Difference between revisions of "Afghanistan"
Revision as of 13:23, 14 April 2009
Afghanistan is a landlocked country in the heart of Asia, bordered by Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. There is a short border with China to the far northeast, but in extremely inaccessible terrain.
Afghanistan has been the center of many powerful empires for the past 2,000 years. However, in the last 30 years the country has been in chaos due to major wars -- from the Soviet invasion of 1979 to their withdrawal in 1989 and from warlordism to the removal of the Taliban in 2001 and social violence. Economically, Afghanistan is considered poor compared to many other nations of the world. The country is currently going through a nation-wide rebuilding process so that it can once again become a sovereign and peaceful place as it was before 1979.
Temperatures in the north can be below freezing for most of the winter, and snow in the higher elevations is common. Summertime highs in lower elevations (such as Kandahar) can exceed 50C/120F. In higher areas such as Kabul, summer temperatures can be 30C/90F and winter around 0C/30F. The most pleasant weather in Kabul is during April, May and September.
Mostly rugged mountains; plains in north and southwest. The Hindu Kush mountains run northeast to southwest, dividing the northern provinces from the rest of the country, with the highest peaks found in the northern Wakhan Corridor. South of Kandahar is desert.
The lowest point is Amu Darya at 258 meters, and the highest is Nowshak at 7,485 meters.
Afghanistan is a very ethnically diverse country. Tribal and local allegiances are strong, which complicates national politics immensely.
Hazaras in the Central mountains look much more Asiatic than other Afghans. According to some theories, they are descended from Ghengis Khan's soldiers.
The two largest linguistic groups speak Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian). Pashto speakers predominate in the South and East, Dari in North, west and central Afghanistan. About 11% of the population have Turkic languages, Uzbek or Turkmen, as their first language. Many of them are in the North, near Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan was created as a nation in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, with its capital at Kandahar. The country has a long history of warfare, mostly against invaders such as Alexander of Macedon, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Persians, and the British. Its recent history is no exception.
The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, to support a local socialist government. They were forced to withdraw 10 years later by anti-Communist mujahideen rebels, who were supplied and trained by the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and others. Fighting subsequently continued among the various mujahideen factions, giving rise to a state of warlords.
The Taliban grew out of this chaos, providing a solution to what was by this time a civil war. Backed by foreign sponsors, and inspired by a conservative sect of Islam, Taliban developed as a political force to end the civil war and bring security to the country. They eventually seized power and controlled most of the country, aside from some areas in the northeast.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, the Taliban refused to hand-over Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida militants. The US and allies decided to take military action with support from anti-Taliban Afghans and Pakistan's government, causing the Taliban's government to fall in December 2001.
That same month, representatives from all ethnic groups of Afghanistan met in Germany and agreed to form a new democratic government with Hamid Karzai as Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority. Following a nationwide election in 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. A year later, in 2005, legislative elections were held and the country's parliament began functioning again. In addition to occasionally violent political jockeying and ongoing military action to root out anti-government elements, the country suffers from poverty, corruption, and widespread opium cultivation.
In 2005, the United States and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement committing both nations to a long-term relationship. In the meantime approximately 30 billion US dollars are being spent on the reconstruction of the nation, most of this funding came from America with some from European and Asian countries such as Britain, Germany, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and others.
Officially 220V 50Hz. Electricity supplies are erratic but slowly improving in major cities. Voltage can drop to below 150V in some places. The Afghans' enthusiasm for homemade generators or modifying low quality ones means that the frequency and voltage can also vary wildly.
There are three types of electrical outlets likely to be found in Afghanistan. They are the old British standard BS-546, the newer British standard BS-1363 and the European standard CEE-7/7 "Schukostecker" or "Schuko". There is no single recognized standard. Hence, you may encounter any or all of these outlet types there. Generally speaking, U.S. and Canadian travelers should pack adapters for these outlets if they plan to use North American electrical equipment in Afghanistan. You may also find cheap universal adapters in the local markets.
English spellings of Afghan place names vary. For example, Q may replace K as in Qandahar or Qunduz. Konduz will be seen spelled as Qunduz, Qundoz, Qundoze and variations on these. Bamiyan is often spelled as Bamian or Bamyan. Khowst may be spelt as Khost.
Most visitors need to apply for a visa in advance, and are often easier to obtain than you might expect. See the Afghanistan Foreign Ministry's visa webpage .
Kabul International Airport (IATA: KBL) in Kabul is operating, but barely. Electricity is partial, lighting is absent in most locations, and services are minimal. Expect to (be forced to) pay bribes on your way out. There may be long delays at immigration and baggage claim. Near the existing terminal, a new modern-style terminal has been planned and some work may have been undertaken, but the scheduled completion during 2008 is questionable.
The national carrier, Ariana Afghan Airlines , is flying with a small fleet of about 14 Airbuses and Boeings (plus Antonovs). Ariana is banned from European air space for safety reasons. They have daily flights from Dubai, and periodic flights from Islamabad, Delhi, Istanbul, Baku and Tehran. Ariana is particularly bad at keeping to schedules, flights can be cancelled or delayed without notice.
A far better option is the independent operator Kam Air , which has twice daily flights from Dubai, twice weekly flights from Delhi and weekly flight from Almaty, Istanbul and Mashad. Some of the flights on the Dubai to Kabul route stop in Herat if you'd prefer to enter the country there. Pamir Airways  is a new private airline that offers daily flights between Kabul and Dubai ($330 inbound, $210 outbound), some stopping in Herat.
