Is it Safe to Travel in Afghanistan?
TOURISM IN AFGHANISTAN?
Almost every foreign government strongly advises against all on-essential travel to Afghanistan. It’s hardly a surprise that the country is not the world’s most popular travel destination— invasions, war, insurgency, political instability, and a Taliban problem have made things difficult in Afghanistan since the 1970s. However, it’s worth noting that Afghanistan used to receive hundreds of thousands of tourists on the “hippy trail” from Europe to India in the 1960s. The country is beautiful, culturally diverse, architecturally stunning, and what you can learn from the stories and experience of the people of Afghanistan can be life changing. So, can you really visit? Is Afghanistan safe for tourism?
The answer to this question is complicated. Is it safe to just wander around Afghanistan as a tourist? Certainly not. The risks are simply too great. Is the situation on the ground in a constant state of flux? Yes, it is and risks must be measured regularly, as the situation on the ground changes quickly? But is it impossible to visit as a tourist? No, that’s not true either. It is possible to visit Afghanistan with well managed risk mitigation if you plan accordingly. Here’s how.
In order to mitigate your travel risk in Afghanistan, I’m including the following suggestions. Of course you’re free to take them or leave them, but I highly recommend following these basic safety guidelines.
Travel with an experienced local team (guide, fixer, driver) that is trustworthy and well-connected.
Do not travel around Afghanistan, even within cities, at night. Kidnapping risk goes up significantly in the dark. It’s best to not go wandering around in the evenings, unless accompanied by trustworthy Afghan fixers or friends.
Do not take public transportation.
Do not draw unwanted attention to yourself in public places.
Dress conservatively. Women should cover up in public— a hijab and long dress at a minimum. It’s best for men to also wear the shalwar kimiz while in more rural areas.
Know where is safe to travel to (regions, roads, transportation methods) and keep in mind this list may change constantly.
Do not photograph local women unless you have explicit permission to do so, this is especially problematic when men photograph Afghan women (less of a problem for women to photograph other women, with their permission of course).
Always have a back up plan, and then a back up to your back up plan, as the situation in Afghanistan can change at any time.
Know that the easiest extraction points from Afghanistan are Kabul (international airport) and Mazar-i Sharif (Uzbek border, and international airport).
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KNOW WHERE IS SAFE
The following is a regional overview based on our last year of working in Afghanistan in tourism. These regions each contain unique risks, but by and large are open for responsible tourism.
Bamyan & Band-e Amir
Bamyan is the centre of Hazarajat— meaning the homeland of the Hazara people— in central Afghanistan. The Hazara are Shia Muslims and were terrorized by the Taliban, who accused them of being heretics. Today, the Hazara are one of the most educated ethnic groups in Afghanistan and their home region is safe for visitors. Of course normal precautions should be maintained while in Bamyan. This region is home to the Buddha niches (the ones that the Taliban destroyed in 2001), as well as Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s first national park. Transportation to Bamyan may present a problem, as regularly scheduled flights have not been operational for the past two years. Overland travel from Kabul is occasionally okay, but one must keep a close eye on the situation in Parwan Province, as this area must be traversed to reach Bamyan.
Mazar-i Sharif & Balkh
Located in the north central part of Afghanistan, this fabled city is one of the most progressive in Afghanistan. Most of the population are ethnic Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, and this city is located not too far from the Uzbek border. Mazar-i Sharif is home to the Blue Mosque. The city is generally safe for tourists, as is nearby Balkh town. However, many areas within Balkh Province are not safe due to ongoing clashes, so it’s important to stay within the city. The road to the Uzbek border is secure, and the road to Kabul is generally okay, but this can change at any time due to fighting in rural Baghlan and Kunduz provinces.
Herat is located in the far northwest of Afghanistan, nearby the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan. It’s an ancient Persian city, replete with Ghorid and Timurid architecture, and a population of friendly Farsi-speakers who in many ways have more in common with Iran than Kabul. Herat is home to the Friday Mosque, ancient Ghorid minarets, a bustling bazaar and artisan workshops. It’s also easily accessed by air from Kabul, as well as by road from Iran and Turkmenistan. Overland travel from Kabul, Mazar and Khandahar is out of the question at the time of writing, as the situation in central Afghanistan has become highly unstable.
