Kabul, Afghanistan 2007: Part II – Asia
Approaching Kabul, I was becoming more excited, filled with intense joy. I grinned uncontrollably. I must have had a delirious look on my face. Below me were the hills and neighborhoods surrounding Kabul, exactly as it looked on Google Earth. Kabul was like a dusty city in the middle of a barren desert surrounded by jagged mountains. In the distance were the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush. What a beautiful country!
On the descent the plane turned tightly towards the runway. I figured this was to evade shoulder fired missiles. But the maneuver wasn't particularly violent, so it probably wasn't the full corkscrew maneuver that pilots had to do during the wars. The plane touched down at 10:00 a.m., local time. After months of planning and research, I was in Kabul.
I looked out the window and tried to take everything in. There were military planes and helicopters scattered all around, transport planes were taking off, fire trucks were standing by, Humvees, soldiers, machines guns, guard towers, and the flags of the ISAF nations were visible. As I stepped off the plane, I was happy to see a beautiful sunny, clear. Temperature was around 87F. It felt like California! Although we were at 5,900 feet above sea level, the air didn't feel different.
We were herded onto a bus and taken across the airport. Then we were dropped off at an arrival center. Inside, a scruffy and tired looking police supervisor and his men tried to get us to form several lines. They handed out forms. I went to the restroom, and by the time I came out, they were out of the forms. Worried, I told the supervisor I had no form. He smiled and said, "Don't worry". He gestured for me to get in line. Most people were filling out their forms. I reminded myself I was in Central Asia. There was no need to form lines, so I sneaked up in front and got up to the passport counter. I waved at the police supervisor a few more times, reminding him I had no form. Each time he smiled and said, "No form, okay". I didn't want to violate any rules just when I was about to get into Kabul. I just hoped the supervisor would be around in case anyone asked me for a form.
During my research, I read that the police or passport officers sometimes made mistakes that could later prevent someone from leaving Kabul. I was afraid I would have to pay a penalty when it was time to leave. But when I reached the window, nothing happened. The passport officer didn't ask for any form. He stamped my visa with no delay. I didn't ask about the form again, or if the visa was valid and stamped correctly. Maybe I should have. Anyway, after passing a bag scanner, I walked out of the airport and into the parking lot. I checked my passport and the entry visa; everything looked right.
Outside the airport building, I turned around and noticed that the giant portraits of Ahmad Shah Massoud and Hamid Karzai that I saw online had been removed (they would be put back by Friday). I followed others to a gate beyond which some cars and buses were parked. I searched for parking Lot B and for the driver from Safi Landmark. When I got to the gate, I wanted to take some photos of the airport, so I put down my bags and took out my camera. A kid spotted me, took my bags and asked me where I was headed. I told him Safi Landmark and that I was waiting for a driver. He appeared to know what I was talking about, so I followed him, but I didn't think he was from the Safi Landmark. Luckily, I found the driver from Safi Landmark holding a sign with my name. We shook hands, and the kid handed him my bags. I was glad I spotted the Safi Landmark driver because I didn't think the kid knew where I was going. I gave him a dollar because that's what you're supposed to do in this part of the world.
On the bus
An Afghan looking man said he was a music producer from New York here to meet a pop singer, Afghanistan's Ricky Martin, as he put it. We chatted a bit, and then he went outside to talk on the phone. I also went outside to get some fresh air and sunshine, which I didn't have for over a day. I noticed there were guys with large machine guns all around me; they were either U.S., ISAF or private security, hard for me to tell the difference since they wore similar uniforms. This made me feel both secure and insecure – secure because they could protect us in the event of a terrorist attack – insecure since they were prime targets for suicide bombers. A suicide attack at the military gate of the airport two days before I arrived had killed an Afghan soldier. I was not surprised by the security.
