Rays of sunshine; a metaphor for hope in Afghanistan

3 Reasons for Hope in Afghanistan

One of the few things I missed during my week as a “tourist” in Afghanistan was WiFi. I was eager to get back online afterward. As soon as I connected, one of the first headlines that popped up concerned US troop reductions in Afghanistan.

Uncharacteristically, I scanned the comments section; I was curious how my experience compared to public sentiment. Unlike most online discussions, there was no heated debate. The consensus seemed unanimous.

“The number should be ZERO and that hellhole left to the likes of His Highness of Heroin Karzai… We’ve wasted enough American lives over there and all for nothing.”

“Leave now and let the country tear itself to shreds. With people genuinely eager to kill each other… what’s the point? We made a stupid but serious effort… and ought to recognize that this was a waste. Continuing would be insanity, and it’s not wanted or working.”

“Afghanistan has been a lost cause since day one.”

These views align with the dominant narrative on Afghanistan: the West ruined the country, Afghans abhor Western involvement, and the country will soon devolve into a massive bloodbath. Recent polls report that 41% of Americans think all troops should depart immediately; the remainder believe most should depart. 70% think Afghanistan will not be stable after US troops leave.

While I will not offer policy prescriptions or political predictions, my experience gave me reason for hope in Afghanistan. Here’s why:

1. A culture that is less anti-American than perceived

Truth be told, I worried about how Afghans would treat me. Americans are common in Afghanistan, unlike in Pakistan and Iran. But most are military or security personnel, which creates a certain tense dynamic. 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001. Afghans have legitimate contentions with Americans.

But a discussion with a taxi driver named Sayed sums up the view most Afghans shared with me.

Sayed picked me up after a hike around the hills surrounding Kabul. Upon learning I was American, he became animated and invited me to his garden outside of Kabul.  He previously fought as a mujaheddin commander against the Russians, a self-proclaimed expert combatant.

He said, “I never again want to hold a gun. I now only want peace and I am optimistic that we will have it in the future. I am happy that you are here since you also want peace. As long as I am alive, I will protect you with my own life.”

Sayed then shared a story. He once threw himself over an innocent teenager to protect him from being killed by a mob.

Once the Taliban took control of his province, Sayed’s village verged on starvation. By chance, years later Sayed met the same teenager he previously saved. The teen was now a Taliban commander. When he saw Sayed, the commander ordered him to come along. Sayed feared for his life. Instead of hurting him, the Taliban gave him a used car and sent him 50 loaves of bread a day, enough to feed his entire village. Sayed now swears by “paying it forward” regardless of previous history, hence his invitation to us.

Stern looking but very friendly ice cream boss.

Stern looking but very friendly ice cream boss.

The men who are rebuilding Darulaman Palace. Both were eager to share the history of famous building.

The men who are rebuilding Darulaman Palace. Both were eager to share the history of famous building.

Over and over again, Afghans seemed able to separate government policy from people. Instead of being mistreated as an American, I was warmly welcomed. While walking around the markets in the old city, every person I met invited me to join for tea or a meal. In one week I received enough lunch and tea invitations to fill up an entire year’s calendar.

One of the many bird market sellers who invited me for tea.

One of the many bird market sellers who invited me for tea.

Showing off his prized fighting partridge.

Showing off his prized fighting partridge.

This view did not only apply to America. Pakistan and Afghanistan are considered sworn enemies. Studies claim Pakistani intelligence is behind much of the Taliban and terrorist activity in Afghanistan. Despite this, all Afghans I met said nice things about Pakistani people, while strongly objecting to their government.

Every single person I spoke with wanted Americans to stay in Afghanistan, despite President Karzai’s obstinacy in signing a new security agreement. However, both leading presidential candidates say they would sign a new agreement. While the media often make it seem as if the Afghans are angry and Anti-Western, many are actually quite peace-loving and desire continued outside involvement.

2. Afghan optimism

I met Afghans ranging from taxi drivers to school headmasters from provinces across the country. All expressed optimism about the future. A comprehensive poll conducted in 2013 found 57% of Afghans believed their country was headed in the right direction, the highest number since the poll began in 2006. For comparison, the number stands at 29% in America.

Life under the Taliban was terrible for most Afghans. One out of ten people fled the country. Many lost their homes and jobs; others were simply massacred. As one university student told me, “We have tasted freedom and love it. No one wants to go back to the fear, brutality, and craziness of the Taliban.”

Afghans expressed a profound exhaustion from fighting. One Afghan soldier who acted as my unofficial tour guide of the infamous Darulaman Palace told me, “we all just want to be friends.” He of course then immediately fetched his phone so he could add me on Facebook.

Impressive projects flourish despite difficult circumstances. I visited the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which provides free general and music education to students from mostly disadvantaged backgrounds. Many are orphans or former street children. Over half are girls. Some of the children went from begging on the streets to playing at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Arson, a 12-year-old piano student, told me, “I never thought I would see a piano in my life and certainly never play one. But I now hope to become the Mozart of Afghanistan.”

Stories like this are even more incredible given that just over 10 years ago the Taliban banned women from schools and music entirely. Today the country is less “backward” than many believe. For instance, 90% of Afghans think men and women should have equal access to education.

Afghan National Institute of Music student practicing the Sarode.

Afghan National Institute of Music student practicing the Sarode.

Private jam session with world-renowned tabla player Khalid Amahang.

Private jam session with world-renowned tabla player Khalid Amahang.

Despite widespread expectations of violence, the first post-Karzai presidential election in Afghanistan was mostly peaceful. Over half the population voted, despite threats from the Taliban. Both leading candidates are considered technocrats; one holds a PhD from Columbia, the other is a medical doctor. Parties more aligned with the Taliban and corrupt politicians performed poorly.

3. The beauty of Afghanistan

The word “hellhole” is commonly used to describe Afghanistan. Yet, the country is nothing short of stunning.

Approach into Kabul.

Approach into Kabul.

Spring arrives in Panjshir, 3 hours outside Kabul.

Spring arrives in Panjshir, 3 hours outside Kabul.

There are many beautiful but also quite safe provinces and sights, such as Panjshir, Bamyan, Band-e Amir, the Wakhan Corridor, and Mazar-i-Sharif. Afghans love their country for good reason.

While driving out to Panjshir, our Afghan host remarked how unfortunate it was that foreigners do not visit. “We have one of the most beautiful countries in the world. There are mountains, forests, history, and culture… everything a tourist could want. But I understand why people are afraid. I hope one day everyone will feel comfortable experiencing our country.”

If it were not for a combination of terrible perception and legitimate security concerns, Afghanistan might be a tourist hot spot. Even today, despite a very visible security presence, I wandered around Kabul and the surrounding provinces freely and without any armed escorts. Old city markets bustled, children flew kites, and families held picnics.

Hiking the hills outside Kabul.

Hiking the hills outside Kabul.

Flying kites; meeting kids who also express hope in Afghanistan

Reliving the Kite Runner

Hope

There are undeniably terrible things happening in Afghanistan: the Taliban still control certain provinces and target foreign civilians in Kabul while government corruption abounds.

In spite of these challenges, Afghans express unabashed pride in their country’s progress and a staunch optimism for the future.

Afghans face a long road ahead to rebuild their country, but we should not give up hope on them quite yet.


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