Context & Culture

Post Runners, Aerogrammes and the Big E-Mail Challenge: Scenes from 135 years of Afghan postal service


The test-letter from Kabul to Thomas Ruttig that was supposed to take three days and took three weeks (but post office staff was extra-lovely, helping to choose the nicest stamps). Photo: Thomas Ruttig

Calling the pre-email postal service (hand-written letters, you remember, and postcards) “snail mail” has been appropriate for Afghanistan for most of the past century, and even before. Established in 1878, it took Afghanistan’s service half a century to become part of the international postal system. After that, it was cut off during long years of conflict, which made writing to people abroad (in the days before the internet) random and cumbersome. Now, the Afghan Post has recovered from war, re-established a countrywide system and has even introduced postal codes. But it is threatened to be sidelined by modern communication technologies (and the behaviour of staff who seem stuck in an age when conspiracies were hatched via letters. (1)) AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig looks back on 135 years of postal service, including a number of personal encounters he and colleagues have had with the system over the past three decades.

In 1983, when intercontinental phone calls still cost a fortune and internet and email were not yet publicly available, the lifeline from Afghanistan to my family in Germany was Kabul’s Central Post Office. Once a week or so, I and other German students at Kabul University’s Faculty of Letters would stroll into its large and busy service hall to buy and post aerogrammes, extra light foldable airmail letters that cost ten Afghani, one fifth of the price of a kebab in the bazaar. Four to six weeks later, the loved ones at home would hold them in their hands. That delay was not due to Postes Afghanes, as the Afghan postal service was officially called until 2002 (sometimes also ‘Postes Afghanistan’; after 2001 it was anglicised to Afghan Post) (2), but because certain authorities in our country would scan the letters before they were delivered in (East) Berlin.

The journey to the Central Post Office, situated near Pul-e Bagh-e Umumi, the bridge that crossed Kabul river which was almost as polluted then as it is nowadays, was always enjoyable. Just on the other side were the Spinzar Hotel and its old-fashioned restaurant, where you could have a decent tea, and was what we called the “book wall” – an open air second hand book market, where books were available you wouldn’t see in the East, from Solshenitsyn’s novel The Gulag Archipelago and Dubcek’s speeches during the 1968 Prague spring to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in Persian translation and printed in pre-Khomeini Tehran.

According to Franz-Josef Pütz, a German collector of Afghan stamps and mail samples who has been researching the country’s postal service for years, the post office’s architect was Walter Harten. Harten, a German, also designed Dar-ul-Aman Palace, the National Museum nearby and the bridge that crosses the Kabul River between Deh Mazang and Guzargah. The latter was named after him and is mostly pronounced “Pul-e (H)artan.”

Some 50 years before my time as a student at Kabul University, letters would have made it to Germany in about the same time. Pütz who has collected samples from all eras of the Afghan postal service, has a registered letter in his collection that was sent from Kabul on 11 November 1932 and arrived at Munich on 10 December 1932, after only one month. From Kabul to the border post office at Torkham (I am not sure whether anything like this still exists) on the Afghan side of the Khyber Pass, the letter took three days. Two more were needed to make it across the border into what then was British India, to Landi Kotal, the first Pakistani village on its eastern side, and the end station of the famous Khyber Mail train that was still carrying tourists (mainly diplomats and aid workers based in Islamabad) until a decade ago. From Landi Kotal it was transported through Peshawar to Bombay, put on a ship to Marseille and finally made it north to Germany per land route.

Post runners to Khyber

Afghanistan’s postal service was established in 1878, and before Afghanistan joined the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1928, getting mail out of the country was a complicated affair. Although, as Pütz writes in an 2012 article for a German philatelic journal, Afghanistan had issued its first postal stamps (3) in 1871 already, they were not internationally recognised, so that letters had to be re-stamped when they reached UPU territory in British India. There, in Peshawar, and from 1925 onwards also in Quetta, Afghanistan ran so-called Contract Post Offices to expedite international mail.

