Khost, as it was

On one of my last days in Khost in 2007, I remember the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers guarding Forward Operating Base Salerno's main gate were shocked that we'd go into the city without guns, dressed like westerners.

Days before, we asked Saifullah, our translator and fixer, if we needed to wear the shawal kameez -- the long shirt and baggy pants -- worn by men in central Asia. He said no, but at the gate, he said next time we went to town that it might be a good idea.

The concern in his voice surprised me because in 2007, Khost province was one of the few bright spots in a country increasingly plagued by suicide bombings, insurgent attacks and lagging redevelopment. But maybe he saw something I didn't.

(Kevin Maurer and Andrew Kraft reported from Khost in 2007 on a Pulitzer Center grant.)

Earlier this month, militants attacked Salerno with a wave of suicide bombers. The fighters were just outside the gate and American and Afghan troops and gunships drove them off. It was a rare attack on a major base and sounded more like Khost in 2006.

That year Khost was plagued by suicide bombers and attacks by insurgents. Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters were constantly in the province, slipping easily in and out of neighboring Pakistan. Saifullah talked about how the fighters lived in the mountains and attacked Afghans headed to the larger cities in Pakistan. He didn't understand why these men gave up a life of peace to live in the mountains like animals and murder people.

As he put it, that wasn't Islam. Neither is suicide bombing. Saifullah told many stories about the "bad old days," but he spoke in the past tense, like all the people I met in town.

For several days in 2007, I spent time driving around the city with photographer Andrew Craft meeting local leaders and talking with students at the university. For the most part, the people were happy. They talked to me about improved security and most of all hope I never once feared for my life. In fact, I enjoyed the freedom. I liked mingling with the people. It was nice to be outside of Kabul without my vest.

When I met Elias Wahdat — the Reuters and BBC stringer in Khost — we spent more than an hour sitting at a local park in the grass talking. A huge crowd gathered around us. Craft and I were a novelty. I felt like I was in the zoo, but not in danger. When ever I took a peek at the crowd, I saw smiles and bright curious eyes.

Less than a year later, I am not so sure I'd sit in the same park.