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Afghanistan

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Travel Guide Asia Afghanistan

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Introduction

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Afghanistan is a landlocked country in the heart of Asia. Over the past several decades, it has been largely off-radar for tourists, as the country has been dominated by civil strife and war. The United States' war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, but the country remains far from secure.

Sadly, many of Afghanistan's best attractions, including historic buildings and cultural treasures, have been destroyed during the decades of war. But the remnants of Afghanistan's rich history remain, most notably at the country's two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Minaret of Jam and the Bamyan Valley. Meanwhile, Afghanis have worked hard to rebuilt their country since the overthrow of the Taliban, with cities like Kabul and Herat growing and developing more infrastructure for tourism. But even there, security remains a huge issue, with frequent violence.

Travel warning: Travelling in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous, and independent travel/sightseeing is emphatically warned against, due to the armed conflict between Government forces and Taliban insurgents. The current Afghan government has little control over large parts of the country. Although parts of Kabul and the north are calmer regarding Taliban activity, the country is a war zone. Threats are unpredictable and the situation can change very quickly. Trips should be meticulously planned and travelers should keep abreast of the latest security situation throughout their stay.

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Brief History

Archaeology has revealed human settlement in Afghanistan stretching back for thousands of years. Aryan tribes were some of the earliest inhabitants, while Afghanistan also caught the eye of surrounding empires. The Medes, Persians, Greeks, Kushans, Hepthalites, Arabs, Turks and Mongols all invaded and conquered parts of Afghanistan.

The modern state of Afghanistan was created in 1747 by Ahmed Shah Durrani, who also founded the Durrani Empire, which stretched across modern-day Pakistan and parts of Iran and India. In the mid-19th century, the British Empire fought to gain control of much of Afghanistan; it was not until 1919 that Afghanistan again started to be able to exercise its independence. Between 1933 and 1973, under the rule of King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan enjoyed a period of stability.

A coup in 1973 saw Mohammed Daoud Khan become the first President of Afghanistan, ousting King Zahir Shah, who was his brother-in-law. This set off a period of political turmoil, aggravated by the United States and Soviet Union, who were embroiled in the Cold War. The former began covertly training Mujahideen forces to fight against the Soviet Union, who invaded the country in 1979. The Mujahideen were able to force the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, a victory for the United States, but the US failed to provide adequate assistance to post-war Afghanistan, which suffered from ongoing civil violence between Mujahideen factions. The Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States launched a military campaign to overthrow the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda terrorist training camps in the country. By the end of the year, the Taliban had been overthrown and former Afghan leaders began the work of forming a new democratic government. In 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first democratically elected President of Afghanistan.

While the political developments in the past few years have seen a positive move towards democracy and greater rights for women, national stability is undermined by ongoing violence by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, poverty, large numbers of live land mines and a thriving opium trade.

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Geography

Afghanistan borders Pakistan (east and south), China (north-east), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (north), and Iran (west). Geographically, Afghanistan can be divided into 3 distinct regions. Most of the country is dominated by the Central Highlands, a mountainous region in the centre of Afghanistan. The Hindu Kush is a rugged mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan, home to the famous Khyber Pass, which is the most common overland route between the countries. The most dramatic peaks are located in the east of the country, with the mountains gradually becoming smaller further west. Besides the Hindu Kush, there are smaller mountain ranges in Afghanistan, including Koh-e Baba, Salang, Koh-e Paghman, Spin Ghar, Suleiman Range, Siah Koh, Koh-e Khwaja Mohammad and Selseleh-e Band-e Turkestan. The Southern Plateau is a desolate region consisting of sandy deserts and high plateaus, south of the mountainous centre of Afghanistan. The city of Kandahar lies in this region. The Northern Plains are a fertile region where the country's agriculture is focused.

