When I moved to Afghanistan in 2010, soldiers in uniforms from all over the world were fighting and dying there in a war with no end. Packs of journalists, NGOs and an army of civilian nation-builders clogged the roads, bars and restaurants.
As I was heading back eight years on I wondered, would much have changed?
I’d watched events post-9/11 unfold from afar with a gut feeling that foreign invasions rarely work out for the best. As the years passed, it looked more and more like an occupation hell-bent on rubbing the Afghans up the wrong way, with the Taliban soon realising and often repeating, “you have the watch, we have the time.”
In the months that followed my own Afghan occupation, I reported on air strikes that killed wedding parties and villages that lived under 24-hour-a-day drone surveillance.
People in Kabul might have acclimatised to the western invasion, but outside of the capital life was much simpler and survival more basic.
I kept asking myself if the country would have been better off if the occupiers had never landed. As in all things Afghan straight answers to straight questions are rarely right for long.
My wise sage of a producer, Qais Azimy, had once, over a pizza at Kandahar Airbase, thrown all my pre-conceived opinions up in the air.
He had described his own life as warlords, the Taliban and foreign-backed Afghan forces battled for control and how the foreign presence had brought some sense of stability and funds to a failed state.
The day I met John ‘Mick’ Nicholson
It was in my first year in Afghanistan that I first met John ‘Mick’ Nicholson, then a Lieutenant General working on US policy in Kabul, but a soldier who knew what was going on at the sharp end of the conflict having fought in the deadly Korengal Valley.
Mick, as he was happy to be called, had asked to meet some of the resident journalists so we amassed at the Reuters bureau in Wazir Akbar Khan to chat with this unusual US military man over the Aussie bureau chief’s barbecued ‘beer can chicken’.
It became obvious very quickly that Mick wasn’t looking for platitudes. He wanted to know how the press saw the US presence, what Afghans thought was and wasn’t working and what could be done better.
This wasn’t an attempt to gain good press. It was all off the record and at that point in his career, Mick was way down the military pecking order.
No, this was a confidential conversation with a military man whose own office in the Pentagon had been obliterated in the 9/11 attack and who was now trying to bridge the gap in his own mind between these two nations.
‘The right man at the wrong time’
Now, eight years on, I was back in Afghanistan to shadow General Nicholson, now the four-star general in charge of foreign forces here, over the course of a week.
As I was settling into my billet in the NATO Resolute Support base in Kabul I decided to call Qais who is now living and studying in Canada.
What did he think of General Nicholson’s new strategy to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces with just a few thousand foreign soldiers in the country?
He hit the nail on the head. “He’s the right man at the wrong time, Sue,” he replied.
General Nicholson is reliant on a US president having the patience to see this current strategy through.
There are successes that can be built on. He took me to watch Afghan commandos in training: The ANA’s elite unit who are, with the backing of US Special Forces, pushing back ISIS-Khorasan in the Mohmand Valley. He’s hand-picking Afghan military men like Major General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai in Helmand who are vociferously weeding out corruption.
He has the ear of President Trump and the present commitment to his mission because of a wider threat – an ISIS-K presence that mirrors the al-Qaeda training camps pre-9/11. But today this war is the tallest of orders with the smallest of forces.
He has the ear of President Trump and the present commitment to his mission ... But today this war is the tallest of orders with the smallest of forces.
Weekly bombings in Kabul
I had wondered before landing back in Kabul if the scare stories put out by some in the US media about the capital being under siege, about it being too dangerous to even drive from the airport to the NATO base, would hamper any chance of seeing the Afghan side.
But to be honest, it all felt very familiar.
Back in 2010, I was never out on the streets for too long. Yes, the kidnap threat now on Westerners is as intense as ever, but I remember being pulled out for a few days in 2011 after intelligence officers warned they’d uncovered a plot to snatch me as I walked to work.
The threat of abduction and the almost weekly bombings in Kabul have left the foreign presence still in a country on regular lockdown. Just a few hardy foreign journalists are now based there. That means we rely more and more on the Afghan press to keep us informed.
That press pack had the heart ripped from it this month as an ISIS-K suicide bomber posed as a journalist and detonated his device killing the trusting journalists who had rushed to the scene of an explosion minutes earlier.
I pay tribute to those journalists who died and honour all who still head out to work in Afghanistan every day knowing they are targets but who refuse to stop telling the Afghan story.