Feeling cold is relative to a number of things aside from the temperature: heating, sufficient clothes and bedding, adequate food, having a weatherproof roof over your head, health status, age, etc. But, whichever way you look at it, Afghanistan is, compared to its southerly neighbour Pakistan, cold: bitterly so even before the vicious onslaught of Siberian sub-temperatures expected to arrive, carried on the back of bone-piercing winds from the northern Steppes, any day now.

It is colder still for the legions of numberless poor eking out a meagre, hand-to-mouth existence, in the way below poverty line, mud and tatterdemalion quarters of this rapidly burgeoning city of Kabul; deathly so for those, mainly widows and scrawny children, struggling to survive in the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions of tented and shanty-type camps for internal refugees which have, for far too long, been an integral part of the outer city-scape and, unbearably bitter indeed for the very few, although this impression could be erroneous, tortured souls who actually survive, goodness knows how, right out there in the brutal open where life is lived by the split second not even by the minute.

Despite obvious signs of progress in this country, which has known nothing except war, in one guise or another, for over 40 years and counting, the ranks of the poor seem to have increased, rather than decreased as should, if all was honestly done, be expected as a direct result of the incredible amount of foreign aid that has poured in - especially since the invasion and occupation by USA, Nato and Isaf that began 12 years ago and which, despite well founded rumours and blatant propaganda to the contrary, has, apparently, no end in sight, this truth being greeted with relief by some and dismayed disgust by others.

There are highly visible signs of progress, indeed of modernisation in Kabul city, beginning, for those who arrive by air, at the new International Airport complete with its latest showpiece of a large bank of equally large solar panels doubling as car park shade in the area reserved for government officials and the ultra-rich, which is slap bang outside the spacious terminal building where few, despite the hassles of regularly delayed flights, will be immune to the “we are finally getting our act together” impact it so loudly announces.

There are recent, very recent and ongoing improvements in the city itself too: high ranking localities such as Sherpur and Wazir Akbar Khan being awarded priority due to their overflow of questionable millionaires to whom the words ‘corruption’ and ‘extortion’ spell out ‘bread’ and ‘butter’ or the local equivalent of the same and who, after tolerating unmade roads that are raw sewage infected dust in dry weather and a toxic sea of glutinous mud when it rains, are now being rewarded for their criminality with luxury of surfaced thoroughfares and a long overdue sewage system that, if currently surging polio outbreaks and of other equally serious health issues, are ever to be halted, controlled and then eradicated, must, on an emergency basis, be expanded to all other parts of the city completely irrespective of the financial status of their occupants.

There are solar street lights here and there too along the incredibly congested main arteries and, as electricity breakdowns and shortages remain a troublesome part of daily life - some less fortunate city areas are often without power for two to four days at a time. The subject of alternative energy sources and their localised viability is, as knowledge of solar and - thanks to the establishment of wind energy projects for, and by and purely for its own use, American armed forces with the notorious, for various reasons but mainly those of prisoner abuse, Baghram Airbase being kept running thanks to ‘space age’ windmills dotting Shomali plains - wind power is regularly whispered about and yearned for in villages on the verge of ‘developed’ locations and in countless, far-flung, remote areas where light, heat, and hot water at the flick of a switch, remain predominantly insubstantial dreams.

As a direct result of these, and other supposedly futuristic mega-projects, it is all too easy - especially for those gullible enough to judge progress by surface signs and the conversational indications of the privileged - to garner the impression that Afghanistan is, finally and not before time, on the up but, for those prepared to peer beneath its enveloping burkha of disguise, the story is a very different one, indeed!

Top level, prominently visible, improvements - although many serve such a miniscule percentage of the population at large that they cannot, in all seriousness, really be classified as such - rarely, if ever and has been more than amply demonstrated in ravaged areas around the globe, trickledown to improve the lives of the persecuted, downtrodden masses who are not only those most in need, but who are also the living skeleton on which a country’s long-term, peaceful survival and economic improvement ultimately depends and, in the absence of desperately needed betterment at grassroots level, everything else, no matter how grandiose it appears to be, is nothing more than outright lies.

The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.    Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com