Quick question: Which Asian country has seen its life expectancy go up an astounding 18 years in just one decade, while turning from one of the world's most rural countries into one of its fastest-urbanizing? Oh, and the country's GDP increased tenfold in that same period.
No, this isn't Japan in the 1960s, Singapore in the 1970s, South Korea in the 1980s, or India in the 1990s. It is Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
What went wrong in Afghanistan since the American invasion is painfully clear, from the grotesque levels of official corruption to the worrisome rise of insider attacks against NATO forces by Afghan soldiers and police. Nobody is claiming all is coming up roses in a country devastated by decades of conflict. But not everything has gone wrong, either. So perhaps the more interesting question -- and certainly a more underexplored one -- is this: What went right?
Afghanistan just after the November 2001 fall of the Taliban resembled Germany after World War II: The country had been utterly destroyed, around a third of the population had fled, and more than one in 10 of its citizens had been killed in the previous two decades of war. Much of Kabul resembled postwar Dresden, so utter was the destruction of the capital.
When you flew into Kabul's airport, you were greeted by the disquieting sight of teams of de-miners clearing the airfield. This scene was repeated all over Afghanistan, which was then one of the world's most heavily mined countries. Those few visitors who traveled would find village after village empty. What were once houses now lay in fallen-down baked-mud ruins, like the remnants of some long-gone civilization. Many Afghans had fled for Pakistan and Iran during the 1980s and 1990s -- some 6 million out of a population of 15 million.
As a result of the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan and the enterprising spirit of the Afghans themselves, Kabul is now rebuilt, the villagers are back, and the once-ubiquitous de-miners have all but disappeared. Furthermore, millions of Afghans have voted with their feet: Since the fall of the Taliban, more than 5 million have returned home. By way of contrast, some 2 million Iraqis left their country during the recent war there. Only a tiny fraction of those refugees has gone back.
The country to which those millions of Afghans have returned is in fundamental respects very different from the one it was before the 9/11 attacks. Let's start with the most obvious point: The Taliban are removed from power. This was a movement that gave sanctuary not only to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, but also to pretty much every jihadi militant group from around the Muslim world.
Thanks to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda ("the base" in Arabic) lost the best base it ever had: a country in which it ran something of a parallel state, with training camps churning out thousands of recruits and from which bin Laden and his henchmen conducted their own foreign policy, attacking U.S. embassies and warships, and planned the deadliest mass murder in American history.
Al Qaeda has never recovered from the loss of its Afghan base. Its last successful strike in the West was the July 2005 series of suicide attacks on London's transportation system. Meanwhile, the war against al Qaeda continues to be fought from Afghanistan. The SEAL team that killed bin Laden in 2011 took off in stealth helicopters from an airfield in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. And the drones that have inflicted heavy losses on other al Qaeda leaders continue to deploy from Afghan bases.