Afghanistan's Transformation Through the Eyes of Its Young Leaders

Afghan children play on the outskirts of Jalalabad

Afghan children play on the outskirts of Jalalabad. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

On October 7, 2001, just four weeks after the September 11 attacks, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan. The ostensible purpose of the invasion was to destroy Al Qaeda — the terrorist organization responsible for 9/11, which had found safe haven in the central Asian country. But soon after Afghanistan’s Taliban-run government collapsed that December, the war assumed a new dimension: helping Afghanistan rebuild so that its government would never again incubate Islamic terror.

Eighteen years later, the war in Afghanistan continues. In the United States, it is now colloquially referred to as “the forever war,” one that has confounded three successive presidential administrations. Since 2001, some 2,400 Americans have died in a war that has, conservatively, cost the United States more than $750 billion. The total cost to Afghanistan has inarguably been greater: According to researchers at Brown University, more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers, police officers, and civilians have died as a direct result of the conflict since 2001.

Today, the Afghan government controls less than two-thirds of the country’s territory, meaning that large swathes of the countryside remain in the hands of the Taliban or other groups, and the government is riven with corruption. Attempts to negotiate a peace between the Taliban and Kabul have failed, most recently when U.S. President Donald Trump canceled talks at Camp David in early September following a Taliban attack on U.S. soldiers.

But while policymakers and military leaders alike struggle to find a resolution, Afghanistan itself has undergone staggering changes in the last 18 years.

Women, infamously barred from attending school under the Taliban, now occupy an increasingly visible role in Afghan society, business, and government. Widespread urbanization and modern technology have shrunk the once-formidable gaps between city-dwelling Afghans and those living in the remote countryside. And while corruption remains an enormous problem, Afghanistan is, in many ways, more democratic and free than many other countries in the region. But the fear remains that a precipitous American withdrawal may erase these gains.

Since 2006, Asia Society’s Asia 21 Young Leader Network has brought together more than 900 rising leaders across a broad range of sectors and geographies who are working to build a better world. We spoke to several of the Afghan members of this network, and others about how life in the country has changed and where they see Afghanistan headed in the future.

Our Panelists

Shaharzad Akbar

Shaharzad Akbar is currently senior advisor to National Program on Culture and Creative Economy with UNESCO Afghanistan, and has worked for years as an advocate for building a vibrant and tolerant society. Her writing has appeared in international and Afghan media. In 2017, she was selected by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader.

Sadiq Amini

Sadiq Amini, an expert in diplomacy and international security, is a lecturer of international relations at private universities in Kabul. Previously, he worked as the Head of the Communication and Public Relations Unit at the Comprehensive Agriculture and Rural Development Facility, a joint entity established under the auspices of the Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) Cluster ministries.

Saad Mohseni

In 2001, after the Taliban government was removed from power in Afghanistan, Saad Mohseni left Australia for Kabul. Together with his siblings, he launched Afghanistan’s first private radio station, Arman FM. In the years since, Mohseni has become the country’s first true media mogul, a history-making force who has transformed Afghanistan’s once-barren media landscape. 

Abdul Ghaffar Nazari

Abdul Ghaffar Nazari is the manager of training and development human resources at Roshan Telecommunication Development Company and, before that, lead trainer at the Aga Khan Foundation. He is an expert in microfinance, and has received numerous accolades from Afghanistan and abroad.

Maiwand Rahyab

Maiwand Rahyab has devoted his career to strengthening civil society in Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, he ran home-based schools for girls, who were prohibited from leaving the house to obtain an education. He has also served as a prominent youth and civil society leader and has served as an election observer. He is now the executive director of the Afghanistan Institute for Civil Society.

Omaid Sharifi

A human rights activist, Omaid Sharifi is the co-founder of Sela Foundation — an organization that works to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people of Afghanistan. Since 2004, he has advocated for the rights of women and children in Afghanistan, and has organized workshops, seminars, conferences, and radio and TV broadcasts around the country. 

Manizha Wafeq

Manizha Wafeq is the president of Afghanistan Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She has 16 years of work experience for women's empowerment and gender equality. She established gender units in the Ministries of Commerce and Economy and trained more than 500 government employees in gender concepts in Kabul and in the provinces. 

Afghan Hiker
An Afghan hiker applies sunscreen on top of a hill on the outskirts of Kabul in November 2018. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

What was life like under the Taliban?