A few minutes later, we got back on the bus. Another gentlemen was there now, a man from a textbook publishing company in Bahrain, in Kabul to sign a contract with the Afghan Education Ministry. He was late for the signing. He asked if he could be dropped off at the Education Ministry for a few minutes. I said fine, I wasn't in a rush. I wanted to see as much of the city as possible, plus in this part of the world, it's important to make friends at every opportunity. After some discussion with the bus driver, where I kept telling him "yes, yes, it's alright to stop on the way", we were off.
Coming into Kabul, I noticed how busy and normal the city looked. I have been to Egypt, Turkey and Xinjiang Province in China; I was familiar with cities and towns in the Middle East and Central Asia. I didn't see any signs of war and terrorism. The streets were jammed with cars, trucks, buses, school children, young men with short beards, old men with long beards, women in burqas, donkeys, carts, motorcycles and bicyclists. I soon realized Kabul International Airport wasn't really outside the city, as I thought, from looking at the maps. The airport was practically inside the city, only a few minutes from the downtown area. Photos and paintings of Massoud and Karzai were everywhere.
While we waited at the Education Ministry, I stayed on the bus and observed my surroundings. I noticed we had parked in front of what looked like a hair salon. I wish I had gotten off and walked around, but I was not yet brave enough or sure of where I was. I didn't know what kind of neighborhood I was in. After awhile, the man from Bahrain returned and we headed to the Shar-E-Now area of the city where the City Centre and Safi Landmark were located. On the way, we passed by the Serena accommodation, which was the other high end inn in Kabul; it looked like a fortress-style compound. I couldn't see anything inside.
At the City Centre, we were quickly rushed into the Safi lobby. Kabul isn't a place where visitors want to stand around out in the open for too long. The City Centre was surrounded by crash barriers and armed guards. The barriers were fitted to holes in the ground; could be lifted to permit a vehicle to enter. Guards were wielding AK47-style assault rifles. They were stationed both outside and inside the building. I checked in, paid $80.00 for the first night (U.S. dollars are still accepted in Kabul's businesses, credit cards are unavailable, but can be used in ATM's).
The standard room was clean and functional, although a little too small. The air conditioning worked well. Safi Landmark was an adequate well equipped inn, four stars by local standards. It employed locals, but the front desk was run by Indians. The place was busy, with most guests coming from the Middle East, Pakistan and India. There were many Westerners staying there also. Most guests were on business, or worked with the private security contractors. There were also aid or charity workers, and tourists from the region. I stayed on the 4th floor; it was quiet. The room was cleaned everyday.
After a brief rest, I headed into the city and tried to find the office of Afghan Logistics and Tours, which I was told by Muqim Jamshady, the CEO, was near the inn. It was around noon now and quite hot. The streets were congested, even with donkeys. There were no stoplights, no crosswalks. Sidewalks were used by motorcycles. Vehicles drove on either side of the street. There were electric cables and portable generators lying everywhere, giant potholes, pits, craters, open sewage drains, and dangerous roadwork and building construction. All around me was waste, toxic fumes, car fumes and the loud drumming sound of the generators.
There were dozens of ways to get killed, I thought. Terrorism was the least of my worries as I ran around dodging cars, and jumping over pits and trenches of sewage. The only time drivers slowed down was when a handicapped or old person crossed the street. I noticed that Afghanistan imported cars from all over the world. There were as many cars with the steering wheel on the left side as there were on the right. Clusters of homeless people, refugees, orphaned children, war veterans, war victims and widows were begging on the streets. When some of these people saw me, they quickly followed me. Even the ones with no legs, who crawled across the street, and women in burqas came after me and implored me. I could not refuse them – the logic and reason for not giving flew out the window.
Failing to find the Afghan Logistics office, I called Muqim. He said he would send a driver to my inn to pick me up. I waited outside, spent time getting to know the guards; they came from different ethnic groups. Some were Pashtun, others were Hazara. An Asiatic looking man with a walkie-talkie came by, but I didn't know he was the driver from Afghan Logistics. Sitting outside, I was the target of several street children selling gum and mobile phone top-up cards. One of them seemed to be a regular. The guards played with him, letting him climb and swing on the barrel of their AK-47s.