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Provinces

Afghanistan is divided into 34 provinces, which can be roughly divided into five different regions:

West AfghanistanBadghis, Faryab, Ghor, Herat
East AfghanistanBamyan, Ghazni, Kabul, Kapisa, Khost, Konar, Laghman, Lowgar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Paktika, Parvan, Wardak
Northwest AfghanistanBalkh, Jowzjan, Samangan, Sare Pol
Northeast AfghanistanBadakhshan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Nurestan, Panjshir, Takhar
South AfghanistanDaykundi, Farah, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Oruzgan, Zabol

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Cities

  • Kabul - The capital, in the east of the country
  • Kandahar - a Taliban-influenced southern city, not safe for travel at this time
  • Fayzabad
  • Bamiyan - The remains of the Buddhas. Once considered one of the wonders of the world, these tall stone carvings were destroyed by the Taliban in a notorious act of cultural vandalism.
  • Ghazni - in the south-east, between Kabul and Kandahar
  • Herat - in the west, gateway to Iran, has a strong Persian influence and several interesting historical sites
  • Jalalabad - in the east, between Kabul and the Khyber Pass
  • Mazar-e Sharif - home to the impressively tiled Blue Mosque, and the staging point for trips into Uzbekistan
  • Qalat
  • Zaranj
  • Tarin Kowt
  • Kunduz - A major city in the northeast, and crossing point to Tajikistan

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Sights and Activities

Mount Noshaq

Mount Noshaq is the highest mountain in Afghanistan at 7,690 metres. This mountain is also the second highest mountain in the Hundu Kush mountain range. It was first climbed in 1960 by a Japanese expedition. Located on the Pakistan border this stunning mountain is not the safest place to visit.

Buddhas of Bamyan

The Buddhas of Bamyan are located about 230 kilometres northwest of Kabul and are amazing. These two colossal Buddha statutes were carved into the side of a sandstone cliff and one is 54.8 metres (180 feet) tall and while the other is 36.9 metres (121 feet)) tall. The smaller statue was built in 507 AD, while the larger statued was constructed later in 554 AD. Other caves in the areas also have small statues and grottos that hermits made while trying to reach enlightenment. This made the area a centre for Buddhist and Hindu monasteries and a religious centre for central Asia during this time. The statues were decorated in a blend of Hellenistic and Indian styles with elaborate paints and cloth. In March of 2001 the Taliban decided to destroy the two large Buddhas because they thought they violated Islamic law. Some other Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, tried to stop them but it ultimately failed and the statues were destroyed anyway. Today several countries have pledged money to restore and rebuild the statues. The Buddhas are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Minaret of Jam

Built during the Ghurid Dynasty, in 1194 AD, this impressive minaret dominates the valley. The Minaret of Jam rises to 65 m above a narrow valley floor. The sides of minaret are covered in stunning brick work and amazing decorations. After the fall of the dynasty, by the invasion of the Mongols, the minaret was forgotten and lost, until rediscovered in 1957. No one knows why the minaret was built or what was its purpose, because there is no evidence that a mosque was attached to it. Some think it might be the long lost capital of the Ghurid Dynasty, which was destroyed by the Mongols. The Minaret of Jam is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the valley around it has many other amazing ruins.

Other Sights and Activities

Blue Mosque Mazar - e - Sharif

Blue Mosque Mazar - e - Sharif

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  • Balkh - Once one of the greatest cities in the region and capital of ancient Bactria. Although much of it lies in ruins, the remaining architectural and cultural elements remain little changed since Alexander the Great set foot there.
  • Band-e Amir National Park - 5 stunningly turquoise lakes in a remote and beautiful setting, not far from Bamiyan.
  • Blue Mosque in Mazari Sharif - Visit this amazing blue tiled mosque in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
  • Markets - Check out the local flavor at many wonderful street markets in cities like Kabul.
  • Mountain Passes- Check out amazing mountain passes in some of the most remote areas of the world.
  • Kabul Museum - Visit one of the best collections of any central Asian museum at this national museum. With over 100,000 items that date back several thousands of years there is plenty to learn here.
  • Panjshir Valley - a beautiful trekking area, leading to the famous Anjuman Pass.
  • Shamali Plain - north of Kabul. Shamali, meaning "windy" or "northern", is a green plain which produced a lot of the food for central Afghanistan. From Kabul it extends north through Charikar, Parwan province to Jabal os Saraj. The Taliban destroyed the irrigation systems and it is only just beginning to recover.
  • Gardez - a beautiful major town in a mountain valley southeast of Kabul.

