Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Flying into Kabul
Many friends are surprised that both times I’ve come to work in Afghanistan, I’ve flown into Kabul on ordinary commercial airlines.
Perhaps because the country is so often in the headlines for war, bombings and death, people usually seem to expect visitors to arrive on bare-bones army transport planes or the United Nations-managed flights that originally took diplomats and journalists into the country after the fall of the Taliban.
In fact Afghanistan has no less than four commercial airlines, with flights to countries including China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Germany, Kuwait, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan.
Ariana is the state airline. Safi is the most aggressive commercial newcomer and flies to Frankfurt as well as domestically. Kam Air has focused particularly on central Asian destinations while Pamir is more of a domestic contender.
Most Western visitors depart for Kabul from Dubai’s creaky terminal 2 (though Safi have graduated to terminal 1 in the main airport).
It was nicknamed the “axis of evil” terminal by someone back when George W. Bush was in the White House and the departures board read like a list of the regimes slammed by Bush or the cities targetted by United States troops.
But even in the main airport, the departure gates for Safi flights gather a strange collection of travellers and make the destination board almost redundant even for first-time visitors to Afghanistan.
Bulky security contractors listen to ipods beside trim diplomats hunched over the latest policy must-read, while skinny, unfit journalists kitted out for an “embed” with the troops sprawl next to NGO workers who are among the few dressed in something like normal civilian clothes.
Only a handful are women. A colleague recently headed to Dubai on a packed flight on which she counted only 3 other women, a sex-ratio perhaps even lower than in the country’s male-dominated public life. And Afghans also seem to be in a minority.
The flights themselves are as cramped and uneventful, the food as plastic and unappetising, as any other short haul flight (it takes just over 2 hours to get to Kabul from Dubai). There is no on-flight entertainment. But when I took a Safi plane to Kabul on December 22, sunrise over the snow-capped mountains that ring the capital made for a mesmerising show, and a wonderful welcome back.