The center of the capital has certainly changed. There are multi-colored reflective glass windows adorning the stores, glinting in the sun. Shiny and new. Unlike anything I saw in Kabul the day the city fell to the Northern Alliance forces.
I see supermarkets and electronic stores, travel agents and banks. Even gas stations.
There are few women out and about, of course. Public life in Afghanistan is mostly reserved for men.
But you do, finally, see some of the changes that peace has brought, small signs of how life has improved.
The parks may be barren and austere, but there is an order to the gardens now where they were simply overgrown before and Afghan men basking in the sun as the traffic bustles by them.
So I wonder then, how is it that Afghans in Kabul are gloomier than ever about their future? It's not the glittering stores that people want to talk about – it's the Taliban. The lack of security. The allegations of widespread fraud in the election.
I realize something when an Afghan friend is talking to me about a piece of land he bought in the city. He wants to develop it — there's even room for a multi-floor building that he could rent for business.
"But how can I invest when we don't know what is going to happen here?" he says to me.
And that's symbolic of the serious problems this country is facing. I would call it an absolute crisis of confidence.
The Taliban grows in strength and the foreign presence in Afghanistan fails to bring significant change. Afghans have a crisis of confidence in their future.
Marines Work and Live Hard in Afghanistan
Marines in Taliban's Backyard for Election
Marines Walk Tightrope of Death
Mission Critical for U.S. Troops
What the Afghans Really Want
With the Marines in Helmand Province
America's top commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, believes he has one year to turn the country around so it's at least headed in the right direction. But even he is not optimistic right now.
One of his most important changes: he made securing the Afghan people the primary mission, instead of force protection. So U.S. troops now have to put the lives and considerations of the Afghan people ahead of their own needs at times, even if that costs American lives.
It's a bold move. It's fraught with risk. And it takes courage — not something Gen. McChrystal is lacking. In fact, he has driven it into his commanders that protecting and respecting the Afghan people is the mission, and to make his point fully clear, there will be more big changes in the way the U.S. operates here.
One of the most significant changes is the fact that U.S. troops – soldiers and Marines – will start to live together with their Afghan counterparts. The separate mess halls and living areas will become a thing of the past. The absolute pure essence of counter-insurgency doctrine will be applied for the first time. Up until now, U.S. commanders have talked counter-insurgency, but in many cases it still has not been applied.
There has been an ocean of mistrust dividing U.S. and Afghan forces. The hope is that gap will be narrowed if they are living and working side-by-side. True partners in this fight.
This will take major adjustments for U.S. forces, and it may even be coming too late, but it has to be done.
Right now, the Afghan police are being slaughtered. Every day they are losing on average six men, according to the figures announced here. Whatever the numbers, no one disputes that the Afghan police are carrying the burden of the fighting for the army, and they're paying for it in blood. To make it worse, they are under-trained or often not trained at all, poorly paid and drastically under-resourced.
They are also corrupt, and areas turned over to them by the U.S. and NATO quickly become fertile ground for Taliban forces who are experts at exploiting the corruption for their propaganda.
All of this has to change — and quickly. Neither the U.S., nor its NATO allies, have much appetite for a war they cannot win. And increasingly that is how it seems.
Too many innocent Afghans have died at the hands of the U.S. and NATO, and too little has been done to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Most Afghans feel that no one has been listening to them, their concerns largely ignored by the U.S., NATO and the government they brought to power.
Now, they feel the U.S. is going to ignore them again and push for a Karzai victory in the election. There is a sense that the U.S. is so desperate to move forward, that it wants to railroad the democratic process and force a Karzai victory on a skeptical population. U.S. officials are dreading a run-off between Karzai and his nearest rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
But for Afghans, the run-off would be the first real sign that their vote means something. The general perception here is that the U.S. decides who wins, they choose whoever they want and the votes themselves mean nothing.
So if Karzai has to work for victory in a run-off, Afghans may be persuaded to believe the vote is real.
There are so many reasons a protracted change of government here would be considered bad for the country. But a working, credible, legitimate government is the missing piece that will determine failure or victory for the U.S. and NATO. There can be no secure, self-sustaining Afghanistan without that.
So given the stakes, the U.S. may just have to exercise some patience and let the political process play out.
There was grave disappointment among Afghan leaders and people to hear President Barack Obama praising the Afghan election, when the perception here is of a process fraught with fraud, ballot stuffing, violence and intimidation.
Yes, millions of Afghans went peacefully to the polls. But millions also didn't or couldn't or just chose not to do so.
This election was not an overwhelming success. The allegations of irregularities are so widespread that they cannot be dismissed as a normal part of the electoral process or likened to the problems in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
That does not sit well with the Afghan people, many of whom believe President Karzai has stolen victory.
It does not bode well for the future government and glossing over it will not convince skeptical or alienated Afghans.
That needs to be acknowledged.