After 15 months, the time has come for me to leave this beautiful country and return home to friends, family and (fingers crossed) a beautiful Spring back in London!
As my time here draws to a close I can't help but think back to when I first arrived and all the changes I have seen. I have been working on a programme to help local government deliver basic services in recently secured districts.
As a result of this work, locals in the province of Helmand now have better perceptions of their local government, are more satisfied with basic services such as healthcare, education, informal justice and irrigation for agriculture, and are therefore less likely to support the insurgency.
Further evidence of this can be found in Sangin (a district in Helmand province), infamous for its dangerous past where many British and American soldiers lost their lives. Sangin now has its first ever District Community Council. Over 2,000 people travelled across the province to vote in these elections which is a clear demonstration of the positive changes since last year. The freedom of movement, the willingness of the population to engage in democratic elections, and the total control and administration of this process by the Afghan authorities shows progress unthinkable even one year ago.
What next, you might ask – we want to build on the success in Helmand and work in other provinces in Afghanistan to help strengthen local government service delivery. The French are interested in working with the UK in Kapisa and Laghman provinces (just north of Kabul), the Australians are looking at a possible partnership in Uruzgan (bordering North East Helmand), New Zealand is considering working with us in Bamyan (famous for its Buddha statues before the Taliban blew them up in 2001) and we may also work with Italy in Herat (bordering Iran in the west).
It has been a challenging few months in Afghanistan with the burning of the Holy Koran, the killing of two US military advisers at the Ministry of Interior and the tragic incident in Kandahar. My life in the British compound means my sense of the life outside is limited. I obtain most of my news through TV and Afghan colleagues; but you feel the rise and wane of tension palpably.
What gets me through these times is my Kabul 'family' made up of colleagues and co-workers. We have been watching the TV series 'Band of Brothers' and while my experience is very different to the difficult job our brave armed forces do on the front line, amongst my embassy colleagues there is a strong camaraderie built through shared experience. I owe a huge debt of thanks to all those colleagues* here that have made life easier, ensuring the stress and strain of working here does not take too much of a toll.
So do I leave here feeling positive about the future of Afghanistan? Yes, I do. I was speaking with one of my Afghan colleagues who said that the Taliban had distorted the world's view of his country. My experience of Afghans is that they are brave, resilient people who are also very friendly and incredibly hospitable - I hope that soon the world gets to see that side of Afghanistan.
I leave here with a heavy heart but proud to have worked as part of a joint effort to help strengthen this country and put it back on a path the Afghan people deserve after enduring over three decades of conflict. The upcoming Tokyo conference in July will bring donor countries together to discuss how they will support Afghanistan in the future. There is still a long way to go - and there will be more bumps in the road - but I’m confident Afghanistan is heading in the right direction.
*I'm hoping that one or two of said colleagues will be blogging from here after I've gone - so watch this space!