Ariana Afghan National Airline is jokingly called ‘inshallah airlines’ for a reason, and Kam Air and Pamir air aren’t far behind. The chances of your flight even showing up on the day you’ve booked the ticket for are directly proportional to the will of God. Even the regular routes like Kabul-Herat are unreliable and it isn’t uncommon for people to have to wait up to three days to get a flight out.
Money: The Currency of Afghanistan is the Afghani, it is usually just under 50Afs for $1USD (normally about 47 or 48) and US dollars are often widely accepted by hotels and restaurants so long as they don’t need to give much change. US dollars are the best currency to bring to Afghanistan, but Euro’s are also easy to change in major cities (Kabul, Herat, Mazar)
ATM’s dispensing both US dollars and Afs are widely available in Kabul, in fact, it is entirely possible to rely on these machines for most of your cash if you are making several short visits to kabul, but always have back-up cash in case the machine is down, or you need to get from wherever you are, to somewhere else safer in event of emergency.
Your vest will have lots of pockets, it’s what Afghans use them for, you should too. 😉
Write your blood type on your boots. A good idea is to wear a small neck-chain or leather or rope around your neck and get a band-aid (plaster) and write on it both your blood type and nationality (the latter in english and Persian)
The reason for this is if you are unlucky enough to have some unfortunate event befall you, they won’t search your pockets unless you’re already dead – if you’re alive the first things they’ll remove are your shirt and shoes. – The best solution is to have blood-type, NKA (No Known Allergies: or allergies if you have them) and nationality in Persian.
It should read something like:
GREAT BRITAIN استرالیا
Just remember to get rid of it when you get home or everyone will think you’re a prat who reads Soldier of Fortune magazine and fantasises about the SAS.