It was in early March 2002 when I first arrived in Kabul – just weeks before springtime and Nawroz, the Persian New Year. The Kabul Valley looked cold and barren-dry as the Ariana flight descended through the clouds. Snow-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush lay on the horizon, aloof from all that was happening here.
Beneath us, military aircraft snaked along taxiways and pilot-less drones sat parked awaiting the next mission. To the side, I could make out wreckage – piles of rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft metal that had served earlier economies and previous wars.
The arrivals terminal fit the picture too. Haste and chaos stood before me here. Customs was an elbow battle and baggage was handed through a hole in the wall. Everyone clambered at once to reach it. Stopping twice to fill out forms, I finally made it to the outside and waving arms from across the parking lot. I'd come to help train young Afghan men and women to be photojournalists at a newly-established NGO, set up to rebuild the media in the wake of the Taliban. My new colleagues were here to meet me.
Camera equipment was rounded up from photo shops and labs that remained about the city. Mostly old Russian Zenits were all that could be found. Bodies and lenses were dusted off, screws tightened and each of the 25 students was issued one for use throughout the course.
We gathered six days a week in cramped quarters, around a makeshift blackboard and steady flow of green tea. Ad hoc English lessons were an integral part of each session and oftentimes we moved in smaller groups to the streets and back alleyways of the Old City to practice everything that had been learned. This is where I first met Afghanistan: through the eyes and interactions of my students – Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, the lot.
That year, following the ousting of al-Qaida and Mullah Omar's bunch, was a time of exploration for all. Afghan men dared again to be clean-shaven; many women left the burkha behind to strut their new independence through the streets of the city. Music blared again from shops on Chicken Street. There was an air of hope and optimism about, bolstered by a regular presence of international security troops cruising the capital. Still, as a foreigner, one watched what was around and who approached whom. One never walked alone.
Midsummer that same year my own vision changed. Through a series of events and circumstances, I found myself boarding a C-130 military transport plane for a scheduled flight from Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, to the forward operating base (FOB) of Salerno in Paktica province, close to the Pakistan border. I was an "embed."
This first experience with U.S. troops in Afghanistan offered yet another look through the lens at what this country was about and where it was headed. Here I could be that "fly on the wall," documenting the interactions of two very different cultures.
For the next weeks I accompanied patrols, passing through the portal of fortification that characterizes military installations throughout Afghanistan, back into the world I became initially accustomed to. These transitions seemed bizarre and ironic on many levels, not at all seamless and frequently a challenge to focus on – both mentally and with a camera in my hands.
With 25 to 30 young soldiers in Humvees, I convoyed through canyons of the rugged eastern mountains of the country, periodically stopping to search villages perched where tribesmen could easily see the approach of feuding neighbors or the likes of us.
I framed patrol leaders as they shared tea with headmen and elders, and "terp," stock questions were posed and notes jotted down:
"Have any strangers with weapons come your way?"
"Do you know where the Bad Guys are?"
These were followed by questions of the "hearts and minds" variety:
"What does your village need the most?" Schools, bridges and pickups trucks were always high on the list of answers. More notes were scribbled and promises left behind. "We'll pass this along to our commanders and see what we can do."
Turning to leave, women would slip from hiding. Children flanked us down the steep trails until we were no longer worth the effort. It was their world, not ours, and we'd probably not return.
Back at the FOB, guns were lowered and we'd pass through the gate – the "Wire" as it's known, the dirt-filled and concrete barriers guarded by American firepower. This is where the Afghans of my experience meet – a more than physical line dividing peoples, worldviews and agendas, the line that separates the country from those who've come en masse to secure and democratically transform it.
Seven years have passed since my first visit to Afghanistan and I've returned each year since. Between, much has changed. On the plus side, a new international airport greets arrivals with modernity and efficiency. On the other, insurgency has become steadily more aggressive, auto traffic chokes the city and only the foolhardiest of foreigners walk the streets, at any time of day.
NATO troops patrolling roads of the capital are now more a target than deterrent and hotels, guesthouses and restaurants catering to journalists, embassy personnel and non-governmental staff in Kabul brandish ramped up security at their gates.
Come January, I'm going back for another look – my 12th time with the U.S. military. A reelected and not at all popular president, Hamid Karzai, indecision over troop levels, strategies and dwindling support back home – all these await me. We'll see what happens.