Afghanistan FAQ & Security Thread
Replies: 153 - Last Post: May 16, 2013 2:17 PM Last Post By: loswiaheros
Jan 18, 2010 10:22 PM
Afghanistan FAQ & Security ThreadSince the demise of the old security thread, and the number of frequently asked I thought it might be a good idea to start a new 'Afghan FAQ' thread attempting to cover the most frequently asked questions and provide up to date information in one thread on not only security, but the most frequently asked questions about flights, travelling the Khyber pass and the classic 'is it safe?', since so many gems of information get lost in individual threads.
Hopefully everyone here, both our regulars and recently present tourists and workers will contribute here with areas they know best, experience, and handy tips and we'll try compile a great resource on the amazing country that is Afghanistan.
Can we try and keep politics and personal issues out of this thread too, as much as possible.
Intro: 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 the unlucky can run into very real trouble. Hopefully once everyone chips in this thread should be able to answer a lot of the basic questions most people have, and then base their further research from there.
Afghanistan will feel like the safest most peaceful place on Earth, until something happens, you see someone killed, a bomb go off or a city go into lockdown.
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, rather an attempt to try and collate as much open source information as possible to tourists who won't have the resources available to them.
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.
You need to know why you are going to Afghanistan and be prepared for the event you may well not return.
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, thats 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 potential 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, shortlived 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 eachother 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 attcks 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.
Visas: Everybody needs a visa, from an Afghan Embassy to enter Afghanistan. Visas are not available at any border. Several nations are expressly denied entry at the request of their home governments like South Koreans.
Entering from Pakistan:
As of the time of writing, the Khyber Pass is closed for entry to Afghanistan.
That means you from Peshawar cannot catch a taxi, a bus, a moto-rickshaw, hitch-hike, walk, drive your car, your bus, ride your motorbike, scooter, push-bike, unicycle, pony, donkey, whatever to the Torkham border and on to the Jalalabad-Kabul road until further notice.
We have several excellent Pakistani contributors here as well as tour guides who you can rest assured will gleefully inform you when it is possible. Please don't start new threads about how you want to do it.
Entering from Iran: From Mashad there are usually a handful of busses, mostly carrying freight to Herat. Make sure you book you tickets at least the day before you intend to depart, as the busses leave around 04:00 to 07:00 in the morning.
Expect to be sitting next to boxes of tiles, panes of glass, artificial flowers, kid's bath toys and all sorts of other random crap that there is apparently an urgent need for in western Afghanistan.
The trip is relatively painless. You will have one or two Iranian stops for drug and people smuggling and the border is about as un-chaotic a border as you will ever see in life.
The process of bringing the bus over is slow, usually an hour or two, but you shouldn't expect any hassles.
You can and should change money at the border, as the children there will give you the correct rate. When you get the Herat the bus stop is a carpark full of taxis, take one to your desired hotel.
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)
I have it written on the collars of all shirts also, on a folded cloth-strapping tape on a poly-neck chain and on the cover of the notepad that is always in my pocket as well as blood type on boots - both sides and the tongue.
It may sound paranoid but it saves lives.
It should read something like:
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. :-)
Thats about all I can think of for now. I hope our many regular contributors and anyone with recent information can add to this and fill in the blanks for areas not listed like Tajikistan, Pakistan, women's issues and hotels.
Happy & Safe Travels!
Jan 19, 2010 12:53 AM
1One thing I can't believe I forgot to add:
UNPREDICTABILITY: The speed at which a situation can change in Afghanistan can turn from jovial to ugly is so fast you could get whiplash just looking at it.
Anyone who was there during the 2006 Cartoon riots or the Kabul pogroms after the US Humvee ran over an Afghan civillian will attest to this.
The place can turn ugly very fast, often by events completely out of your control, and if you're somewhere like Herat, you're ability to get out of there is often extremely slim.
