I’ve been running tours to Afghanistan since 2016, the majority of which were under the previous government – the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the US and NATO-backed government, who held a tenuous grip on power for 20 years, from the intervention in 2001 until the Taliban took over in 2021.
During the years leading up to 2021, Afghanistan was an exciting and vibrant place, but much of the country was essentially off-limits. Kandahar for example was known as the kidnapping capital of the world. It was said that if you spent more than 24 hours in the city, there was a higher chance of being kidnapped than not.
Travelling between cities brought a constant fear, due to the chance of an attack, suicide bombing or even shootings. While travelling through rural areas there was always a high chance that you would come across a roadside bombing or an illegal checkpoint.
In those years only a few parts of the country felt remotely safe, primarily the Panjshir Valley, Bamiyan and the Wakhan Corridor. When in Afghanistan you would hear almost daily about an attack on a government building, school, hospital, marketplace or religious site.
Then there was the chance of ending up at the wrong end of the rifle of a young 18-year-old American manning a checkpoint who saw you look at him the wrong way and got a little trigger-happy. When a military convoy came through you got out of their way otherwise they would ram you.
At the same time, there was hope. You could visit schools and see girls getting an education. There were NGOs and programmes that did genuinely amazing work like the Mobile Children's Circus which taught underprivileged kids circus tricks, building their self-esteem, while also giving them an education in maths and languages. People were happy to see you and wanted you to see the amazing culture, history and hospitality Afghanistan has to showcase.
Now it’s a different story. The security situation is much safer, attacks are now so much rarer that several international organisations have downgraded the security threat to better than neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. You can tell at the checkpoints that the Taliban take security seriously and are much more thorough than the previous government did, which had young army soldiers, usually high, just waving through every car without so much as a glance.
There are now very few parts of the country that are off-limits, but getting around has become a lot harder from a bureaucratic point of view. Every time you get to a checkpoint, they insist on asking the same useless questions, and despite having all the correct paperwork, they need to spend seemingly hours discussing it. They say they’ll ring through to the next checkpoint to make it easier, but it never is.
In every city and province, you now need to get a permit from the local tourism ministry office, which is meant to then coordinate with the Taliban to escort you around the sites. Sometimes they succeed in this, for example, in Kandahar they are quite switched on, but in other parts of the country there is a lack of communication which just means everything takes a lot longer than it should. Normally waiting at a government office for a permit would be a pain, but in today's Afghanistan it actually provides a rare opportunity to really communicate with people, as the time spent there means the employees are more likely to let their guard down.
When you then have a Taliban escort, they are occasionally nice enough, willing to have a chat and let you get on with your sightseeing, however more often than not they are shooing away locals who want to chat, making it as hard as possible to see the sights you’re visiting and try to prevent you getting any real feel for the country.
At one point on a recent trip, the Taliban tried to stop us from seeing the Shrine of Ali in Mazar i Sharif, arguably one of the most important Islamic sites in the world. Of course, after 30 minutes of debate they eventually relented and let our group see it. Likewise at the Buddhist caves in Samangan, they didn’t want to let us in. It seems that for many of the new Taliban overlords, closing down as much of the country is their primary aim. That being said, in Balkh and Tashkurgan, the local Talibs were surprisingly keen to show us around and enhance our experience. For a fleeting moment you almost forgot the world considers these people to be pure evil.
The Taliban security may very well be there to protect us, although I feel like their loyalties don’t lie with foreign (predominately) non-Muslim ‘infidels’, but also to watch us and limit our ability to get a real feel for the country. Even with this in mind, it has been surprising the small number of people who whisper anti-Taliban sentiments, in most cases to do with their employment circumstances, having been made unemployed due to the take-over. In some case it is to do with the racism and discrimination between the different groups that make up the patchwork country.
The cities have a very different feel now, with a lot less people out on the street, far fewer women of course and the deafening silence with the restrictions place on music. Only the familiar ‘happy birthday’ tune that is played by the ice cream sellers still ring. What life still remains is very hard to capture, due to the constant Talib presence. Even accidentally taking a picture in which a female is in the background is enough to have bloodshot eyed, clenched fisted, gun raised young Talibs looking like they’re about to hang you. In one such instance the constant response was ‘we fought for 20 years to protect our women’, meaning taking even a simple street scene can put you in the path of their anger.
Being a foreign woman in Taliban controlled Afghanistan has also taken on a very different experience to what was previously the case, but rather than reading what a man has to write about it, you can read here what a female traveller has to say about her experience travelling through the country.