Afghanistan Country Briefing
Afghanistan (population 33 million) remains one of the most unstable, dangerous, and hostile countries in the world. The country has suffered from continuous civil war or insurgency since the Soviet invasion of 1979, with the current era of conflict in its 16th year. Afghanistan is underdeveloped, insecure, and ranks among the least-equipped to accommodate foreign visitors of any kind. Consequently, the vast majority of Western governments advise against all travel to the country. If travel is required for any reason, comprehensive risk management is recommended due to extensive threats and logistical difficulties.
Sixteen years after the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul (1996-2001), the general situation (in terms of security, politics, economy, ethnic relations, health, and human development) remains troubled due to three decades of conflict, crisis, and uninterrupted warfare. There appears to be little prospect of improvement in the short- to medium-term. While the majority of the conflict affects rural areas, terrorism within the capital Kabul and regional population centers remains a key aspect of Anti-Government Elements (AGE) strategy. Kabul experiences regular high-profile terrorist attacks against international and governmental facilities. Additionally, government and security force authorities are frequently targeted in assassination attempts.
Security rapidly deteriorated following the conclusion of the International Security and Assistance Force mission (ISAF) from 2015 onwards. With the reduction of international air support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance efforts, the gap in capabilities between AGE - including the Taliban - and the Afghan National Defense & Security Forces (ANDSF) shrunk precipitously. AGE exploited this by escalating their operational tempo and expanding control in several regions. AGE now control more space than they have since the 2001 invasion; one public assessment from a US governmental agency estimates that the Afghan government only controls 52 percent of territory as of spring 2017, a decline from 72 percent in the fall of 2015.
The US Trump administration has yet to announce a new strategy for Afghanistan following the Obama's first stalled, then abandoned, decision to withdraw all US troops. Should additional troops or resources be committed, this could potentially alter the course of the war. On the contrary, without external intervention (or another extremely influential political or security development), it is assessed that AGEs will continue to experience success vis-à-vis the ANDSF and will continue to expand their control of rural areas over 2017-2018. Coupled with political instability, economic uncertainty, and a thriving criminal drug economy, the stability and security of the country will remain tenuous for the medium to long term.
Three years after the April 2014 presidential elections, the political situation in the country remains tense due to the inability of the National Unity Government (NUG) to manage the shared control between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani and Abdullah, rivals during the elections, have struggled to forge a working relationship, often creating political instability. The lack of cohesion and competition among disparate networks within the government elevates the political risk, and seemingly trivial issues between rivals have the potential to escalate with demonstrations and violence. The peace talks desired by the government, public, and international community still struggle to take shape as the Taliban, which currently holds power over almost half of the country, withdrew from four-nation brokered talks in April 2016. In response, the US assassinated Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a drone strike in May 2016. Despite peace efforts with the Taliban having repeatedly failed throughout the duration of the conflict, a peace agreement was reached between the NUG and the (relatively) minor militant group Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) in September 2016. It is hoped that this will provide encouragement to other groups and factions going forward.
Faced with the security vacuum and other geopolitical considerations, Russia, China, and Iran have sought to expand influence in Afghanistan. Russia in particular has increased support to the Taliban under the guise of countering the expansion of Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP). These regional players, in the context of other global issues and relations with the US, may threaten to complicate diplomacy as Washington considers expanding military involvement in the coming months.
There is a high threat of terrorism in Afghanistan due to the unstable security situation. AGE rely on terrorism as an effective tactic to pressure and intimidate both the government and internationals, while also garnering media coverage for propaganda purposes.
Past and potential targets of terrorist attacks include personnel, facilities, and vehicles belonging to security forces, the national government, foreign military, foreign civilians, the humanitarian sector, and the diplomatic sector. With the growth of IS-KP, Shi'ite gatherings have begun to be targeted also.
For foreign civilians, neutrality in the conflict provides no defense from targeting, as indicated by the Taliban who expressly stated that "people from 'invading countries' do not count as civilians. Every foreigner from an invading country, especially NATO, is considered an invader. We do not classify any of them as civilian," after an attack on a guesthouse in 2015 that left ten foreign civilians dead.
Afghanistan also suffers from very high crime rates. As the top producer of opium poppy on the planet (accounting for 94 percent of the world production of opium, later refined into heroin), criminal networks thrive on the instability. The local production of poppies has for decades involved all strata of the Afghan population, from the most modest segments of society to the highest levels of government. The absence of economic alternatives - a result of high levels of unemployment and inflation, ubiquitous corruption, and the continuation of hostilities ‒ pushes a large number of Afghans into criminal endeavors. Additionally, visiting foreigners (e.g. residents, business travelers, civil servants, soldiers, diplomats, and humanitarian aid workers) can be affected by many different types of crime (e.g. pickpocketing, extortion, armed attacks, homicide, kidnapping, carjacking). Foreigners should remain vigilant at all times and take all possible precautionary security measures.