Jan 23, 2010 8:50 AM
2You can also enter Afghanistan at Ishkashim at the western end of the Wakhan Corridor (the finger that points at China). Travellers are starting to return to the area just heading into the Wakhan and leaving the less secure bits of the country well alone. Transport, guest houses and campsites are available. The Wakhan has been spared the turmoil that has affected the rest of the country and is therefore a good place to start you Afghan adventures. You would arrive by flying into Dushanbe in Tajikistan and driving to the border or flying into the town of Khorog. Kate Humble from the BBC came last year on a trek and will be speaking about her experiences at the Royal Geographical Society on 16th Feb 10 in London. There is a not for profit called Mountain Unity.org who can provide more info.
Edited by: wakhaneer
Jan 26, 2010 12:44 AM
where did you get the visa to enter at Ishkashim? I read some where this is available in Khorog. Is this correct? and if so whats the waiting time ?
hows it going there luke? wondered where you got too...in the stages of planning a trip to the Stans next year after the winter on motor bike, planning to go from iran afghan to turkmenistan then onwards... read your post with interest.
Jan 26, 2010 3:20 AM
Jan 27, 2010 10:01 PM
thats the way I plan to go next year but in reverse
Do you have any info on the obtaining a transit visa for turkmenistan
I have to have 2
the first I will get in Abu Dhabi before I leave but the second is to return to dubai from tashkent via Ashagbad and iran
I havent got the time to sit around Tashkent waiting for a visa for 10 days as some people are suggesting happens,,,
Any info would be great
Jan 29, 2010 12:08 AM
6We have got our Tajik visa from London in the past (which is very expensive) and the Afghan visa from Dubai. But then we have flown into Kabul, then to Faisabad and then driven into the Wakhan.
This year we will do the Dushanbe route for the first time. We will get our Afghan visa from London but will be spending some time in Khorog to find out what is possible. If you can wait until mid April we will be able to give you a definitive.
Like you we have heard there is a consulate in Khorog but we have had no dealings with it yet.
If I forget to post here find us via the Mountain Unity facebook page and remind me. http://www.facebook.com/#/pages/Mountain-Unity-International/165834985402?ref=ts
Jan 29, 2010 9:51 PM
Feb 21, 2010 6:17 AM
8RE: Security, the following link is not a bad source of info on security. bi-weekly reports by region.
Most NGO's use these reports as part of their security plans. The numbers on the little graphs are the reported armed incidents in the province.
The OP has a lot of good info although i would disagree with the discription of Kunduz as something nice happened to me there once.
Mar 9, 2010 12:37 AM
9You sure do yak a lot. All good stuff though, although I wasn't too happy visualising myself lying in a ditch with my severed penis stuffed into my mouth, but I guess that's just telling it how it is. I do appreciate the time you have put into your very thorough piece - thanks.
I especially appreciate you telling me that only idiot Westerners wear pakul hats in Afghanistan, as I was planning on buying one to "blend in" with the locals. I do at least have a shalwar kameez so I guess a baseball cap with that will not make me stand out as much.
I was hoping you could help. In June I am planning on flying in to Kabul, spending two or three days seeing the Bala Hissar, Chicken Street, the markets and a day trip up to that place where they make the blue pottery. Then I was going to take a bus up to Mazar, two or three days there seeing the shrine and Balkh, then flying to Herat and out to Mashad two or three days later. I don't need to go to Bamiyan and am happy to take your advice that it is not safe. But what I propose sounds safe enough doesn't it? Even taking into consideration that things can change very quickly. Is taking the bus from Kabul to Mazar a normally safe thing for a Westerner to do? Is it smart to avoid the hotels LP mentions where journalists hang out?
Thanks for your help. Cheers.
Mar 9, 2010 5:52 AM
I don't know if journalists are a particular target for attacks but they do seem to get kidnapped a fair bit. Many of the reported attacks in Kabul in recent months have targeted accommodation popular with UN and foreign military types, so for security reasons it seems logical to avoid those.
