The Asia Society stands out from its neighbors on New York’s Park Avenue. The façade, constructed in a spirit of cross-cultural cooperation, mixes Oklahoma’s red granite with Rajasthan’s red sandstone, the stone from which the medieval emperors of Delhi, descendants of conquerors from Afghanistan and Central Asia, hewed the Red Fort of Delhi. Like traditional Persian forts, the Asia Society has both public and private audience rooms (diwan-i aam and diwan-i khas). Several times I have heard Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai speak in the public auditorium, but last September I took the elevator to a small, private room, where Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, was briefing a few colleagues.

As Abdullah somewhat bitterly recounted how the international community had prematurely declared victory in Afghanistan, he reminded me of a fall 2002 conference we both attended in the United Kingdom. A British deputy minister had just finished a self-congratulatory speech about success in Afghanistan. I asked for the floor, and reported complaints from colleagues in the Afghan government. They were spending half their time trying to make up for the political harm done by Coalition military actions, there was neither a plan nor adequate funding for economic recovery, and armed commanders were consolidating control of all the provinces and borders. The distinguished British official responded, “Well, I’ve just heard the voice of doom!”

Since 2002 I have often encountered variations on this theme when expressing concern that the international project in Afghanistan is out of touch with local realities, sometimes disastrously so. A tolerant German diplomat allowed that I saw a half-full glass as half-empty; an avuncular American NATO official explained that I was losing credibility in international gatherings because my analysis was distorted by a partisan domestic agenda. Officials always claim to be better informed, more practical, and less partisan than outside experts. The most bizarre case, I suppose, was when a Bush political appointee accused me of being an “expert from Washington.”

With chaos in Afghanistan impossible to deny, U.S. officials have increasingly sought my views. Most of the solutions they propose, such as increasing troop levels, might have worked several years ago, but my sense of the society—the same sense that led to my previous skepticism—now makes me suspect that it is too late to save the enterprise we began after 9/11. But that does not mean Afghanistan will go back to what it was under the Taliban. If I have learned anything from experience, it is that Afghanistan defies expectations.

I have studied Afghanistan, its region, and many other zones of conflict around the world for decades, but it is true that I have little experience as a practitioner. The apogee of my practical-political career was a stint as a UN official at the UN talks on Afghanistan (the “Bonn Negotiations”) in November-December 2001. Lakhdar Brahimi, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Afghanistan, asked me to assist him in the mission he had hurriedly assembled at the Bush administration’s request. Having driven out al Qaeda and destroyed the Taliban regime that had harbored it, the administration realized that the United States would have to do something about Afghanistan itself and turned to the United Nations, a sign that it considered this task relatively unimportant. The Russian UN Representative (now Foreign Minister) Sergei Lavrov repeatedly objected to my role. He was disturbed by an interview I had given to Le Monde before taking up my UN duties. In that interview, I declared Russia “irresponsible” for trying to preempt the negotiations by lavishing funds on its preferred candidate for leader of Afghanistan. My official service proved exceedingly brief.

I remained until the end of the Bonn Negotiations, and, after returning home, I launched work on an independent project on the reconstruction of Afghanistan that my long-time friend and colleague Ashraf Ghani, then a World Bank official and later Minister of Finance of Afghanistan, and I had designed. This project took me to the country three times in 2002 and has brought me there dozens more times since. On these trips I have observed the grand projects of the War on Terror and reconstruction of Afghanistan as they meet the fractious realities of a society traumatized by generations of conflict. I have divulged my formal sources in footnotes, mainly taken from documents and interviews on political, economic, and military matters. But it is my experiences outside of formal meetings—Personal Intelligence Estimates, you might call them—that have prompted the reservations that my official interlocutors interpret as groundless or politically motivated pessimism.

Under the more open conditions that have prevailed since the fall of the Taliban, I have seen clearly more of what I had only sensed on visits in previous decades. The human effect of decades of war: how the collapse of even a relatively weak state authority forced people back to their kin, clan, or tribal groups; how violence, which could erupt at any moment, from any direction, quickly rekindled memories of earlier traumas. Over the years, with violence and its legacy a constant presence, the trust that institutional cooperation demands had been blown to bits as surely as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Afghans returning from prolonged exile found a society they did not recognize; they often commented that there was no trust between people. Against that corrosive background, every effort to reconnect the scattered fragments of the former national elites—or to reconnect returning elites with those who had remained—could be undermined with a careless word, a careless dollar, or a careless bomb.

• • •

In March 2002, on my first night in Kabul after the December 2001 defeat of the Taliban, I drove through a bone-chilling rain to a freezing house in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. The area was once—and would become again—the diplomatic quarter and home to Kabul’s wealthy and high officials. The hero of Khalid Hosseini’s best-selling novel The Kite Runner spent his childhood here, playing under the pomegranate trees as violence gradually overtook the city and the country.

I had arrived just days before Nowruz, the ancient Persian New Year celebrated each spring in Afghanistan, Iran, and neighboring regions. There were no signs of any festivities. And though the end of a four-year drought would bring crops—licit or otherwise—to relieve some of the country’s hunger, now the rain only turned dust to mud. U.S. military vehicles churned unpaved streets into rutted tracks, splashing the new uniforms of a few men on foot patrol. Former resistance fighters from the Panjshir Valley now serving in a fledgling Afghan army, they nonchalantly fingered their Kalashnikovs.

