City Star Hall is one of the newest wedding centers in Kabul, Afghanistan,… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — Behind the thick walls of one of Kabul's newest districts, Tooba Hotak practices driving her parents' Mercedes in a parking lot lined with cream-colored apartment buildings.
The car lurches as she tries shifting gears, but the 16-year-old drives on, past a cluster of stores and a playground full of children chasing one another in the snow.
Later, she slips into a pair of fluffy slippers for a chemistry class in her family's plush living room.
PHOTOS: Afghanistan's new generation
Tooba is being home-schooled in the British education system. She hopes to go to college and become an engineer. Marriage, children — "that's not so important," she says.
Like many middle-class Kabul residents of her generation, Tooba lived most of her life abroad. She wasn't born yet when Soviet forces pulled out of the country in 1989, unleashing a civil war that eventually gave rise to the Taliban and drove her family into exile in China.
They returned after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 to a city that had shaken off the most rigid strictures of the Islamic militants' rule, which denied girls an education and kept them largely confined to their homes.
Although large parts of the population still struggle to survive in overcrowded slums, these teens and young adults live in modern apartments, shop at Western-style malls and supermarkets, swap text messages on their cellphones, celebrate weddings at neon-decked halls and are connected to the world through television, movies and the Internet.
Tooba doesn't worry about what her life might look like after the departure of most U.S. and allied foreign troops next year.
"It will be the same," she says, nibbling a date. "This is a dangerous place for Americans, but not for Afghans."
Her tutor, Naela, looks up from her laptop. "You think you will be driving after the Taliban come?" snaps the teacher, who, like many Afghans, uses one name.
"They will kill you," she says, running a finger across her neck.
Young Afghans such as Tooba belong to a small but growing class of professionals, business owners and civil servants, a manifestation, in part, of the influx of foreign aid, investment and personnel that has accompanied Western military intervention.
Educated and ambitious, they may represent their nation's best hope for a stable future.
Those too young to remember the Taliban may exhibit a blithe confidence, but others are worried, some to the point of making plans to leave, all too aware of the dangers that lie ahead.
Aria City, the north Kabul district where Tooba lives with her parents and two sisters, is one of several gated communities catering to white-collar Afghans, offering such prized amenities as central heating and air conditioning, round-the-clock running water and private guards.
Beyond the quiet, tree-lined lanes where Tooba practices driving, honking cars jostle for space on rutted, muddy streets with armored convoys, rickety bicycles, donkey carts and vendors. Designed to be largely self-sufficient, the housing development has its own playground, school, stores, restaurant and mosque.
Hazhir Hoshan, 17, and his high school pals escape the fray and settle into the men's section of the Aria City restaurant. They order a round of chicken burgers and Mountain Dew.
The boys laugh off any thought of another all-out civil war.
"There are many modern men here in Afghanistan," Hazhir says, "so I don't think the war will begin again."
His friend Abdullah Hakimi, also 17, nods. "The Taliban just come with big turbans and long beards," he says between bites. "I think they look funny.… They are not as strong as people think."
Abdullah admires the NATO-trained Afghan army and wants to be a military doctor.
"He likes guns!" Hazhir teases.
No, Abdullah says, "the military needs doctors. The civilian doctors are fleeing from the war zones."
The afternoon stretches before them. They think they might drive over to Gulbahar Center, a downtown shopping mall where young men in skinny jeans and gel-sculpted hair go to catch a movie, play video games or challenge one another on a bucking bronco machine.
Afghanistan is "like a new child," Hazhir says. "It's good now. We go to school, play football.… We can have fun together."
The mall, which opened four years ago, is a mash-up of brash Western styles and more conservative Afghan tastes. Fashion-conscious customers browse through aisles of short, strappy dresses, expensive cosmetics and the latest high-tech gadgetry. There is even a tattoo parlor.
Tucked into a corner on the third floor are two new shops, one selling modest black robes and head scarves, the other lingerie in delicate floral and camouflage prints.
Omid Mesrabi, 23, opened the businesses last month with money he saved while working at an embassy for six years. He runs the Islamic dress store, and his sister Muzhda, 18, takes care of customers in search of more intimate apparel.