Al Jazeera's Hamish Macdonald is in Afghanistan during a critical period: The United States is shifting its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, thousands more troops are being sent, and national elections are due within months.
Afghanistan is one of the biggest news stories in the world at the moment, but for ordinary Afghans life goes on as usual. People are shopping, going to school and trying to build their lives.
He is keeping a log of life in the war-torn nation, the hopes and aspirations of its people, and the stories they tell.
|February 25, 2009: Back in Kabul
A high price and the negotiating table:
Just a very quick dispatch today as we are busy working on a story for the coming days.
We were up early in the bright, clear Kabul morning today to watch the speech Barack Obama, the US president, delivered speech to the joint session of Congress.
We, along with plenty of people here were expecting to hear a bit about what Obama plans to do in Afghanistan, but sadly there was not much mention at all!
Most of the speech was devoted to the domestic situation in the US and barely anything about foreign policy.
A couple of things worth highlighting from the speech, which I think many Afghans would have found interesting;
Firstly, Obama mentioned both 'engagement' and 'the negotiating table'.
A clear sign that he is taking a more nuanced approach. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has been calling for a reconciliation process to begin, involving the Taliban.
Obama didn't go that far, but he did say "in words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm."
President Obama is deploying another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, but it seems he is considering other tactics as well.
The second element of the speech which many here in Kabul will be interested in relates to the cost of the war.
Already people are asking if the US can afford to continue fighting in Afghanistan.
Obama said "this budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules – and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price."
Some estimates suggest the US could be spending as much as $36bn annually on its military effort - if that is correct, then perhaps American tax payers might ask whether that amount of money is being well spent.
Beyond these points, the speech didn't mention a great deal about Afghanistan, but it clearly foreshadows the changes to US policy and strategy we're expecting to see in the coming months.
|February 24, 2009: Kunar Province
Barack Obama, the US president, is preparing to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, in which he details both his domestic and foreign policies.
|Afghans say the US must adopt different strategies in dealing with various armed groups [MACDONALD]
Central to his foreign agenda is the complete review of policy relating to the conflict in Afghanistan.
There is no question the dynamics of the war are changing, but few believe the US has got it right when it comes to understanding the complexities of this conflict.
As part of an exclusive report for Al Jazeera, we have heard from a group of fighters wandering the mountains of Kunar Province in north-eastern Afghanistan. They say they fight under the Taliban leadership, but are not themselves Taliban. Nor are they strictly 'al-Qaeda'.
Operating here and across the border in Pakistan, they are fighting for an expanded Muslim state, which implements their own strict interpretation of shariah (Islamic law). They call themselves the 'Salafi group'.
Dawat Safai, the commander of the Salafi group, told Al Jazeera: "We are operating in different groups and all groups are under the Islamic emirates of Afghanistan. And I ask all Islamic countries to support any Muslim nation in bad times."
Salafi beliefs promote the Islamic principles adhered to during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions. These fighters indicate that ideology may be evolving into a movement.
The US military for its part does not distinguish this group from any of the others it is fighting against. Lieutenant Colonel Rick Helmer told me recently: "If there is violence or extremism behind those movements, then we don't make a distinction. We are here to protect the Afghan people and work with the Afghan national security forces to keep away those types of influences."
The US has been criticised in the past for failing to understand the dynamics of this conflict. So, is it wise then to make no distinction between different groups of fighters?
Habib Hakimy, a local political analyst, doesn't think so.
He says: "It is a big mistake if they try to put them all together, because there is a possibility for the Americans and the international community and the Afghan government to separate them and to reduce the level of violence by this, by putting them separately."
This group is equipped with modern and apparently well-maintained weapons and they have a clear message for the US, as it plans to deploy more troops.
"We have a saying, when there is more prey, there is more to hunt. Increasing troops in Afghanistan will increase the fighting and casualties. As many times as they change their policies they will not achieve anything, just as they have not achieved anything in the past seven years," Safai said.
These fighters will soon face some of the 17,000 extra US troops Obama has committed here.
The new president's address could provide some details of the strategy.
But if this group of fighters proves anything, it is that the Afghan conflict is changing rapidly and the US must decide if its still trying to win the war, or just get out before making it worse.
For more on US policy in Afghanistan, click here.
|February 22, 2009: In Kabul
Treadmills, dumb-bells and exercise bikes are all gleaming on the showroom floor. A fitness frenzy seems to be sweeping the Afghan capital and the sports stores are doing a roaring trade.
|Afghans have been packing Kabul gyms to 'buff up'
on the weight machines [GALLO/GETTY]
We have come into one of the bright new outlets in central Kabul, adorned with posters of body-builders and walls covered in running shoes. Is this really Afghanistan?