In a barely lit room I greeted my hosts, Qayum Karzai and Ghani. A few months earlier, in Bonn, we had worked around the clock with many others for eight days to outline a political settlement for Afghanistan. We had hoped to seize what Ghani called the “open moment” created for Afghanistan—if unintentionally—by the U.S. military response to 9/11. After years of failure at promoting “intra-Afghan dialogue” to create a “broad-based government,” the United Nations had brought together Afghans (minus the recently-defeated Taliban) to form a new government in a country without a functioning army or administration. Brahimi convened four Afghan groups: the United Front (known as the Northern Alliance), which had occupied Kabul and the North as the Taliban fled; the Rome group, which included exiles supporting the former king Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had lived in Rome since a 1973 coup and who represented the historical continuity (now broken) of the Afghan state and its elites; and two other exile groups—called Peshawar and Cyprus, after the places they had gathered to discuss the country’s future—which were supposed to represent the concerns of Pakistan and Iran.

The gathering was unrepresentative, but, Brahimi explained, if the four groups made good decisions, no one would remember how unrepresentative they were. The Tajik-led Northern Alliance, the largest resistance alliance, included groups that had fought the Afghan communists, the Soviets, and then the Taliban under the brilliant and charismatic command of Ahmad Shah Massoud, as well as some militias formerly allied with the communist government. In December 2001, the Northern Alliance leaders were using the leverage provided by the American military intervention and the prestige of the ex-king to turn their presence on the ground into at-least temporary control over the centers of coercive power, including the army, police, administration, intelligence, and foreign affairs. In return they accepted a political process to broaden the government, making it more representative and effective through an Emergency Loya Jirga—a Great Council, bringing together indirectly elected representatives of all districts plus special seats for women, minorities, and prominent individuals—opened by the former king. They agreed as well to the adoption of a constitution and national elections.

By March 2002, Hamid Karzai, Qayum’s brother and a member of the Rome group, had become Afghanistan’s president. Ghani and Qayum were presidential advisors, and I had come for a series of meetings to launch the Afghanistan Reconstruction Project, a modified version of the plan that Ghani and I had designed in the United States before Bonn. We initially hoped to convene Afghans and independent experts to generate proposals to help a new government managing a vast transformation. When change arrived with surprising suddenness, Ghani moved to Kabul (first with the United Nations, then as an Afghan official, eventually as finance minister), and I redirected the program toward research and analysis in support of the UN-monitored transitional process outlined in the Bonn Agreement.

Afghan intellectuals exiled in Peshawar, Pakistan in the 1980s estimated that 60 percent of the faculty of Kabul University had fled, died, or been arrested.

Qayum Karzai and Ghani, like many returning Afghan exiles, had been living outside the country for decades. Both were studying in the United States when communist army officers seized power in a 1978 coup d’éat. They had spent the succeeding years involved in Afghanistan’s struggles largely from their American homes. Although they personally escaped, their families suffered in the violence of those years. The post-’78 regime was led by the Khalq (People) faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The Khalqis, dominated by recently educated rural Pashtuns from the south and east of Afghanistan, moved quickly to avenge themselves on the urban elites whom they blamed for the country’s backwardness, starting with the royal family and those groups closest to them. Among thousands of others, they arrested all male members over fifteen years old of both the Karzai and Ghani families, including both men’s fathers. Detainees were routinely tortured and executed in the crowded prison of Pul-i-Charkhi, where over ten thousand disappeared.

Ghani’s family managed to bribe officials to hide the fact that most of his relatives had not been killed—only his father’s first cousin Shahpur Ahmadzai, commander of the Kabul Military Academy, was executed. Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad, former deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament, came out alive, only to be assassinated in 1999 one Friday in Quetta, Pakistan, while walking home after prayers. He had been trying to unite Southern Afghanistan’s tribes to resist the Taliban and propose a national solution to Afghanistan’s conflict.

While no overall statistics were available, Afghan intellectuals exiled in Peshawar, Pakistan in the 1980s estimated that 60 percent of the faculty of Kabul University (the country’s leading higher education institution) had fled, died, or been arrested. Virtually all Afghans with international degrees or training fled the country or were killed.

In 1979 Hamid Karzai was studying in India when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to replace a defiant Communist leader with one more moderate and pliable. Karzai went to Pakistan, where he worked in the political office of one of the moderate nationalist resistance parties during the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Over the years, the Karzais campaigned with increasing intensity against the favor shown by Pakistan, with U.S. complicity, to the radical Islamists at the expense of the more traditionalist or nationalist parties in the resistance movement. Pakistan associated the nationalists with Afghanistan’s territorial claims against it: no government in Kabul has recognized the 1893 Durand Line, drawn by the British through the middle of Pashtun lands, as an international boundary dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Islamists claimed to care nothing for national borders, and Pakistan told the Americans that radical Islamists killed more Russians.

When the formerly Soviet-supported regime fell in April 1992, Hamid Karzai returned as deputy minister of foreign affairs in the mujahidin government, while Qayum stayed in the United States. Hamid’s stay was short-lived. He fell victim to factional rivalry in what would escalate into a nine-year civil war. He escaped from detention thanks to a rocket attack and returned to Pakistan. Hamid went back to Afghanistan one more time before 9/11, after the 1999 assassination of his father. He buried his father in Taliban-controlled Kandahar: the power of the Popalzai tribe, which the Karzais led, and the neutral status of funerals in the tribal code of Pashtunwali guaranteed his safety.