While bumbling around Kabul for five days in Oct 2009 I walked past the much-remarked Mustafa Hotel. For my taste, it's far too well-known and very exposed to passing traffic. The salubrious Gandamack Lodge has an anonymous gated entrance and appears to be set back from the road, but it's also right next door to a large UN compound and draws much of its business from there.
That said, the accommodation I used (and found by accident) turned out to be a guest house listed in LP. At the time, the other clientele was Afghans and Pakistanis.
Mar 26, 2010 1:21 AM
11to # 9 I stayed in Mustafa Hotel in November 2008 for four nights and during my stay there was only one journalist staying there plus another foreign traveller. Though LP claims that it is a favourite to journalists it didn't seem to me. Normally the journalists stay in more expensive (better) hotels. Of course being listed in LP can make any hotel a potential target so I wouldn't say that any other hotels mentioned in LP are any safer.
From Kabul to Mazar take a shared taxi, much more comfortable. From Mazar to Herat, that is a bit tricky as there are not many flights between the cities - or that was the case in 2008. Then there were only two flights a month, the flying day was Sat or Sun. Travelling overland is not recommended and it is possible that you won't be even accepted in any vehicle. In the winter that road over the mountains has very poor if any travel conditons.
I have heard of one American guy who tried to make the journey in other direction in 2008 but was refused by the drivers. And he was helped by a hotel maneger in Herat. Still I have heard of one guy in Nov08 who did it from Mazar to Herat but he had Indian origins and wore Afghan clothes - he could have passed as an Afghan.
#1 Entering from Iran. It is best to avoid busses as they make the journey very slowly because of several police checks along the route. Take a shared taxi instead. They don't go directly to Herat, you have to change at the border.
Mar 31, 2010 8:51 AM
Taking the bus to Mazar from Kabul is not a normal thing for foreigners to do but i have done it a few times as have many who post here so i would suggest it is safe enough (for Afghanistan).
RE: Mustafa Hotel, i like it as a Hotel but between 2008 and 2009 traffic is not allowed to pass directly outside the Hotel due to the bomb risk. Large concrete blocks to segregate the front from traffic remind me too much of the guesthouses in Wazir Akbar Khan. I would suggest a lower profile Hotel/Guesthouse. I also think that whether a Hotel/ Guesthouse is mentioned in the Lonely Planet is not going to factor much in whether it is a target. Usage by foreign workers would.
Finally, i am always wary of suggesting taking shared taxis especially to places you have not been before. As a rule of thumb anywhere in the world busy places are safer as individuals wishing you harm are less likely to do something rash in front of a lot of people. Turning up at Baraki (a roundabout in Kabul where the buses to Mazar leave from) shouting out Mazar, checking the price and then jumping in a car with a bunch of strangers is what you will have to do but if you cannot speak Dari/Pashtu or even know the way you are supposed to be going how do you know you haven't got in a car with a bunch of ne'er do wells?
Istalif is the name of the place that makes the pottery and there is a branch of the Istalif Organisation near Chicken Street. If you walk from the North end of Chicken street towards Shah e Nau take the first left after the Salsal guesthouse and it is on the left.
Mar 31, 2010 1:03 PM
13To expand on a point made by JakJones, I think people really should make a concerted effort to learn as much persian as possible before leaving.
It will make both general essential communication much easier, and open you up to a lot of people who don't speak English. (A great way to actually meet Afghans who aren't the extreme minority who speak english and are used to Westerners)
Apr 4, 2010 11:48 PM
I'm planning on visiting Afghanistan end May/June to make a report for Dutch media. No excessive activities planned, just visiting some organizations (Kabul) for information and travel to some touristic highlights. As far as possible I've made a small list of places I want/need to visit. Can anybody tell me if it's safe (at the moment) for travelling? And do I need a guide/security or anything?
Some days in Kabul
Bandi-e Amir & Bamian
Mazar-e Sharif & Balkh
(3 star Hotel)
From US$123.03 per night
(5 star Hotel)
From US$154.45 per night
(3 star Hotel)
From US$256.97 per night