With the current goings-on, it is easy to forget that Afghanistan was once a peaceful nation that enticed visitors with its landscape, food, people and culture.
Tourism there was highly touted in the 1970s, so much so that a “Lonely Planet” writeup from that decade described Afghanistan as “a vastly appealing country – endless empty deserts, soaring barren mountains, historic old towns and ruins, and best of all, the aloof and detached Afghanis”.
The following is Thrifty Traveller’s first-hand account of his visit to Kabul some 50-odd years ago.
The journey to Pakistan
I visited Afghanistan with my parents who were living in neighbouring Pakistan at the time. I was just a boy in boarding school in England and I flew out for my Christmas and summer holidays.
The flight was dreadful. It lasted forever, stopping at Rome and Damascus before landing at Karachi. There was no in-flight entertainment in those days, I felt sick as a parrot, the meals were disgusting (plastic food on plastic trays), and, worst of all, everybody seemed to be smoking. I must have passively inhaled around 100 cigarettes by the time I reached Pakistan.
As an unaccompanied minor, I was escorted to the Speedbird Hotel in Karachi to freshen up and attempt a few hours’ sleep before I was taken back to the airport and put on a PIA domestic flight to Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.
This was a much better flight. It was a Fokker Friendship that flew at a lower altitude and, with big windows, I was able to take a good first look at the scorched and rugged Pakistani landscape. The food was much better too, chicken curry served on a tin plate.
My parents and sister were waiting for me at Rawalpindi Airport and the agony of the journey was soon forgotten in all the excitement of the reunion. Not long after, we were off to Kabul, which I visited three times between 1970 and 1971.
The journey to Afghanistan
My dad drove in his Vauxhall Viva via the Khyber Pass and Land Kotal. He had a British Diplomatic passport, so the border formalities at the Torkham crossing were not too arduous.
I remember, however, that on the return journey, the Pakistani customs confiscated a watermelon on health grounds. Apparently they were concerned we might be importing a disease into Pakistan that they did not already have.
In many ways, Afghanistan was a very different country those days. The population was around 11 million in 1971, compared with nearly 40 million today, and the roads seemed wide and empty. Kabul smelt different from Pakistan due to the use of Soviet petrol, which had a distinctive odour.
Afghanistan was still ruled by a king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who tried to steer a careful line between the Soviet Union and the United States, extracting financial aid from both sides. He ruled moderately, introduced free elections, and supported women’s rights.
The country was free from foreign invaders and largely at peace, apart from the usual tribal disputes.
Kabul was a relative shopping paradise in those days. Afghanistan was a wine producer, and my parents always bought a few bottles to bring back to Pakistan.
My sister bought one of those Afghan coats, which were all the rage those hippy days despite their goaty smell. I remember my Mum and Dad buying me an air rifle and a stamp album.
Kabul also had an unregulated foreign exchange market and my father took me to a building full of money changers, many of them Sikhs, who sat at desks piled high with banknotes.
My Dad was able to get a much better rate for his transactions in Afghanistan compared to Pakistan, and it was one of his main reasons for going there.
In 2010 I wrote to David Cameron, who had just taken over as the prime minister of the United Kingdom, urging an immediate withdrawal of UK forces from Afghanistan with a view to saving £2.5 billion a year for the UK taxpayer.
“This is our fourth war in Afghanistan,” I wrote. “The earlier wars were fought when Britain was at the height of its imperial power, with the almost limitless resources of British India right on Afghanistan’s doorstep.
“If we could not overcome the Afghans then, what makes us think we will have more success this time? Our armed forces … should pull out now while we can still claim an honourable draw.
“The Americans will eventually pull out, too, and the [Hamid] Karzai government is likely to fall. It will be sad for the Afghans but ultimately, they have to sort out their own problems and perhaps, free from foreign interference for the first time in decades, they will have a chance to forge a more stable future for themselves.”