Qayum, who worked out of the public eye, formulated much of the family’s strategic thinking. I met him in 1990 at a meeting on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., where his brother Hamid was posing tough questions to Zalmay Khalilzad, then an official of the first Bush administration’s Department of Defense and serving under Paul Wolfowitz. Hamid challenged Khalilzad about the United States’s failure to support Afghan nationalists rather than Islamist clients of Pakistan.

Ghani, too, was drawn deeper into Afghan politics in the 1980s and 1990s. His own family and Ahmadzai tribe had suffered repeatedly at the hands of the royal dynasties they had served as ministers, administrators, and military commanders. (And the dynasties had their bill of particulars against these troublesome retainers.) Such powerful allies, of course, could be more dangerous than any enemy. But, for Ghani, these concerns were only the starting point for a critique of his society. He had studied every province of the country and scoured the archives and bookstores for documents explaining how the Afghan state had been built. Ghani became an anthropologist, and after 1983, when he moved to Baltimore to teach at Johns Hopkins University, he became a fixture at Washington meetings on Afghanistan. Drawing on his unparalleled knowledge of the society, he opposed the Soviet invasion, the American obsession with arming radical Islamists to kill Russians, and what he saw as the venality and opportunism of so many of his fellow exiles.

Ghani soon started work as a senior social scientist at the World Bank, gaining the experience and networks he later deployed as the principal architect of Afghanistan’s post-2001 reconstruction program. He traveled extensively, to China, India, even to Russia—where he helped to rescue the coal industry—but only once, in 1994, to his own country.

Eight years later, Ghani was back. With Hamid Karzai in the palace, Ghani, Qayum Karzai, and I settled on thin pillows on the scanty carpet with the other guests: Craig Karp of the U.S. embassy, who had been with us in Bonn; Anthony Richter of the Open Society Institute (a patron of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Project); and our research associate, Helena Malikyar, an Afghan-American with close family ties to the monarchy. We wrapped ourselves in blankets against the chill and began to sip our tea. “Everyone is failing us,” Ghani said.

Ghani often seemed to be in pain in those days. He was still recovering from cancer, which had required the removal of most of his stomach. But that night his pain seemed to come from another source. The UN political mission was virtually alone in pressing for the political changes the Bonn process was supposed to bring about, in particular, the broadening of the government at the upcoming Emergency Loya Jirga. Kabul’s streets were still dominated by the militias that should have been withdrawn under the Bonn Agreement. The Rumsfeld-led Defense Department was intent on bolstering militias to pursue terrorists, not disciplining them to create space for national politics. The International Security Assistance Force, authorized by the UN Security Council under the Bonn Agreement, operated in parallel to the militias in the city. It prevented factional fighting and provided public security, but it could not prevent the armed groups from turning into predatory gangs.

Rumsfeld had vetoed expansion of the security force, and the militias were consolidating their hold on Afghanistan’s assets and customs revenue. Without waiting for the new Afghan authorities to set priorities, international aid agencies had presented gross underestimates of reconstruction costs, while a U.S. administration opposed to “nation building” had allocated no new funding. Rather than delivering a coherent aid package to the new government, the aid bazaar opened with a rush of contractors and NGOs.

Four years of fighting between mujahidin factions had left Bagh-i Babur in ruins, and although now safe under the Taliban, there seemed little hope of return to past glory.

As early as March 2002, Ghani saw time slipping away, and so it did, even that night. Karp earned a reprimand from the Embassy for returning well after curfew, while Malikyar and I circled the darkened alleys, as our Pashto-speaking driver from a village south of Kabul asked the Persian-speaking militia men from Tajik villages to the north how to find the house where we were staying. Neither the driver nor the soldiers, all of them strangers to the city, knew the streets of Wazir Akbar Khan.

A few days later, during a lull in our program, Malikyar and I drove across the Kabul River to the hillside where the founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, lies buried in the garden that he built to celebrate the beloved, cosmopolitan city that bears his name, Bagh-i Babur. In accordance with his wishes, Babur’s son, the Emperor Humayun, had his father, who had died in Agra, reburied there in 1544.

I had visited Bagh-i Babur during my trip to Kabul in June 1998, when it was under Taliban rule. Four years of fighting between mujahidin factions had left the city in ruins, and although now safe under the Taliban, there seemed little of hope of return to past glory. Bagh-i Babur’s enclosure was locked and abandoned, the grand caravanserai entrance with a sweeping upward view of the garden and its flowerbeds, which had long since replaced Babur’s central water-course, destroyed. The garden itself had become an expanse of arid rubble. The exquisite white marble mosque that Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, commissioned in honor of his great-grandfather Babur, was pock-marked with shrapnel from rockets, which had shattered one corner. As a guard in threadbare clothes unlocked a remaining side gate, an unveiled nomad, holding the metal scythe with which she cut grass for her animals, looked on, too humble even to merit the Taliban’s chastisement.