We follow the multi-coloured stairs up to the next showroom level. There we find an elderly, heavily bearded man dressed in traditional Afghan winter kit - the shoulder blanket and woolen hat - made famous by the people who inhabit the vast mountain ranges of Afghanistan. He's here looking for a new treadmill. Seriously.
The Kabul health-kick is not unique to senior generations. The young folk of this city are also packing into local gyms every morning before work and every night after knock-off time, trying to buff up on the weight machines.
Apparently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the now governor of California, is quite the cult hero in some quarters. But he's not the only American influence behind this phenomenon.
A market street here, known as 'Bush Bazarre' because of its sale of American products and 'military-chic' clothing has become THE destination for many young body-builders. They go there to buy what have become some of the most sought-after products in the capital - protein powders and Creatine products.
These health supplements help body-builders attain that 'buffed and toned' look and are hugely popular amongst serving soldiers, as well as the many thousands of private security contractors currently stationed over here. 'Bush Bazarre' is where you go to buy the stuff, and while it may be affordable for some of the foreigners who want it, many young Afghans are saving their entire weekly salaries just to buy it.
The fall of the Taliban has brought many changes to Afghanistan - depending on who you ask, some of those changes are good and some are desperately bad. But when George Bush was talking about spreading freedom and democracy through this country, I'm pretty sure he didn't imagine that would also mean Creatine powder and protein shakes.
|February 19, 2009: In Kabul
Ready for a busy year?
So, the extra US troops are finally on their way.
|The US is sending an additional 17,000 US troops to improve security in Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]
Some 17,000 in total, nearly all headed to the south of the country, probably Kandahar and Helmand Province where the fighting has been heaviest in recent years.
But what do most Afghans think about the arrival of more foreign soldiers on their land?
The government here supports it, but among the civilian population there seem to be some pretty legitimate fears.
The promise from the Americans is that more troops will stabilise the security situation in Afghanistan, but the growing number of civilian casualties inflicted by coalition forces is giving many reason to fear these new deployments.
The UN says 2118 civilians were killed in this conflict during 2008, an increase of almost 40 per cent on the previous year. Nearly 55 per cent of those deaths were at the hands of forces fighting against the government and 39 per cent were at the hands of pro-government forces.
For the families of those killed it probably makes little different.
The Taliban has been saying for many weeks now that more US troops on the ground will only provide them with more targets. It is an ominous warning, not least for the people living in the tribal regions.
With elections due in August and renewed international focus on this conflict, the people of Afghanistan are in for a very busy year.
|February 16, 2009: On the outskirts of Kabul
The kids we have just met on the outskirts of Kabul seem like any other eight-year-olds. Big eyes and cheeky smiles.
|Nadeem is not much bigger than the bag of scraps he carries [HAMISH MACDONALD]
But these children live a very different existence to most.
From an early age they have worked, every day, without breaks, in a rubbish dump picking through scraps.
They are doing it to try and earn a meagre wage - much less than a dollar a day and they are doing it just to survive.
Conservative estimates suggest that around 40,000 children work on the streets of Kabul alone.
Nadeem Ullah is one of them. Every morning he walks up the mountains of waste near his home and starts scouring through the rubbish looking for anything his employers might find valuable.
He is what aid agencies politely call a "rag-picker" - scavengers.
It is a grotesque existence, the smell alone is unimaginably unpleasant.
Nadeem says he is eight years old, but he doesn't look big enough. He is not a lot bigger than the bag full of scraps being hauled on his back.
He is, however, bigger than some of the other children here.
"I collect batteries, rubber, plastic and bottle of glass," he tells me.
Most of it is shipped off in trucks to Pakistan for recycling. We talk for a little while and I ask what he enjoys doing when he is not working?
He looks down in the way small children do when they are in trouble, or embarrassed.
"I don't do anything else," he says, "I just go and collect water for my mother."
It is heartbreaking.
My initial reaction to meeting Nadeem is to ask why these children are not removed from the dreadful situation they are in.
I put that question to Palwasha Abed from Save the Children (UK) here in Kabul. She deals with hundreds of cases like this and she says: "If these children do not work, they themselves cannot survive because they are earning income for their survival and also they are feeding the family members, so this is the main problem."
It would seem unthinkable to many people to send their children into work rather than school, but for millions of families around the world that is the reality.
Child labour is abhorrent to most people but for many people there just isn't any other choice. An education and a good career for their children is an irrelevant concept.
The demand for food on the table is far greater, so the children are sent out to make money.
There are billions of dollars flooding into Afghanistan at the moment, aimed at developing the country, building schools and getting people into sustainable projects and long term jobs.
But meeting children like Nadeem, seeing the hopelessness of his situation, makes those claims made by politicians and military leaders about "improving the lives of ordinary Afghans" seem ridiculous.
To see more of Nadeem, click here.
To read Hamish's entries from his first week in Afghanistan, click here.