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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 February 2007, 12:01 GMT
Unsung heroes of Afghanistan
By Paul Adams
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent, Afghanistan

Nato forces are preparing for a new wave of fighting in Afghanistan. But away from the battlegrounds, local and international schemes are attempting to break the country's cycle of conflict and poverty.

"Would you like to see the Taleban's last stand?" the lady asked.

Poppy eradication in Nangarhar province
Poppy eradication has brought villagers out en masse

Well, thanks. Yes. That would be great.

I confess I had not expected anything so conclusive quite so early on in my trip.

Wondering what she could possibly mean, I followed, along one of the wide, dusty tracks that pass for roads in Kandahar's sprawling airbase.

It was not a withering display of firepower, of course, but simply a gaping hole in one of the base's older buildings, caused by an American guided bomb back in 2001.

It had been one of the final acts of the war, destroying what was then a Taleban stronghold in their spiritual heartland.

Violent times

When I visited this same base almost two years ago, the Americans told me the Taleban were on their last legs.

And now, on his last visit to the south before handing over the reins of his Nato command, General David Richards was saying something similar. Not, to be fair, that the Taleban would disappear in 2007, but that they would cease to pose a strategic threat.

Well, we will see.

With the Taleban and Nato both promising a spring offensive - a war of words with just a touch of playground bravado - it is a reasonable assumption that some bloody times still lie ahead.

But looking for something different, we took off for other parts: from the freezing, snowy wastes of the central highlands, to the sun-drenched slopes towards the Khyber Pass.

Escaping poverty

As a bit of tourism, I must say it was not bad.

One day, the splendid mud ramparts of the ancient fort at Ghazni, rising out of the snow and still bearing more than a passing resemblance to the place attacked by British forces in 1839.

Map of Afghanistan showing Charikar, Kabul, Jalalabad, Ghazni and Kandahar
Another day, breathtaking shafts of early morning light penetrating the rocky abyss of the legendary Silk Gorge, where three years after Ghazni, a retreating British garrison, and thousands of camp followers, were cut to pieces in the snow.

It is a cautionary tale often repeated by those who warn that Nato is heading for a similarly ignominious fate.

But what we saw along the way were efforts - Afghan and international - to try to make sure the country breaks out of its cycle of poverty and war.

In a dingy room in Charikar, north of Kabul, I watched as women in identical blue burkas sat patiently on the floor, clutching pieces of pink paperwork. They had all joined a Bangladeshi microfinance scheme, receiving loans to set up small businesses, and getting free healthcare and education for their children.

The room was tiny, as was the tailoring shop set up nearby. But across the country, there are 160,000 scheme members, almost all of them women.

Poppy 'threat'

In Ghazni and Jalalabad, I met American officers committed to running effective provincial reconstruction teams, proud of the roads and bridges they had paid for. And they argued, with quiet conviction, that they had important stories to tell.

An opium poppy in Afghanistan
Countering narcotics remains one of Afghanistan's most contentious issues
Beyond Jalalabad, in the foothills of the snowy peaks that mark the border with Pakistan, we were taken to see poppy seedlings being ploughed under in a village where eradication had never taken place before.

In the course of an impromptu Jerga, or meeting with village elders, the governor's son, also an employee of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, explained why this vital source livelihood had to be abandoned.

The villagers turned out en masse and watched, with a mixture of fatalism and concern, as the tractor did its work, ploughing under the tiny plants.

Countering narcotics remains one of Afghanistan's most contentious issues, with no clear consensus about how best or whether to proceed, but an understanding that the humble poppy - the corruption and the conflict it engenders - still threatens to wreck the country's efforts to recover.

Of course, sometimes it seems the country is struggling simply to deal with the consequences of previous conflicts.

Mine clearance

Rounding a corner, on the dramatic drive down from Kabul to Jalalabad - a drive, by the way, which since December takes just two-and-a-half hours, not six, thanks to a fine road built by the Chinese with money from the EU - we suddenly spied a dotted white grid picked out on the rocky mountainside up ahead.

Mine clearance on the Kabul-Jalalabad road
The UN-funded team has cleared just nine mines in a month
Across the barren slopes, tiny figures moved slowly, metal detectors hovering just above the ground.

As they methodically cleared the deadly crop of Soviet land mines, laid more than two decades earlier, they splashed white paint on the rocks.

The Afghan team of 70, paid for by the UN, had been here almost a month, uncovering just nine mines. Five days earlier, one member had lost a leg.

And so, while the country braces itself for someone's spring offensive, the clearing up, the eradication, the rebuilding and empowerment go on.

A lot of it is unsung. It is undoubtedly not enough. And if the fighting and the corruption continue unchecked, it could all still come to nought.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 February, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Afghanistan
09 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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