When I returned in March 2002 with Malikyar, the only change was that the gate was open, and the ruined garden was animated by a gang of boys, gambling and hanging out next to Babur’s tomb. This was Malikyar’s first visit to Kabul since she had fled to Pakistan with her family in 1978 at the age of fifteen, when one of her father’s employees, a member of the Parcham (Banner) faction of the PDPA, had warned him he was targeted for execution. A few weeks earlier, after the coup that had overthrown President Mohammed Daoud Khan and put the PDPA in power, Malikyar rushed to the hospital to see her friend and second cousin Hila, Daoud’s granddaughter. Malikyar learned that Hila had been killed, along with her father—Daoud’s son Omar—and Hila’s younger sister, Ghizal.

Like many Afghans who returned after decades of exile, Malikyar was shocked by the destruction of Kabul. One day, as we drove from the relatively intact east of the city, where the government offices and embassies were located, to the Intercontinental Hotel in the northwest, we passed through entire neighborhoods pulverized by the factional fighting of 1992-1996. When we later met her uncle, a Voice of America reporter, Malikyar sobbed, “We never should have left! We should have stayed with the people!”

In Babur’s Garden, Malikyar approached the boys and greeted them. They asked where we were from, and we told them; they told us they were from Panjshir, the valley north of Kabul whose mountain Tajiks had resisted the Afghan communists, the Soviets, and the Taliban under the leadership of Massoud and the Northern Alliance.

The Valley withstood eight Soviet offensives between 1980 and 1984, when the KGB negotiated a truce directly with Massoud. For his followers, the truce was recognition of his strength and capacity for strategic planning. He used the security of his Panjshir base to lay the foundations of a region-wide organization, a move that enabled his Northern Alliance to take control of Kabul twice: after the fall of the ex-communist regime in 1992, and after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. For other Afghans, especially Pashtuns living south of Kabul, the truce was the mark of Massoud’s treachery. They accused him of securing his base at their expense, letting Soviet convoys reach Kabul through the Salang pass. Massoud claimed he had never agreed to a truce in Salang, but that he was not able to block the highway consistently. Despite his victories against the Soviets, he lost a lifelong battle to match his national vision with a national following. Upon his death in 2001, Afghans, especially Pashtuns, firmly perceived him as a Tajik leader, a role he had never sought.

I had not visited Panjshir during the jihad against the Soviet occupation, so I never saw the devastation firsthand. But I had a glimpse of it in 1984 in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s northwest frontier province, at a packed clinic exclusively devoted to caring for the child amputees of Panjshir.

On that 1984 trip, Massoud’s men in Peshawar brought me to meet a defector from Kabul who had been assigned by Afghanistan’s KGB-trained intelligence service to kill Massoud. His masters failed in their mission, but others succeeded years later. Massoud was assassinated on September 9, 2001, by al Qaeda. Two Moroccan immigrants to Europe posing as journalists detonated their camera in Afghanistan’s first suicide bombing. Bin Laden had hoped to decapitate the Northern Alliance earlier, enabling the Taliban and al Qaeda to eradicate the last foothold of resistance on Afghan territory before September 11 and the reprisals that would follow. The al Qaeda leader had never shared with his Afghan hosts his plans to attack the United States, and killing Massoud was his peace offering to the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who would soon suffer the consequences. The assassination was delayed by the usual Afghan logistical problems, and the anti-Taliban resistance only had to hold from 9/9 until shortly after 9/11 when Marshall Mohammed Qasim Fahim, Massoud’s successor as military commander, began to work with the CIA and U.S. Special Operations forces to oust the Taliban.

That is how the Tajik boys in the garden ended up in Kabul. Their fathers had entered the city with Fahim’s troops and were staying in the largely Panjshiri neighborhood near the garden. The boys hailed from Bazarak, Massoud’s native village. When we told them we knew many people in Afghanistan, they asked, “Do you know Amrullah Khan?” This was the first time I had heard Amrullah Saleh’s name with the honorific “Khan” attached.

Saleh, also from Bazarak and barely thirty years old at the time, was head of the first directorate of the National Directorate of Security, the national intelligence agency, which he would later lead. He had served as Massoud’s liaison with the CIA when Massoud decided to cooperate with intelligence gathering after the 1998 al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. I first met him in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in January 1996, when he was deputy spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Defense, then led by Massoud. (The Taliban already controlled Afghanistan’s south and west, but not Kabul, although they would capture it later that year.) My colleagues and I had all been impressed by the intellect and eloquence of this man in his early 20s.

So when the boys asked if we knew him, I answered, “Yes, I know him.”

Az qawm-i maast” (he is from our clan), they said proudly.

Earlier that day, Malikyar and I had lunched with Saleh in a private room in the rear of the Marco Polo restaurant, where Malikyar’s father had run a night club in Kabul’s swinging sixties. It was Saleh who complained that he spent half his time trying to compensate for the “mistakes” of the Coalition—a euphemism for killing civilians and arbitrarily detaining and abusing “terrorist” suspects.

Saleh had his own stories of loss. When the PDPA took power in 1978, they arrested and killed five of his mother’s brothers, Islamic scholars from a respected family of Panjshir. During the Soviet occupation, his father, a laborer in Kabul, was found mysteriously dead, and two of his brothers had died in the jihad, in battle or in prison. One relative refused to leave his house near Bagh-i Babur when the Taliban settled scores with the Pansjhiris there in the 1990s; they killed the man’s twenty-three-year-old son.

“Mujahidin,” once a near-sacred term, had become a another factional category.