In the case of outbound mail from Afghanistan, the first stage would have been covered by Afghan post runners. They would take the fees – between one and three anna (1 anna = 1/16 of a rupee) – from the sender, carry it to the Contract Post Office and pay it there. The post runners sometimes used pack animals, and the Russian journalist and wife of then Soviet Ambassador Fyodor Raskolnikov, Larissa Reisner, still saw them in service when she witnessed the 1920 Independence Day celebrations in Kabul; she mentioned them in one of her reportages from Afghanistan. (4) For inbound mail, the receiver had to pick up the mail at the main post office in Kabul and pay the fees for inner-Afghan transport. (All foreign mail had to be routed through the capital.)

From August 1929 onwards, when the British Imperial Airways started a service to Karachi, Afghanistan would be connected to an airmail route, through what today is Pakistan and London. The German Lufthansa had opened its own postal route to Tehran in 1937 (open for passengers from April 1938), and there was a plan to include Afghanistan later. It managed to carry out test flights to Kabul in 1936 and 1937, en route to China (5) – but a regular service on this route never materialised.

In 1928, France sent an expert to modernise Afghanistan’s postal system, but Monsieur Bouvret’s work seems to have fallen victim to the civil war after the overthrow of King Amanullah in 1929. In the early 1930s, German experts were sent to Afghanistan, in order to – among other things – organise the expansion of the Afghan telegraph system. The first one, Eugen Bonatz, carried the title “Royal Afghan Postal Councillor.” He, among other things, organised the expansion of the telegraph system. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Afghanistan’s postal connections with the world were the most active, says Pütz.

Conflict-related breakdown

Under the post-1978 leftist government, the service was still reliable. Only the stamps’ motifs changed, from portraits of King Muhammad Zaher and, later, President Muhammad Daud, to Nur Muhammad Tarakay and the Red Khalqi flag (find some fascinating samples in this blog by Zohra Saed). The Pashtunistan monument on the square by the same name was another often used motif; both under Daud and the Khalqis, who overthrew and murdered him, the cause of Pashtunistan was part of the official state doctrine. Lawrence Cohen, a US diplomat who had served in Herat and developed an interest in the Afghan postal system, is quoted in a 2007 specialist journal with this:

‘In most nations, when wars or coups cause a regime to change, so does the postage. New faces, flags, and formats replace older, ousted ones, which in the good old days were recycled by overprinting, but today are usually just shredded or incinerated. Not so in Afghanistan, where no stamp is ever obsolete. Stamps from as early as the 1930s — the first years of the monarchy of Mohammed Zahir Shah — are still found and used in some Afghani post offices. So are those of his brother-in-law, Sadar [sic] Daoud Khan, who replaced the king in a 1973 coup. Stamps depicting both men, drawn from current post office stocks, were used together by Cohen on a postcard in 2005.’

(For illustrations go to Pütz’ articles – here -, who shows mail samples sent from Kabul starting from 1927 to 2011, both through regular and ISAF postal service.)

Under the Taleban: an informal post service

Under the Taleban regime Afghanistan’s postal system was ‘broken,’ as Cohen wrote, but seemed to have continued to work. An input by the UN office for Afghanistan in Islamabad for the UN Secretary-General’s report on the anti-Taleban sanctions stated in June 2001 that the flight ban for the state-own Ariana airline

also disrupted the activities of the Afghan Postal Services, which had been gradually restored and extended over the past three years. Mail has now been diverted via Peshawar by road, instead of using Kabul as the node. People have complained at increased delivery times. The disruption of postal services has contributed to the sense of isolation that Afghans feel. There was a panic reaction to the fear that sanctions would more severely disrupt the mail. In the week before the imposition of sanctions under resolution 1267 (1999) postal officials report, they took in 10,000 letters a day from Afghans desperate to send letters to their relatives abroad.

