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Adam Ferguson

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Out at the Kabul Military Training Center, Colonel Fazl Karim is giving a new batch of recruits his usual pep talk on a hilltop not far from the barracks. It’s two weeks before the graduation of the latest group of soldiers in the Afghan National Army, and the troops sit cross-legged in the dirt, aligned in neat rows. Construction crews build more barracks nearby—another 100,000 recruits are expected to go through the training in the next three years, gearing up for a final tally of 352,000 that will replace foreign soldiers. “You are all going to die one day,” shouts Karim. “You might as well die protecting your country!”

In Afghanistan, fatalism trumps optimism as a rallying cry. But perhaps that just reflects the realities of Afghan soldiering: by the end of 2014 the country’s armed forces will take over security from the international troops that have been stationed here for more than a decade. And yet the insurgency continues. What the Afghan troops lack in equipment, logistics, air support and training they more than make up for in sheer bravery.

But is it enough? Even the U.S. soldiers tasked with overseeing training are skeptical. “As long as training continues when we leave there is no reason to think that Afghanistan can’t continue to grow a professional army,” says Captain Jason Reed. “But it’s going to take generations.”

Adam Ferguson is a frequent contributor to TIME. Represented by VII, Ferguson has covered conflict for several years, primarily in Afghanistan.

Aryn Baker is the Middle East Bureau Chief for TIME.

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We’re in the business of making icons. From immortal covers to probing profiles to our annual Person of the Year, TIME has always shaped the first draft of history with the personalities and moments that mattered most. We get iconic. But 2011 has been a year of iconoclasm: powerful orthodoxies were challenged, notorious villains slain and dictators came crashing down. Along the way, people took photographs.

Our top 10 photos of 2011 capture a year as tumultuous and transformative as any in recent memory. The photos’ captions are in the words of the photographers who shot them. We take you from a tiny Washington control room, crammed with the great eminences of the capital, to the courageous multitudes massed in Tahrir Square. We behold the wrath of nature and the horrors that men inflict on one another. A scene of staggering human depravation in Somalia is joined by an uncanny glimpse of human genius: a NASA shuttle blazes into space, tethered to earth only by a thin line of smoke.

2011 will be remembered as a year of defiance and few acts of resistance will be as memorable to Americans as that ugly incident in California when a police officer fired pepper spray straight into the faces of the college students who refused his orders. Their rebellion — and viral send-ups of the pepper-spraying cop — will live on into the next year. But what of the young American soldier staring at the lens in Afghanistan? In his bewildered gaze is all the terror of war. It’s a look that must have lasted only a fleeting second, yet, haunted with a piercing sadness, stretches across centuries of human experience. It’s iconic. —Ishaan Tharoor

MORE: See the Top 10 of Everything in 2011

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On a recent embed with U.S. Army Infantry troops in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, I found myself challenged by how to tell the story. Patrols had been short and infrequent, interaction among soldiers was sparse and didn’t translate into revealing pictures, and there was little engagement with Afghan civilians. Here I was, four kilometers from the volatile and strategic Afghanistan-Pakistan border, struggling to conceptualize a visual story.

During the downtime I sat in the Morale, Welfare and Recreation room, where I would watch the soldiers use the internet to connect to the outside world. I’d hear soldiers have softly spoken arguments with wives or girlfriends, tones of longing in their discussions, plans being forged, laughter, as well as love and friendship being both exchanged and broken.

After being privy to this, it occurred to me that this phenomena was the story itself. It wasn’t an obvious narrative about war—the angst and boredom in longing to be home—but that is war.

The faces of young men gazing into computer screens using Facebook and talking on Skype epitomized this sense of boredom and longing, so I went about capturing the expressions of soldiers distracted by a technology that connects them to something abstract, yet affords them the comfort in looking home, at war.

Adam Ferguson is a frequent contributor to TIME. Represented by VII, Ferguson has covered conflict for several years, primarily in Afghanistan.

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