Afghanistan – Safety & Checkpoints, Checkpoints, SO many Checkpoints

Afghanistan – Safety & Checkpoints, Checkpoints, SO many Checkpoints

Safety is naturally one of the top concerns for many when they think about traveling in Afghanistan. The country has seen decades upon decades of war and for most of our lives every time Afghanistan is in the news, or in a movie – its for all the wrong reasons.  The situation is very fluid in Afghanistan and travelers must stay informed by relying on the resources of guides, media and traveler groups to share information and make their own decisions about this risk.  You can find most of these on Facebook and WhatsApp. They are full of locals and travelers sharing information. Independent travel is possible now, and the country is definitely safer to visit than it was 5 years ago.  However the country is by no means “safe” in the traditional sense of travel. Things can go wrong very quick, and many have been arrested for doing things which would seem normal in any other country. Tourism is a new concept here, and a lot of local people don’t understand it. Pockets of radical groups still exist. However checkpoints and interactions with the government, aka the Taliban, will mostly define your perception of safety in Afghanistan.

Bullets from fighting litter the ground atop the Hill of Screams in Bamyan, Afghanistan
Bullets from fighting litter the ground atop the Hill of Screams in Bamyan, Afghanistan

Checkpoints are manned by Taliban who are often young men, mostly uneducated in the traditional sense, who spent the past 20 years fighting and hiding in the mountains and rising through the ranks. They have known nothing but but war for two decades and this shapes a certain world view.  Many of them can not read their own language, which means they cant understand the permit, visas, passports you hand them. Therefore initial interactions are filled with a lot of random questions where they will judge whether you are a threat or not. Whether they buy your story of being a tourist visiting the country. Many of these interactions are perfectly fine, but some will not be. The ones which are tense are terrifying because if you are thrown in jail there is no recourse. No foreign embassy to call upon. No lawyers or due process to give faith in the system. There is a possibility you could just disappear as has happened to several travelers in the past year.  Many travelers gloss over the risk here because for the most part, checkpoints will be fine. You get used to them. Wearing local clothing, blending in, you will get waived through many without question. Some checkpoints will lead to wonderful conversations after the initial skepticism.  Many of the best conversations I had with the Taliban started off tense, but ended with them being extremely hospitable: inviting us for dinner, conversing about their family, complimenting my beard, laughing at my chosen fashion, even discussing the current state of things in Afghanistan.  They can go very well, however checkpoints can also go very wrong.

anti vehicle barricades surrounding the entrance to a shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan

Negotiating checkpoints is an experience everyone is forced to come to terms with in Afghanistan. There are hundreds of them, run by the Taliban, and at least one entering and exiting every town,  no matter the size. Larger cities have many more checkpoints and even within the city there are checkpoints around sensitive areas. Kabul is full of them. Additionally Taliban can approach, question and search you at any point without any reason other than because you aren’t blending in. Which you wont, for the most part. These encounters usually end well but they don’t always. 

Soldier guarding the Bamyan Buddhas- or what is left of them

Travelling deeper into Afghanistan after crossing the border we passed over the beautiful Khanabad River. Ahead of us was a 6-hour drive to Mazar-i-Sharif, via the town of Pol-e-Khomri. Less than ideal because this is one of the most heavily militarized areas of Afghanistan, full of checkpoints where the Taliban are known for being particularly aggressive. Many of these checkpoints took almost half an hour, tense moments, arguments where we had to convince them that I was not a spy, just a tourist from the USA exploring the country. Because the border had taken so long, none of the shops were open to buy necessary local clothing. I was wearing a bright yellow “Utila Dive Center” t-shirt and hiking pants – not recommended. I stuck out like someone wearing Afghanistan local clothing walking around America.

Entering Afghanistan!

Sooo. Many. Checkpoints. There are probably 50 checkpoints in the 6 hr drive to Mazar-i-Sharif. 80% of checkpoints ended in an argument or a long conversation where they couldn’t understand why an American was traveling in Afghanistan.
At one checkpoint a group of 4 Taliban turned into a crowd of 15, forming around us with various sorts of guns loosely draped over their bodies like jewelry. Everyone with automatic weapons except me, in various states of confusion, happiness, or angst. I was certain someone was going to Taliban prison at this one. After around 30 minutes part of the crowd decided I probably wasn’t a soldier or spy, and then began asking for selfies with me. Yes, let’s do selfies…not jail. I embraced this choice and their superiors seemed to soften a bit. Thankfully we didn’t get arrested. The checkpoints made the long journey very stressful. I learned that if we said I was living in the Netherlands, this helped. No one had ever heard of the Netherlands, though. Sometimes I would try to illustrate a map: Germany is here, Belgium is here, and the Netherlands here. Still nothing. But at least in that moment, I wasn’t from the USA, yet, unless they opened my passport…

Driving from Shir Khan Border to Kunduz

Tip: don’t travel at night. Definitely don’t travel at night in western clothes on a US passport.
There is an unforgettable look of confusion, aggression, and genuine shock when a TLB opens a passport and realizes it’s from the USA. Many of them can’t read, but after 20 years of war … they know what USA looks like. Maname (thank you). Chew – tour -e-sti (how are you). Learn a few words of Pashto – it will help bring a smile to their face, which is exactly what you need when a Taliban holding an AK-47, a huge belt of bullets, and your passport while trying to decide whether to throw you in prison or let you continue your journey. Being thrown in jail and forgotten about is a real concern, and ~ 4 Americans are currently missing or in jail following checkpoints gone wrong. The Taliban manning the checkpoints are big men. After a while, you can easily tell who is Taliban and who isn’t, just by their size, and dress. If someone is carrying multiple automatic weapons, then that is also a giveaway.

Soldier guarding blue mosque shrine in Kabul

In Kabul we were approached on the street and required to show our passports. The Taliban soldiers who stopped us told us they thought my passport and visa were both fake. We had to convince them it wasn’t. They called for more soldiers and the whole fiasco took over 30 minutes. Things like this are stressful and can easily go wrong if someone isn’t smart about how they approach it. One trick I learned was to compliment how nice and safe the country was to explore. Be nice, and firm. Avoid going with them anywhere. Say how nice things are in Afghanistan. This really warms them up and eventually they always come around. You can see the suspicion in their faces and actions fade away…sometimes it takes longer. Local dress is a complete game changer, no one stares anymore and it’s super comfortable in the heat. Checkpoints were much easier afterwards

Best Taxi driver in Afghanistan

Our taxi driver from the Border to Kunduz, to Mazar -i- Sharif turned out to be a really kind-hearted man. While clothes shopping in Mazar I randomly bumped into him. He was free that day so I hired him to take me 100km away to the ruins of Balkh, a 2000+ year-old Khorasan / Persian / city conquered by Alexander the Great. He has a great eye for photography and would stop the car randomly for things he thought I should take a picture of, even if it was just some people walking their sheep. He took me to many niche places around Balk which I didn’t even know existed and would have otherwise missed out on. The stress of the journey on the first night and all the checkpoints were difficult. He was singing to himself, the car radio was broken. But, mid journey from Kunduz to Mazir he just couldn’t stand the silence anymore, and he pulled the car radio out of its housing in the dash and plugged in the power. Forbidden music flooded into the darkness of the desert as we zoomed by…at least until he had to disconnect it for the next checkpoint..

Leave a Reply