Beirut Lebanon
Photograph ©2006 by Brian Cohen.

Could What Happened in Afghanistan Happen to You While Traveling?

What you can do to help protect yourself.

The goal of having traveled to every country in the world is always fraught with some difficulties: a worldwide pandemic can really throw a proverbial wrench into plans. Also, some countries experience civil unrest or natural disasters; while other countries could be founded and need to be added to the list of countries visited — such as the Republic of South Sudan, which gained independence from the Republic of the Sudan on Saturday, July 9, 2011…

Could What Happened in Afghanistan Happen to You While Traveling?

…and even though Afghanistan is not exactly a place of which people think to vacation, people have traveled there for various reasons — but although the country had basically been somewhat stabilized over the past 20 years due to the presence of armed forces from the United States and its allied countries, Afghanistan was never a completely safe bet that it would remain that way.

Actually, no country is guaranteed to be completely 100 percent safe overall — but some countries are indeed considered to be safer than others. For example, Vision of Humanity ranks the countries of the world in terms of the measure of peacefulness via a composite index — and the country which ranked dead last was Afghanistan.

Joseph R. Biden ordered the remainder of members of the military forces of the United States out of Afghanistan this past week: “The choice I had to make, as your President, was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season”, according to this official statement from the current president of the United States. “There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict.”

The substantial chaos which ensued caused many entities to be harshly critical of Biden, who stands “squarely behind my decision.”

As a result, the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the Department of State of the United States issued this official notice pertaining to the evacuation of American citizens from Afghanistan:

Afghanistan Evacuation

For emergencies, call 1-888-407-4747 (U.S. Canada) or +1-202-501-4444 (overseas).

U.S. citizens, U.S. LPRs, and their spouses and children (under age 21) should proceed to Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) as soon as possible if you judge it safe to do so.

The security situation in Kabul continues to change quickly, including at the airport. U.S. citizens seeking assistance to depart the country should complete this Repatriation Assistance Request for each traveler in their group.  Please do so as soon as possible. Please do so only once. You must complete this form even if you’ve previously submitted your information to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by another means. This form is the only way to communicate interest in flight options. We will notify you directly by email based on your registration as soon as departure options become available.

Do not call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for details or updates about the flight. Please note that gates may change on a daily basis and that we will provide updates as necessary via email.  The United States Government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport.

One of the biggest problems is that many American citizens who were still in Afghanistan suddenly found escaping the mayhem anywhere from difficult to impossible, as simply getting from wherever they were in the country to the international airport which serves Kabul became exponentially dangerous chiefly because of members of the Taliban.

Worse is that they received this notice pertaining to eligibility requirements from the Overseas Security Advisory Council, which is a partnership between the Department of State of the United States and “private-sector security community that supports the safe operations of U.S. organizations overseas through threat alerts, analysis, and peer network groups”:

Flight Costs: Repatriation flights are not free, and passengers will be required to sign a promissory loan agreement and may not be eligible to renew their U.S. passports until the loan is repaid.  The cost may be $2,000USD or more per person.
Travel Documents:  All passengers should have valid travel documents required for entry into the United States (e.g. U.S. passports or visas)

Sure enough, item number 14 of the aforementioned official U.S. Embassy Kabul Repatriation Assistance Request 2021 form contained the following verbiage:

14. Repatriation flights are not free

All passengers will need to reimburse the U.S. Government for the flight. A promissory note for the full cost of the flight, which may exceed $2000 per person, must be signed by each adult passenger before boarding. No cash or credit card payments will be accepted.

The applicant must then choose from the following options:

  • I understand and wish to continue with this request.
  • I do not wish to continue.

Item number 15 of the form contained the following verbiage:

15. Loan Repayment

While my passport will not be canceled, U.S. citizens who have signed a loan agreement for repatriation may not be eligible for a new passport until the loan is repaid.

The applicant must then choose from the following options:

  • I understand and wish to continue with this request.
  • I do not wish to continue.
Source: Department of State of the United States.