Kabul is Afghanistan’s capital, centre of political power, and home to some five million people. While travel to Kabul is safe, you should remain vigilant and cautious here, since attacks do happen. It’s best to maintain a low profile while travelling around the city on foot. Traffic is insane here, so keep that in mind as well. It’s best to not stay any longer than 30-45 minutes in one place in public at a time.
Kandahar is the cultural capital of the Pashtun people in Afghanistan, and was the Taliban’s capital when they controlled the vast majority of Afghanistan’s territory. The safety situation in this city has only recently been improved, so while visits are possible (by air only, and only within the immediate city limits), one should be very vigilant while in Kandahar and only travel with trusted Afghan guides and fixers. Kandahar is extremely conservative; your behaviour and dress should match accordingly.
The Wakhan Corridor
This strip of land reaches out like a pan handle in between Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. Technically part of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, the Wakhan Corridor is a sparsely populated, mountainous region of deep valleys, snow capped peaks, and dusty trails. It is the homeland of Afghanistan’s Wakhi people (sometimes called Pamiris or Pamiri Tajiks). They are friendly, welcoming and open people. The majority of them are Ismailis— followers of the Aga Khan. In the far reaches of the Little Wakhan you can still find nomadic Kyrgyz people. This region is safe for trekking and exploration, but is currently only safely accessible from the Tajikistan border at Ishkashim. Attempting to travel here from Kabul or Mazar is highly discouraged due to Taliban fighting in Kunduz and western Badakhshan.
OUR MARCH 2019 OPERATIONAL LIST
The following list of routes and locations was out March 2019 operations list— meaning that these were the routes we were taking during our time in Afghanistan. Please note the following list can change at any time. I’m including it to give interested readers an idea of what is possible (or what was possible in March 2019).
Safe Travel List (March 2019)
1. Kabul (immediate city)
2. Panjshir Valley, Parwan Province
3. Bamyan Province including Bamyan, surrounding areas, and Band-e Amir
4. Overland travel between Kabul and Bamyan is currently secure; however, Ghorband may present a problem at any time, so we must watch this situation carefully. This route is currently only possible via Charikar.
5. Mazar-e Sharif (immediate city, as well as Balkh)
6. Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif overland route over the Selang pass.
7. Mazar-e Sharif to the Uzbek Border road is secure.
8. Herat (immediate city only, fly-in only or from intl borders)
9. Herat overland transport to the Iranian and Turkmen borders only
10. Kandahar (immediate city only, can change/deteriorate quickly, fly-in only from Kabul)
11. Wakhan Corridor from Ishkashim eastwards (only accessible from Tajikistan)
WHAT’S UP WITH THE TALIBAN
Just a note also on the Taliban-- Taliban can be anywhere in Afghanistan-- they essentially control a majority of the territory now, especially in ethnic Pashtun regions, and as the coalition forces begin to withdraw, there is a renewed sense of wanting to make peace with the Taliban, if anything to prevent or slow their spread in the country.
Just three days ago there was an attack in Baghram, only 50 kms north of Kabul on the main road to Charikar. As the government clashes with them, they push into new regions, hence why they are in traditionally Northern Alliance pockets like Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Ghor. They do occasionally enter the cities and plan attacks, but these are typically political and or military targets and do not post a specific additional risk to tourists, apart from the general risks of visiting Afghanistan in the first place.
The Taliban do pose a threat to tourists in the country, therefore, it’s vital to know which regions are under Government control and where the Taliban are attacking or in de facto control. Having an experiences fixer on the ground in Afghanistan will help significantly in getting a reading of the situation, as will following the advice offered by the UN and INSO.
THOUGHTS ON SAFETY AND TRAVEL IN AFGHANISTAN
Travel in Afghanistan certainly comes with risk, but much of it can be mitigated by having an acute awareness of the situation on the ground, knowing which regions are safe, and maintaining a low profile. Even when driving between Kabul - Bamyan - Mazari Sharif we only use local vehicles that look very normal. On occasion, we've used a police escort through Parwan-- specifically in Ghorband--, but we prefer not to, since police escorts may draw unnecessary attention to us.
Again, Afghanistan travel is not easy and definitely comes with its risks. It's ultimately up to you which regions and methods of transportation you'd like to use, but keeping a keen eye and having an experienced local team will go a long way to not only staying safe in Afghanistan, but also making the most of your experience in this incredible land.