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Weather

Afghanistan's climate is harsh, with hot and dry summers and sometimes bitterly cold winters, especially in areas at higher elevation. Average summer temperatures are well above 30 °C during the day in most of the country, but drop to around 15 °C or a little more at night in places at higher altitude like Kabul. The short winter lasts from December to February with temperatures during the day a few degrees above zero, but averaging around - 8 °C in Kabul in January for example. Records of 40 °C in summer and -21 °C in winter have been recorded in the capital. Summers are dry while March and April sees most of the rain.
The lower western and southern parts of Afghanistan have a (semi)desert climate with very hot weather in summer, averaging around 37 °C to 39 °C, but highs of over 45 °C are not uncommon. Nights here are still warm, around 20 °C. Winters are mild, generally between 13 °C and 17 °C during the day, but averaging around zero at night and cold nights of around -10 °C are well possible. Average rainfall is just around 150 mm a year and is concentrated from December to February.

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Getting there

By Plane

Ariana Afghan Airlines is the national airline of Afghanistan and is based at Kabul International Airport (KBL). It flies to and from Ankara, Delhi, Dubai, Dushanbe, Frankfurt, Jeddah ,Islamabad, Istanbul Atatürk, Tehran and Ürümqi. Pakistan International Airlines flies to and from Islamabad. Kam Air operates flights to and from Almaty, Dushanbe, Delhi, Mashad, Kuwait, Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Few other airlines serve the country but London will have connections by Safi Airways in the near future when things have cleared up a bit in the country.

By Car

Theoretically you can cross borders with Afghanistan along most routes where public transport exist (see below). Still, due to safety reasons, it's absolutely not recommended to travel their with your own car. It is much more discrete to travel by bus or shared taxi.

By Bus

Although the country is not entirely safe, borders with all countries except China remain open.
There are direct buses between Mashad in Iran and Herat.
Border crossings with Pakistan are betweeen Peshawar and Jalalabad and between Quetta and Kandahar, though the latter is really off limits for travellers. Even the first one has become more and more unsafe during the last months due to safety concerns in Pakistan as well. One the route, taxis are the way to go, taking buses is usually not allowed.
There are also three border crossings with Tajikistan, bordering Afghanistan in the north. The busiest and most accessible is at Shir Khan Bandar near Kunduz. Two Badakhshan border posts are at Ishkashim and Khorog. It's possible to travel overland from Kabul to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, in a very long day, starting early.
There are two official border crossings on between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Torghundi in Afghanistan to Serkhetabat in Turkmenistan is the one most because of its proximity to Herat. Another more unusual alternative is at Imam Nazar, near Andkhoi.
To Uzbekistan, the Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya links Hairatan in Afghanistan to Termiz. Hairatan is about half an hour from Mazar-e-Sharif. This border is notorious for sometimes being open, and the next time being open again, depending on the officials and current situations, so check before leaving.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Ariana Afghan Airways and Kam Air operate a number of domestic flights. Between the two there are daily flights from Kabul to Herat and Mazar-e Sharif, and to Kandahar several times a week. There's also a weekly Ariana Kandahar-Herat flight. Other services are less certain but Faizabad, Kunduz, Maimana and Shiberghan are supposed to be served at least weekly. Book well in advance.

By Train

There are no train services in Afghanistan.

By Car

Some roads are in an excellent condition while others are as poor as it gets. Many roads are being improved, but still roads in sensitive areas remain poor. Renting a car is not advised, if at all possible. Your best bet will be to rent a 4wd vehicle with a guide who doubles as a an English speaking guide. This is best arranged in Kabul. Kabul to Herat and Kandahar are the best roads. Watch out for mines and stick to the main roads.

By Bus

Some coach buses, but mainly Japanese Toyota minivans, ply the main routes between cities and towns. These can be quite uncomfortable and in some cases take hours and hours, but is a great, cheap way to get around as an alternative of a missed flight. A better option is a shared taxi which fill up quicker, are faster and only about 30% more expensive

By Boat

There are no connections by boat in Afghanistan.

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Red Tape

Most visitors need to apply for a visa in advance, and are often easier to obtain than you might expect. See the Afghanistan Foreign Ministry's visa webpage

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Money

See also: Money Matters

Afghani (AFN) = 100 puls.
Notes come in denominations of AFN1,000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1.

US dollars (US$) are widely accepted.

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Work

Many foreigners are finding well-paid work in Afghanistan as part of the reconstruction efforts. Often with the UN or other non-governmental organisations. Most of these jobs are within Kabul.