Air Arabia  flies 4 times per week from Sharjah - however they have currently suspended operations. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA)  flies 4 times per week from Islamabad and 1 time per week from Peshawar to Kabul. Another route in may be via through Tehran or Mashad in Iran. Iran Air  has periodic flights from Tehran to Kabul. Air India  operates two flights a week from Delhi to Kabul.
From Peshawar, Pakistan via the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad and then proceeding to Kabul. From Quetta, Pakistan to Kandahar. From Mashad, Iran to Herat. From Uzbekistan to Mazar-e Sharif and from Tajikistan to Konduz. Travelling any of these routes should not be considered safe, especially Quetta to Kandahar.
Buses run regularly between Jalalabad and Peshawar, Pakistan. Also, between Herat and Mashad, Iran. Afghani buses are thouroughly checked by Iranian border police for possible drugs, so expect delays.
There is a growing network of public transportation between the country's cities. Buses ply some routes and Toyota vehicles have a near monopoly on minivan (HiAce) and taxi (Corolla) transportation.
Jeeps and Land Cruisers are available for hire along with drivers who speak some English. There are tour operators in Kabul that can provide a car and guide. Petrol stations are scarce in the countryside, and fuel is expensive.
Paved roads are the exception, not the rule, and even those roads can be in poor repair. Once outside the major cities expect dirt roads (which turn to mud during rain or snow melt). The highway between Kabul and Bagram is dominated by military convoys and "jingle trucks".
Stay out of the way of military convoys! They travel fast and are heavily armed. Driving too close or approaching quickly from behind is an excellent way to be mistaken for a car bomber, and they WILL open fire if they feel threatened.
A new highway links Kabul to Kandahar. The highway is in good condition but should not be considered safe due to frequent attacks by anti-government forces such as the Taliban and the poor standard of driving. The trip takes a minimum of 5 hours.
Dari, an Afghan dialect of Persian, is the native language of about half the population. Pashto is the native language for about 35%, mainly in the South and East; it is also spoken in Pakistan. About 11% have a Turkic native language, primarily Uzbek and Turkmen, and there are also 30 minor languages such as Balochi. Most people speak more than one language; Dari is the historical lingua franca, widely spoken as a second language. You'll find a few people in Kabul who speak a little English but otherwise it isn't widely understood.
As to English it is now at the climax of its flourishing in Afghanistan & the percentage of those who speak English now has reached unpreceded rates. Mr, Karazai & his cabinet are fluent in English. English was taught at past from the seventh grade, but now is taught from the fourth grade. The signs in English in the streets now are very many all over the country. English is the second foreign language in Afghanistan.
Being an Islamic country, alcohol consumption is illegal. It is however tolerated, for non-Afghans, in western restaurants in Kabul.
Hotels and guesthouses are available in all major cities, and while some may not meet international standards they are usually friendly and reliable.
Many foreigners are finding well paid work in Afghanistan as part of the reconstruction efforts. Often with the UN or other non-governmental organisations. Most of these jobs are within Kabul. Local wages are very low, especially outside of Kabul. However, everyone should read and understand the travel advice published by their respective governments or in the Stay safe section below. You will need a work visa if you are planning on working on a US military base.
Afghanistan is a volatile country, and downright dangerous in the southern and eastern areas -- non-essential travel is highly discouraged. The Taliban has now declared abduction of foreigners to be one of its primary goals. In July 2007, twenty-three Koreans were kidnapped from a public bus in Ghazni province, south of Kabul. Two of them were murdered while the rest were set free several weeks later after controversial negotiations with the Korean government.
While the northern part of the country is generally considered to be a lot safer than the south and east, occasional incidents can still occur anywhere and a seemingly safe place can become the opposite in an instant. Several German media reporters were killed in the northern parts of Afghanistan, most likely by criminals or anti-westerners.
Landmines and other UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) remain a problem across the country, so plan to stick to well-worn paths, avoid red and white painted rocks, and do not touch or move any suspicious-looking item. According to the Afghan Red Crescent Society, approximately 600-700 people are injured or killed every year in accidents due to landmines and UXO. This is greatly reduced from over 1,600 in 2002. While travelling in Afghanistan you are likely to see mine clearance organisations at work.
Insects and Snakes are also something to be careful of, as the mountainous country has many vicious tiny creatures such as scorpions, spiders, snakes, etc.
If, after considering the risks, you still choose to travel in Afghanistan, hiring an armed escort or travelling with an experienced guide are ways to decrease the risks. You should also check with your embassy, and be clear on what they can and cannot do for you in an emergency.
See also: War zone safety
Afghanistan has its fair share of health issues, and it would be wise to consult a travel doctor ahead of your trip about vaccinations and health risks. Respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and food-related illness are common, and malaria is a risk in many parts of the country.
Afghanistan is one of the dustiest countries in the world, and you should be prepared to be covered in it and breathing it for most of your stay, even in the major cities. Pollution from diesel engines can also make life unpleasant.
Flies are notoriously heinous here, likely due to poor sanitation. Winter brings some relief, but they come back full-strength when spring arrives.
Food should be approached with a discerning eye, hygiene standards can often be lacking. Hot, freshly cooked food is generally safer. Bottled water is also advised, unless you have your own purification system.
Bring any prescription medicine you may need from your home country, don't count on being able to find it locally. You may also consider carrying pain relievers and anti-diarrheals, as they'll be hard to find outside of major cities.
As in most parts of Asia, squat toilets are the norm, and toilet paper optional and sometimes scarce. Western-style toilets are seen occasionally in newer buildings and some private homes.
Fixed line service is available in major cities (digital in Kabul) and mobile phones in most cities. SIM cards are available and international calls to Europe/US typically cost less than $0.5/minute. Outside of major cities your options are limited to a satellite phone.