After we told the boys we knew Saleh, one of them, a blue-eyed tough wearing a black and white kafiya tied as a scarf, stepped forward as the group’s spokesman. He began telling us how the garden was destroyed. “The mujahidin were up there,” he said, pointing to the bomb-wracked heights above the garden, “and Hizb-i Islami was down there.” He pointed to the ruined houses below. Malikyar and I looked at each other: only Massoud’s forces were “mujahidin”? Hizb-i Islami, the Islamic Party, was one of the several officially recognized mujahidin parties, but its leader was Massoud’s main rival in the anti-Soviet resistance, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar—the favorite of the Pakistani intelligence agency. “Mujahidin,” once a near-sacred term, had become a another factional category.

Far below, on the road at the foot of the ruined garden, several Kamaz trucks rumbled past, their ancient diesel motors grinding. “Those are Russian trucks,” the boy said. “Rus khub mardum hastand,” “Russians are good people.” Malikyar was taken aback: “What kind of mujahid are you, praising the Russians?” Russia, together with Iran, had supported Massoud in the fight against the Taliban.

He paused and looked Malikyar in the eye. “Do you know why the Americans can’t find Osama Bin Laden?” he asked. We had some idea, but wanted to hear his view. “Because Bin Laden is sitting safely in America. The Americans sent Arabs to kill our King (padishah-i ma), because they knew that if Massoud was alive, they could never enter Afghanistan.”

Seeing that this young man was political, Malikyar recognized a kindred spirit. Her very existence was due to politics: her mother was the descendant of Amir Habibullah Khan (who ruled Afghanistan from 1901 until he was assassinated in 1919) from one of the wives he took from the Pamir Mountains of Badakhshan in the far northeast of the country, on the border of what is now Tajikistan. Afghanistan’s rulers took wives from all major tribes and ethnic groups of the country, using kinship and patronage to assure dynastic loyalty. Daughters of the royal house in turn married into other prominent families. Many of Malikyar’s relatives, like those murdered in the 1978 communist coup, had married into the royal Pashtun clan, the Mohammedzais, and she was something of a favorite “niece” of Zahir Shah. She recalled sitting with the king at his country retreat north of Kabul as a seven-year-old child in 1970, listening to radio broadcasts of the parliamentary debate over the vote of confidence for Prime Minister Abdul Zahir, in accordance with Afghanistan’s 1964 “New Democracy” constitution.

In recent years, after finishing a master’s degree at New York University, Malikyar had worked for Zahir Shah at his exile office in Rome. She managed the ex-King’s schedule and arranged a network of contacts with tribal leaders who came to Rome or sent their representatives as Zahir Shah and his entourage campaigned for a Loya Jirga to establish a new government in Afghanistan, an idea the ex-king had first proposed in 1983. The term “Loya Jirga” seems to have entered Afghan vocabulary in the constitution of Malikyar’s great-uncle, Amanullah Khan. It played the role of a symbolically representative body to provide a form of popular legitimation to the government. Afghanistan’s ruling elite retroactively redefined many past gatherings as Loya Jirgas, creating a mythical history of nation building through consultation and consent. While the institution was contested by Afghans who saw it as a means of cooptation by the royal family, it had also entered the discourse, especially among Pashtuns, as the expression of Afghan-style democracy. The Bonn Agreement had incorporated elements of this proposal, notably the convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga to broaden the interim government after its first six months.

In March 2002, Zahir Shah was scheduled to return to Afghanistan for the first time since 1973, when he had been overthrown by his cousin Daoud. I had first met Zahir Shah during a 1991 visit to Rome. After a relatively uneventful discussion, his nephew and son-in-law, General Abdul Wali, drove me back to my hotel in the historic center of the city. As the Castel Sant’Angelo, scene of the bloody finale of Tosca, came into view, we turned left toward the Piazza Navona, and General Wali described a past that could rival any opera in drama and blood. During his Italian vacation in the summer of 1973, Zahir Shah left General Wali in charge of the Kabul garrison. When Daoud Khan ousted his cousins in a coup, he imprisoned General Wali in a fortress. And then the torture began. Nearly twenty years after his ordeal, General Wali still shook as he told the story.

Wali’s daughter Humaira, a close friend of Malikyar’s, was also to return to Afghanistan with the royal family in April 2002, and that imminent arrival was on Malikyar’s mind in March. She asked the boys’ spokesman what he thought about Zahir Shah. He shot back, “Zahir Shah should stay where he is. Also, Hamid Karzai should leave the country, and Rabbani should become president.” (Burhanuddin Rabbani was a Tajik from Badakhshan and had been President of the mujahidin-controlled Islamic State of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. He continued to hold the title through the Taliban period and symbolically handed over authority to Hamid Karzai.) Malikyar asked why they were against Zahir Shah. “Because he oppressed us,” the boy answered. “He oppressed us, and now we will oppress them. You’ll see.”

“How did he oppress you?” Malikyar asked.

“He took our women.”

That evening, I had dinner with two Pashtun elders I had known for years. After the other guests left, I recounted the conversation in Bagh-i Babur. When I told them the boy’s claim, they looked at each other as if a family secret had just been revealed. The boy might have been referring to Zahir Shah’s playboy youth, when he was said to favor the women of Panjshir. But my hosts knew that he also referred to the very real casualties in Afghanistan’s violent political history, to an especially crucial episode in the struggle to build and control state power in which both Ashraf Ghani’s and Qayum Karzai’s grandfathers had played prominent roles.