After waiting some more, I headed back to the streets to find Muqim's office. The kid selling gum was aggressive; followed me around for a couple of blocks. I gave him a dollar and he ran back to Safi. I continued to walk near the Safi, asking people if they knew Muqim. While walking down one street, I saw an Afghan woman wearing a scarf yelling on her mobile phone in English about the lack of security promised her. I was guessing she was an aid worker or had a business here.
In a quieter part of Shar-E-Now, I found a guy standing alone in the middle of the street wielding a large machine gun. He didn't look like he wanted to be bothered. After another hour, I saw a car with the Afghan Logistics logo and waved at the driver. He stopped. I recognized him as the man with the walkie talkie. He took me to the secret compound of Afghan Logistics. Inside the compound was a motor pool guarded by a teenager with an AK-47. Muqim told me for security reasons, he did not have a street side office like other tourist agencies. He was very pleasant, offered me water, and we discussed my travel plans for the following two days. I paid for the next day's Kabul City Tour.
That night I had dinner at a Pakistani restaurant with Augustin, a photographer for a Kabul newspaper. We had contacted each other through the Afghanistan message board on Lonely Planet's Thorntree. I definitely needed his advice. He was from Indonesia, but not a Muslim. Being from Indonesia, he said, had definitely kept him safe on his overland journeys in the conservative regions of Pakistan and Central Asia. Indonesia was a Muslim country and neutral in the War on Terror. Not all the Taliban were Pashtun. During the Korean hostage crisis, the Taliban tried to portray Indonesia as being on their side of the negotiations. Augustin said he had been to Kandahar once, very dangerous; even non-Pashtun Afghans were afraid to go there. He loved Central Asia and working in Kabul, but it was not safe. He experienced danger on a few occasions.
Kabul City Tour
I explored Kabul with a guide from Afghan Logistics my second day. The streets were swarming with vehicles, people, food stalls and markets. Sheep and goats were herded about, men and children rode donkeys. The taxis and minibuses were crammed with passengers. Children rode on the tops of cars and trucks. It was chaotic. I tried to absorb everything, often times forgetting to take photos. My guide drove me around the city, pointing out the TV stations, police stations, bus stations, schools and government buildings. I saw some UN convoys.
First, we went to the famous Intercontinental that housed foreign correspondents during the wars. It was bombed during the fighting; looked like a heavily guarded fortress. When we got to the gate, the guards used mirrors to check the underside of the car for explosives. Pictures of Massoud were everywhere. The Intercontinental looked well kept: the swimming pool in the back was clean, and there was a small army of Hazara laborers working on the grounds. It was deserted, though. I didn't see any guests – to be expected if they were holed up inside, afraid to come out.
At the main entrance there was a sign that said "No Weapons", with a picture of an assault rifle crossed out. After taking some photos of Kabul's Polytechnical Univeristy, I was taken to the Darul Aman Palace, built in the 1920's by King Amanullah Khan. At the palace, my guide told me it was okay to take photographs, even though a sign clearly stated photography was forbidden. Just as I lifted my camera to take a shot, a voice from a distance hollered out. I looked to my right and saw someone in a guard tower a hundred yards away waving at me. I put down my camera right away. Later my guide got out of the car and we met with a group of kids who were playing nearby. My guide wanted me to take a photo of himself and the kids. I happily did. Then a guard came by and I think he scolded my guide.
Security was tight. There were police and paramilitary checkpoints all over the city. Private security guards, bodyguards, hired guns and mercenaries protected VIP's, stores, banks, office buildings, restaurants, apartments and compounds. They were armed with a variety of light to heavy machine guns. Many military helicopters circled the city. Who or what they were watching for, I had no idea. Kabul was a like a Wild West boom town; whoever had the most guns was in charge and wrote the law. To blend in, I wore my pakol hat, a popular hat in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the hat Massoud wore in his battles against the Soviets and Taliban.
