If the U.S. withdraws its combat troops from Afghanistan by late 2014 as planned, it will mark the end of a 13-year American war. But for Afghans, it will be merely the close of the latest chapter in decades of violence that began in the 1970s. For them, there has been little respite from coups, civil war, foreign invasion and terrorism.

Before it all began, Qais Akbar Omar’s extended family was prosperous, well-educated and rooted in its large Kabul compound. The patriarch was his respected grandfather, a successful carpet merchant. His father was a physics teacher and champion boxer; his mother worked in a bank. Then, everything collapsed. Omar’s remarkable memoir of his childhood, A Fort of Nine Towers, describes the family’s suffering and survival during the horrendous years that preceded the American invasion.

Omar is the co-author of Shakespeare in Kabul, but his new book reads more like Les MisĂ©rables than anything by the Bard. As a child and teen, he was held captive more than once, tortured, forced to witness gang rape and summary executions. His clan’s home was lost and its business destroyed. For one remarkable year, his father moved Omar’s immediate family from place to place around northern Afghanistan seeking refuge. For a period, they lived in a cave behind the giant stone Buddhas later destroyed by the Taliban. They even traveled with a band of nomadic herders for a while before returning to Kabul.

Through it all, Omar and his relatives prove themselves courageous and resilient. And in the midst of all the strife, family members are saved time after time by the generosity and bravery of strangers. Omar has a personal epiphany when he is taught carpet weaving by a deaf-mute Turkmen woman, a skill he later uses to survive under the Taliban dictatorship.

Omar is a masterful writer, fully in command of his striking material. He describes from the inside the human cost of what he sees as the pointless struggles among venal warlords and ignorant peasant fundamentalists. He barely knew who Osama bin Laden was—some rich Arab guy living in a mansion—when a whole new wave of trouble arrived with U.S. aerial bombing.

Ultimately, Omar comes to—more or less—like Americans. They are friendly, and always pay full price for carpets. His extraordinary life story should help us better understand the people we are leaving behind.

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