Page last updated at 13:15 GMT, Thursday, 7 October 2010 14:15 UK

Reflections and hope in Afghanistan

As Ian Pannell prepares to leave his posting in Afghanistan, he considers whether there is room for optimism or whether the country is destined for worse to come.

Afghan commuters on the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif
There is a growing risk of insurgency in Mazar-e-Sharif

Haji Mirag has been a bus driver through three decades of war in Afghanistan and his beard has grown long and grey.

We met at a coach station on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. A flat dusty sprawl in the plains of the north.

It is one of only two relatively safe cities left in Afghanistan and despite a long and bloody history it has been pretty immune from the creeping insecurity of recent years. Until now.

Haji was wearing the ubiquitous shalwar kameez, a faded chequered scarf wrapped around his shoulders and a white prayer cap on his head.

Other drivers edged in as we were talking - a motley bunch slightly grimy after too many days loitering at the fume-filled bus station waiting to ferry passengers to Kabul.

I ask him how the security is.

"It's got worse in the last two years," he replies.

New dangers

The road from here to Kabul takes him a good eight hours or so.

Afghan soldier searches a coach after an avalanche killed people in Parwan province
Mountain roads contain many dangers

It is a journey I first made two years ago, winding up from the capital through the steep valleys of Parwan, where hills give way to the mountains of the mighty Hindu Kush.

Afghanistan is a land of great journeys and this is one of its most spectacular.

It has always been a precarious route, with the risk of rockfalls in summer and avalanches in winter.

But today the journey carries new dangers.

Slowly and perniciously insurgents and criminals have spread across many formerly safe parts of the country

Armed bandits prey on vulnerable travellers and Haji says drivers have become wary of entering the tunnel that cuts through the mountains at night.

And when it is not highway robbery he must guard against, it is the Taliban.

When I first visited this part of the country two years ago it was the threadbare economy that preyed on people's minds. Today it is just as likely to be the threat from armed men.

A map of Afghanistan

Those who can afford it now buy a plane ticket instead. And those who cannot have no choice but to take the bus and run the risk.

The north is no longer immune.

Slowly and perniciously, insurgents and criminals have spread across many formerly safe parts of the country.

In the last two years I have travelled around much of Afghanistan and it has gradually become harder and harder to do - kidnappings, roadside bombs and banditry are constant worries.

Some people now store Taliban songs on their mobile phones, as an insurance policy at insurgent check-points where they can quickly play the music to demonstrate their support for the cause.

Life better for women

The place I have visited the most is the hot desert of Helmand Province, where the war against the Taliban has claimed so many lives.

Afghan residents look on as soldiers patrol their village in Helmand province
Safety and stability feels a long way off for many in Afghanistan

I have met the young, the brave and the zealous. Shared jokes with men barely out of their teens who were gunned down or blown up days later.

I have trusted strangers with weapons to keep me safe, seen soldiers shake with fear and shock as a comrade is killed and met militants who would rather die on the spot than surrender.

The military will tell you that Helmand today is safer than when I first went there in 2008. But civilians there will not tell you that, nor will they in much of the rest of the country.

That is the way things have been in the last two years and it sounds bleak. But it is not the whole picture.

I did something the other day that I have never managed to do before in Afghanistan - I sat down and interviewed four local women.

As a foreign man in a deeply conservative country this is usually impossible for me but they were all living in a shelter for abused women and felt safe enough to talk about their lives.

Afghan women attend a ceremony to mark International Women's Day
Life for Afghan women is slowly improving since the fall of the Taliban

Speaking from behind the gauze window of her blue burka, Zara told me how she had been forced to marry a mentally-ill man.

Fearing for her life she had run away from home. I asked her what she thought the difference was between her life and that of women elsewhere.

"The big difference," she said is that "our lives are full of violence, even from childhood."

So I asked whether life had improved at all for Afghan women?

It was not the answer I expected - they all said yes.

Now they could go to school, sometimes to work. If they are in trouble there are courts to appeal to and shelters to hide in.

It does not mean that life is anything approaching good. But in their opinion it is getting better.

This is the country I have grown to love. Dangerous, yes, but it has a wild, seductive beauty. It is a land of great adventure where hope springs from the most barren ground.

As I leave Afghanistan, I struggle not to feel gloomy about its future.

I will never forget the kindness and hospitality I have been shown or the strength in the face of adversity I have seen.

And if people who have suffered unimaginable pain dare to hope for a better life, then surely that is the least they deserve.

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