Kidnapping remains a very real and high threat to both Afghans and foreigners in all regions. Men, women, aid workers, average citizens, and soldiers are all potential targets. Although the majority of victims are affluent local nationals, foreigners are specifically targeted with regularity due to the high ransom payments from some Western governments and for their value in political bargaining. The release of several high profile Taliban members from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for captured American Bowe Berghdal has encouraged AGE to target Americans in particular. Maintaining a low profile or non-affiliation with a foreign government does not afford immunity or protection from kidnapping. The risk is further raised due to the fact that assailants are often smaller opportunistic criminal gangs, who then sell the victims to AGE. No social group is immune to the risk of kidnapping. Local authorities' response to this threat is notoriously insufficient, to the extent that foreign organizations were officially told not to expect assistance in the spring of 2016. In large tracts of Afghan territory, rule of law remains a poorly-implemented concept. Finally, the competence of Afghan security forces - particularly the police - is lacking, and authorities are ill-equipped to deal with this issue.
Transportation infrastructure (by road and air) in the country is severely underdeveloped and travel carries its own inherent risks. The poor state of roads, high crime rates (attacks, extortion, kidnapping, illegal vehicle checkpoints, etc.), and the ever-growing insurrection make highway travel extremely risky in both the countryside as well as on the outskirts of cities. Road travel outside urban areas should only be conducted on a case-by-case basis following an adequate risk assessment. Flying within Afghanistan is not necessarily safe either; Afghan airlines have notoriously lax safety and security standards and none of the domestic companies, including Ariana, Safi, Pamir, and Kam Air, are allowed to operate in European Union airspace for this reason.
Afghanistan is a very mountainous country with a significant risk of earthquakes.
A 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Badakhshan province (southeast, Pram region) in October 2015, causing over 400 deaths and injuring some 2500 people.
Avalanches and snowstorms are frequent in the winter months and cause dozens of deaths every year. In February 2016, around 200 people were killed in a series of avalanches in the northeast (Salang and Panjshir regions).
Devastating floods and mudslides are also regularly reported; in April 2016, around 50 people were killed following torrential rains and floods in northern Baghlan and Takhar provinces.
Afghanistan suffers from a severe lack of medical and sanitation facilities. Outside of large cities (e.g. Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat), hospitals are few and far between, of mediocre quality, and often experience shortages of supplies, trained personnel, and medications. If at all possible, it is advisable to avoid visiting public medical facilities in the country. Alternatively, there are a number of private providers in Kabul servicing the expatriate community. Travelers should ensure all vaccinations are up to date prior to travel and, if feasible, obtain medical insurance that includes a repatriation policy.
There is a lack of clean drinking water. Tap water is generally not potable; only bottled or treated water should be consumed. Similarly, it is best to avoid eating raw or undercooked foods (vegetables, fruit, meats, and especially eggs). Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.
Hundreds of cases of influenza A H1N1 have been reported over the past few years.
Malaria is endemic to mid-altitude farming regions (especially in the south); it is therefore advisable to protect oneself from mosquito bites by covering all exposed skin with insect repellent and by using mosquito netting at night. Although less-common due to the higher elevation, it is possible to contract malaria in Kabul.
Individuals traveling in Afghanistan are strongly advised to adhere to local customs (clothing, attitude in society, respecting of tradition and religion, etc.). Consumption of alcohol is illegal although it is sold in certain "authorized locations."
Afghanistan's climate is continental, with hot and dry summers (35°C to 40°C) and harsh and snowy winters, particularly at high elevations (with temperatures reaching -40°C). Precipitation is the most abundant in the months of March and April.
Useful NumbersCountry Code: 93
There are no emergency services in the country.
Voltage: 220 V ~ 50 Hz
Afghanistan: Three Taliban attacks kill at least 74 Oct. 17 /update 1
TIMEFRAME: from 10/17/2017, 12:00 AM until 10/20/2017, 11:59 PM (Asia/Kabul).
Afghanistan: Red Cross to scale back operations due to insecurity
TIMEFRAME: from 10/11/2017, 12:00 AM until 10/18/2017, 11:59 PM (Asia/Kabul).