In 2000, a local NGO, the Cooperation Centre for Afghanistan (CCA), together with international friends, had established a postal service for the Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, an isolated part in an already isolated country. Michael Semple, who was instrumental in setting up this non-governmental postal service while working for a UN humanitarian agency, recalls:

The Hazarajat postal project was an attempt to compensate for the lack of penetration of postal services into Hazarajat during the Taliban period. We recognised that links with the Hazara diaspora were vital to the survival of people in the region. Those in Hazarajat depended on Hazaras in Iran, Pakistan and beyond for remittances and hosting during migration. However families in Hazarajat lacked any reliable means of communicating with their relatives in the diaspora.

The project consisted of a courier service operating out of district centres in Hazarajat. I believe that we had outlets in about eight districts. The project ran a PO Box in the general post office in Kabul. It advertised this PO Box address among the Hazara diaspora and pledged to deliver to the district centres all mail coming to the PO Box. Likewise, the project collected mail from the courier points in the Hazarajat districts, delivered them to Kabul and posted from there.

The project worked well for a while and received plenty of positive feedback. An amusing distraction occurred when the Project Manager was arrested by the Taleban in Kabul and charged with acting in breach of the state postal monopoly. It was not a very arduous imprisonment and after a few days the Taleban realised their folly and encouraged him to carry on working. The interruption was more tragic in January 2001 when the district director for Yakaolang, whose name ironically was Taleb, was one of the civilians rounded up by the Taleban in the district. They killed him by firing squad. After this, as the conflict in Hazarajat escalated, survival took priority over postal services and we put the project on hold.

I and another German colleague decided to test this service in the year 2000, travelling to Yakaolang district – through Bamian – on business. Indeed, there was a letterbox on the district centre’s one and only road. After running around in the bazaar for a while, we finally managed to find pieces of paper and a pen and posted three letters to different addresses. It cost nothing. A stamp was unnecessary because aid workers would pass through Yakaolang once a month or so, collect the box’s content and take it abroad or to Kabul free of charge. From there, it would be posted via the regular channels. Two months later, my letters arrived at my office in Kabul, at the UN headquarters for Afghanistan in Islamabad and even in Berlin.

Suspicious letters

Another two years later, in 2002 in Kabul, with Afghanistan back in the family of nations and Christmas soon arriving, my wife and I bought some postcards for parents and kids at home at one of the seasonal NGO bazaars. In the post office near the Baharistan cinema, the clerk called his boss and fumbled with the envelopes: “No, we can’t post them.” The Christmas cards were not entirely flat, with hand-made fabric decoratively attached to them. “There is something other than a letter in these envelopes. You have to open them first,” the clerk said. We declined to open the already sealed envelopes, but all explaining and pleading was in vain. We took the cards with us on the next flight and posted them at home.

It appears to have improved since, although not everywhere. Tom A. Peter, reporting about the Afghan postal system in the Christian Science Monitor in 2012, gave it the rating “customer friendly”: “Sure enough, post office workers in Kabul even go so far as to lick stamps for patrons.” 
Peter adds:

Unlike other government offices that employ full-time foreign advisers, who are paid healthy six-figure salaries, the Afghan postal service has only occasionally hired temporary foreign advisers to help revise its postal code.

The US Agency for International Development and the International Security Assistance Force contributed delivery trucks, China provided 100 mail-delivery bicycles, and Iran sent postal bags. International postal organizations have also provided some equipment. Otherwise, the organization has had to be largely self-sufficient compared with other development projects.

A small group of Norwegian tourists who visited the country a year later, however, encountered remnants of the old, unreformed postal service in Herat:

We had seen the citadel and the mosque…, and we decided it was finally time to get postcards. But where do you get postcards in a country without tourists? We found gold in the fourth shop, a book shop. The three first shop owners didn’t even know what postcards were. But here, a few cards were hidden under layers of dust and some ancient looking books. Clearly not their main means of income, even for the sole postcard supplier in town.

