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Afghanistan's Broken Postal System

Profiled in February American Philatelist

An old Afghan proverb states, "If there is only bread and onions, still have a happy face" — a sentiment similar to, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade." In that spirit, postal patrons in Afghanistan have long had to make do with that strife-torn state's piecemeal mail service. For decades it has struggled to carry letters through troubled territories, frequent, often bloody regime changes, and incessant regional conflict.

One of the direct consequences of this has been a stamp free-for-all we can scarcely imagine. It's a situation vividly bought to life in "Afghanistan's Broken Postal System" — a nine-page color feature by Lawrence Cohen in the February issue of The American Philatelist. (That's him at right atop a Soviet-built tank.)

Last September, Cohen completed a year with a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Herat, in Western Afghanistan. Less than 70 miles from the Iranian border, Herat's population of around a million makes it Afghanistan's second-largest city. Since early 2003, U.S. and later Italian PRT personnel there have helped stabilize, provide security and administer development and reconstruction projects for Herat Province's million citizens.

"In Herat, I served as the U.S. Embassy representative at the Italian-run PRT," Cohen writes. "The job — including conflict mediation, capacity building, and working with provincial government authorities — was perhaps the most fascinating I experienced."

In his 26-year career with the U.S. Foreign Service, Cohen has worked in seven nations on five continents. Encouraged by his mother when he was a child in the 1960s, his interest in stamps has followed his calling, focusing on the places where he served. With each new posting abroad, he greets with gusto his first visit to the main post office, whose employees he clearly admires, and whose mysteries he's keen to unlock.

Click here for a slide show of Lawrence Cohen's pictures from Afghanistan

In Herat, the greatest mystery turned out to be the stamps.

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 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 he had canceled in 2005.

In those same post office drawers you may find and buy stamps from the Communist regime that assassinated Sadar Daoud in 1978, and from the Soviet-occupation era that followed. Some are denominated in pouls, others in afghanis. No one seems to mind.

For most of the past seventeen years, Afghanistan has had virtually no new postage stamps. Since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, a trickle of new issues has appeared on the philatelic scene, although it is unclear how many of these have reached post offices. They certainly haven't yet come in quantity to Herat — which explains the bewildering array of old stamps chronicled by Cohen, who shows many recent usages. Often, a profusion of contradictory postmarks only deepens to the mystery.

Cohen's prognosis for the Afghan Post might be generously characterized as faintly optimistic skepticism. "However," he writes, "in only a few months, I observed a cleanup and reorganization of the Herat GPO. There were small signs of improvement in service as well, although customers remain rare."

From time to time, promises have been made for improving the mail in Afghanistan: developing a robust network of post offices, reliable routes, and, one would hope, new postage stamps everywhere. But, in the words of another old Afghan proverb, "Don't show me the palm tree — show me the dates!"

©2007 American Philatelic Society. The American Philatelist is a monthly magazine published by the American Philatelic Society, which showcases and celebrates the stamp hobby on behalf of 43,000 members in more than 110 countries. For a free copy of the February American Philatelist with "Afghanistan's Broken Postal System," non-members can send $1 (to cover postage and handling) to APS February 07 Issue Offer, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte PA 16823-1376.

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