How Taliban officials have turned the world’s weakest passports into the most expensive

The Taliban’s return to power in August 2021 resulted in a chaotic and deadly exodus of hundreds of thousands from Afghanistan. Within hours of the group’s arrival in Kabul, tens of thousands scrambled for a way out. Thousands, including senior politicians and government officials, rushed to Kabul’s airport, in a desperate bid to be airlifted out of the country by the departing western countries. The images of desperate Afghans clinging onto moving planes, and at least two falling off midair, shocked the world. And a suicide attack outside the airport killed at least 183, including 13 US military personnel. And when the last US plane left Afghanistan, over 120,000 Afghans had been lucky enough to be airlifted to a third country. 

Afghanistan’s land borders, especially with Iran and Pakistan, became clogged with hundreds of thousands of Afghans. And according to an estimate, by the end of 2022, over a million Afghans had left the country.

Many have tried to leave the country through legal means. Some countries, including Iran, India, and Pakistan, still issue visas for Afghan nationals under some circumstances. But getting a passport has become increasingly difficult since the group’s takeover of the country. No longer can Afghans rely on a normal bureaucratic process – however cumbersome and corrupt it often was under the previous government – to obtain them or renew their old ones. 

Although ranked the weakest passports in the world, for Taliban officials they have become a lucrative source of income. Desperate Afghans needing passports must pay huge sums to middlemen to get them. The middlemen have direct access to the group’s Passport Directorate and the group’s officials.

Visa-free travel destinations for Afghans include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Burundi, Madagascar and the Comoro Islands.

Last year, Nilofar was offered a PhD scholarship to study at Amrita University in India. But with her passport being out of date and her being unable to pay the middlemen, she lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That meant disaster for her, given the group’s harsh treatment of women.

The Taliban had promised issuing 4,000 passports per day, but the exorbitant costs mean not many can afford them.

Bashir worked with Canadian forces in Afghanistan. He needed passports for himself and his family to get through the Canadian evacuation process. He asked friends and acquaintances for help. Speaking to a middleman was his only option, he was told. He paid $3,600 to a middleman who worked with Taliban officials in the Passport Directorate in Kabul. 

“The process was simple. I deposited the fees to a money exchange shop they worked with, and then went to the Passport Directorate. The middleman introduced me to another person, who did all the necessary work and delivered our passports in less than a week,” Bashir told KabulNow.  

In September last year, the Taliban’s deputy director of the Passport Directorate said that they had arrested hundreds of middlemen. And a month earlier, the Taliban arrested Abdullah, a brother of Alamgol Haqqani, the former director of the Passport Directorate. The group released video footage of Abdullah drinking and partying with young women as its intelligence agents raid in. Alamgol Haqqani is thought to be a relative of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network. 

The Taliban have issued passports intermittently. Thus, creating a huge demand and opportunities for middlemen. Before the Taliban arrived, the passport fee was $65. 

Those who cannot pay have to wait outside the passport office in Kabul for days to submit their applications.

To understand the process, our reporter pretended to be an applicant. He contacted a middleman who quoted him $2500. When he tried to haggle for a discount, the middleman told him that his cut of the money was very small. Most of the money, he said, went to the Taliban officials. The middleman showed him a list of people who had deposited money and were waiting to have their passports. $2,500 each. 

Another middleman quoted $2,200 to deliver a passport in 3 days. His cut, he told our reporter, was only $50. “A thousand goes to the director and the rest distributed to officials in the department.” 

KabulNow approached the Taliban’s Passport Directorate but didn’t receive a reply.