I have finally arrived in Kabul, after spending several days travelling half the world to get a visa for Afghanistan. My quest started in Dubai, where in the past it had been relatively easy to get multiple entry, multiple months. I had heard about a new system that involved getting a “Mofa number” (i.e. a reference number linked to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs authorisation, in a procedure very similar to the Iranian one) but I still thought I should be able to get an entry visa without too much trouble.
The friendly boy in the cubicle at the Dubai consulate, now looking somewhat harassed, chatted back at me: yes things had been easier in the past, yes you have come here before, I remember, but things have changed, the situation in Afghanistan is not good, the ministry needs to know who is in the country, because of the attacks and the suicide bombers, you need a Mofa number now, it is a new rule, etc., etc., but come back tomorrow at 8 and you will be issued your visa… The last few words – the most important ones – had been mumbled, which was of course not a good sign. But I was still hopeful that I would be given something.
The next morning I joined the small crowd of tired looking foreigners outside the consulate’s gate. Those who had come earlier than me had been told to wait outside, but when more and more people slid open the gate, went inside and didn’t come back, we decided to have a look. It turned out that the boy in the cubicle had opened for business a long time ago and that the time to issue visas was over. When it was my turn he explained, at length: this was the second day of the new system, it now took them one hour to process a single visa application, there was very little they could do about it, they were only processing ten visas per day now, he was also not sure how it was decided who got the visas. He was joined by the consul, Dr Omar, who said more or less the same, adding that he had worked until 18:30 the day before instead of until 14:00, that this was unworkable, that there was nothing they could do, and left.
I talked some more to the boy in the cubicle. He finally seemed to give in and gave me a piece of paper with a number, told me not to tell anyone else and pointed me to the next room where I could discuss my case with Dr Omar (but hadn’t I just talked to him? was the number supposed to make a difference?). The man standing behind me in line congratulated me with the progress, but I was not so sure. I had seen too many distraction tactics by now, and the inability of the consular staff to handle the situation seemed genuine.
The next room was full of people who believed they were only one step away from getting what they needed. A man strutted in purposefully and shouted through the cracks of the closed shutters “Dr Omar, Dr Omar, Mohammad so-and-so sends his regards”. A member of the staff who was wearing a surgical mask (and who was not Dr Omar), answered that he would gladly send his regards back, but that he had switched off his phone and was not talking to anybody. I saw several people with similar pieces of paper as I had been given. Some people had received assurances from the Ambassador. Most people had paperwork that was more complete than mine and for several of them this was the third or fourth day that they had come for nothing. It was like participating in an early morning lottery, except that nobody seemed to know where the lottery was taking place and whether they were in it.
A distinguished looking gentleman working for an NGO shook his head, “It is really as if they don’t want us to come and help them.” And in a sense he’s probably right. The government and the population are increasingly feeling that they really don’t need all of those hundreds and thousands of foreigners who are coming to their country and are involved in who knows what. Somehow gratitude is expected, but it is difficult to be grateful for help that so often doesn’t seem to be what you had asked or hoped for.
I didn’t wait around to see if the system would ultimately sort itself out. There were some universal dynamics at play that are difficult to beat, regardless of the country you are dealing with: the confusion and increased workload caused by the introduction of new and supposedly more efficient systems and the bureaucratic indifference of consular staff to problems caused by their delays (we are already overworked and we don’t make the rules – the universal twin defence). But it was in overdrive here and nobody was being issued anything.
It was also interesting to be reminded of the random robustness and immovability of procedures – even if that means that they cannot be implemented. Amidst all the media attention for Afghanistan’s corruption and lack of rule of law, it is easy to forget that the country also has a considerable class of stubbornly bureaucratic citizens (as well as a large number of officials who are selectively very bureaucratic when it suits them) – as anyone trying to get permission for anything can testify to. It is not a free for all. Not everything goes. At least not for everyone.
While I was standing in line a day earlier three Afghan men behind me had been discussing what was most important to get things done in Afghanistan: paisa, zur or waseta – money, power or connections. They couldn’t agree which was stronger than the other. But to understand what happens in Afghanistan you have to add a few more things to the mix: rules (randomly applied) and empty promises, for when you cannot or do not want to comply and when it is awkward to say no.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020