I can hardly believe how quickly it’s come around – but my time here in Helmand is over.
It’s been a fantastic experience, and what I've seen on the ground is very different to the picture so often presented on the news. Of course this country has huge challenges to overcome - Helmand has once again faced a summer of instability and British, American and Afghan soldiers are still laying down their lives in the struggle against the insurgency.
But I've also seen more businesses opening, more people sending their children - including many girls - to school and more people receiving healthcare than a year ago. These are things that just didn't happen under the Taliban regime.
I've travelled from Sangin and Musa Qala in the north of Helmand to Garmsir in the south and spoken to local elders, farmers and shopkeepers. Many of them are optimistic about their future for the first time in years and are starting to regain confidence in their country. In the more secure areas of central Helmand, Afghans are driving to the local bazaar to buy and sell their goods, government officials are returning to work and the community is beginning to lead a normal life again.
However, progress is fragile and until the Afghan Government can take over responsibility for Afghanistan's security and provide more services to its people, the country will continue to need international support.
The DFID Afghanistan team has been really busy over the past few weeks preparing for the Kabul Conference . It was great to see Afghanistan hosting representatives from more than 70 countries and pledging to implement new development programmes, root out corruption and increase the capacity of its own security forces. Much of the talk focussed on when the Afghan National Army should start to lead military operations. With continued support from the international community, the ANA is recruiting more soldiers, improving the training of its troops and slowly increasing its ability to take over from ISAF forces. We all hope that this progress will continue, that Afghanistan will keep moving towards a more stable future and that the road is paved for British troops to return home.
There are lots of things I'll miss when I leave here. I've been overwhelmed by the kindness of the Afghan people, I've been dazzled by the bright colours of traditional Afghan outfits, I've drunk tea with local elders and practised my Pashto over delicious meals of kebab and pomegranate. And I've learnt a little about a culture that has a huge amount to offer. It's been inspiring to see that culture re-emerging as security gradually improves and more reconstruction and development takes place.
Even in my short time here I've seen new roads being built and new schools opened. The civil airport in Lashkar Gah is now receiving nearly forty commercial flights a week. A year ago it was only receiving one. The opium crop in Helmand decreased by 33% last year and farmers are starting to plant wheat, grapes and vegetables instead of poppy. One local staff member I work with was born in Lashkar Gah and has a young son here. He wants his son to grow up in a country that is safe, where he can get an education, find a job and raise a family. A few years ago that would have meant leaving Afghanistan, but recently he has started to believe that his son can have a future here in Helmand. As I head back to the UK and continue to follow the progress in Afghanistan, I hope that future starts to become a reality.