Afghanistan’s presidential palace is a bucolic refuge protected from the chaos of war by thick walls and layers of security—security so stringent that photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I were prevented from bringing in pens, and in my case, even lipstick. A decade’s worth of bombings, assassination attempts, terror attacks and riots have kept President Hamid Karzai a virtual prisoner. Last week, Yuri and I were invited to spend a day with Karzai in his palace. He keeps an exhausting schedule, zipping between meetings in different buildings with a ground-eating stride that forces his aids into an uneasy trot alongside, as they try to brief him on the latest news. When we arrived, Karzai had just learned of the assassination of one of the members of his High Peace Council, the group assigned to conduct peace negotiations with the Taliban. It was a terrible blow. Still, he kept to his schedule: presiding over his security council update, hosting a lunch for visiting tribal elders from the north, and meeting with a U.S. Congressional delegation led by Nancy Pelosi. He even squeezed in a moment to share his grief with other members of the Peace Council. The only time he paused for a break was when he went to the palace’s small mosque to pray.
The world outside the palace is equally frenetic. Kabul has been shaped by war; its monuments bombed, its green spaces littered with the detritus of battle and its citizens maimed by mines. Even though fear is rife that war will return, Kabulis are busy. The university is in full swing, and local factories now provide the Afghan Army with boots and uniforms. Cafes and shisha bars have sprung up, and, somewhat improbably, a 12-lane bowling alley has become the most popular pastime for the young middle class. It’s a Kabul that Karzai has never seen. The last time he walked through his capital, he tells us, was seven years ago. In two years Karzai will step down. Maybe then he will be able to take another walk.
Aryn Baker is the Middle East Bureau Chief for TIME.
Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.