After a while one of the elders asked me, “Do you know what they say in Paktia? They say Massoud told his men, ‘Go down to Paktia and rescue your nephews.’” Paktia is an area including several provinces in southeastern Afghanistan whose tribes brought Zahir Shah’s father to power in 1929 after a battle with forces based in the north. The elder was not accusing Massoud of mobilizing his people around past injury, rather he repeated the saying to demonstrate how the people of Paktia recall their own history. The saying revealed the fear, guilt, and deeply rooted mutual mistrust that Afghans of different origins felt as they returned to Kabul to try to rebuild—or build—their country.

For the past quarter-century, Afghanistan’s surviving elites were dispersed around the world, while the people who stayed behind suffered round after round of violence. For years Afghan leaders and people had communicated largely at a distance, lacking a common national political space. In this gap had grown many divergent memories of pre-war Afghanistan, memories filtered through the daily perceptions of violence and attack. Although facing common threats, the different parts of Afghanistan’s population had become more disunited than ever, rehearsing among themselves conflicting versions of their common history.

For Afghan elites and for the United Nations and other internationals, violence and oppression began in 1978 with the communist coup; continued through the Soviet invasion, occupation, and withdrawal; took on a new form with the factional wars under mujahidin rule; and continued through the harsh dictates of the Taliban. In keeping with this history, international human rights organizations called for “transitional justice,” an accounting for the abuses committed since the 1978 coup. In 2004 I was asked by then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour to help compile all available accounts of human rights violations in Afghanistan since the wars began. When I described this project, which involved parsing documentation from international organizations and NGOs, to one of my oldest Afghan friends, he asked me, “Why do you start with 1978? You know, the Afghan state was not built with roses.”

In 1928 Malikyar’s great uncle, King Amanullah Khan, fled Kabul in the face of a growing revolt against his attempt to advance a “developmental state,” committed to building the infrastructure and human capital needed for rapid economic growth. He refused to use his tiny air force to attack the tribal forces opposing him, and, as Zahir Shah later would, he lived out his days in Roman exile. The revolt had started among the Pashtun tribes of Eastern Afghanistan, including Paktia, mobilized by mullahs’ warnings that the King was a threat to Islam. But the tribes remained leaderless and uncoordinated.

Tajiks from the plains and mountains to the north, including Panjshiris, were the first rebels to reach Kabul. They were led by Habibullah Kalakani, an army deserter who filled perfectly the role of the bandit king. Some Islamic leaders ratified his military victories, installing him in January 1929 as Amir Habibullah, “Khadim-i Din-i Rasul Allah,” “Servant of the Religion of the Messenger of God.” Others, especially Habibullah’s Pashtun foes, dismissed him as “Bacha-i Saqaw,” the son of the water carrier. But this humble birth also formed part of his legend. He was the first Tajik to sit on the throne of Kabul since the Afghan monarchy moved there from Kandahar in 1775. His brief reign recalled the long history of Persian-speaking rulers in the land that was known as Khurasan before it became Afghanistan.

While the British in neighboring India were glad to see the back of Amanullah Khan, they wanted a reliable Pashtun dynasty in Kabul, not Habibullah or any other Tajik guerrilla. While they no longer controlled Afghanistan’s foreign relations, they still considered Afghanistan a key part of the strategic defense of the British Empire. They seized an opportunity to support a contender who could stabilize the country, especially the Pashtun areas bordering on India, which were in a state of turmoil.

That contender was Nadir Khan, father of Zahir Shah. Nadir had commanded the Afghan forces in the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, but had later fallen out with Amanullah. He and his brothers came from a branch of the royal Mohammedzai clan that had ruled Peshawar before the city fell to the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh in 1826, and they were known as the “Peshawar sardars.”

In 1929 the Peshawar sardars returned to Peshawar. With support from the British governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, they established a base in Waziristan, where they began to gather the tribes from both sides of the Durand Line: Wazir, Tani, Mehsud, Jaji, Jadran, and Ahmadzai. Among Nadir Khan’s supporters was Ashraf Ghani’s grandfather, Abdul Ghani Khan Ahmadzai. He had served in Amanullah Khan’s army as a colonel and also fought in the 1919 war of Afghan independence, along with Qayum Karzai’s grandfather.

The 1978 coup broke the Mohammedzai monopoly on the state, opening the political arena to a free-for-all, with militias linked to different communities in contention for power.

The lashkar (tribal militia) commanded by Abdul Ghani Khan inflicted the first defeat on the forces of Habibullah in Logar province, where, today, the Taliban sit at the gates of Kabul. In September 1929 Nadir Khan’s lashkars captured Kabul. Since Nadir had no money to pay his troops, he permitted them to loot the city. A jirga of his fighters proclaimed him Nadir Shah, King of Afghanistan. He and his brothers formed the new royal family, and Abdul Ghani Khan became mayor of the capital and later commander of the Second Corps. Nadir Shah captured and hanged Habibullah.

But the 1929 battle did not end with Habibullah’s execution. Tribal lashkars moved north to take control of Shamali and the valleys to the north, where the Tajik revolt had been based. As the tribes looted these areas, they took young women as booty—the mothers and grandmothers of the lost “nephews” of Paktia. The dynasty of Nadir Shah exempted these tribes from taxation and conscription in recognition of their services. Many entered the officer corps; some of those officers were among those who launched the coup that brought the Khalq faction of the PDPA to power in 1978, ending over 200 years of rule by Durrani Pashtuns from Kandahar and over 150 years of rule by the Mohammedzai clan of the Durrani Barakzai tribe, interrupted only by the brief rule of Amir Habibullah in 1929. The 1978 coup broke the Mohammedzai monopoly on the state, opening the political arena to a free-for-all, with militias linked to different communities in contention for power.