Manizha Wafeq: There was nothing to do — we had to stay home all day, and only about once a month or every two weeks women would dare to go outside in order to buy things like yarn for knitting and embroidery. We could go and visit family, but that was it. Every time when we left home, we’d be afraid of being caught by a group of Taliban who would go around the city to see that women were covered up and accompanied by a family member.

Saad Mohseni: When you look back, the best term to describe the country was “zombie-like.” People were in a daze. The Taliban years were very traumatic, and the people who had remained in Kabul had suffered severely. You could see it in their eyes. There were almost no feelings. People didn’t react to things. There was a certain numbness to people.

You have to understand: In those early years, you wouldn’t see a lot of young people. They were either hidden away or had moved out of the cities or to Pakistan or to Iran or maybe with relatives in the provinces. The country basically had nothing in terms of infrastructure and telecommunications. The civil war of the ’90s had destroyed the city, so there wasn’t much infrastructure; and at the same time, there wasn’t much hope.

Abdul Ghaffar Nazari: The schools were only open for boys. No women worked except for doctors. In government offices, there were no chairs and tables — people sat on carpets, pillows, and blankets. Weddings were no longer any fun because there was no music. They were more like funerals. People were poor. Everyone struggled to eat three meals a day, and most were unable to manage.

Omaid Sharifi: I remember going to watch a football match one weekend at Kabul’s stadium and they would bring two people out and behead them in front of you. There were thousands of men and children there at the stadium to watch the game, and the Taliban would behead people. Or they’d cut the hands off of people who’d steal.

Kabul gym
Hindi music pumps from the speakers as dozens of Afghan men grunt and sweat their way through a workout beneath the watchful eye of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose muscle-bound image hangs from the wall. The scene inside this Kabul gym is repeated at venues all round the capital, where bodybuilding has become ubiquitous since the fall of the Taliban regime. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

How have things changed?

Omaid Sharifi: Just think about me, a 12-year-old kid working on the streets of Kabul during the Taliban era. I’ve held exhibitions in Australia, the U.S., in Canada, and have traveled around the world with my Afghan passport. I’m an ordinary Afghan citizen without backing from the warlords, the government, or drug lords. I’m just an ordinary kid from Kabul. I’m able to travel and compete on a global level. I’m able to use opportunities with the fellowship I got through Asia Society. A lot of young Afghans have access to the internet, to education outside of Afghanistan, and conferences and events outside our border. They’re connected to the whole world and they’re contributing to the world, whether it’s through tackling climate change or conflict resolution.

Shaharzad Akhbar: People’s aspirations have grown vastly. They now aspire to a life that you’d consider normal in any part of the world, being able to send their children to school and having access to media. Afghans can now enjoy things like going to a concert or a cultural event. Even people who don’t have access to the same services still aspire to that life.

Sadiq Amini: First and foremost, we’re now free. We can feel that we’re the owners of our own land and of our destiny. We live in dignity. We see opportunities to advance and we see hope for a better future.

What do you think might happen if the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan?

Saad Mohseni: The question is about how the Americans go about doing it. A rushed, quickly negotiated settlement not taking into account the gains of the last 20-odd years will obviously be counterproductive and very dangerous for the country, and of course for the U.S. reputation and regional stability.

Sadiq Amini: Our forces have the will to continue providing security for our people, defend our motherland, our people, our sovereignty, and our freedom, but they'll face real threats and dangers. And due to a lack of maturity in terms of institutions, leadership, and their dependency on skills, weapons, and leadership, there’s a real danger that our forces might be fractured or even divided along ethnic lines and then disintegrate. That’s a threat I foresee in the absence of any American forces in Afghanistan.

Maiwand Rahyab: In terms of the capacity of our security forces to defend our country, they’ve come a long way. Even without the presence of international forces, I think that our forces have developed more capacity and earned the support and trust of the country to defend the country. But what worries me is if they’ll have the financial means to maintain that capacity.

Abdul Ghaffar Nazari: If the U.S. military leaves, Afghanistan will no longer be a priority. There will be less business investment. International NGOs will leave. The army will not have sufficient support in terms of finances, logistics, and equipment. The U.S. will no longer be engaged in our politics and economics. Youth will again leave the country, causing a brain drain. Billions of dollars of investment will flee the country.

Afghan boys play soccer at the Kart-e-Sakhi cemetery in Kabul on December 30, 2018. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you think the Taliban might take over?

