Kabul, Afghanistan – The US invasion of Afghanistan toppled Taliban from power in October 2001 but since then, tens of thousands of civilians and security forces have been killed as the country descended into a civil war.
The US invaded Afghanistan after blaming the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who was the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks.
In the past 18 years, gender rights have improved, with more girls attending schools and women joining the workforce and entering politics – but the security situation remains precarious for common Afghans.
Young Afghans, in particular, have grown under the shadow of conflict, with both the US-backed government as well as the Taliban blamed for the rising civilian casualties.
“The war has touched everyone and everything here, even me. I have lost family, and a dear friend died in my arms,” said Mohammad Tahir Basharyar, who turned 18 less than two months ago.
However, Basharyar admits that in contrast to the life his parents had lived under the Taliban, things are different, even better in certain aspects.
“During the Taliban period, people lived in poverty, and women were not allowed outside their homes. There was no access to modern science, no political stability, no freedom of expression, and no connection to the outside world,” Basharyar, who hails from Helmand province, told Al Jazeera.
He said that the US invasion undid the brutality of the Taliban rule, to some extent.
“I have the chance to learn modern science. I have the freedom to express and there has been much done for women’s rights. But it came at a cost of war,” he said.
Older Afghans who lived under the Taliban recall the dark days of economic hardship and strictly enforced laws defined by the group’s interpretation of Islam.
“I have personally witnessed the punishment of four people in the main football ground of our city. There was no economy to sustain the people, but we were all forced to pray five times a day,” said Norullah Reyazat, from the northern province of Baghlan.
The 47-year-old said that people thought the US invasion “could lead to a change for the better”.
“But that’s not what happened,” he said.
The living conditions of Afghans, meanwhile, have not improved much as the economy struggled to improve due to the conflict.
“We don’t see any fundamental changes; we still don’t have electricity. There is increasing violence and no security. The US lost both, its funds and its reputation, in this mission,” Reyazat said.
Basharyar, who dreams of becoming a journalist, rues the security situation. “How nice it would be if there was no war and I could finish my studies,” he said.
In Kabul, the Afghan capital, Marzia Mahajer, a student who also works as a social worker at a women’s organisation, echoes similar sentiments.
“Ask any other 18-year-old from around the world and they will say what they dream for their future, and they will tell you about their plans, their education and ambitions,” Mahajer, 18, told Al Jazeera.
“But ask an Afghan youth and they only talk about war,” she said.
“Afghan youth can’t even plan for their future because all their energies are focused on worrying about the conflict, and their families. Even going to a classroom can be a threat,” she said, referring to the increasing Taliban attacks in and around educational institutions.
Mahajer’s family left for Pakistan when she was six months old, and returned after the fall of the Taliban. Her last name means “refugee”, mirroring her real life that saw displacement due to the conflict.
“We had no rights, we were treated badly being Hazara (a Shia minority) and it was especially harder for the women,” she said, recalling her early years in Pakistan. But they eventually returned to a changed Afghanistan a few years after the invasion.
“It was not the Afghanistan my parents left. The situation was much different and we as women had more rights, access to education and opportunities to work,” she said, acknowledging that the US invasion did help improve the condition of Afghan women.
But she is concerned about the increasing violence in recent years.
“Today, we have the knowledge and information and the ability to fight for our rights. But deteriorating security of the country has become a problem for all of us, [especially] the younger generation,” she added.
The US has in recent years started to engage with the Taliban as the latter has grown in influence.
Last month’s presidential election saw a sharp fall in the voting percentage amid calls for boycott by the Taliban – which considers the election process a “sham” – and the threat of attacks.
But members of the younger generation such as Mahajer still have high ambitions despite the odds being stacked against them. “I want to get into politics and be the voice of the Afghan women who continue to suffer in our society. I want to empower them,” she said.
Last year, Basharyar joined thousands of other Afghans who marched 700km (435 miles) across the country to demand a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
As the youngest member of the so-called “peace caravan”, he carried his books with him to study in-between the marches, and also managed to return to his university for his exams.
“The US can bring security to Afghanistan and maintain it if they want to. They should include Afghans in the peace talks if they have the interest of the people,” he said, referring to the US-Taliban peace talks that excluded the Afghan government and were suspended last month.