Outside a nan shop, just as evening falls, a woman sits on the pavement in her ragged burqa. The cheap blue garment is worn thin, it's tattered with small holes. Her legs curl up underneath her, and her body rests against the wall. Her feet have collected the filth and grit of the Kabul summer, but they are dirty mostly because she is barefoot, too poor to afford even a cheap pair of plastic Chinese sandals. She is waiting for bread, which costs 10 Afghanis, about 2 Australian cents.
She has chosen Taimani, an upmarket residential area as a place to stay. The old style Kabul houses are flat and low with large gardens on tree-lined streets. Only a few of the notoriously ugly poppy palaces have popped up in this neighborhood, crimes against architecture, a good way to launder money, and make money from NGOs and international organisations once only too happy to pay big money to rent them.
Her image haunts me for days. In the not so distant past, under the Taliban, poor widows would line the streets begging and waiting for food. Many Kabulis have had their lives changed in positive ways since then. What, I wonder, will happen to this woman and the rest of the men and women of Afghanistan when the bulk of the international/ American combat troops pull out, and foreigners, like journalists, move on looking for the next big story.
In the current narrative the pull out, scheduled for mid 2014, is promoted as the best way forward for Afghanistan, set for its own presidential elections that year. By that deadline Afghan National Security Forces should be ready to take control. There is much doubt.
Officials promise the international mission will leave behind a more stable country, with huge but manageable problems, and the promise of the 2012 Chicago Summit that Nato will not leave Afghanistan alone. One message is that it tells the Taliban that waiting out the enemy is not enough as they will still be here. American forces will be available for backup and reinforcement, but only at Afghan behest. What [exactly] American support on the ground will be after 2015 and beyond has not yet been finalized. If the political transition doesn't go well, however, it will be disastrous.
The problem is, and many problems exist, that the man on the street is not fully convinced. In fact it is difficult to find any notes of optimism if they don't come from official channels. Most of those, articulate, smart, hopeful, hardworking Afghans, have foreign passports, foreign educations, foreign bank accounts and contacts that will serve them well if and when they need to leave.
In my conversation with the taxi driver, a smart, young Afghan man without many other prospects, he fears the future. He earns $150.00 a month driving a taxi for long hours. The ex-pats he drives, like me, tip him well each trip. How much can he make from that – possibly $400.00? Where will that take him? No place abroad that's for sure.
Every Afghan has family members somewhere, he says – in Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Germany – but relatives tell them not to bother coming. Life in Europe is tough and expensive. There is no work, and despite finally getting there, they may end up getting deported regardless. "At least here we have a home, a place we can live where we don't have to pay rent, but 99 per cent of Afghans worry about the pull out," he says.
They worry about civil war, and whether this is a repeat of the scenario in 1989 when the Soviets left, when the Americans completely lost interest, after which the mujahuddin began fighting each other, the Taliban then took control, and finally the international troops arrived to transform and save Afghanistan.
Ten years on the country is unstable. Even in the year since I was last here, the road from Faizabad to the Wakhan Corridor in faraway and relatively peaceful Badakhshan province, has become treacherous. Six years ago you could drive from Kabul to Kandahar, now it's one of the most dangerous roads in the world, even for locals.
The pull out also won't prove to the Taliban that they have lost, although there is talk of that. To them it will prove they have defeated 50 nations who pooled together to fight them and lost. Extremists from around the world will deduce that Muslim fundamentalists from one of the poorest countries on the planet beat some of the world's richest and most powerful nations. The drawdown will send a message of encouragement, and an invitation, like it did last time: Afghanistan will become the Mecca of resistance for extremists. With regional interference the situation is bound to spread.
As the denouement approaches we have to ask what has been the point of the last decade, of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent, of Afghan and international lives lost and blighted. If we leave now what will be the legacy In Kabul you see transformation. There is electricity, work, money, construction, reconstruction, and very, very, very modest reforms for women. Decades of work remain left to do. It needs patience. It might not be possible. Had the money been spent properly could it have transformed the lives of ordinary Afghans instead of enriching the corrupt?
Last time we left Afghanistan, we saw the result - 9 11. Will history repeat itself? Will we need 500,000 soldiers in five years' time, not the 130,000 troops we have now. And who will commit those from our own tired, frustrated and broke nations.
For the invisible woman outside the bakery, she may still be sitting there waiting for the kindness of strangers, many Afghans fear that too may be their fate.