April 26th, 2010
11:08 AM ET

Tourism potential and the secret police

KABUL, Afghanistan — When I was in Afghanistan early in 2002, I covered a story on what we all thought was the very essence of optimism — the appointment of a Tourism Minister.

Needless to say, his poisoned chalice of a job didn’t get much traction at the time.

Occasionally since, the idea of a vibrant tourism industry here has re-surfaced — there is still a Tourism Minister — and some “adventure tourists” have indeed tiptoed through the landmines and firefights to discover the undeniable beauty of this country.

There is no debate that Afghanistan has much to tempt travelers — this is a country rich in tourism potential.  

Towering cliffs and deep caverns, stunning lakes (Band-e-Amir has to be seen to be believed), and rugged vistas abound, alongside a culture rich in history.  For those turned off by resort vacationing, or ABC  (“Another Bloody Cathedral) tours, this is a peach of an alternative.

But while the still-optimistic call upon the daring to visit, perhaps the secret police need a lesson or two in how they might welcome such cash and camera-wielding visitors, especially those who might dare snap a photo for later reminiscing.

For today, one of those policemen detained our little group — because I took a video clip of a fruit stand in the street.

It’s a symptom of what many foreigners here feel is an increasing antipathy to outsiders, be they soldiers, civilian contractors or journalists.

Afghan national police routinely single out foreigners for random ID checks and vehicle searches, and restaurants frequented by westerners have been raided by alcohol hunting authorities — despite widespread official acceptance of such establishments.

But what happened today was, to me, just … stupid.

We had gone to the local bank to get some cash — a fairly routine task.  While wandering back to our car, I filmed (perfectly legally) a couple of street scenes with a small personal video camera.   A fruit stall, an ice cream seller, a man offering phone cards — regular  “tourist” stuff.

A man in civilian clothes walked up, grabbed my wrist with one hand and waved the other in front of my face. 

Now in a place like Kabul, a little wrist grabbing by a strange man makes you feel, let’s say “less comfortable” than it might back home.   After a few seconds of staring at each other (and passers-by staring at both of us), he pulled out an ID card that read “Police.”

But our friend was no ordinary beat cop — he was part of the NDS, the National Directorate of Security, an organization much feared by Afghans as it stands accused of, among other things, torturing suspects (including, controversially, some handed over by NATO forces).

As a Western journalist, I never feared such a thing, of course, but realized this fellow could ruin our pleasant morning stroll. 

And indeed he did.

Our group of four — three westerners and our wonderful Afghan fixer — were told to present identification.   We had various items among us, from ISAF ID cards to passports, and while I had a driver’s license and business cards, I hadn’t brought my passport along on the brief outing.

The man insisted we go with him, not something we were keen on.  Phone calls were made, passersby gathered, and – again, Kabul not being a place where you want to attract a crowd — we finally walked a few meters to a nearby building where our NDS friend had an “office.”

It’s important to note that there’s nothing illegal — with or without media cards — in taking photos or home video of innocuous street scenes.  It’s understandably a different story if the focus of your snapping is a building or place with a security function.  

However, western security advisors say it’s not unusual for NDS officers to harass media as they film stories in the streets, or interview locals, even if they have full permission to do so and are brimming with official IDs.

 Colleagues say they have felt an increasing tension when it comes to dealing with authorities, as have civilian contractors. 

As a friend brought the “required” documents from our house, we waited, while our NDS host and four of his colleagues skipped through the video camera’s innocent contents, chuckling here and there and seemingly fascinated with how it worked.

It was obvious nothing “too bad” was going to happen, so, through our fixer, I asked our host why there was a problem.

“Oh we just want to see more identification,” was the reply.

“But is it illegal to take simple street photos in Kabul?” I asked.

Silence.

“Your country is beautiful and your government wants tourists to visit — what will you do if they take a photograph during their visit?”

“They will have identity cards.”

“So did we,” I replied.

“No problem, no problem,” he said, turning his attention back to our tiny camera.

I’ve been detained in a few countries over the years while doing my job, but never for playing tourist.    One experience did flash through my mind as we waited — being detained by a Jordanian cop during the first Gulf War for (again, legally) doing a piece to camera in a public place.  

The problem on that occasion was that once we were taken to the police station, everyone seemed to know we had done nothing wrong, but no one wanted to be the one to make the decision to let us go.

That particular detention lasted for hours till a senior officer arrived, yelled at his officers, apologized and let us leave.

This time around, Mr NDS took my various ID’s once they’d been delivered, went around the corner (we presume to his boss), returned, smiled and wished us a happy day.

“You’re legal now,” he smiled.  

“I was legal before,” I replied.

“Please delete the video now before you go.”

“No – why?  You’ve seen it – you know there’s nothing other than public street scenes.”

“OK – you may go.  No problem.”

There’s no suggestion that Kabul is Paris or London in terms of the security situation, or that there’s no need for special security precautions.

But at the same time as the government encourages foreign travelers with their foreign currency to come visit, those travelers might be advised that not every official they come across will be as welcoming to them, or their desire for a holiday snap.

More from Michael Holmes and CNN's BackStory

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