The tribes that had looted the north saw their ties to the dynasty of Nadir Shah as their link to the state; others saw themselves as victims of that dynasty, their women stolen and nephews still in need of rescue.

In May 2002, after the former king’s return to Afghanistan, I attended a jirga he was hosting in the garden of his residence in Kabul. A delegation from the Jaji tribe in Khost (formerly part of Paktia) was addressing him, and I saw first-hand the persistence of the loyalty to the dynasty of Nadir Shah.

There I ran into an old friend, Sayyid Naim Majrooh. I had met Majrooh during my trip to Peshawar in 1984, when he was working for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was the descendant of a distinguished family of Sufis and intellectuals from the Kunar Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. In November 1987 Naim Majrooh’s father—Professor Said Bahauddin Majrooh, who fled to Peshawar after the Soviet invasion—published survey results showing that Afghan refugees in Pakistan (mostly Pashtuns from Eastern Afghanistan) overwhelmingly supported Zahir Shah rather than any of the mujahidin leaders as their future leader. On February 11, 1988—as the agreement on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was being finalized in Geneva and rumors of the formation of a transitional government, perhaps involving Zahir Shah, began to spread—gunmen probably sent by Hikmatyar shot down Professor Majrooh in his home. The message: those who try to restore the king will share this fate.

After his was killed, Naim Majrooh moved to California, and I saw him occasionally in the United States, including at a State Department brainstorming session soon after the start of the air war in Afghanistan in October 2001. In May 2002 Majrooh was back in Kabul, preparing for his job as chief rapporteur of the Emergency Loya Jirga. Majrooh and I greeted each other, and I asked him what the Jajis were saying in Pashto. He leaned over with a half smile and whispered, “They are offering to drive the militias out of Kabul for Zahir Shah as they did for his father. But Zahir Shah is asking them to work for peace.”

Malikyar and I continued our rounds, meeting with UN officials to discuss plans for the Emergency Loya Jirga, aid monitoring, judicial reform, and civil service training. We met leaders of the new Ministry of Women’s Affairs, newly arrived western journalists, and dozens of returning exiles. The government took me and several other guests on a tour of the areas north of Kabul where the Taliban and al Qaeda had destroyed nearly every building and uprooted or cut down every tree or vine in what had been a base area for Massoud and the Northern Alliance, and previously for the supporters of Amir Habibullah. Local officials, mostly former fighters, claimed that hearing my interviews on the BBC had given them hope during the resistance to the Taliban. I celebrated Nowruz with a dinner at the palace with President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Presidential Special Envoy (later Ambassador) Zalmay Khalilzad and dined with the new Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, now speaker of the lower house of the National Assembly. I gave a lecture at Kabul University on the future of Afghanistan; a group of Islamist students walked out when I dedicated my talk to the late Professor Majrooh.

Malikyar had a few other tasks to accomplish before we could leave for home. In the center of the city, we stopped by the imposing tomb of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, her great-great-grandfather, who had ruled Afghanistan—conquering even areas that had never submitted to Kabul—from 1880 to 1901. Rudyard Kipling wrote poems about his ruthlessness, and he died of natural causes in his bed. In March 2002 the shrine and the walled garden around his tomb were locked.

Not far away, in a small alleyway of Shahr-i Naw, we found Malikyar’s father’s house, where she had lived as a child. The family had learned that it had been occupied over the years by communist officials, then mujahidin, and then used as a guest house by the Taliban. No one was home when we arrived, but the neighbors said that the new occupant was a saranwal—prosecuting magistrate—from Panjshir.

Malikyar entered the shrine and circled the tomb clockwise, until she noticed that, unlike the practice she remembered from childhood, there was now a separate entrance for women.

Toward the end of our trip, we made one last visit, to the Qabristan, or graveyard, at the western edge of Kabul, behind the hill of Bala Hisar, the fifth century Upper Fort and the seat of power in Kabul since ancient times. On this Friday afternoon, the sabbath, families were picnicking in the graveyard where Malikyar’s aunts, daughters of the royal household of Amir Habibullah Khan, were buried. After praying at her aunts’ tomb, Malikyar walked to the main shrine in the graveyard, Shuhada-i-Salahin, which, according to tradition, was the tomb of two Arab mujahidin who had been martyred bringing Islam to Afghanistan. Such shrines to martyrs mark all of Afghanistan; a new shrine sprung up in 2002 below the mountains of Tora Bora in Khugiani district of Nangarhar. Here were buried the Arab fighters of al Qaeda who died in the American bombardments of December 2001. Now women of the tribes visited the shrine to pray for fertility and health, a practice those buried there had condemned as paganism. Malikyar entered the shrine and circled the tomb clockwise, until she noticed that, unlike the practice she remembered from childhood, there was now a separate entrance for women.

