There is something oddly soothing about going to sleep to the sound of gunfire in Kandahar airbase. The shots are fired by British troops, honing the night combat skills which achieved such success over the Taleban last winter. The fighting season was due to start four weeks ago, when the poppy harvest ended — but so far, nothing. British commanders are quietly optimistic that the Taleban has counted its 6,000 dead, learned it cannot win firefights and switched to guerrilla tactics instead.
Only in Afghanistan could the rockets being fired into the Kandahar airbase be seen as a sign of progress. Much as the prospect may terrify visitors, the soldiers themselves are sanguine. For those who were in the Iraqi bases being shelled 60 times a night, using body armour for pyjamas, the four-a-week rate of Kandahar is nothing. The main complaint of the servicemen and women is that the Taleban may well have gone underground and sporadic missile alerts could be all the action they see.
If the Afghan Question were about routing the Taleban, then it would be some way to being resolved. But nothing in this barren, war-ravaged country is ever quite as it seems. There are usually three layers to each Afghan issue. First is a superficial story laid on for the many Western visitors brandishing chequebooks. Then there is the real story: a murky world of drugs, thugs and racketeering. And finally, the question which preoccupies Russia, Iran and India: what happens when — as they all expect — the West gets exhausted and leaves?
Last week I accompanied Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, for one of his regular trips to Afghanistan. I was able to sit in on many of his meetings with the British and Afghan military, as well as to make my own inquiries in military bases and in Kabul.