RACHEL MARTIN, host:
I've spent some time in Afghanistan over the past few years covering events there for NPR. Last week, I returned from a trip with NATO officials - my first visit to the country since 2006. I wanted to see what had changed and what hadn't. And what definitely hadn't changed is how hard it is to get around the country. There's a lot of waiting in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul - waiting in traffic and waiting in lines, not to mention everyone waiting for a better future.
So, it's only appropriate that my trip started with a long wait. We were in Kabul trying to get to Helmand province, but after waiting all night for a military flight, we got work at 4:00 a.m. that it was cancelled - mechanical failures, they said.
So, we had a day to kill and I decided to walk around a neighborhood where I spent a lot of time, and it felt different.
Five years ago I spent four months on this road - Shash Darak Road. It's just around the corner from the U.S. embassy and the NATO military headquarters. It used to be a big road; it used to be a major thoroughfare - lots of traffic. It's all blocked off now with blast walls and a lot of barbed wire.
Midnight rolls around and it's back to the airport to try again. More waiting and then...
OK. A guy just came out and told us our plane is ready to go. So, after almost two days of waiting it looks like we're heading to Helmand.
Now, the only thing worst than waiting for a military flight in the middle of the night is actually being on one. It's hot. Eventually, we land in Helmand and it's onto a helicopter heading to the provincial capital.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
MARTIN: The Chinook lifts off and all I can see out the open end of the helicopter is endless dusty plains. It's like something out of "Mad Max" and I'm half expecting to see Tina Turner and Mel Gibson driving around down there in crazy, tricked-out dune buggies. Instead, small mud houses start to appear and soon we're on the ground in Lash kar Gah. U.S. and NATO troops have dug in their heels here over the past year or so and they're anxious to show off signs of progress. We hear from the provincial governor...
Unidentified Man (Provincial Governor, Helmand Province): (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: Who tells us how great things are here compared to other parts of Afghanistan. And it is true, security is better in the urban centers of Helmand, but it's a different story outside the cities. Just this past week in Helmand, NATO troops reportedly found 27 Afghan men in a makeshift Taliban prison. They were shackled and there were signs of torture.
Everywhere we go it feels like both Afghans and NATO forces are holding their collective breath, waiting for another shoe to drop.
We head north. On the whole, Afghanistan tends to get safer the farther north you, although the Taliban has been making inroads in this part of the country too. We're here to observe U.S. troops training Afghan border police.
(Soundbite of gun loading)
MARTIN: Balkh province borders Uzbekistan and the border town of Haritan overlooks something called Friendship Bridge. Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan this way when they invaded the country in 1979, and they rolled back out 10 years later in defeat.
Lots of history on this bridge, obviously, connecting Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. This is now where U.S. troops, coalition troops, are stationed here training up Afghan security forces so that American soldiers can begin their own withdrawal.
A small, slender Afghan guard is standing at the foot of the bridge.
(Foreign language spoken) Can I ask your name?
HAMMIMULLAH: (Through translator) (unintelligible) Hammimullah(ph).
MARTIN: He tells me he's lived in a house next to this very bridge his whole life. He remembers watching the Soviets come and then watching them leave. Now, he's working for the Afghan border police. There's something eerie and circular about the moment. Standing on the bridge where the Soviets left Afghanistan in defeat with an Afghan who witnessed it all and now gets training on how to guard the bridge from U.S. soldiers, soldiers who try at every turn to make sure Afghans understand they are not occupiers like the Soviets before them.
So, now, Hammimullah awaits. He waits on the bridge for signs of trouble -waits, along with the rest of Afghanistan, to see what's coming down the road.
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