Most noticeable were various images of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir – on posters, paintings and drawings. His face was used to advertise bottled water and mobile phones. He was depicted hugging children, shaking hands with men and women, or sitting down and thoughtfully reading a book – the scholar, poet, warrior, thinker, leader, commander, protector. Were these pictures real? It was as if Massoud was now living a second life, a fantasy life created in the minds of the Afghan people. If he were alive today, he would probably be the supreme ruler and father of Afghanistan, or at the very least of Kabul and Panjshir Valley.
There are definitely too many people in Kabul. The city now has three million people. Resources are stretched to their limits. In the 70's and 80's, the city only had a million population. After two decades of war, people from the rural areas had to migrate to the cities to find shelter and work. Kabul's infrastructure is strained – not enough shelter and hospitals. The streets harbor an over abundance of refugees, beggars, handicapped people, homeless mothers and orphans. Everyone is a victim of the wars, dislocation and the Taliban's 20-year extremism. Deformed people, amputees, and victims of land mines were living on the streets – terribly unhealthy. Not only smog and toxic fumes from vehicles were a hazard, but Kabul had no modern underground sewage system – standing water and waste flowed out in the open. Along the side of the streets were trenches holding water and sewage. I saw many Afghans giving money to the homeless. I did also. There may be other places in the world where it is counterproductive to give money to beggars, but not in Kabul.
My guide and I went to several places around the older parts of the city. The Imam Ali Shrine was very impressive. Lots of Hazaras and other Shiites visit this place. At the Kabul Museum, I saw Greek artifacts and wood carvings from the Nuristan region in northeastern Afghanistan. Some of them reminded me of totem poles, also of wooden art I had seen in Romania. Islamic art forbids the likeness of the human body, but the pre-Islamic art in Nuristan had human faces and bodies. Nuristan is interesting because the people there are Indo-Aryan, Caucasian in appearance. Some say they are the descendants of Alexander the Great and his armies. The fact that this foreign looking pagan art was being cared for by a conservative Islamic society was a strong indication of progress.
One of the museum staff said he was from Iran. I practiced Farsi with him. I had learned Farsi before coming here, simply because I was not able to get many Dari language resources. After the museum, we went to Babur Gardens which is on a hill. At Babur's tomb, an old man who spoke a little English showed me a big book of old photos of the Gardens, many from the early 20th century. Babur's Garden had streams of cool water that flowed down the hill. I drank a little bit but wasn't sure if it was clean. Many people and families were relaxing in the park. Kabul was not a peaceful place to relax, but this garden was.
We then went to a hill to see some sweeping views of the city. On top were the remains of Soviet military vehicles, mostly APC's, and an abandoned Soviet-built swimming pool. The wind began picking up. I saw a thick brown blanket of smog and dust covering Kabul. I later read that breathing Kabul air was like smoking several packs of cigarettes. Kabul and the surrounding landscape were still very beautiful. The Kabul region was like a fortress, protected all around by a barrier of rocky hills and jagged mountains. No wonder so many great forces fought for control of this city.
Once I was on my own, I explored the City Centre building, essentially a shopping center for foreigners and wealthy Afghans. I didn't think anything in the stores was actually made in Afghanistan. For me the most important thing in the City Centre was the ATM machine; the only way to get cash. I could use my credit card, but only as an ATM card. For my internet access, I used the PC at the lobby of the Safi Landmark. The connection was fast, and I uploaded my photos to Flickr. Too tired to go out, I ate at the Shamiana restaurant on the 7th floor. It was basically a buffet of Western and Indian food – satisfying, but not memorable.
A guide from Afghan Logistics picked me up early in the morning to take me to Panjshir Valley. This tour would give me the opportunity to see what life was like in the rural areas outside of Kabul. The highway was a new paved road. In the past, an old rocky bombed out road took people to Panjshir, and so an SUV was needed. But today, we were in a small sedan, probably a Toyota or Honda. One thing I liked about driving in Afghanistan was that there were no speed limits, no seatbelt laws, and it didn't matter much what lane you were driving in. Obviously, the underpaid police had far more important security and terrorist problems to worry about.
