Javid Ahmad is a fellow at the Atlantic Council.
On Sept. 11, 2001, my family and I were refugees in Pakistan. Like most Afghan refugees there, we did not pay much attention to the news, mostly because many of us did not own a television.
Little did we know that day’s horrific events would fundamentally transform Afghanistan and the lives of millions of its people, including my own. Seventeen years later, a lot has changed in Afghanistan, but a lot also has not.
What has changed?
Even the most ardent critics of U.S. involvement there should accept that an impressive amount has been achieved. Unlike in 2001, today’s Afghanistan has an elected president, parliament, a strong national security force, schools and universities, a formal justice system, health system, functioning roads and airports, a vibrant media, mobile phones and access to the Internet.
Afghanistan now has 340,000 security forces — a major achievement of U.S. efforts — which include the army, police, air force and intelligence services. This force was effectively built from the scratch to replace a ragtag militia force, commanded by local strongmen rather than the Afghan state. Today, Afghan forces are fighting on the front lines.
Meanwhile, millions of young students, including women and girls, regularly attend schools and universities. Since 2001, Afghanistan has graduated more students than at any time in the country’s history.
More Afghan women now have access to health and medical facilities, which has significantly reduced infant mortality. Life expectancy has grown from 56 to 64. Television stations, once banned under Taliban rule, have proliferated and more than 18 million ordinary Afghans now have access to cell phones and the Internet. At the same time, the country has developed a new understanding of politics despite its problems, thanks to an educated and a curious public. These are only a some of the many gains that most Afghans have embraced with great enthusiasm.
What has not changed?
The war continues to torment the Afghan people. Violence combined with poverty, corruption, predatory politics and negligible government services are still part of daily life.
These problems have moved the conflict in Afghanistan into a fundamentally different chapter. Over the years, instability in Afghanistan has increasingly adopted the shape of a triangular axis: an externally-enabled brutal insurgency, buoyed by an undemocratic criminal patronage network and a booming drug industry. Afghanistan is now fighting on multiple fronts.
Among the most crucial threats the country continues to face remains the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban is no longer what it was in 2001: they are now more intransigent, adaptive, lethal, and effective.
The new Taliban are also splintered across different factions. Internally, they are divided between hardliners and moderates, between those who prefer to negotiate a peace deal with the Afghan government and those who seek a military victory.
The Taliban has been increasingly taken over by the Haqqani Network, a terrorist group that controls more than 15 percent of the Taliban’s manpower and influences smaller fronts. Moreover, the Taliban have also diversified their funding sources and have established closer ties with Iran and Russia. Meanwhile, the Taliban has not given up on their main objective: to take control of the Afghan political system and remold it to fix their vision of a closed-off society underpinned by the group’s extreme religious ideology.
The Taliban’s relationship with its founding patron, Pakistan, remains strong. Changes on the ground have not altered Pakistan’s own calculations of seeking a pliable Afghan state. The Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan have grown, and the group’s senior leadership continue to reside in the country.
The current conventional wisdom in Washington is that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict. There’s not a lot of hope for a political solution, either.
The Taliban, by its calculations, is operating from a position of strength, seeking a maximalist outcome if it enters into peace negotiations. The group and its backers appear ever more confident, thanks to their battlefield gains. But no position is so strong that it is permanent.
Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, has extended an olive branch to the Taliban to come to the negotiating table without preconditions. The Taliban has yet to reciprocate. However, the solution to the Afghanistan conflict would remain elusive unless Washington deals with the nest of the insurgency: Pakistan. Washington’s pressures on Pakistan have not yielded any measurable results.
That’s how we find ourselves at an inflection point, both politically and military. Today, most Afghans are daily braving their own mini-9/11s. Still, the positive changes in today’s Kabul are strikingly tangible. New restaurants, cafes, bowling alleys and sleek shopping malls have boosted the capital’s economy and popularity. The neon wedding halls and a growing number of artists and musicians have lifted the city’s social scene. Dating has become common among young people, defying social barriers. Young Afghans have embraced new clothing styles and haircuts with a vengeance. Several media channels broadcast 24 hours a day, producing everything from news to the Afghan versions of American Idol, mixed martial arts and Sesame Street.
Amid all this, many of the threats that existed before Sept. 11, 2001, have become even more powerful, making Afghanistan a front-line state. Afghans are grateful for the improvement in their lives and for the American support. I am one of the beneficiaries of that support. Washington should not let it go to waste. Instead, it should accelerate the implementation of its new South Asia strategy and prioritize the peace talks with the Taliban.