The news that the Taliban had attacked a convoy of Western tourists in Afghanistan was only of surprise because of who the victims were. The number of civilian casualties have reached the highest level recorded in the country since the fall of the Taliban; but attacks on tourists are rare because a place of fierce conflict is hardly a natural choice for most holidaymakers.
Afghanistan should have a thriving tourist industry. It is a place of outstanding natural beauty. The north, in particular, is like a Switzerland with character. As a land that had been so often the crossroads of history, it is also full of important historic sites, despite the attempts of the Taliban and other Islamists to destroy many of them, the blowing-up of the statue of the Buddha in Bamiyan being the most infamous of the desecrations.
I recall in 2001, after Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Taliban regime had fled, ministers in the new Northern Alliance government discussing plans to set up a department of heritage and starting sporting facilities including reopening skiing resorts. That did get under way and there is an annual Afghan ski challenge that takes place in Bamiyan: the participants, however, are Afghans, mainly local Hazaras, rather than foreigners.
Some foreign visitors did start coming to Afghanistan after 2001.The national airline, Ariana, started commercial operations. A group of us took one of the first flights to the west of the country to interview the warlord Ismail Khan, “the lion of Herat”. The plane was overbooked, a few of the Afghan passengers had to share seats as it took off rattling with the pilot announcing we may have to turn back at some point in our journey if it all became too difficult.
Herat is where the party of Western tourists were heading when they were ambushed. The city itself, with its Friday mosque, the citadel and the tomb of Jami, the great Sufi poet, is lovely to see. One can still fly there and it was surprising that the Western visitors were going by road. The escort of Afghan soldiers may not necessarily have been a guarantee of safety, giving the Islamists, instead, an added incentive to attack.
A varied group of foreigners poured into Kabul after the fall of the Taliban: the military, diplomats, spies, security contractors, soldiers of fortune, NGOs , arms and gems dealers, drug traffickers. It was the Wild East, with people keen to get a taste of the massive amount of international aid being pumped in and lucrative projects in the offing.
New hotels sprang up and the bar of one of them, the Mustafa, was the place to be. There was a dancing Osama bin Laden doll, bullet holes in the ceiling, men who wore wraparound sunglasses at night while fondly cradling their guns. The seats for drinking al fresco on the adjacent terrace were supposedly from Russian MiGs shot down by the Mujahideen using US supplied Stinger missiles. One night a chimpanzee was liberated from the city zoo and put on sentry duty with a Kalashnikov AK-47. It was only after a while that the sole person who was sober, a former boxer, noticed that the safety catch was off.
Some of the customers were bad and possibly mad. There was, for example, Jack Idema, who claimed to be an ex-CIA agent and hawked what he claimed to be pictures and film footage supposedly of al-Qaeda operations, to some TV companies. He ran Task Force Sabre 7, which carried out arbitrary arrests and tortured “terror suspects” in a prison he set up at a Kabul suburb. He was later himself arrested and jailed.
There was an exodus from Afghanistan after George W Bush and Tony Blair moved on to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Taliban, fed and watered by their mentors in Pakistan, returned to take advantage of the security vacuum.
In 2006, with the government of Hamid Karzai under mounting pressure from the insurgency, American and British forces returned and along with them came assorted civilians. There were soon 9,000 foreigners in Kabul alone, with restaurants, bars and hotel and parties galore on Thursday evenings (the Muslim weekend starting on Fridays) to provide entertainment. The opium trade thrived and some the proceeds were spent by the drug lords on large, garish buildings in the Afghan capital, which became known as “narcotecture”, to rent out to some of the organisations coming from abroad.
There were also trips outside the capital – walking in Badakhshan and Panjshir Valley, visits to Bamiyan and Herat. The roads were not too bad even in the Pashtun south. I travelled in a car from the British forces’ headquarters in Lashkar Gar in Helmand to Kabul in 2006, stopping off in Kandahar to write about female emancipation in the birthplace of the Taliban, to mark International Women’s Day.
Such journeys would soon become impossible. Security began to unravel. Three of the women I had interviewed in Kandahar as the brave new face of Afghanistan – a senior police officer, a community leader and a teacher – were to be murdered by the Taliban, their vicious, reactionary enemy, the infiltration from Pakistan spread to the north from the east and the south of the country, the rate of suicide bombings continued to rise.
The American-led Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) ended combat operations in 2013 having rushed through the training of Afghan forces and declaring they were ready to take on the insurgents. This was followed by a costly miscalculation by Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani. He reached out to the Pakistani secret police, ISI, and the military in the hope they would stop the Taliban bombing campaign and bring them to the negotiating table.
The policy failed, the numbers of attacks heightened and Kabul began to get hit repeatedly. The peace process went nowhere; Isis and a resurgent al-Qaeda joined the bloody strife. Restaurants and hotels were attacked and closed down. The foreigners departed; the dwindling few remain targets. just last week a guarded complex for foreign contractors was attacked in the capital.
President Ghani now publicly admits that his Pakistan policy was a mistake. The Americans said they were losing their patience with the Pakistanis and killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who had replaced Mullah Omar as Taliban leader, in a drone strike in Pakistan.
But there is no end to the conflict in sight and it will take the security situation to be improved dramatically for foreign civilians to base themselves in anything like the numbers of the past. The numbers of tourists is now about 100 a year, having steadily shrunk over the past dozen years. Even that is likely to fall away after the Herat attack: the wonders of Afghanistan will stay hidden to visitors for the foreseeable violent future.
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