Good stuff, but of course the friendly shop owner didn’t have stamps. 

Try the post office, he suggested.

We found a counter in a dark room in the back. No one there spoke English. We showed the postcards, and asked for stamps. Our requests were returned by head shaking. … [W]e couldn’t send anything without an envelope. 

But they are postcards. They don’t need envelopes. They are designed to be envelope independent, I tried to explain.

Ten minutes later they had reluctantly agreed to sell us stamps. The postcards arrived safe and unharmed in Europe six weeks later.

[A 2016 addition:] Find a similar “postal adventure” reported by The Little Book of Kabul website here who found “sending postcards in Kabul feels almost like being in short story by Borges or Calvino.”

A modern kind of post runners

Today, officially, Afghanistan has 460 postal offices countrywide. Due to the lack of Western-style addresses delivery remains a problem – most streets have no name, and those names that exist, like in Kabul, are often new and not widely known. In the cities, postal codes have now been introduced. Kabul’s has a fairy tale flavour to it: 1001. Even some letter-boxes have been put up, but they do not look as if they are used much. The postal workers, (6) however, usually know their area.

A report published by the biggest German news agency, dpa, this January describes scenes of the modern Kabul postal system. (The report is in German, see for example here.) It quotes Shah Muhammad, one of three postmen working for the Barikot post office in Kabul’s west. According to him, he is able to locate 30 to 40 per cent of all receivers of letters. Senders, he suggests, should simply write the name of the addressee on the envelope, add “Kabul, Afghanistan”, the police district and – very importantly – the mobile phone number of the addressee.  His staff, he claims, has to send back only one or two letters per day because they are unable to locate the recipient. Shah Muhammad wears no postal uniform and no official carrier bag. The bag is his own, he pays the phone calls to locate addressees from his own 6000 Afghani (80 Euros) monthly income and also has bought the bicycle he is using for his job himself. “I like the job, but not the salary”, he says.

There also is a short, 27 minutes movie about a Kabuli postman that was shown in 2012 at the Szczecin European Film Festival in Poland, “La journée du facteur Khan Agha.” It was produced in France, by Afghan director Wahid Nazir. Nazir graduated from Kabul University in 1989, left the country in 1992 and lived and worked in Iran and France (where he is currently based) before returning to work for Afghan Films in 2003. (His 2006 doc film “Kabul Man“, 2006, was shown on Afghan state TV and won a price at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2007.) His postman movie contains an episode where his main protagonist, Khan Agha, delivers a letter from the US to a Kabul address where the recipients are so happy to hear from their son that they believe the postman must be a personal friend who has carried the letter himself all the way. He is invited for tea and is pushed to relate more information about the son, so that he is forced to invent some detail: yes, the son was well, he only gained some weight…

Modernising the system

Against all odds, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology claims that due to improvements the postal service has turned in increased revenues. This seems to be mainly due to the increasing parcel delivery service. Governmental institutions, however, do not seem to trust the postal service. Electricity bills, for example, are still delivered by the company itself; in some cases, customers are even required to pick up their bills.

The use of mobile phones and emails has made parts of the postal service largely redundant. This was confirmed by the head of the post office in Barikot, in western Kabul, Muhammad Faruq, who has been working for the Afghan post since 36 years, in the dpa report quoted above: “In the past, we had more customers who sent letters.” But Afghans, he added, now prefer the internet to communicate with each other. With a population of 27 million, according to the Afghan Central Statistics Organisation’s estimation for 2012/13, the country had 17.2 million mobile phone numbers in August 2011. In September last year, the Ministry for Communications and IT, stated that “85 per cent of the countrymen [sic] have been covered by communication services” and that the remaining 15 per cent “will be covered with the installation of 700 new towers” which is currently  under way. (7)

According to the dpa report already quoted, the Afghan Post guarantees that a letter to Germany will not take more than three days, since it has concluded a cooperation agreement with Turkey and is sending its pouch with Turkish Airlines that flies to Kabul daily. (Before, it went through Pakistan.) It is also much cheaper then using the international carrier services: 30 Afghani (some 0.40 Euro-Cent), as opposed to 65 Euro. When AAN colleagues decided to put the system to the test, they received the same information. For the opposite way, the German postal office website says “delivery in 8-12 days (without guarantee).”

