I arrive in Kabul after a two and a half year absence, and there is much more construction, and a lot more sandbags, a sign at how much the security situation has deteriorated. I wonder if the construction is really changing the face of Kabul, but then I chastize myself for being an optimist. I call up an Afghan friend, a young man who speaks perfect English. We talk about old times, we used to work together in Kabul, and I am shocked to hear him say how positive he feels about Afghanistan's future. He grew up under the Soviets, then the civil war and the Taliban regime that followed. Now, he says, he has a future. He has money because he works for the international community and can afford to study at a private university in Kabul. He likes to drink and party too. His brother has gone to India to get his business degree with the view to coming back.
This is in stark contrast to just about everyone else as almost everyone else has dire predictions. Americans I meet predict nothing but disaster for the future of Afghanistan due in large part to the disastrous policies. "We have fought one war but we have fought it eight different times," says one, a sentiment from the Vietnam war. This is because each tour of duty is one year, when someone new comes in they attempt to redefine what their predecessor has done, starting over and over and over. They are also horrified at how the Americans are actually paying the Taliban to secure areas that the Taliban blow up. In Wardak province, for example, the Taliban blew up a road. The US military put out a contract to fix the road. The contract went for $30,000. and the local strongman got his cut. Five layers down the Taliban got $5,000. to fix the road that they blew up.
A briefing from security makes me completely crazy. "Your phone is being monitored by the good guys and the bad guys," he says, "make no mistake." I had a package delivered to where I am staying in Wazir Akbar Khan, a posh neighbourhood with lots of poppy palace (vast houses built from the proceeds of poppy not surprisingly) and embassies including the British one which is down the street. In the 30 minutes that my package took to be delivered, a wealthy Afghan businessman from the area was kidnapped. It's a lucrative business and the threat these days is high.
I visit a friend in Kabul and she gives me explicit instructions. Honk when I get to her house. Wait until the gate opens and drive in. Get out only when you are inside the courtyard. Kandaharis live next door and no foreigners should be seen at the house.
Today a bomb went off two streets away -- Line 5 Street 13th Wazir Akbar Khan -- killing eight people. This has been the worst year of violence since the Taliban left in 2001. It's a sobering lesson. However, I can honestly say that shopping saved my life. I was out supporting the Afghan economy.
You always get the best information standing around and chatting at L'Atmosphere, the trendy Kabul watering hole. [You also bump into everyone. On Friday night I met Conservative MP for Gravesham Adam Holloway and Brooks Newmark MP for Braintree, who were having dinner. Ah, yes, it is a global village after all.]
I find it is worthwhile to ask the same tiresome questions that bar-room bores tend to repeat as gospel, for example: Is Afghanistan really the graveyard of empires? Of course I'm not just asking other bar room bores.but Afghan experts. The response from one was not that it was a graveyard of empires, but a graveyard of idiots. I like that and am thinking of claiming it as my own. The reason he said that was in relation to the recent election which gave me the opportunity to ask another question: can democracy work in Afghanistan? "Afghanistan is fundamentally democratic when you think about it," said the British boffin. "Everything has to be agreed by the locals at local level, then they deliver a block vote. It can't be more democratic than that." In the end it comes down to the fact that 'It's the system, stupid.'
Which brings me to another point. The irony is not lost on me either as I look out over a vast sea of ex-pat men that this is a great place to be a foreign woman, not so great if you are an Afghan woman however. It doesn't matter what is enshrined in the constitution, it's what happens in the home, behind closed doors. That may never change to the extent that we would like.
A favorite saying here about the number of men compared to women is that "the odds are good, but the goods are odd." True.
One of the charms of Kabul is it's neat little social scene. Saying that I was however taken aback to see a large grumpy man a few tables over at the Gandamack who looked incredibly familiar, a journalist iI presumed I had met somewhere. But no, That familiar face was that of Marco Pierre White, a super celebrity chef, who came to cook Christmas dinner for the British troops.
The Taliban drive Toyota Corollas. I see many on the streets, many have peeling Canadian flags on their trunks.
My discussion today with a very interesting political analyst who worked with Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Masoud. I meet Haroun Mir at the Cabul Coffee House in glorious sunshine, as opposed to the smoke and mirrors of the politics."I see darkness for the future," he says. "it's the Great Game again, only the players have changed and this time they are regional." Iran, China, the Stans, Pakistan. "Pakistan," he continues , "is like a suicide bomber itself.' The big question is whether the Taliban are fighting for political power or not. Wars in Afghanistan have never been ideological until Al Qaeda arrived.
On the other hand, Kabul now has a restaurant delivery service, Easytogo check, much like the one in London that will pick up and deliver from any restaurant. Wonder what Marco Pierre White thinks. The social scene is so hectic I have two dinners, one at 530pm and another at 8pm. My dinner companion is a young Afghan businessman.
His vehicles cross one of the most dangerous stretch of road in Afghanistan from Kandahar City 160km to Turunkot or TK, the capital of Uruzgan, another hotbed of insurgent activity. Not even locals dare to travel on their own, Huge conveys gather to cross twice a month and 80 percent of his company's expenditure goes on 'security costs'. He has to pay $3000.00 per vehicle in illegal tax.
Ahmed Wali Karzai is a prominent political figure in the southern region of the Afghanistan and leads the provincial council of Kandahar Province, the governing body for the region. He is also a suspected player in the country's booming illegal opium trade.
He is the president's brother.
A dinner party. I am always amazed at how many long limbed posh blonde English girls live and work out here. Sometimes if feels like finishing school. They all seem bright and switched on. There is much more a serious sense that things are not good here.
I am staying in Kabul right near one of Karzai's brothers who lives in one of the ornate poppy palaces that have sprung up well, like poppies. A taxi driver, savvy as ever, asks me how a minister, as the area is full of MPs and commanders, on a salary of $100.00 a month can afford to live like this?
Today's key words are: continuity, there hasn't been any when it comes to policy, coordination, also lacking, impunity, allows the criminals and politicians to get away with murder, and lack of political will. Karzai acts like a traditional tribal leader who does not want to upset anyone. Gordon Brown is talking about bringing in the moderate taliban, but what's the point? They will have no influence over the taliban and are irrelevant. I come back from a meeting at Kabul's five star Serena Hotel at 10pm and i am literally the only person on the streets. Very eerie.
The pressure is on the find the hot new club in Kabul, Martini's. It's opening soon and is supposed to look like it would not be out of place in the West End. There is also a luxury health spa opening and a new gallery. You can get lost in these pockets of normality but generally something happens that brings you back to reality with a boom. Literally.
This is a weird but also wonderful bubble. Foreigners think the Afghans think that the Nato presence is an occupation, but that is not the sense that i get from most Afghans.
Now my trip down to Kandahar and Helmand approaches. I board the C-130, wearing helmet and body armour, feeling right at home and conclude I must have watched too many war movies during my formative years.
My translator in Lashkar Gah, provincial capital of Helmand, is called Mateen. He wears sunglasses and a scarf wrapped around his face. One morning I am making light conversation and tell him his name in French means morning. He tells me his name in English means 'cool.'
We all seem to wake up every morning and think we have the very complex situation figured out. By noon everything has changed. Neither Afghans nor ex-pats can read the runes but there is a darker sense overhanging everything. If we pull out Afghanistan becomes a failed state, and insurgent networks will flourish again. I am left with the thought that now is a delicate time in history, maybe even the tipping point that was the hot button phrase that described the situation when I first arrived in 2007.