We passed by small towns and communities. Some were only little groups of wooden and mud huts. The road narrowed as we entered the towns; we often shared the road with donkeys and bicyclists. Men pulled carts of produce, and small children carried lambs and chickens – people surviving by growing fruits and vegetables and selling them on the roadside. Grapes and melons were the most popular. Conditions were poor, however I didn't feel people were starving. On our drive out of Kabul, I noticed some women wore white burqas. This was surprising because women in Kabul wore blue burqas. My driver said the color depended on the region they came from.
Panjshir Valley is a region in Panjshir Province, about 90 miles northeast of Kabul. The valley is inside a canyon and surrounded by mountains. This was where Ahmad Shah Massoud led his Mujahideen army to victory over the Soviets in dozens of battles. Panjshir was never taken by the Soviets or the Taliban. Massoud's leadership and military prowess earned him the nickname "The Lion of Panjshir". Panjshir Valley means Valley of Five Lions, after a Ghaznavid legend about five brave men who built a dam for a Sultan. Massoud's title was a play on the word Panjshir; he was The Lion of the Valley of Five Lions. Massoud fought again to defend Kabul during the Afghan Civil War, and led the Northern Alliance to defend the northern Afghanistan from Taliban conquest. He was killed by an Al Qaeda assassin on September 9, 2001, two days before Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center. After Hamid Karzai assumed the Presidency, he bestowed upon Massoud the title of National Hero of Afghanistan. Today, Panjshir is a pro-Western anti-Taliban stronghold. Photos and posters of Massoud were everywhere, on telephone polls, signs, billboards, buildings, on the front and rear windows of every car and truck.
As expected, there were a number of police and military checkpoints heading into the valley. We had no trouble getting through. Only at one checkpoint, did my guide have to get out and show his credentials. At another checkpoint, a guard asked my driver if I was a foreigner. At another, the guard was napping and we just drove past. So while there was a lot of security, Panjshir was not and did not feel like a regular target for terrorists. I never had to show anyone any papers going into or while in Panjshir.
The road leading to the valley is along a river. People fished on the river. I saw nomads with their camels camped along the river. I could sense that living conditions in Panjshir were slightly better than the places outside. Everything was greener, homes and buildings were in better condition, the rural people seemed a little more prosperous. There was also a lot of road construction and repair going on. During my research, I read that Panjshir was regarded by U.S. and ISAF forces as a model example of rebuilding efforts.
We arrived at Massoud's new tomb very quickly after entering the valley. The old tomb was inside a relatively modest green dome. Workers had torn down the simple green dome and were building what looked like a larger more elaborate mausoleum, almost like a temple, more fitting for the Lion of Panjshir. Maybe Massoud was a modest man who would have preferred a simpler tomb, but the people regard him as the National Hero of Afghanistan. This new tomb will be a major tourist attraction.
An old man let me inside the tomb to take some photos. There were colorful banners with Persian script and pictures of Massoud. A stone plaque stood at the side of the tomb, a gift from the U.S. Marine Corps. This was the most special place I saw in Afghanistan. I felt it a great privilege to look inside and sign the guest book. Outside the tomb, laborers were hard at work building the surrounding structures. Giant paintings of Massoud were lying on the ground, being prepared to be raised. The people were getting ready for the big mourning and celebration on September 9, the 6th anniversary of Massoud's assassination.
Leaving Panjshir Valley, we got a flat. No problem. My guide replaced the tire in a matter of minutes. We stopped by a restaurant along a river called Naw Bahar. The specialty was the mahi (fish) caught along the river. The fish was very good, reminded me of the salty dried fish that is served in Chinese restaurants. While we ate, I asked my guide what he thought about the prospects for tourism in the south. He said it was good because there were a lot of ancient ruins in the south. But he said there was no way he would go down there right now. People like him who brought in foreign tourists would get their heads chopped off by the Taliban.
