It’s always something of an experience coming to Afghanistan. The experience starts from the moment you decide to visit the country. Many thoughts start coming to mind – questions about whether the country is just too volatile to visit, and where you’ll stay. Then comes the silent disapproval of parents, relatives and friends. But to balance this there’s also the excitement of seeing a place that’s pivotal to geopolitics.
Despite this being my fifth trip to the country in the past three years, there’s the same excitement and apprehension as when I came here for the first time. And my curiosity has only grown over that time, as I try to understand the mood of the nation as international troops are preparing to leave.
When I came to Kabul for the first time in late 2008, the only flight available from New Delhi was with Indian Airlines. Now there are two more international carriers – Kam Air and Safi Airways – operating regular flights from India’s capital. This reflects the growing mobility between the two nations. Indeed, even just a couple of years ago, Kabul international airport was rather quiet. This time, especially at immigration and the luggage collection area, the airport felt a little too small to handle the number of passengers it’s expected to.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the security. The moment the plane leaves behind the Hindu Kush mountains and starts circling the airport, fighter planes, helicopters and armored vehicles tell the story of daily life in Afghanistan.
There aren’t many places in the world where you have to pass through a security check and have your luggage scanned as you exit the airport, but that’s how it works in Kabul. As a journalist who is accredited by the International Security Assistance Force, it’s a relief that I’m not subject to much of the paperwork some visitors are.
The moment you exit the main building of the airport we head for the armored convoys. You have to push your trolley for almost five hundred meters to the parking space as only VIP vehicles are allowed to come up to the gate of the main airport block.
But nobody complains, even though the scan you go through on exiting the parking area is only the beginning. As I came to the main street near Masood Chowk, Afghan police stopped my vehicle and asked the driver where I was going and who I am. I was introduced as Hindustani (Indian) and the guard smiled and allowed me to continue without checking the vehicle. There’s a certain bonhomie between Afghans and Indians.
One change I noticed since my last visit was the number of new buildings. My driver said one of the large structures was a marriage hall. Afghan weddings are no small affairs, often involving 1,000 or more people. I can see why the halls need to be so big.
Over the years, traffic has started to feel more congested on Kabul’s roads. In part this is probably due to there being more vehicles. But this has been exacerbated by the closure of some of the important arterial roads that cross important government buildings, embassies or military establishments. Taliban attacks on such establishments have rendered many roads out of bounds for members of the public.
My driver had to take a circuitous route to reach the hotel where even after three layers of security checks you can’t escape the gaze of security guards until you’re safely in your room.