The most recent War in Afghanistan — with its associated NATO coalition military operations, terrorist attacks and the return of the Taliban — has dominated the Afghan news headlines for the past ten years. But what stands out most from repeated visits to Kabul during the past decade is the emergence of a new westernized urban class. This class emerged thanks largely to the influx of money that came with the coalition's arrival in 2001. Far from the clichés of a turbaned Afghanistan, these new urban residents mingle in supermarkets in Kabul with their mobiles stuck to their ears.

Clothes, particularly men's, are tighter, showing off hours at the gym and transforming bodily functions (how do you pee squatting in tight jeans?). In the private sphere, smaller housing reduces family units which in turn allows children to have their own room. The attendant changes in family hierarchy come at the detriment of the older generations whose authority is undermined by social and technological changes.

The younger generation, ranging from 15-25, have mostly never left Afghanistan. They remember life under the Taliban but also lived through war and liberation. Now, they hope for the country to develop and modernize further. They are teenagers or young adults and live almost like their peers in the West. They go to cafes, they have laptops, they chat all day long. They yearn to become stars, to work in the private sector, to engage in flings, romances, hook-ups. 

Of course, the young people who live in Kabul represent a small enclave of freedom in a country plagued by near-constant conflict. They come from the educated middle class that is almost wholly a product of Western presence. This class grew from basically zero in 2001 to about 10%—15% of the Afghan population (according to a recent census). These people are not rich enough to have the opportunity to go abroad if Afghanistan sinks again, so this segment of the Afghan population carries the modernization project squarely on their shoulders. They oppose the Taliban and wish for peace. They mobilize social networks and take part in NGOs. They are learning how to lobby the government, animate civil society and create a stable, Westernized society. 

And yet, the upcoming presidential elections — the second round will be held on May 28, 2014 — combined with the prospect of the disappearance of foreign troops in late 2014 could end this momentum. Depending on the results and the pull-out, the dollars could dry up, jobs might disappear, and nobody knows if there is a political figure strong enough to counter a Taliban insurgency that would have the potential to plunge the country right back into civil war.

Documenting the existence of this class is important, especially if events wipe out this fragile hint of what Afghanistan could have become.

— Marie Bourreau


Editor's Note: We discovered Sandra Calligaro's work while meeting photographers and reviewing portfolios at the excellent Circulation(s) festival in Paris.

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