Maiwand Rahyab: There’s a new generation of young Afghans. People my age, who went through the Taliban era, remember how difficult, hard, frustrating, and inhumane it was. I think we appreciate what we’ve achieved in Afghanistan in the last 17 or 18 years. There’s been a gradual movement toward creating a shared common narrative of a post-Taliban Afghanistan, and I think this post-Taliban Afghanistan has its new culture, a new way of life, a new political system, a new socio-economic reality, and new values. Even people from the mujahideen have enjoyed a different life in the past 18 years, gaining economically, politically, and socially. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest in Afghanistan to regress into the past.

Sadiq Amini: In the 1990s, the only resistance the Taliban faced when they entered Kabul was the Northern Alliance, who retreated into a corner of the country to avoid bloodshed. The people of Kabul were so tired of the civil war and unaware of the Taliban’s true nature that they welcomed them with flowers. But this time around, if they try to get into Kabul, the people will welcome them with bullets and bombs. And if the Taliban try to regain power through violence, and if they succeed to some extent, then they must be assured that not unlike the 1990s when there’s resistance in one corner of the country, this time there will be resistance from all corners of the country by patriotic Afghan youth.

Abdul Ghaffar Nazari: Afghanistan is a changed country. It has its own constitutional law and government infrastructure. Human rights are practiced, democracy exists in places, and freedom of speech is respected. The Taliban, at least for now, are softer than before. They are willing to claim they have no issues working with women.

Afghan voter
A woman holds her child as she casts her vote at a polling station in Jalalabad on September 28, 2019. Afghan women are watching with trepidation as the U.S. draws closer to a deal with the Taliban, with many defiant at the thought of losing any of the hard-won progress they have made in the deeply patriarchal country since the Islamists were toppled in 2001. (Noorullah Shirazada/AFP/Getty Images) 

How have things changed for women?

Shaharzad Akbar: Of course, there remains a lot of sexism and patriarchal structures. There’s also been a kind of openness that Afghanistan had not experienced before. You can look at photos from the past of women in miniskirts, but I think what we have now is greater in terms of the number of women having access to services like education and employment. And the fact is that a greater proportion of Afghans from different ethnic backgrounds, not just upper-class people from Kabul, have changed their views about women in society. You now have women in very remote parts of the country serving in the army and police, and you have women politicians. Something has clicked in the minds of many Afghans that maybe women can have more of a role in society.

Of course, not everyone agrees on what that looks like. It’s important to remember that these women are the first people in their generation to go to school. Some people’s daughters are becoming army officers and joining the football team. In terms of momentum in redefining women’s roles, in terms of trying to understand what we can do, there’s been a lot of progress. Today in Afghanistan, women teachers are normal. When my father was growing up, in a small village, people who sent their daughter to school were considered infidels.

Taliban Bomb
The Taliban on January 15, 2019 claimed responsibility for a powerful truck bomb attack in Kabul that ripped through surrounding neighborhoods, killing at least four people and wounding more than 100, in an assault on the Afghan capital. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Are you optimistic about Afghanistan’s future?

Sadiq Amini: I can assure you with confidence that so much has been achieved in the last 18 years. There is so much hope and energy and there are so many bright young Afghans, men and women, from all over, who are dedicated to serving the country that it’s almost unbelievable sometimes. The older generation, when we discuss this with them, have never seen such a vibrant group of young men and women around the country before. We’re utilizing opportunities and we’re dealing with challenges. There are so many of both.

Maiwand Rahyab: It’s a difficult question. It depends on the day you ask. There are things in Afghanistan that have happened in the last 20 years that have made me hopeful, including the fact that the youth would like to tie their future to Afghanistan’s fate and to remain there. The recent reforms and the way the government works, particularly in the past couple of years, and a vibrant civil society, gives me hope. Our free and independent media, the most vibrant in the region, gives me hope. The high political maturity in different political groups in the country gives me hope. There’s a lot of signs and indications of hope in the country. 

In the meantime, we’re a country so dependent on international support and assistance and so vulnerable to interference and influence from different countries. And given that U.S. politics are quite unpredictable these days, particularly in terms of foreign policy, it’s provided a high level of uncertainty as well. But I’m hopeful and optimistic.

Mobile Library Kabul
Afghan children read books in a mobile library bus in Kabul in April 2018. The library-on-wheels offers pupils and street kids free access to children's books, which are in short supply at public schools and libraries. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images) 

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.