Outside the Window | William Dalrymple: History from Istanbul to Calcutta

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The Afghan Conflict: Perception and Perspectives

Play the audio at the end of the essay as you begin reading.

Sunset in Kabul - MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Farnaz, 13, walks down the dusty alleyway; her school is just around the corner now. A new term begins today, and she is excited about her teachers and subjects! Her mother often reminds her to be grateful; not long ago, girls were forbidden from attending school. She prays that will never happen again.

The grenade detonates. Bahrawar, 26, races through an orchard, hoping the trees will cover his escape. If they see him, he will be shot, surely. “So what,” he reassures himself, “Afghanistan must be liberated from the foreigners.”

Sergeant Allen, 30, hears a muffled explosion and immediately takes position against the wall. He sees the smoke first, then a man darting out of the fruit orchard. Capturing him in the crosshairs of his M-14 Carbine, he hesitates before pulling the trigger; is it an escaping insurgent, or a villager running to safety?

Standing outside his bakery, Jamil, 35, takes a sip of his morning kehwa. A convoy of ISAF troops emerges, their vehicles kicking up dust as they drive through the street. The soldiers wave good-naturedly. He reciprocates. Marjah feels secure since their arrival, and his business is improving. Elders tell him that the foreigners have promised to build the city’s infrastructure.

Gul-Zaman, 37, blows his pressure horn anxiously. Four hours at the Chaman border crossing in Baluchistan, and the line of tankers has still not budged! The Taliban have been attacking NATO supply convoys moving through Pakistan. Gul-Zaman makes good money, but wonders when the war will end.

Staccato gunfire breaks the calm of the night. Major Jamshed, 40, and his patrol dive for cover. He shouts out an order to return fire. Their machine guns release a barrage of bullets. It becomes quiet again. Maj. Jamshed wonders how he found himself in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; he joined the Pakistan Army to fight on the eastern border, not here.

Noor-buksh, 55, lays down a clump of freshly-cut grass, and wipes the perspiration off his creased forehead. Setting his sickle aside, he stands up to take in the full view of Bagh-e-Babur from the upper terrace. Recalling how conflict had ravaged this park, he never imagined that it would be restored to its old splendour. Now, the Bagh is full of life, and echoes with the laughter of Kabul’s residents once more. As he looks at the city, visible across the evening horizon, his eyes moisten. “Perhaps this time, we will be able to rebuild our lives, and our country,” he thinks. He shifts his gaze to the apricot orchards below. Soon, the trees will begin to bear fruit.

When seen through the eyes of everyday individuals, the real effects of the Afghan Conflict are revealed. As policymakers work to manage the most important nation-building challenge of our times, they must respond to the aspirations of these people with understanding, courage, and patience. Though it is a mosaic of often competing perceptions and perspectives, Afghanistan is also a country with tremendous potential, and promise.

This essay was composed with a 500 word limit.