KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- There's little doubt an insurgent attack here last Friday reaffirmed to Americans that, more than 12 years after the U.S.-led war began in this country, Afghanistan appears immune to progress. The next day, however, brought an uplifting riposte in the simple form of a college graduation ceremony. I can guess which occasion you heard about.
I witnessed both events unfold, and to admit the obvious, the siege offered a more dramatic spectacle. After a suicide bomber driving a car laden with explosives detonated his cargo outside the compound of a foreign aid agency, five accomplices traded gunfire with Afghan security forces for several hours. Amid the staccato report of automatic rifles, the assailants shot rocket-propelled grenades, sending plumes of gray smoke drifting over city streets as empty as those in "The Walking Dead."
Americans are weary of war for valid reasons. But they are not anywhere near as weary as a new generation of Afghans who have known little else in their lifetime.
The assault in the capital's heavily guarded central district killed four people and wounded 14. The five gunmen were ventilated with bullets until they stopped breathing. If Westerners happened to catch the news, they likely reacted with succinct indifference: Oh. Again..
Their disregard is neither surprising nor entirely unjustified. The war has been long, Afghanistan is far away, and the prospects for peace remain opaque. Meanwhile, as evidenced by the recent Boston Marathon bombings and the mass shootings in Newtown and Aurora, plenty of threats exist on American soil.
Yet to the extent that media coverage shades public perception, Afghanistan, viewed mostly through the lens of bloodshed, resembles a feral state, intractable and bereft of hope, its culture in ruins, its people typecast as either militant extremists or saucer-eyed bystanders to the carnage. The graduation ceremony, while organized in a manner that didn't ignore the country's uncertain security, presented a brighter scenario, one that suggests there may be cause for tempered optimism.
The American University of Afghanistan, or AUAF, opened in 2006, and its third graduating class consisted of 129 students, including the school's first batch of master's recipients. They assembled Saturday morning outside the International Center for Afghan Women's Economic Development, a newly christened building on the university's grounds. School officials tout the $5 million facility, funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, as a future training hub and business incubator for women entrepreneurs.
Students and their families and friends passed through a pair of checkpoints after stepping inside the walled campus; at one, a bomb-sniffing German shepherd poked his nose into bags. A handful of plain-clothed, thick-necked security personnel milled among the audience, earpieces giving them away, as a smattering of uniformed Afghan security officers lingered at a remove.
The safety measures had no apparent effect on the crowd's buoyant mood. As the processional began, the soon-to-be alumni entered beaming, moving toward their seats as supporters unholstered smart phones to shoot photos. Toddlers slalomed among the tall people and their fluttering graduation gowns. Parents and grandparents smiled through tears of pride.
The good cheer survived two rain delays, and during one break, I spoke with Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who retired last summer after almost 40 years as a diplomat. He had returned to the country to give the commencement address, and he assessed the graduates in the wider context of their fellow Afghan Millennials.
"This is a generation that the country has never seen--they're tuned in, wired up, switched on," said Crocker, who during his career also served as ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Syria.
"They could not be more different from, certainly, the Taliban, but also their parents' generation. They dislike the warlords" -- the tribal chieftains who wield outsize influence across the country -- "as much as they dislike the Taliban. They itch for today, and they're going to be running this country."
For the event, the 63-year-old Crocker had donned a black robe but not rose-colored glasses. Referring to the previous day's attack, he called the ability of insurgents to penetrate the city's core "a problem that has to be addressed." More broadly, he warned that without sustained U.S. political and economic support after 2014, when most of the remaining American troops will leave the country, Afghanistan could relapse into the turmoil of the early 1990s that spawned the Taliban's rise.
"But I think often the narrative of Afghanistan [in America] is inward-looking," he said. "Americans are tired of overseas commitments, there's a recession, they don't want to do this kind of thing anymore. That doesn't reflect the attitudes of this generation of Afghans and how they envision their future."