There can be little doubt that Afghanistan is a developing country. Forty years ago it was considered an extremely forward thinking Muslim nation and quite liberal with it. Not that you would believe that if you saw it today. Prolonged conflict will do that to a country.
Are things changing? Well things are always changing, so that is a given, the question is though, is it changing for the better? The only people that can answer that are the Afghans themselves, so I won’t start. However they are certainly taking charge in their own security. If you measure ‘better’ by improving civil rights and education, then yes it is improving but it is still a dangerous place to grow up.
Having had the opportunity to observe a pass off parade in Helmand where 1400 newly trained soldiers formed up, I was not surprised to recognise many aspects. Being a serving soldier I still remember what I felt like on the day I passed off the square. You have been thrust together with strangers into an environment that tests you, trains you and as best it can prepares you for what comes next. Yes there is a lot to learn, yes it is physically hard at times, yes at times you wonder how much of it is really necessary, but on this day, it all pails to insignificance as the pride of your achievement takes control.
Being a soldier in the Afghanistan Army, is nothing like being a British soldier, the equipment is different, the circumstances are different, the opportunities are different, but effectively the job is the same. They are charged with the responsibility to protect and defend a nation. Their nation.
In the case of Afghanistan, this is no easy task, but it not been easy for forty years, and it won’t get any easier over night. A fledgling Army has to get up to strength, meet the challenges ahead and gain popular support, which it is doing. They are gradually beginning to take over areas from ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). They may not be able to operate the same way as their ISAF counterparts, but as they can communicate with the local population in a way ISAF cannot, you could argue that they will have greater effect. The local population will, after all, be the ones to decide where the nation is going.
Afghanistan is a large multicultural nation which has had a past with the Soviets, so it is unsurprising that elements of the Soviet drill are practiced. The Soviet drill that was witnessed all over the world beamed from Red Square during the height of the ‘Cold War’, was nothing if not impressive and imposing. Stamping feet, swinging arms, heads help high, this is definitely not a simple march and at times timing was lost, but in the scheme of things, an ability to march in step all the time is possibly not of primary importance.
As a soldier over here, we try to find humour in that around us and I had a chuckle to myself with the marching. When it was good, it was impressive (as is the intent), but at times as I photographed it I found myself thinking that it looked like a rehearsal for a Michael Jackson music video. The the influence of the self appointed ‘King of Pop’, has reached far indeed.
An Afghan parade holds very little similarities with a British one, this is not intended as a criticism as the Afghans are not British, nor I am sure, do they wish to be. They follow their own cultural paths and do their best too. There were times during the parade where the soldiers sang, and not just to their national anthem. When they sing, they sing with passion, even if the National anthem is played over the PA system from a mobile phone.
My overall impression from witnessing this spectacle was they are a proud people that really love their country and they believe in themselves. When they have all that what can stop them?
It will be a long journey but a journey that Afghanistan has to take for its own future and now there are an additional 1400 soldiers to help.