Students chat happily on manicured lawns, proudly donning their black graduation robes and snapping photos of each other with family and friends.
It's May 26, graduation day at the American University of Afghanistan—the first since the university opened in 2006—and the violence and misery of this country's decades-long war could not seem further away.
Twenty-nine of the 32-student graduating class, most of whom were among the university's first to enroll, will soon walk across a stage to receive their diplomas.
Children of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, most of these graduates cobbled together their educations over decades of exile and against all odds. In the four years since their enrollment, Afghanistan has slid even further into crisis.
"This is a truly historic day," Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says in a keynote speech. "I could not have dreamed in 2002 that I would stand here in front of a graduating class of an American university in Afghanistan. You will bring honor to your families and to your country."
In attendance are more than 600 people, university officials said, including a handful of ministers and Afghan power brokers. Parents and grandparents of the fresh graduates cheer from the crowd. As one of the only reminders that the ceremony is held in a war-torn country, armed plainclothes security guards scour the audience and campus, looking for threats.
"This is so important, that Afghan students are graduating from an American university in Afghanistan," the 65-year-old grandparent of one of the graduates, Ahmed Jawed Murad, said. "In my generation, everybody would leave Afghanistan if they wanted an education."
Afghanistan's American university, a nonprofit, secular institute of higher learning based on the American model, is indeed an anomaly here, where war and extremism have rendered 72 percent of the country's almost 30 million people illiterate.
The country's education system, including its some 40 public and private universities, is in shambles. "Brain drain" is endemic.
But the university, tucked away behind high walls from Kabul's dusty, urban chaos—and with state-of-the-art facilities built in modest, low-hung buildings on its five-acre campus in west Kabul is a bastion of quality education, free thinking, and opportunity, its students say.
Right now the university offers three undergraduate degrees, in business administration, information technology and computer science, and political science and public administration. Beginning this fall, it will make an ambitious leap into the world of postgraduate studies, kicking off the first semester of its M.B.A. program.
The university now boasts 789 students, 21 percent of whom are women.
This year's first batch of graduating students, six of whom are women, have extraordinary tales to tell of the war they themselves are waging in this country—the war for an education.
Targets of the Taliban
"I have no words to describe how happy I am, and how happy my family is, on this day," said 26-year-old Khattra Afghan, who earned a business degree after her family fled to Pakistan during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s.
Ms. Afghan's family hails from the volatile Kandahar province, the Taliban's spiritual homeland and an area at the forefront of the long-running battle between United States-led foreign troops and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
Female government officials, teachers, and aid workers have been prime targets in the Taliban's recent assassination campaign in the province's capital city. But Ms. Afghan, who plans to obtain a master's in public policy after graduation, is undeterred.
"My people, in Kandahar, they need help. They need good governance," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "Even if it means I give my life, I will help them."
With its high tuition rates—$5,500 per academic year—in a country beset by poverty, the university tends to attract Afghanistan's well-to-do, the sons and daughters of its wealthiest businessmen and politicians.
Operating under a $42-million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the university has received a lot of criticism for its high fees. Afghan public universities are prohibited by law from charging tuition. But almost all of this year's graduates expressed a strong desire to contribute to the mammoth international-led effort to extricate their country from the throes of war and instability.
"I want to use my education to help Afghan women in the provinces, to make sure their voices are heard there and among the decision makers in government," says 28-year-old Lida Nadery, who also received a degree in business.
Ms. Nadery paid for her education with money she earned working at a Kabul-based nongovernmental organization.
One male student, also graduating, was working as a janitor before his American employer paid for his first semester's tuition at the university.
"It's been such a great experience to see the growth of the students. They are so hungry for knowledge," says C. Michael Smith, who took over as the university's president in 2009 and is largely credited with improving both enrollment and the university's credibility.
Mr. Smith says he hopes to boost enrollment to 1,000 students by this time next year, and 2,000 in the next five years. The university will move to a 75-acre campus in west Kabul over the next five years.
"Each individual is so incredible because they've had to piece together an education over a lifetime of displacement, living in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran," Mr. Smith says.
Rod Monger, an assistant professor who designed the M.B.A. program that begins this fall, says that the image of the university as an elite institution is a distorted one and that it ignores the sacrifices made by its new graduates and the current student body.
"The majority of students have a heartfelt desire to live in a fair country, where there is opportunity for a decent life," he says.
"If you are an Afghan youngster, you have a right to life. And I don't have to lecture these students to fight for Afghanistan. They're ready to do this on their own."