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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, more than 2,300 Americans have died in a war that has, conservatively, cost the United States more than $900 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 graft. 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 September 2019 following a Taliban attack on U.S. soldiers. A recent Washington Post investigation based on over 2,000 pages of government documents reveal a portrait of failure: Afghanistan remains violent, unstable, and corrupt. 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. One Afghan official said recently, “strange as it sounds, 9-11 was a great thing for us. It brought an end to the Taliban rule.” But the fear remains that a precipitous American withdrawal may erase these gains.
Since 2006, Asia Society’s Asia 21 Young Leaders initiative 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.
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 city was quiet and there were far fewer people in the streets. The Taliban wore black or white turbans and had long beards. They walked the streets of the city holding machine guns. The city stunk. Once, we saw a man who had been hanged remain untouched for days in order to frighten people.
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.
There was also less entertainment. When you’re a kid, you want to play in the streets, play sports, listen to music, and watch TV. But none of these were available. Music was banned, nobody was allowed to watch TV or movies, and even when we were playing sports, like football, during prayer times the Taliban soldiers would come and force everyone to go to the mosque. That was a glimpse of the life we had before 9/11.
Sadiq Amini: The Taliban treated themselves like the owners of the land as well as people’s lives. They used extreme violence to dictate a way of life to our people for whatever purposes they wanted.They were making a clear attempt to move Afghanistan toward backwardness, darkness, and primitivity. They were against technology, TV, radio — any sort of activity that could give you a glimpse of the future.
Maiwand Rahyab: I remember wearing turbans, not being able to shave my beard, not being able to watch TV, or listen to music, and not being able, most importantly, to express myself when I felt anger and disenchantment and frustration. I had no opportunity to take it out of myself.
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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.
Saad Mohseni: Afghanistan is now a well-connected country — 70 or 80 percent of the population has phones, most of them smartphones, and every house has access to television and radio. You have a new generation of Afghans who are accustomed to having their sisters go to school and their wives working and being totally connected. It’s a totally different mindset. People talk about corruption in Afghanistan, but despite that, there have been improvements in infrastructure with new roads and buildings. It’s a completely different country now. We may as well be in a different universe.
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, defending 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.
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. his time around, if they try to get into Kabul, the people will welcome them with bullets and bombs. If the Taliban try to regain power through violence, and if they succeed to some extent, then they must be assured that 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.
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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 daughters to school were considered infidels.
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, give 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.