For my last night in Kabul, I decided to try out the kebab place across the street from the City Centre called Baba Amir. It was a standard kebab place, where meat was grilled on skewers outside on the street. When the guests and employees saw my camera, they wanted their pictures taken. Later they gave me an email address so I could mail them the photos. The kebabs were delicious, best meal I had in many days. I managed to eat sixteen kebabs with some bread, green tea and ice cream.
After dinner, I found that a large squad of guards was stationed outside the City Centre. These weren't the normal guards, looked more like a paramilitary unit. They were bigger, better equipped, and more heavily armed. Each one looked like he was prepared to fight in an urban street battle. I thought maybe there was a security alert, or maybe a VIP was staying at the inn. I found out that several limousines had entered the car port transporting members of a wedding party – a big security situation. Both the bride and groom wore western style wedding attire, and the bride didn't have her head or face covered. I had read before coming to Afghanistan that Western style weddings were becoming popular in Kabul for the affluent. But for the common people and the radical extremists, this was a serious violation. I was not surprised a large paramilitary security team was protecting this event.
I spent the morning of my last day in Kabul on the famous Chicken and Flower Streets. Bargaining is appreciated here, but it's nowhere as intense as Khan El Khalili in Cairo or the Sunday market in Kashgar. My flight to Dubai was to leave at 3:00 p.m. Safi Landmark felt it was necessary for the driver to take me there at 12:00 p.m., in case I ran into a traffic jam, an accident, road blocks, a bomb threat, etc. Fortunately, the trip to the airport was uneventful. Arriving at a small airport field office, I had to show my papers to the police. I was then taken to an outside waiting area. The driver from Safi Landmark carried one of my bags all the way to the waiting area. He refused a tip!
Everyone in the waiting area was Afghan or Pakistani. Several policemen guarded us. The check in counter was in the airport building. I waved my papers and tried to get through the gate, but the police told me to stay put. I remembered reading somewhere that for security reasons, Kabul airport didn't want travelers inside the airport more than two hours before the flight's departure. At about 1:00 p.m., I waved my papers again at the police. This time they let me through. By now other Westerners had arrived. We walked across Parking Zone B and into the airport gate. Police checked our papers again. Entering the gate, I saw that the giant pictures of Karzai and Massoud were put back on the front of the airport building. I wanted to take a photo of them, but I didn't feel comfortable with the policemen around.
At the door of the airport building, everyone had to line up. There was a table where a team of policemen were going through the bags of several travelers. One of the travelers being searched was an American. I gathered he worked for a private security company. The police were taking out his medicines and checking the bottles. I heard one of the officers ask the man if he had his doctor's prescription. Another officer was talking on his phone requesting information about a particular medicine. Another Westerner was also having his bags searched. While this was happening, a policeman waved at me to step out of the line. We went to a corner, he took my papers and questioned me. He then started mumbling, "We can make this easy, if you have something else". I took this as a signal that he wanted a bribe. I opened my wallet and took out $20.00. He gladly accepted it and let me in the building. Meanwhile, outside at the table, the two Westerners were still being searched.
I had no issues about giving the bribe. It is a common practice in Central Asia and the Middle East. I had read about a Canadian correspondent who tried to give a bribe at Kabul airport, but he didn't offer enough or had (unfortunately) found an honest Afghan. He was forced to stay overnight because his entry visa had the wrong stamp. Better to pay money than wait in line to have your bags searched. Sure, it defeats the point of the security, but I wasn't thinking about that. I did not want to miss my flight.
Once inside the building, I had to wait in line at the ticket counter. Ahead of me was a lady from China. She had tried to leave Kabul earlier in the day, and was returning to try again. Another policeman pulled me out of the line and asked me more questions. I slipped him $2.00; he gave my passport to a ticketing officer, to whom I gave a $10.00 airport fee. I then ran into a funny looking guy who did not dress like a government official. He said I needed to return or buy a "foreign registration card" because "your friend has one". I had no idea what he was babbling about. I ignored him. The policeman I gave $2.00 to saw him and brushed him aside. Paying baksheesh was giving me express service.
