Fifteen years ago, in response to 9/11, the United States launched a bombing campaign in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, that led to the end of the radical fundamentalist Taliban regime and initiated one of the world's most expensive rebuilding projects.
Since then, Afghanistan has seen significant progress in women's rights, millions of children who might otherwise have been denied educations have been to school, and independent media have flourished. And yet, for all the billions spent, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, with corruption rife, the drug trade rampant, and growing insecurity a global concern.
As the longest war in U.S. history enters its 16th year, we asked three Afghans from different parts of the country how they think their lives have been affected and what they think the future holds.
Herat, western Afghanistan
In 2001, Roya Mahboob was 12 years old and living with her family in neighboring Iran, where they had fled after the Soviet invasion of 1979. As an Afghan refugee, Mahboob was not allowed to enroll in an Iranian school. Without access to the Internet or even a computer, she assuaged her interest in technology by studying books on computer hardware.
"When I came back to Afghanistan, I found so many new opportunities," Mahboob, a native of the relatively stable western Afghan city of Herat, tells RFE/RL. "Like me, there were many girls and boys who took advantage and changed their lives, their family's lives, and changed their future."
Today, Mahboob is one of few female CEOs in the country. She founded her Afghan Citadel Services, an IT consulting firm, in 2010, and she and her 25 employees (most of them women) provide computer, Internet, and software assistance to schools, hospitals, and businesses around the country. In 2013, Time magazine included her on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
For the past two years, she has been developing EdyEdy, an online learning-management system that she hopes will one day be used in schools and businesses in Afghanistan. Roya says she wants to "empower women through technology" and create jobs for young professionals in Afghanistan, where youth unemployment is high.
"For millions of the young generation in Afghanistan, life has changed a lot," says Mahboob, who moves between New York City and Herat. She refers to the Taliban's rule between 1996 and 2001, when women and girls were barred from working or going to school, as a "dark page."
"We didn't have any hope. We didn't actually have any future," she says.
Mahboob thinks there has been "clear progress" in Afghanistan in the past 15 years, although she laments that there could have been more improvement if resources had been better utilized and rampant government corruption rooted out.
Nevertheless, she has hope. "Life is difficult and the war still exists. If you talk to Afghans, they are not certain about the future, but they still have hope."
Mohammad Isaq heads the Union for Afghanistan's Disabled, a local nongovernmental group that provides for dozens of handicapped veterans from nearly four decades of war.
"Life has improved a little economically for me and many others in Kabul," he says of life in the Afghan capital. He says that under the administration of former President Hamid Karzai, who stepped down after a presidential election in 2014 that marked the country's first-ever democratic transfer of power, "there were jobs and people were feeling calm."
Under the Taliban, Isaq earned a living by playing soccer for one of the dozen teams created and funded by various Taliban leaders in Kabul. (While the Taliban banned many sports and other forms of public entertainment, soccer and cricket thrived.) Yet Isaq says he has no fond memories of the Taliban era, which he calls a "backward, extremely difficult" time.
But he says he sees little hope for the future as the country remains mired in violence and Afghans grapple with economic woes stemming from the pullout of international forces in 2014.
"Now there's not many jobs," he says. "Ethnic tensions are rising. There's very little money in Kabul. That's why people are selling their homes and going overseas. In order to survive, people want to go to a safer place. In Kabul, there's bombings almost every day."
Isaq's 21-year-old daughter, Parand, is more optimistic. She graduated from university last year and now has a teaching job at her alma mater. That would have been impossible during Taliban rule, when as a 6-year-old she dreamed of becoming a teacher.
"When I used to see boys studying in school, I used to get upset and I would ask my parents why I couldn't go," she recalls. "So my father shaved my head and I wore boy's clothes, and I went to school. Nobody recognized that I was a girl. Even after the Americans came in 2001, I still went to a boy's school, because I didn't know how to behave like a girl. That lasted for a few years."
Kandahar, southern Afghanistan
Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban and the Pashtun heartland, remains one of the most volatile areas in Afghanistan. With violence still a major threat, there has been little reconstruction or development, especially outside the provincial capital, Kandahar, where militants hold sway.
"I didn't see or experience any progress in my life," says Zahir Jan, a gardener in Shir-e Surkh, a strategic area used by militants as a launching pad for attacks on the city. "There is no security. There has been no improvement. Nothing."
He lives with his wife and six children in a mud house that was partially destroyed in a clash between the Taliban and Afghan soldiers a few years ago. Jan, who receives a monthly salary of 5,000 afghanis ($75), says he has no money to rebuild his home.
While many Kandahar residents live under a cloud of violence and poverty, local strongmen and power brokers have become rich through securing inflated foreign contracts. Others have been accused of involvement in the billion-dollar opium trade or of gross human rights violations.
"Life was good under the Taliban," Jan says, although he adds that there was also little development or jobs. "There was no corruption and security was good."
Jan expresses "little hope" for the future. "There's infighting in the government, and there's no cooperation among the leaders. No goodwill comes from it. Afghanistan will not be fixed in my lifetime."