SOMETIME over the coming few days I will find myself back in Afghanistan. Returning to this long-suffering country is always special to me. Of all the many troubled places that I’ve covered as a reporter over the past decades, Afghanistan holds a particular resonance, appeal and place in my heart.

It was there, after all, back in the 1980s, that I earned my spurs as a young photojournalist and war reporter travelling with the then Afghan mujahideen guerrillas fighting the occupying Soviet Red Army. That experience and the people encountered during those extraordinary times have in great part shaped me as the journalist and person I am today.

That they were tough times goes without saying, not only for myself but much more so for those ordinary Afghans caught up in a bitter conflict seemingly without end.

Staggeringly, Afghanistan has now been mired in conflict for 40 years. In the decades following the Soviet withdrawal back in 1989, there was the bitter factional fighting of the mid-1990s that left sections of the capital Kabul in ruins, while today there is the current struggle with the Taliban and Afghanistan’s version of Daesh known as Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K).

Personally, I still find it hard to believe that it’s going on 18 years since America and other Nato members invaded Afghanistan to kick out the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

If ever any country was in need of respite from war it’s this one, but sadly the signs of that happening are few and far between right now.

Around this time last year there was some cause for optimism. An unprecedented ceasefire at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan saw an influx of Taliban fighters into urban areas, where they mingled with civilians, posed for selfies and raised expectations for successful peace talks that would put an end to the country’s drawn-out bloodletting.

Despite the spike in violence during Ramadan this year, many were optimistic that a similar arrangement would again be made. But negotiations failed to result in a truce that would put even a temporary end to the fighting and violence has surged during the holy month.

The latest bombings and killings over the past week are yet another painful reminder of the lack of progress Afghanistan has made in putting an end to its suffering. Since last October the US and the Taliban have been negotiating directly over an American withdrawal in exchange for a commitment from the Taliban not to harbour terrorists.

The latest round of talks, in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an embassy of sorts, concluded last month with what the Islamist group described as “some progress”. Since then, though, things have gone from bad to worse. Only on Monday a magnetic bomb blew up in a bus carrying government employees in Kabul, killing at least five people and wounding 10 in a ball of flame. A few days earlier another car bomb attack on a US convoy wounded four US service members and killed at least four Afghan civilians.

So often it seems that for every step forward this country takes towards peace it takes two back into war. Barely a day goes by without some act of violence, whether it’s a Taliban ambush against an Afghan army checkpoint or a US-led coalition airstrike that goes tragically wrong.

Far from the world’s headlines, the toll on Afghans and what progress they have made remains colossal. Take for example the attacks on schools that have tripled between 2017 and 2018, surging from 68 to 192, according to the UN’s children’s agency Unicef.

Translated into human terms this means the ongoing conflict had left more than 1000 schools closed by the end of last year, with half a million children unable to get an education.

It’s estimated, too, according to reports by the government, that 51% of the total Afghan population live in poverty. The capital city Kabul is now vastly overpopulated, with some putting the number of people living there as having soared beyond five million, half of whom live beneath the poverty line.

Given that 70% of Afghans are under 30 years of age, this young and impoverished population is a recipe for further disaster. Such figures raise the question, too, as to why, despite more than $740 billion having been spent, $132bn of it in reconstruction assistance alone, Afghanistan remains mired in the mess it does.

Clearly in all of this, somewhere along the way, the Afghan people have been forgotten, not least by their own politicians and “elites”, who in the main seem more preoccupied with score-settling and infighting than taking up the cause of their many desperate citizens.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s five-year term in office was meant to expire last month, but for the moment he’s conducting business as usual. With the next presidential elections planned for late September this year, Ghani’s opponents are increasingly calling on him to step down and hand over power to a caretaker administration to ensure a free and fair election.

If Ghani decides to continue as president during the interim period, they say, he should withdraw from the next presidential race. All this bodes ill for the coming months and no doubt the Taliban, as much as President Ghani’s electoral opponents, will do all they can to make trouble along the way.

For the moment the conflict in Afghanistan has become what one recent New York Times editorial described as “The Unspeakable War”.

But to be clear, it’s not just the Trump administration that would prefer not to talk about it. Few within the international community, Britain included, appear now to give a damn about Afghanistan’s plight despite in great part having contributed to the existential threats it now faces.

Returning in the days ahead to report again on this otherwise beautiful country’s interminable travails, I do so with the usual mixture of excitement, apprehension but also with a heavy heart.

Going on 40 years since my very first visit, never could I have imagined that Afghanistan would still be caught in the cauldron of war. As always with this incredible place, what a fascinating if forbidding reporting assignment lies ahead.