When word was quickly spread like wildfire that citizens of the United States may need to pay at least $2,000.00 to leave Afghanistan — if the repatriation was indeed successful — widespread outrage flooded the channels of social media…

…and debates ensued.

Ariana Arghandewal — whose heritage is Afghan and has been writing about travel, miles, points, and credit cards for years in various capacities — posted the following message on her official Twitter account:

Here’s what I’m not going to do after 20 years of taking sh** from war-hungry racists who’ve tried to silence me and other Afghans by calling us savages and terrorists every time we spoke out of turn: I’m not putting up with you dictating what I know and say about my homeland.

Because you fools can’t even point the country out on a map, let alone explain why this war went on for 20 years. When I see an inaccurate news story, I’ll call it out regardless of whether it fits the popular narrative. I care about facts, not your fragile sensibilities.

Because the media’s lies and sensationalism are what lead to 150k+ of my countrymen being dead for no reason. It’s why drone strikes were carried out with impunity against civilian targets, war crimes committed while the public was completely indifferent (and still is).

If that doesn’t align with your preferred narrative of Afghans as either meek victims or savage villains, then that’s too bad. You can sit this one out. This isn’t about you.

What Can You Do to Help Prevent This From Happening to You?

The situation in Afghanistan continues to capture the attention of millions of people around the world; and official assurances have been given that citizens of the United States who wish to leave Afghanistan will not have to pay the cost of repatriation — although safe passage is still not guaranteed…

…but what happens if you are an American citizen who finds yourself in a foreign country and the situation quickly escalates from peaceful to violent or tumultuous? Unless it is a high profile incident similar to Afghanistan, the federal government of the United States will likely not pay for your repatriation costs; and you will be responsible to pay them instead.

Fortunately, the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the Department of State of the United States has some advice for you which you can heed prior to taking your next trip; and it has been copied below for your convenience:

Be Informed

  • Learn about the country or countries which you are visiting — including visa requirements, local laws, customs, and medical care. Check for any Travel Advisories for your destination.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive important safety and security messages from the Department of State so that locating you and assisting you in an emergency is easier for the federal agency.
  • Keep the contact details for the nearest United States embassy or consulate with you. In case of emergencies, the Department of State is available to you — 24 hours a day, seven days per week — overseas and in the District of Columbia: 888-407-4747 or 202-501-4444.
  • See this Traveler’s Checklist for additional information.

Be Prepared

  • Have a two week supply of food and water for each member of your household — do not forget your pets! A crisis can mean leaving your home could become impossible or the local water could become undrinkable.
  • Your emergency kit should include:
    • Your passports
    • Birth abroad certificates for children born overseas
    • Cash in the local currency
    • A card with local translations of basic terms
    • An electrical current converter
    • Vaccination records for your pets, if you have any.
  • Households with infants and young children should plan for food and supplies — such as diapers and wipes, formula or baby food, and a change of clothing.
  • If you take medication, ensure to have a minimum of five days’ worth at any given time — if you can, you are encouraged to have at least enough for two weeks beyond your scheduled trip — and have a copy of your prescriptions handy.
  • If you use assistive or medical devices that require a power supply, be sure to find backup power or other ways that will sustain your device or equipment during a power outage.
  • Ensure you have health insurance whenever you are traveling abroad. For additional information, see Insurance Providers for Overseas Coverage.
  • Ensure that your passport is ready for use. Most countries require that it be valid for at least six months after the end of your trip; and that it have two or more blank pages.

Be Connected

  • Keep a list of your emergency contacts handy and create a communication plan for reaching family and friends in the event of a crisis.
  • Phone lines are usually affected during a crisis. Think about other ways to communicate. For example, update your social media status often and send messages as regularly as possible to let friends and family know how you are doing.
  • Many of our U.S. embassies and consulates, along with the Bureau of Consular Affairs, use social media to provide information – connect with us! Twitter Facebook
  • For more information, see Ways to Contact Loved Ones in a Crisis Abroad.

