In October of 2001, my three siblings and I were secretly watching an old Bollywood movie in the basement of our house in central Kabul, Afghanistan—watching movies was punishable by public shaming and jail time under Taliban—when Americans dropped the first bomb on the city. I remember everyone clapping with joy as the second bomb fell, and then the third. It was 15 years ago, and I was only 16 years old. After four years of a brutal civil war among warlords, from 1992 to 1996, and five years of Taliban’s draconian rule from the end of that war until 2001, my family, like many other Afghan families, was ready to welcome anyone who could rid us of the Taliban.
The news of the U.S. preparing to invade Afghanistan had given me a mixed feeling of fear and excitement. I had seen, on a cassette tape a friend had smuggled into the country from Pakistan, a CNN segment showing the Twin Towers crumbling down, and then George W. Bush standing on the ruins, promising Americans that the culprits would be punished. I was afraid, because I knew what it meant to live under a rain of bombs; but I was excited, because a U.S. invasion would also mean the end of Taliban’s barbaric rule and a better future. Back then, my older brother and I would go to school in the morning, and in the afternoon we would weave carpets to help my father put food on the table. But my father had told us that Americans would not only turn Afghanistan into another Dubai, they would also bring all the war criminals to justice.
It was because of these hopes that not even the news of Americans’ bombing of weddings, villages, and buses during the next few months changed my support for the invasion. “A better future comes with a price,” I would tell my friends when they criticized the Americans for killing civilians. Was I naïve? Maybe.
Americans invaded Afghanistan in the middle of a civil war, essentially picking one side, the warlords, against the other side, the Taliban—since it was the Taliban that had refused to hand over Osama bin Laden following the attacks of September 11. But the warlords were the very people who had killed thousands of innocents and destroyed the country during the civil war; the United States had helped arm them to drive the Soviets out of the country in the 1980s and, in the struggle for power among different groups of fighters afterward, they turned their arms on each other. It was that fighting, in turn, that paved the way of the emergence of Taliban in the 1990s. In other words, in driving out the Taliban, the Americans sided with one group of human-rights violators against another. The current vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, for example, helped fight the Taliban alongside the United States but was recently denied a visa to the country due to accusations of war crimes. By allowing the warlords back to power, not only did the Americans dash our hopes for a better and just future, but they also doomed their own post-9/11 project in Afghanistan.
After 15 years of constant war, though, it is still hard to evaluate the impact of the U.S. invasion. The answer depends on who you ask. For Afghans who live in the cities, there is hardly any war, except occasional suicide bombings—roads are paved, schools are open, and households have electricity. These conditions lend themselves to a rather positive view of the invasion. On the other hand, for Afghans who live in the countryside, where not only bulk of the fighting and dying has taken place, but little else has changed save for some new government buildings, people that I’ve met and spoken to tend to have negative views of the invasion.
Afghanistan has been one of the biggest recipients of international aid for more than a decade. The U.S. alone has spent some $700 billion on military operations and reconstruction projects there. Yet the country is still one of the poorest in the world, where 10 million people live under the poverty line and only one quarter of the population is literate. A big chunk of the aid money ended up in offshore bank accounts of major warlords and their cronies.
In June 2014, when I left Afghanistan to get my Master’s at the University of Denver, security was already deteriorating. I could no longer travel to places that I had visited six months before. There were rumors of Taliban preparing for bigger operations following the U.S. withdrawal then scheduled for the end of that year (President Obama last year extended the mission until 2017). The Taliban are not only capable of carrying out complex attacks in Kabul and overrunning provincial capitals; they are also in control of more territory than they have been since 2001. Recently the Islamic State, mainly composed of former Taliban fighters, has also started setting up shop in the eastern parts of the country, threatening the security of the nearby provinces. The Afghan security forces—350,000 army, police, and intelligence forces the U.S. paid billions for—are not capable of defending the country against the Taliban’s relentless attacks.
But civilians have paid the highest cost. According to the United Nations, last year alone, a record 11,000 Afghan civilians were killed or maimed. Lack of security and economic opportunities have forced many young Afghan men, including myself, to flee to foreign countries in hope of a better future. Afghans were the second-largest group of those seeking asylum in Europe last year, with nearly 200,000 applying.
Back when we were rooting for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, I remember my father saying that it would end all wars in our country. At that moment my father’s words sounded like music to me. But looking back, I realize that my father was having one of his Wilsonian moments: Not only did the U.S. invasion not end all the wars in Afghanistan, it created more of them.
These days, when someone asks me if anything has changed in Afghanistan since 2001, I show him or her this New York Times political cartoon that I have saved in my phone. It shows the current president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, sitting on a house of cards, telling an American soldier on his way out of the room to make sure he doesn’t slam the door.