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LASHKAR GAH, HELMAND — One more day in Lashkar Gah and I might just have to adjust my normal Grinch-like assessment of the possibility of progress in Afghanistan.
It’s been two years since I was last in Helmand, and the news I had been receiving from my network of excellent reporters had been uniformly bad. More and more districts had fallen under the control of the Taliban, poppy production had gone through the roof, and it seemed just a matter of time before the entire province was completely written off as a den of narco-barons and insurgents. I was afraid I’d never again be able to visit Lashkar Gah, a small, dusty city I had grown to love during the two years I had spent there training Afghan journalists.
But here I am, happy to be back among among old friends and colleagues, and even more excited about the new possibilities that seem to be opening up.
I arrived yesterday at the Lashkar Gah “airport” — perhaps a bit of an exaggeration for a strip of runway in the middle of the desert. But at least now the runway is paved. The last time I flew in we landed on a band of graded sand that would accommodate nothing larger than a Cessna 12-seater. The situation was too unstable for any commercial airlines to fly in, and we were always begging rides from the few organizations whose projects provided enough cash for them to assume the risk.
Now large passenger aircraft make the run daily. I may have been a bit happier had our Soviet-era An-24 been in better repair, but I had seen much worse in my years in Central Asia. The seat backs may not have been exactly upright, and the roar of the engines may have deafened most of us during the two-hour flight, but at least the windows seemed airtight. During one memorable trip in a similar aircraft from Bishkek to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, I’d had frost forming on the inside of my plastic porthole, which dripped on me during the entire flight.
A colleague and I are staying at the Bost Hotel, the governor’s guest house, which has been renovated since our last trip. I miss the kitschy murals that used to line the walls, but the rooms have been freshly painted, there is hot (well, warmish) water, and I have not yet seen a scorpion. These are all vast improvement on the former service.
The biggest change has been in our journalists. The first time I saw them was in the fall of 2006, during a “press conference” at which the head of the Department of Information and Culture instructed them on their duty to write stories preaching the evils of poppy. I had never seen a more quiescent bunch.
Now, more than three years later, they are a rowdy, troublesome, brilliant group of investigative reporters, who relish tales of how they landed the governor’s chief advisor in jail for corruption, embarrassed Gordon Brown with tough questions on a recent visit, exposed a series of night-raid extra-judicial killings by foreign forces, and generally make life miserable for the powers that be.
It warms my heart.
One of my former trainees, whom I remembered as a scruffy high-school student in a red baseball cap (sadly, bearing the logo of the New York Yankees), is now the imposing head of Helmand Radio and Television, supervising a staff of more than 50. In a conservative Pashtun city where women had not been allowed to appear in public, they have talented young female presenters and reporters, a modern studio, and an ambitious programming schedule that includes panel discussions of sensitive topics like poppy eradication and foreign troop presence, as well as live call-in shows.
Lashkar Gah itself has been transformed: streets have been paved, cutting down on the ubiquitous dust that used to get into hair, lungs and food. Modern-looking buildings are going up, more and more businesses and organizations are opening, and there is a bustle I do not remember from my earlier days, when the town had an air of menace and fear.
A friend offered to take us sightseeing on the weekend — one can now drive to the outlying provinces, something that would have been unthinkable in 2008, and suicidal in 2009.
“You want to go to Nad Ali? No problem!” grinned our friend and former driver, who now makes his living building police checkpoints for the government while paying half the proceeds to his Taliban friends for protection. Everyone walks away happy.
Not that everything is perfect, of course. Helmand is still the planet’s poppy capital, supplying more than half of the world’s raw material for heroin. There is hardly a square inch of Lashkar Gah where the stuff is not growing wild — even in the governor’s compound there were a few stray plants poking through the surface.
“I think the earth itself produces the seeds,” laughed Daud Ahmadi, the governor’s spokesman, prodding the offending leaves with his foot.
The insurgents still have a firm hold on the northern half of the province — where historical grievances against the British occupation run strong.
“We like the Marines, but those British …” said one of our journalists, with a grimace. Helmandis are convinced that the United Kingdom is intent on exacting revenge for an obscure 19th-century clash in Maiwand, a few hundred kilometers east of here. Everything that goes wrong, and there are many, is chalked up to evil British intent.
Marjah, the former decisive battle that was recently downgraded to a “tactical prelude” to the impending Clash of the Titans in Kandahar, is far from secure. The insurgents are just hunkered down, waiting out the 15,000 troops stationed there. They dart out at night to plant mines and to pick off a few soldiers, but are avoiding open confrontation for now. They know when they are outmatched.
So Helmand cannot yet be termed a success story — my native cynicism may still have room to flourish down here.
But for now, I have to say that things are looking up.