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Hopes of progress: The new National Assembly building is visible from the ruins of Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, which is currently being restored (© NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Until Donald Trump dropped the $16 million, 21,600-pound GBU-43 Mother of all Bombs on rural Afghanistan, there was no indication that the country was even on the President’s radar. Then on April 13, he let IS have it. But IS numbers in Afghanistan had already fallen from 3,000 last year to about 700 this year. It is the 40,000-strong Taliban who are making gains. They announced their spring offensive two weeks later on April 28. They control a third of the country and are secretly backed by Iran, Pakistan and Russia. It’s not so surprising then that the images we have of Afghanistan are images of war. When I arrived for the first time in 2007, I was totally unprepared for what I encountered during a miserably cold winter.

I certainly didn’t fall in love with the country at first sight. As the plane landed, I looked down on a mud-coloured blanket of nothingness. No high-rises, no lights, no colour, a bleakness hanging from the sky. When I went to retrieve my luggage the cases were buried in a pyramid of bags, stacked in a darkened corner. The electricity didn’t work, wires hung from the ceiling. The place was bombed out, prehistoric, freezing and frozen in time, grey and disturbing.

My first night in the field set the scene for some of my most indelible memories. I went to a French restaurant called L’Atmosphere, one of many businesses started by canny foreigners or entrepreneurial expats. As you walked in, a sign read “No Afghans” and another indicated a place to store your gun. L’Atmo had foie gras on the menu, grilled fish, baguettes and red wine, which was a miracle in 2007. The attorney general had gone on a rampage and confiscated alcohol, which was illegal. But the authorities often turned a blind eye when it involved the international community and they were sufficiently bribed. It was a large compound with a bar and a swimming pool where in the summer foreign women would swim in bikinis. Outside, just beyond the bamboo barrier, Afghan women, covered in blue burqas with their tiny pleats and mesh face covers, walked on mud streets unpaved since Soviet days.

Spring arrived. The light changed and had a cut-crystal magic to it. Flowers bloomed everywhere, and there were roses, roses and more roses — and marijuana plants that popped up on roadsides and in people’s gardens alongside almond, apricot and walnut trees. Houses that looked sad and decrepit had an integral beauty if you looked intensely and with imagination you could almost see their past glory. As my eyes began to adjust to this new paradigm, I felt I was walking down the grand tree-lined boulevards of the Sixties when Kabul was part of the Hippie Trail.

For old movie fans, compare the so-called “Kabubble” to the 1954 film Brigadoon, a city that appeared out of the mists of Scotland once every 100 years and lasted for only 24 hours. While Kabul has been at the intersection of the Silk Road for thousands of years, the Kabubble appeared only in 2002 and consisted of, mostly, foreigners. It was a fascinating intersection of people, ideas and possibilities and was why I wrote my book Dispatches from the Kabul Café, a series of stories of how we lived then.

By the time I arrived, the Afghans had experienced 30 years of war: the decade-long Soviet occupation; the subsequent civil war; the Taliban takeover. After 9/11 came Nato and with it the influx of expats, armies from 28 countries, contractors, all of whom created a new world of restaurants and cafés. With donor donations the museum was rebuilt, with entrepreneurial spirit a skate park gave young Afghans a place to have fun, an art café was established, and a nightclub lasted very briefly. It was suggested that a new capital would be built alongside the old one.This 13-year-long mission moment brought together an astonishing assortment of people — men and women at the top of their game in a place that was the focus of the world and where history was being made.

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