Outside the shrine, a one-eyed beggar sat with a pot, surrounded by street children. They wore rags, their faces were dirty, and many had sores or other wounds. They had none of the bravado of the Panjshiri boys in Babur’s garden. These were the abandoned orphans of decades of war. In the 1980s Afghans had told me in hushed tones of a Soviet program to form future elites by placing Afghan children in orphanages and sending them, sometimes by force, to be educated in the Soviet Union. At a 1988 meeting, the late Soviet Orientalist Yuri Gankovsky explained that this program was aimed at caring for the abandoned orphans of Kabul. Whatever the truth about the program to take Afghan children into orphanages and then the Soviet Union, a boarding school in Soviet Tajikistan might have been attractive compared to how the children in the Qabristan were living.

As we conspicuously walked past them—a foreign man and an obviously foreign-returned Afghan woman, modestly covered from head to toe in elegant clothes (some whispered that she must be Iranian)—the children began to follow us and ask for money. At first we followed the international protocol for dealing with beggars—ignore—but finally Malikyar could not. These were the children orphaned in the battles that devastated western Kabul, the ones whom the refugees like her had abandoned. She opened her purse and started to take out some money. Suddenly dozens, seemingly hundreds, of ragged, needy children ran toward us, demanding money. As they surrounded us, we ran to the car and managed to push them away enough to close the door. But before we did, one child shouted something. After we pulled away in silence, Malikyar said, “The child cursed us. He said, ‘May God dry up your hand! By God, may you never see good.’”

• • •

Several months later, back in New York, when the stress of the previous few months finally took its toll on me and I had to rest for some weeks, Malikyar reminded me of the child’s curse. When I heard boasts from Western governments about our good work in Afghanistan, I wondered if it did any more good than Malikyar’s attempt to help those children.

The day the Bonn Accord was signed, someone asked me what would happen in Afghanistan. I replied that the only certainty was that we would not see flawless enactment of the scenario it envisioned. On this question, I was right. The Afghan government met the formal benchmarks of the Accord (Loya Jirga, Constitution, elections), but, along with its international supporters, it failed to stabilize and secure the country.

That is not the whole story, certainly not its end. Ashraf Ghani joined the government and became finance minister, enacting a series of bold reforms that stabilized the currency and started the state-building process. He bruised a lot of feelings in the process, and many were relieved that he did not join the government formed by President Karzai after his election in 2004. Amrullah Saleh set out to reform the Afghan intelligence service and make it into an organization that would make Afghans secure rather than vulnerable. As he joined the new national elite, he spent long hours discussing his country with Ghani, overcoming the years of mistrust and division. Qayum Karzai was elected to the National Assembly from Kandahar in 2005. He resigned for health reasons in early 2008 but has taken on reconciliation with the Taliban as a major task. He led the Afghan delegation that engaged in preliminary dialogue in Mecca during Ramadan in 2008.

Malikyar remarried and had a son. Today she lives in Prague, working for the Afghan reporting desk of Radio Liberty. On my visit to Kabul in May 2008, I heard that she was there and called her. She told me her son was thrilled to be home, and that she was the only person she knew who actually went to Afghanistan for R&R. It has become hard for her to live outside of Afghanistan—almost as hard as it is to live in it.

Afghans were back at war. That war was also engulfing Northwest Pakistan—among its victims was Benazir Bhutto, assassinated by terrorists based in Pakistan’s tribal areas on December 27, 2007.Everywhere Afghans had lost faith in the government, the international community, and the United States and feared the future. Pervasive insecurity fuelled corruption and opportunism, as people stashed away what they could against an uncertain future. As I had predicted, the future of Afghanistan was not the happy ending promised in the Bonn Agreement. But the future was not the past either. Decades, indeed centuries, of strife had marked the society; but so, just as irreversibly, had seven years of revival.

On that same visit I had another chance to see Babur’s Garden with my friend Jolyon Leslie, who had worked in Afghanistan for UN agencies since the 1990s. Now he was using his training as an architect to oversee the reconstruction of historical sites in Kabul for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Babur’s Garden is one of their major projects.

Several of the rooms around the courtyard surrounding the reconstructed caravanserai entrance hosted a small exhibition describing the history of Bagh-i Babur and its place in the tradition of Persian and Central Asian gardens. It ended with a photograph of the ruined garden as the Taliban found it on their entry into Kabul. Leslie described how, not long before our visit, Afghanistan’s First Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, had visited the exhibition and, pausing at the photo of the ruined garden, proclaimed to the nearly empty room, “We must not forget that we did this—we must take responsibility for it.”

Small family groups ambled along the stone paths that flank the newly restored marble watercourse, as gardeners planted new rose bushes. A reconstructed marble enclosure now surrounded Babur’s grave. As we walked, Leslie recounted how a few days earlier he received a text message warning that a suicide bomber had entered the garden. The gardeners, mostly residents of the surrounding communities, which the Aga Khan Trust had helped to rebuild, searched the entire garden with only their shovels and hoes for weapons, looking for the thankfully nonexistent threat. Leslie mentioned that some of the Afghan colleagues who had supervised the restoration, though proud that the garden is now visited by many international dignitaries, were wary of being filmed with these guests. The Taliban are watching, they explained, and they feared being seen on television with foreigners.

As we strolled up the hill from Babur’s tomb to a rebuilt pavilion, we passed a terrace of newly replanted plane trees. Leslie said his Afghan colleagues had saved the trees from Presidential Palace security guards who wanted to cut them down to allow a helicopter to land with “important guests.” So far they were still growing in a garden above the Kabul River.