A the bag scanner, an old man took my bags and placed them on the conveyor belt. A few people urged me to "give him some money"; I gave him a dollar. I moved on to the Kam Air check-in line. A boy carried my bag to the line, so I gave him a dollar. I was afraid I would run out of money for baksheesh. I got through the line quickly; Kam Air gave me my boarding pass. I went through another bag scanner, then to another policeman who checked my papers. After failing to find anything wrong with my passport, he allowed me to go upstairs. Upstairs was the final official passport control. Even though I had not filled forms when I arrived, everything was in order. The passport agent gave me my exit visa and I was allowed through.
I napped in the upstairs lounge for a bit. More and more people were arriving in the lounge. An hour later, I saw people who earlier were in line ahead of me, like the Chinese lady and the American who was being searched, coming in. What had taken them so long? As the Kam Air Boeing 767 readied for takeoff, we went downstairs where a policeman asked for our tickets. It took me time to find the small scrap of paper the office downstairs had given me. I was free to leave!
I didn't expected my departure from Kabul would be easy, but I was surprised by the number of bribes I had to pay. On the other hand, this was Kabul. There had been a suicide attack the previous weekend. It was a new experience for me, though. Departing from San Francisco or Amsterdam was rather simple compared to departing Kabul. Never leave Kabul without a lot of money on you
Takeoff went smoothly, no violent corkscrew maneuvers. We had a good view of Kabul. It looked more organized from the air. I sat next to a man from Oregon who worked for a private security contractor. He was assigned to Kandahar, and had spent a year in Afghanistan. He was taking a three-day holiday in Dubai. He said I was the first tourist he met in the country. We spoke of the bribes which he said was normal. I asked him about the War on Terror in Afghanistan. He responded that the American media was only scratching the surface. Afghanistan was still dangerous, and not only in the south. He wasn't sure fighting the opium production would work. He said if we really wanted to, we could eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda threat very quickly, but difficult without killing thousands of civilians and making refugees of millions more. He was unsure of how we should fight in Afghanistan, but he said the use of private security contractors in Afghanistan was popular with the U.S. government because it kept their hands clean; they didn't have to explain their operations or policies to Congress.
Not only do I want to return, but I'd like to visit other parts of Afghanistan, including Kandahar and the south. I'd like to do something to help the people of Afghanistan. I admire and respect their spirit and courage. They are a hard and tough people, also warm and gentle. I never saw them feeling sorry for themselves. Traveling in Afghanistan requires patience and some experience traveling in third world or underdeveloped countries. Many of the rural areas are wild, lawless places, ruled by warlords and armed bandits. Don't expect the ISAF or U.S. forces to rescue you if you get in trouble; they have far more important problems to deal with. Afghanistan is not an easy place to understand and rationalize.
Getting into Afghanistan is still easy for Americans and other foreigners. You can obtain your visa quickly from the Afghan Embassy, or one of the consulates. If you're American, you don't have to register with the U.S. State Department. When you return, U.S. Customs will ask you about your trip – why you went, what you saw, who you met, where you stayed. They'll search your bags and look at photos in your digital camera. They may ask about your private life, where you live and work, whether you are a practicing Muslim, etc. Relax and answer their questions.
Security is not great, but it isn't terrible either. Kabul is relatively safe. If you are staying for a long time, you have to learn how to blend in and vary your movements, e.g. don't leave your compound at the same time everyday, or use the same route to the office. If you are in Afghanistan for only a few days, keeping a low profile is probably adequate. Don't attract attention; blend in. Some Afghans wear Western clothes, especially in Kabul, so Western clothes won't automatically target you. If you need to stop, don't just stop and stand around. Sit down on the curb or the sidewalk with the homeless, or huddle in a dark alleyway. Try your best to look like you belong in the city. Don't appear lost. People passing by shouldn't notice you. Sitting in the shade or a dark corner, you can rest safely, observe and take photos discreetly.