KABUL, Afghanistan -- The landmarks of this capital city's new middle class light up a once-restrained night sky -- vast and glittering wedding halls with aspirational names like "Kabul-Paris," streetlamp networks, come-hither billboards for energy drinks.
After the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, thousands of Afghan families returned from abroad, or came in from the countryside, to construct urban and increasingly Westernized lives. They built homes and careers based on an influx of foreign money, expanded bureaucracies and new educational opportunities.
And they are the ones most haunted by the fear that it could all just be a bubble, doomed to pop once foreign money and Western militaries stop holding it up.
"We are enjoying life," said Rasool Mohibzada, 31, a former taxi driver who sold chickpeas and balloons in Pakistan during the Taliban years, but after returning to Kabul won a job as an I.T. manager for the British Council, the cultural relations agency of the British government.
Sitting in the large house he built on a $95,000 plot of land in airy western Kabul and playing with his 5-year-old daughter, he is a member of a young Afghan generation whose eyes burn with modest aspiration for what would be by outside standards an ordinary life -- access to electricity, schools for his son and daughter, rule of law, security.
"But I am quite afraid about the future at the moment," he said. "If I got the chance, I would go now."
Though all of Afghanistan's major cities have grown and changed, the biggest differences, by far, can be seen in Kabul. Its population has exploded, now more than 5 million compared with 1.2 million in 2001, and its streets, planned for 30,000 cars, are clogged with 650,000, according to the mayor, Mohammad Yunus Nawandish. He is drawing up an expanded city plan that can accommodate up to 8 million residents.
The new urban elite makes up only a tiny slice of Afghan life -- most of the newcomers to Kabul are impoverished migrants who now occupy terraces of rough mud houses that have splashed up onto the rocky hillsides surrounding the city.
And the norm is still grinding poverty for about 70 percent of Afghans, who live in the countryside, or about 25 million people by some estimates. Taken as a whole, life expectancy for Afghans is still just 48 years, and the average annual national income per capita is about $410. That makes the contrast with the markers of the middle class all the more striking: in Kabul, there are beauty parlors, a bowling alley, new television stations, access to health care (although Afghans must travel abroad for serious treatment), restaurants like Afghan Fried Chicken and children's birthday parties hosted at nice hotels.
At the private American University of Afghanistan, privileged young adults -- some of them the offspring of top officials and businessmen who have minted fortunes in the war economy -- stride the five-acre Kabul campus, paying up to $6,000 a year for degrees in law and other subjects.
Some in the new generation have succeeded in the private sector, like Haji Safiullah, 42, a serious, thin-faced man, who owns three pharmacies and is branching out into construction, building apartment blocks in Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif.
"I am one of the people who have invested more than $1 million in different businesses," Mr. Safiullah said.
Even as the United States is deliberating how large a force, if any, will stay in Afghanistan past the 2014 end of the international combat mission, Mr. Safiullah holds to the belief that the Americans will not leave Afghanistan altogether for many years. All the same, he is clear about the shape that catastrophe will take if the world averts its gaze: a deterioration of security and an economic collapse.
"To tell you the truth, I am not that worried about the future, because the international community has invested a lot in Afghanistan," he said. "They will not let this investment fail."
However, he keeps a Kalashnikov rifle beneath his counter just in case.
Others are mindful of how much could be lost if Taliban values are allowed to dominate Kabul again, particularly women like Malalai Ishaqzai, 47. She was part of a first wave of women to join Parliament, serving from 2005 to 2010, and started a business selling bottled fruit juices.
She lives in an enclave of Kabul apartment blocks called the Mikrorayon, where billboards hawking energy drinks, cellphones, bodybuilding gyms, private schools and airline flights illustrate the perks of new urbanites.
Ms. Ishaqzai, too, refuses to believe that the United States will abandon the Afghan Army to defend the country alone. "If the Americans leave, 100 percent I can't live here as an ex-M.P., as a politician," she said.
Many members of this new generation that came of age in the past decade now work in government ministries or for programs run by development organizations like the World Bank, where they can earn monthly salaries as high as $5,000.
But their programs, paid for by organizations like the Department of Agriculture, are gradually winding down or shifting to the Afghan government's budget, and civil servants' pay is being cut. The World Bank estimates that there are 5,000 staff members in the main ministries whose salaries are paid by foreign money.
Some Western officials here expect some share of those people who returned from abroad in the past 10 years, from Europe, for example, or the United States, to leave once ministry salaries are reduced and when the economy inevitably slows.
The richest Afghans already have second homes abroad and can leave if security worsens. But others in the middle class and below lack that option. Many families tell stories of a brother or son who has gone to India to find an illicit path abroad or who is trying another escape plan.
Asylum applications by Afghans to 44 leading industrialized nations last year reached 31,780 by November, according to provisional estimates by the United Nations, only slightly below the rate of applications in 2011, when 36,247 Afghans sought asylum abroad, the highest number since 2001.
Many seek to enter Europe: Afghanistan was the top country of origin for asylum seekers in the European Union in 2011, according to the European Asylum Support Office, and that trend continued last year.
The American Embassy in Kabul says it has not seen an increase in nonimmigrant visa applications. But last year, the United States suspended an educational exchange program taking hundreds of Afghan high school students to America because many were failing to return to Afghanistan.
Many, however, are determined to stay, and have visions of driving more change on their own terms.
More than 80 prominent young Afghans recently caused waves when they announced a new independent political movement crossing ethnic lines. They are optimistic about Afghanistan's prospects, even as they acknowledge the difficulties.
"In these 10 years, the country has changed, and it can work," said Haseeb Humayoon, who runs a business consultancy and is a founding member of the movement, called Afghanistan 1400, referring to the year 2020-21, or 1400 in the Afghan calendar.
"If we want it to develop as a country, then we have to start for ourselves," said Najlla Habibyar, the chief executive of the Export Promotion Agency and another founding member.
It is at wedding celebrations, so central to Afghan culture and society, that hope is easiest, and the fears are most remote. There is comfort in some measure of freedom, and in some of the finer things, for now at the very least.
At a party recently for Sami Yadgari, about 1,000 raucous male guests packed one hall of Uranus Palace, one of Kabul's huge and dazzling wedding complexes. Mr. Yadgari's new wife and the female guests celebrated in a separate hall.
For about $12,000 for a night's revelry, the dinner tables were lavishly supplied, the space was elegantly decked with ornate chandeliers, and armed security guards kept watch. Mr. Yadgari, who works for the Ministry of Finance, thrashed the air jubilantly in a ring of male dancers as a wedding singer blasted out a ballad hailing Afghan pride and perseverance.
"This is the land of freedom," he sang. "This is the land of high mountains. This is the land of heroes. Each stone of this country is a ruby."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.