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In Kabul nothing changes, everything is changing
Welcome to the blog of our reporting trip to southern Afghanistan. I’ll be your host, Peter Graff. I’m the Reuters London defence correspondent. This is my sixth trip to Afghanistan since 2001.
I’m travelling with Stuart McDill — a Reuters TV cameraman trying to shake off a bout of flu — and Ahmad Masood, a photographer from our Kabul bureau.
The Kabul bureau is where I am sitting now. It’s a remarkably pleasant little villa around the corner from a whole bunch of embassies in what has always been an expensive part of town.
Little has changed in the building since I was first here five years ago: the door to the balcony still slams alarmingly, the walls still need paint, the garden is still improbably impeccably well trimmed. However, there’s a new, giant satelite dish on the lawn.
Our Man in Kabul is the indefatigably hospitable Sayed Salahuddin, a Reuters journalist who has outlasted the Russians, the Taliban and planeloads of know-it-all foreign correspondents like myself. He says I should go upstairs and get some lunch.
“With an empty stomach you will not be able to write a good blog. Therefore, I recommend you have some lunch,” he insists, wisely.
But I’m ignoring him. In fact, I’ve taken over his computer to write this first entry.
Already I have the giddy feeling I always get in this place. Afghanistan, for those who don’t know it, is heartachingly beautiful. Kabul is surrounded by the mostly barren grey peaks of the high Hindu Kush mountains, which still have scraggly traces of snow running from the top in veins, despite the fearsome June sun.
The airport road has been newly repaved, and as we drove down it I was revelling in the sight of Afghans in the costumes of the capital’s many ethnic groups. Kids in school uniforms were playing. One boy was pushing another in a wheelbarrow, they tumbled out and giggled, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
It’s a fun ride into Kabul, nothing like the thumping fear that always hits me when I arrive in Baghdad.
The driver who met us at the airport is Omar, whom I hadn’t seen since my first stay nearly six years ago. “Nothing ever changes here,” he says to me in Russian. “The traffic just gets worse. The rich people are richer, everyone else still has nothing.”
Truth be told, though, Kabul looks little like the city I first found in 2001, when the Taliban fled overnight and the Northern Alliance moved in. Then, much of it was still in ruins from battles of the 1990s. Now, it is plastered with billboards advertising mobile phones and holidays abroad. There seems to be construction going on everywhere.
The first time I came to Afghanistan, I flew in with the Northern Alliance on a decrepit old Soviet helicopter out of Tajikistan, and landed in a mountain village in the lush Panjsher valley, for decades a redoubt of the Mujahideen. Kabul was in the grip of the Taliban, behind a frontline bristling with tanks.
This time, all we had to do was book a flight from London. Azerbaijan Airways over Baku.
In those intervening years, three million refugees have returned to Afghanistan. The country’s main industry, the illegal drugs trade, has been flourishing. This may be evil, but it means the capital is awash in cash.
But Kabul is not all of Afghanistan. Over the past year or so, open warfare has returned to the south of the country, where a NATO force has advanced into territory still held by Taliban guerrillas. The fighting has been far bloodier than commanders initially predicted.
This will be my third trip over the past year into the field with British troops in Helmand province in the south, and I hope to get a sense of how the war is going, and whether there is hope for peace any time soon.
I promise to keep you posted. And now I am going to have some lunch.