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Language

Pashto and Dari, an Afghan dialect of Persian, are the official languages of Afghanistan; many Afghans speak both. The latest CIA country profile mentions that Dari is spoken by about 50%, mainly in the Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Central Afghanistan regions. Pashto is spoken by 35%, mainly in the south and east; it is also spoken in neighbouring Pakistan. The remaining are Turkic native language, primarily Uzbek and Turkmen, and there are also 30 minor languages such as Balochi. You'll find a few people in Kabul who speak a little English, but otherwise it isn't widely understood.

The English language is at its apex in Afghanistan. The percentage of those who now speak some English has reached unprecedented rates. President Karazai and his cabinet are fluent in English. English was taught in the past from the 7th grade, but now is taught from the fourth grade. Signs in English in the streets are becoming common now all over the country. English is the second foreign language in Afghanistan.

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Eat

There are three main types of Afghan bread:

  • Naan - Literally "bread". Thin, long and oval shaped, its mainly a white/whole wheat blend. Topped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, nigella seeds, or some combination of these. Upon request, customers may be able to get all white flour and a helping of oil, which makes it rich and delicious.
  • Obi Non - Uzbek-style bread. Shaped like a disc and thicker than naan. Usually made with white flour.
  • Lavash - Very thin bread. Similar to the lavash elsewhere. Usually used as plating for meats and stews.

Rice dishes are the "king" of all foods in Afghanistan. The Afghans have certainly taken much time and effort in creating their rice dishes, as they are considered the best part of any meal.

  • Kabuli Pulao (or Kabuli Palaw, Qabili Palaw, Qabili Palau or simply Palau) - An Afghan rice dish consisting of steamed rice mixed with lentils, raisins, carrots, and lamb. It is baked in the oven and topped with fried sliced carrots and raisins. Chopped nuts like pistachios or almonds may be added as well. The meat is covered by the rice or buried in the middle of the dish. It is the most popular dish in Afghanistan, and is considered the national dish.
  • Chalao - White rice. Extra long grains such as Basmati is required. First parboiled, then drained, and finally baked in an oven with some oil, butter, and salt. This method creates a fluffy rice with each grain separated, unlike Chinese or Japanese rice. Chalao is served mainly with qormas (korma; stews or casseroles)
  • Palao - Cooked the same as chalao, but either meat & stock, qorma, herbs, or a combination are blended in before the baking process. This creates elaborate colors, flavors, and aromas for which some rices are named after. Caramelized sugar is also sometimes used to give the rice a rich brown color.

Qorma is a stew or casserole, usually served with chawol. Most qormas are onion-based. Onions are fried, then meat is added, as are a variety of fruits, spices, and vegetables depending on the recipe. Finally water is added and left to simmer. The onion caramelizes and creates a richly colored stew. There exist over 100 qormas.

Pasta is called khameerbob in Afghanistan and is often in the shape of dumplings. These native dishes are wildly popular.

Other dishes include:

  • Mantu - A dish of Uzbek origin. Dumplings filled with onion & ground beef. Mantu is steamed and usually topped with a tomato-based sauce and a yogurt or qoroot-based sauce. The yogurt-based topping is usually a mixture of yogurt, sour cream, and garlic. The qoroot based sauce is made of goat cheese and is also mixed with garlic. Sometimes a qoroot and yogurt mixture will be used. The dish is then topped with dried mint.
  • Ashak - Kabul dish. Dumplings filled with leeks. Boiled and then drained. Ashak is topped with garlic-mint qoroot or a garlic yogurt sauce and a well seasoned ground meat mixture.
  • Afghan kebab - most often found in restaurants and outdoor vendor stalls. Sometimes they are put into shishas. Families rarely serve homemade kebab in their home due to the need of inaccessible equipment. The most widely used meat is lamb. Recipes differ with every restaurant, but Afghan kebab is usually marinated with a blend of spices, and served with naan, rarely rice. Customers have the option to sprinkle sumac, locally known as ghora, on their kebab. The quality of kebab is solely dependent on the quality of the meat. Pieces of fat from the sheep's tail (jijeq) are usually added with the lamb skewers to add extra flavor.Other popular kebabs include lamb chops, ribs, kofta (ground beef) and chicken; all of which are found in better restaurants.
  • Chapli kebab - a specialty of eastern Afghanistan, is a fried hamburger. The original recipe of chapli kebab dictates a half meat (or less), half flour mixture, which renders it lighter in taste, and less expensive.
  • Bolani - made in a very similar way as Mexican Quesadilla.