Here is the report from a Kabul colleague:

A driver and I went to the post office this morning, taking a card in an envelope with the Ruttigs’ address already on it. We met a lovely, helpful post officer and two female colleagues in an empty office who – all of them – right away started busying themselves with our enterprise. It turned out, though, that we had it all wrong, but, no worries, they would show us. We learned that it is not allowed to close envelopes with sticky tapes, only with Pritt glue (administered by one of the female colleagues). We were shown how an address is written properly, with the post officer carefully writing From and To on a new envelope (“10 afs, please”), also politely indicating where exactly on the envelope to start writing. And we learned that one can register a letter in order to be able to check where it is stuck if it does not arrive. Which we did, paying 100 afs instead of the usual 44. Hearing that the receiver is interested in Afghan stamps, the officers showed us the whole choice available and, with the help of a calculator, puzzled together a collection worth exactly 100 afs: 12 afs, 17 afs, 21 afs and 50 afs. (We particularly liked the stamp issued in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of Sino-Afghan diplomatic relations, featuring a handshake, with both national flags on the cuffs above a picture of a camel caravan arriving at the Great Wall, see here.) We wanted to put the 100 afs stamp as well, because it is beautiful, but the officers were aghast at the thought of such a waste and would not let us.

The letter arrived in Berlin almost exactly three weeks later. The letter posted to AAN’s Kabul office from Berlin is still unaccounted for, despite the exact address. (Our office is located in a numbered street, and there is even a house number). My mistake, maybe: I forgot to add the phone number.

 

Mr Pütz, the Afghan postal service specialist and collector, would be happy to receive mail from Afghanistan for his collection under the following address:

Franz-Josef Pütz, Mohrenstr. 9, 10117 Berlin, Germany

 

(1) See the so-called Silk Letter Conspiracy, a plan by some Kabul-based Indian Muslims in the early 20th century to trigger an anti-British uprising in their home country.

(2) It even has a Guaranteed Worldwide Conveyance Service now, called Afghan Shaheen (Falcon) Post. The old-fashioned Aerogrammes are also still available, though. On the website you can look at stamps used over the past years, including (under 2000) of the Islamic State of Afghanistan – the then internationally recognised government led by late Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani. Another website for early Afghan stamps is here. There is also a website listing stamps issued illegally in the name of Afghanistan, here.

(3) Talking about Afghanistan-related stamps: one that officially does not exist was auctioned this May in Switzerland – a German stamp for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. It had been produced and then had to be withdrawn after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan over Christmas 1979 that led to a boycott of the games by most western countries. The so-called “Gscheidle stamp” exists in 24 (known) copies only and cost between 26,000 and 85,000 Euro in the past.

(4) In German, here: Larisa M. Rejsner, Von Astrachan nach Barmbek. Reportagen 1918-1923, Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1983.

(5) The operation was supported by the Afghan government that had purchased a German Junkers aircraft which was flown by a German pilot (see: Carl August Freiherr v. Gablenz, Pamirflug, Herbig: Munich 2002). All commercial Lufthansa routes were closed down with the start of World War II in 1939.

(6) There were 445 regular employees and 494 contract employees in 2003.

There is also an AFP video from 2013 about Khan Agha the postman, here.

(7) Internet coverage in Afghanistan is still weak, though, also because of the lack of access to stable electricity for many; only between 3 and 4.2 per cent of the Afghan people have access to an internet connection. See also an AAN guest dispatch about this issue with more statistics and detail about how young people use it, here.

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