"So you've been in Afghanistan? One doesn't hear much about it nowadays. How are things going there?" Often, when I return from some war-torn country--Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Chechnya, Burundi--I am asked questions like these, but to answer satisfactorily is never easy. This in reality is not a problem, because the last thing the questioner wants is an analysis of the situation in distant countries, in whose conflicts and their consequences the media is no longer taking much interest. The degree of world attention is governed by the frequency with which the media keep us informed, and the more that is said the greater the interest, a chain effect that, alas, operates also in reverse.
For example, Afghanistan--enclosed by inaccessible mountain ranges and geographically unidentifiable to most people--has been front-page news on and off for the last twenty years. We have all read about the Soviet invasion, the Mujahideen resistance, the Taliban, the destruction of the giant Buddhas and Osama bin Laden, but the information has been interlarded with long intervals of silence. In the immediate aftermath of 11 September. Afghanistan became once more "the place to be". A considerable army of media representatives, stationed in Pakistan to the south and Tajikistan to the north, was urgently trying to get to Kabul, at all costs. But on 1 May 2004, when I reached Kabul after a comfortable and tranquil flight from Dubai (United Arab Emirates) on board a United Nations plane, few members of the international press were still there. They had all moved on to the latest hot spots. There is, however, no lack of people. The city is in fact heaving with bigger than ever crowds. I had been warned that Kabul had changed beyond recognition, but I never expected a difference as great as this. Sitting in a tailback of cars, moving or rather inching forward chaotically, I watched people on dusty roads dodging between battered cars and muddy potholes. Their faces with proud sunburnt features were the same as ever, as were their grey, threadbare clothes--nearly all were men, hardly any women, a few blue burqas. No guns were visible, but there were plenty of new shops with windows displaying the same tourist paraphernalia found in Pakistani souks.
In May 2001, Kabul had 700,000 inhabitants; now, they tell me, there are more than 3.5 million, not counting the humanitarian operatives and soldiers of the peacekeeping forces, whose jeeps try to make headway between the clapped-out, noisy yellow taxis. Kabul is no longer under siege as it was the first time I arrived in March 1996. After waiting for a week at Peshawar, Pakistan, I had managed to get a seat on a small aircraft belonging to the Red Cross, but the prolonged daily bombing raids made it too dangerous to land in the city. We had to go to Bagram in the north, which was not an airport but a military airfield like so many others seen in wartime: a pockmarked...