Afghanistan in the Rear-View Mirror

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A paratrooper from the 173rd Airborne Brigade looks out over the perimeter of Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan's Logar province on Jan. 22.

For the past few years, American troops in Afghanistan have used the winter months to make progress in counterinsurgency before the next fighting season. But with the end in sight for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, American forces have a different kind of mission this winter. This is the first in a series of stories by Nate Rawlings, assigned to document the dismantling of the U.S. installations in Afghanistan in the walk-up to the withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014.

KABUL — You can be forgiven, upon landing here, for initially forgetting you’ve entered a war zone. Leaving the city’s slightly shoddy airport, I descended into its frenetically congested streets and saw thousands of people go about their daily lives, seemingly unaware that the rest of the world always attached the word war next to their country.

But quickly, reality sets in. Within a few miles of the airport, you see the blast walls, those towering slabs of concrete that surround the government agencies and upscale hotels. In just the past few months, Kabul suffered a suicide bombing that killed 12 people and an hours-long gun battle at the Spozhmai Hotel, a resort not far from Kabul. The New Year hadn’t started much better. There had been a bombing barely a week before I arrived.

Full dispatch here.