Be Safe

  • Have an exit strategy! Know how you will get out of harm’s way without needing to rely on assistance — a crisis may prevent or delay emergency responders’ ability to get to you and there will be many people needing help.
  • Be sure you know more than one way to get towards safety — the crisis event may make some roads unpassable or unsafe.
  • Follow instructions from local authorities about security and evacuation. Doing so could save your life.
  • Monitor local radio, television, and other sources for updates. Situations can change quickly, limiting the time you have to get out.
  • If you are staying in a hotel, talk to the staff to be sure you know the hotel’s emergency plan for a variety of crisis events – fire, flood, electrical outage, storms, etc.
  • Keep in touch with your tour operators, hotel staff, airline, cruise company, and local officials for evacuation instructions.
  • Contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if you need emergency help. Please keep in mind that this will not alert emergency responders – if you need emergency medical attention or police assistance, contact the local authorities directly if you can.

Final Boarding Call

Being out of your comfort zone and taking risks is part of the allure of the adventure of travel in general. Some of my best travel stories were those which were unexpected and not exactly the best moments which I have ever spent — such as when a man grabbed my left arm after I took generic photographs at an outdoor market in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire and started yelling in his native language. A crowd slowly gathered around me; and I thought I was in big trouble, as I had no idea how that situation was going to end — let alone ever find out what exactly was the problem…

…but when I looked at the faces of the men and women in the gathering crowd, I saw more genuine curiosity and empathy rather than hostility. One man eventually grabbed the man and convinced him to let me go. What became an escalating situation was suddenly diffused and calm again. I thanked him and was on my way.

Since then, Côte d’Ivoire had become a dangerous place due to at least two civil wars, civil unrest, and terrorism — but other than that one incident, I had never felt unsafe in that country up to that point.

I visited Beirut during a time of peace even though Lebanon was still technically at war with Israel — the structure which is in the photograph at the top of this article is the shell of a building riddled with bullet holes which was one of the casualties of the most recent fighting at that time — but active fighting could have started again at any time without warning…

…and a contentious national election can easily disrupt plans — such as what happened to me in Lesotho.

Although I wrote this article stating that if I want the comforts of home, I will stay at home, that does not mean one should be reckless when traveling, either. Always be aware of your surroundings when traveling; and keep yourself informed with the latest updates of your destinations — no matter from which country you originate…

…meaning that what happened in Afghanistan can happen to you — especially if you are not careful. Do your homework prior to embarking on a trip. For example, do not be like me and simply assume you can drive in Egypt without planning ahead and knowing the potential dangers of doing so.

As for me, I still plan on having been to every country in the world one day — there are people who have accomplished this feat — but it will not be easy…

Photograph ©2006 by Brian Cohen.

  1. As much as I sympathize for anyone caught in national unrest, it is not the responsibility of the US government (funded by tax paying Americans) to pay repatriation costs because someone chose to be in a location where strife occurred.

    All employees of the US Government (our military and their families, embassy workers, etc) should, of course, be repatriated on the government dime. But not anyone else.

    If someone is there due to personal business, their employer can reimburse them for their costs. If someone is there due to choice travel, it should solely be their responsibility to fund their way home.

    I visited a South American country several times during 2000-2001. While the country was always gorgeous and it’s citizens gracious to me, it was often dicey and armed insurgents regularly drove the streets of major cities with young men and uzis in the back of pick-up trucks. I made a choice to be there and would have expected to fund my way home had unrest led to anarchy. Yes, I would have appreciated my embassy’s assistance in getting out but would have never considered expecting them to pay for my return.

    The situation in Afghanistan is now, and over the last 20 years, one fraught with issues. The loss of life of our soldiers as well the loss of countless local lives is deplorable. Nothing can be done to remedy that now. And whether one agrees with the rapidly degenerating and disorganized removal of troops at this moment or not, our embassy should aim to assist in the removal US citizens from the fray but should not be funding this from the government coffers.

  2. I don’t pay attention to what TPG writers say on any topic, even if they are from Afghanistan.
    Good article though, Brian.

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