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Sleep

Hotels and guesthouses are available in all major cities, and while some may not meet international standards they are usually friendly and reliable.

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Drink

Since Afghanistan is an Islamic country, alcohol consumption is illegal. However, it is tolerated in Western restaurants in Kabul.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Afghanistan. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Afghanistan) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Afghanistan. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only below the elevation of 2,000 metres. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, at any time. Remnants of the former Taliban regime and the al-Qa'ida terrorist network, as well as other groups hostile to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military operations, remain active. Afghan authorities have a limited ability to maintain order and ensure the security of Afghan citizens and foreign visitors. Travel in all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe due to military combat operations, landmines, banditry, armed rivalry between political and tribal groups, and the possibility of insurgent attacks, including attacks using vehicle-borne or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with some areas, especially in the southeast, experiencing substantially increased levels of violence.

Afghanistan is a volatile country, and downright dangerous in the southern and eastern areas. Non-essential travel is strongly discouraged. Banditry is some what of an ancient tradition in many parts of the country, including in the northern areas. In addition to that, the Taliban insurgents have declared abduction of foreigners to be one of their primary goals. In July 2007, twenty-three Koreans were kidnapped from a public bus in Ghazni province, south of Kabul. Two of them were murdered while the rest were set free several weeks later after controversial negotiations with the Korean government.

The northern part of the country is considered to be safer than the south and east; however, occasional incidents can still occur anywhere and a seemingly safe place can become the opposite in an instant. Several reporters for German media were killed in the northern parts of Afghanistan, most likely by criminals or anti-westerners. 10 doctors (8 foreigners and 2 translators) were murdered in August 2010.

Landmines and other UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) remain a problem across the country, so plan to stick to well-worn paths, avoid red and white painted rocks, and do not touch or move any suspicious-looking item. According to the Afghan Red Crescent Society, approximately 600-700 people are injured or killed every year in accidents due to landmines and UXO. This is greatly reduced from over 1,600 in 2002. While travelling in Afghanistan you are likely to see mine clearance organisations at work.

Insects and snakes are also something to be careful of, and the mountainous country has many vicious tiny creatures such as scorpions, spiders, centipedes, bees, etc.

In some areas, altitude sickness is a significant risk.

Homosexual activity between consenting adults is punishable by an assortment of harsh punishments, including death, under Afghan law. LGBT travelers should exercise tremendous discretion.

If, after considering the risks, you still choose to travel in Afghanistan, hiring an armed escort or travelling with an experienced guide are ways to decrease the risks. You should also check with your embassy, and be clear on what they can and cannot do for you in an emergency.

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Keep Connected

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Afghanistan is: 93. To make an international call from the Afghanistan, the code is: 00

Fixed line service is available in major cities (digital in Kabul) and mobile phones in most cities. SIM cards are available and international calls to Europe/US typically cost less than USD0.5/minute. Outside of major cities your options are limited to a satellite phone.

Mobile Phone operators include:

  • Roshan - +93 (0) 79 997 1333. The most reliable service with the widest coverage. SMS is possible to most countries. SIM cards cost USD5, local calls are AFN5/minute (10 cents/min).
  • Afghan Wireless - Privately owned with 20% ownership by the government. AWCC has the only communications ring around the country offering high speed mobile and data services throughout all provinces. AWCC also offers the highest speed fibre-based connections to the outside world, with roaming to over 300 other operators in 120 countries. Services include Voice, FAX, GPRS and EDGE data services along with WiMAX and dedicated high speed internet service with 45MB links to NYC and 45MB links to Paris. SIM cards cost USD1, local calls are AFN4.99/minute billing in seconds.
  • Areeba/MTN - +93 (0) 77 222 2777. The cheapest cell service, offers the least coverage. SIM cards cost USD3, local calls are AFN5.5/minute.
  • Etisalat - +93 (0) 78 688 8888. A large network provider from the UAE, is the latest GSM network in Afghanistan. It became the first company to begin 3G services in early 2012.

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Quick Facts

Afghanistan flag

Map of Afghanistan

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Capital
Kabul
Population
31,000,000
Government
Islamic Republic
Religions
Islam (Sunni, Shi'a)
Languages
Afghan Persian or Dari, Pashtu, Turkic languages
Calling Code
+93
Nationality
Afghan
Local name
Afghanestan

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