What we Americans experienced as a disastrous attack on our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001, signified the opening bell for Afghan freedom, as the domestic Taliban oppressors, protecting Al-Qaida, had to seek refuge in the hills adjacent to neighboring Pakistan after the U.S.-led coalition's invasion.
Today, Afghans are freer. Life is better for many Afghan women. The population is better educated, healthier and safer, and the country's physical infrastructure continues to be repaired, improved and expanded from decades of widespread destruction and neglect.
I recently came across a local newspaper article in which a 29-year-old Afghan woman remarked, "On 9/11, the world changed for us. This was a positive change in our culture." Another Afghan - a 21-year-old man - went on to explain her comment: "We are a new generation. We are very tired from war. In the time of the Taliban, no one was going to school; no one was going to work. Now everyone is going to school; everyone is working. In my opinion, the U.S. and other countries, when they came to Afghanistan, they brought many changes for the better."
These young people are a growing segment of the Afghan population who came of age after the 2001 coalition attacks. Increasingly educated and worldly, they can no longer be defined by the struggles of their parents: the Soviet invasion, the mujahideen liberation fighters, civil war, grinding poverty and the rise of the regressive and oppressive Taliban. They have grown up surrounded by a large, diverse international coalition of military and civilian assistance workers, and believe that education and openness are the ways forward from war and destruction.
For the past year, I have been working as a program economist for the U.S. government's Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City - birthplace of the Taliban. (Provincial reconstruction teams are mixed military and civilian teams working together in support of stabilization, governance, rule of law and socioeconomic development.)
I had an earlier association with Afghanistan when I worked as a program officer for the U.S. government-funded Afghanistan Cross-Border Humanitarian Assistance Program during the years of the Soviet occupation and in the immediate aftermath of their 1989 withdrawal; a program managed out of our embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1985 to 1992.
As such, I have been witness to the unfortunate reality that during the past 35 years, a generation-and-a-half of Afghans grew up experiencing nothing but violence, conflict, fighting, war, destruction and dislocation in their homeland, ever since the former Soviet Union's Red Army's invasion in 1978. Once the Red Army withdrew, local warlords fought each other to a destructive draw for years until the Taliban took over in 1996, causing further chaos and upheaval.
U.S., NATO and other International Security Assistance Forces - coalition troops, in close cooperation with Afghan security forces, have been engaging local and nationwide insurgent groups since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 al-Qaida attacks on our country. And since that time, much international donor-financed reconstruction and socioeconomic development progress has been achieved. Yet many challenges remain. And as Afghanistan assumes full responsibility for its own security when the security forces withdrawal is complete on Dec. 31, 2014, the international community has pledged to remain financially supportive of the war-weary Afghan population's continued quest for progress, in order to ensure that what we have all worked so hard to achieve during the past decade - at huge human, material and financial costs - is preserved.
Curt C. F. Wolters, PhD, is a retired Foreign Service Officer and has been a resident of Bellingham since 2002. He is currently serving a one-year tour of duty in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on a time-limited Foreign Service appointment with the United States Agency for International Development.