Cover Story

Their future is now

Exit strategy may be the hottest topic in town, but young Afghans are developing their staying power. What happens to the post-war generation? Are they destined to know only violence and conflict?

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan-Hameed Yaldash wants to friend me. We're huddled with some other young men around a computer looking at Facebook pages inside an internet café, of sorts, in a village south of Kabul.

Seated at a Dell terminal, Hameed, 21, already has busted my stereotype of young Afghan males: He's clean-shaven and wearing a plaid shirt and fitted jeans. He's more eager to show me his latest work in Photoshop than to talk about terrorist factions or weaponry; more entrepreneur than angry, West-hating young Muslim.

So he pulls up his Facebook page, and more notions bite the dust. Hameed's friends are young men and women also dressed like contemporary Westerners, some of them relatives who've immigrated to the Netherlands or Germany. Hameed lives in a conservative village where most women wear full-length burqas, but the Afghan women he knows on Facebook are unveiled. On the social network forum Hameed and his friends discuss music, make jokes, find odd jobs, help each other with classes-and much of it in English.

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It's a world wholly separate from their parents' generation. Sixty percent of Afghans are under age 25, and the country's median age for men and women is 18. Talk to many in that demographic, as I did, and you will hear something different from the doom-and-gloom prognosticators who predict Afghanistan's return to civil war, a resurgent Taliban, and a failed state that can never be fixed.

Young Afghans have lived their whole lives in war-many of them spending formative years in refugee camps at the Pakistan border during the Taliban's reign-and they are determined to be a post-war generation.

This year they've witnessed the power of the web in aiding revolutions in other Muslim countries, and they realize that power connects them to one another and the wider global village. It moves them beyond tribal identities and older orders. Young Afghans are more likely to build relationships based on common interests than heritage. Ask many of them what tribe they are from, and they will wave away the question with, "I am from Afghanistan." A handful told me they intend to be the country's president someday, and one, asked what he wants to do after school, said, "I want to work for America."

These young Afghans already have learned enough to yearn for more than survival; they want an education, English language training, a skills set, and a satisfying job. Many come from conservative, traditional Muslim families, but they find restrictive Islam quaint, even unhelpful.

Yet these young men and women still live in a country where only 28 percent of the population can read and write. A country where life expectancy is 45 years. And a country at war.

Turning aspirations into reality is their challenge: First, the challenge of reaching villages like Hameed's-where nearly 80 percent of Afghans live-with modern technology and a sense of national identity. And second, the challenge of shaping leadership for a future that many call "new Afghanistan," rather than waiting for the next generation of Afghan leaders to devolve into corrupt politicians or radicalized Islamists who resent the benefits of the modern world and especially the West.

Community centers like the one where Hameed works in his village of Tangi Saidan are one tangible point of light. The internet café is open to anyone while computer classes meet next door. Young men ages 10 to 20 at terminals work through on-screen exercises designed to improve their computer savvy and acquaint them with new software. Along the way they are improving their English, as little in the world of computing is performed in the lead Afghan language, Dari.

The media center houses an FM radio station-the rural area's first-that provides 24-hour streaming audio via the internet. Hameed is the main programmer and announcer. Most villagers listen in on their cell phones, a piece of modern technology nearly every Afghan has. In addition to music they hear public service announcements about vaccinations and other medical services, classes, or council meetings. And all in a region that's never been connected to any power grid: The community center draws electricity from one generator plus solar panels.

The brainchild of Morning Star Development, a faith-based nonprofit based in Colorado Springs, this community center serves 39 villages, or a total population of about 15,000. Working without government aid, Morning Star built and maintains the facilities-including a health clinic, classrooms, meeting rooms used by the local shura council, and the media center-but the center is staffed entirely by Afghans. An on-site "suitcase" lab with a solar-powered microscope gives quick, accurate diagnoses without sending tests off to Kabul, and an emergency vehicle is ready when visits to a city hospital are a must. A well makes running water possible, plus provides irrigation for an apricot grove, wheat field, and other crops on the property. In a dry season, as now, that's vital.

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