Seven years ago, the United States began bombing Taliban-ruled Afghanistan after its refusal to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders who plotted the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Pentagon's strategy was quick and effective. About 100 U.S. Special Forces, grouped into teams of about a dozen each, had already parachuted into different parts of the country. Most had already linked up with anti-Taliban militia fighters before the first U.S. air strikes.
In fact, using laser devices to guide U.S. air bombs into Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets, those small teams of U.S. Special Forces were able to reverse the fortunes of the so-called Northern Alliance, a grouping of anti-Taliban militias that had been pushed by the Taliban out of all but 10 percent of Afghan territory.
Within six weeks, U.S. air strikes allowed the Northern Alliance to advance from those small mountain strongholds into Kabul itself -- with the Taliban fleeing the city during the night.
Many Afghans had hoped that their war-ravaged country would finally see peace after Afghan President Hamid Karzai was appointed as transitional leader under a mandate from the UN Security Council.
But as Soviet forces learned during the 1980s, seizing the urban centers of Afghanistan has never meant the defeat of Afghan guerrilla fighters.
Regrouping in the mountains of southern and southeastern Afghanistan -- and across the border in Pakistan's tribal regions -- the Taliban quickly transformed itself from an Islamist regime into a guerrilla insurgency.Waiting For Progress
Today, with a resurgent Taliban increasingly carrying out suicide attacks and targeted assassinations, the security situation in Afghanistan has worsened significantly. And many say the pace of development and reconstruction has not been fast enough to support the millions of Afghan refugees who flooded back to the country after the Taliban regime collapsed.
Sardar Mohammad was a refugee in Iran for years until the Taliban regime fled Kabul. He returned to the Afghan capital with hopes of rebuilding his shattered life. But he has not been able to find a steady job. Instead, he lives in a tent city for returning refugees and spends most of his days at an intersection in Kabul with other unemployed returnees who hope someone will hire them for a day of construction work. His situation makes him frustrated by the lack of economic opportunities.
"During the seven years that foreign troops have been in our country, they have brought misery to our country," Mohammad says. "Our economy has become weaker and weaker. There are no jobs. People are suffering day by day. Look at us, we wait here from morning until evening and don't find work."
Shamsullah Khan stayed in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and the years of fighting between rival Afghan militia factions after the Soviet withdrawal. It was the fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban during the last two years in his home province of Helmand that forced him to move his family to a camp for displaced Afghans. He says he does not consider the deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as a positive development for the country.
Security is not improving in Afghanistan.
"After the arrival of the Americans in Afghanistan, we can see they have brought disunity," he says. "They have made each part of Afghanistan a battlefield. We want unity between the people and stability in our country. None of these are possible as long as the Americans are present. The Americans say, 'We are fighting the Taliban.' But we see them continuing to kill and bomb civilians."
But Nur Mohammad, a resident of northern Kabul, says it is wrong to suggest that U.S. forces have brought disunity to Afghanistan. He tells RFE/RL that he still remembers the years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan when mujahedin militia factions turned on each other -- and with their fighting, turned entire neighborhoods of Kabul into rubble.
"There have not been enormous changes, but there is one major change," he says. "There is no longer fighting between different mujahedin militia factions. This is relatively better than before. We don't have this kind of infighting and battling between rival militias in Afghanistan anymore."
Gilani, a young Afghan from the eastern Nangarhar Province, says the comparison of life under the Taliban regime versus today is enormous. "Of course there are changes," he says. "Afghanistan has been reconstructed all these years. Roads and other facilities have been rebuilt."Economic Development Needed
Those kind of changes -- the writing of a new constitution, democratic elections for the presidency and parliament, the construction of roads and schools, and the creation of the Afghan National Army -- are the developments that President Hamid Karzai highlighted during a visit to Washington last month.
"At times in this span of seven years we have come across issues that give us a feeling as if things were slowing down," Karzai said. "That is not the impression that we have in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has made progress that we would have not been able [alone] to make in 50 years or 60 years -- [but] you have done in the past six or seven years."
Still, many Afghans are becoming increasingly embittered by the continued reliance on air strikes by NATO and U.S. led-forces. Mohmand Akbar, a resident of the northern Baghlan Province, says that security and the economy are the issues where progress needs to be made.
"During the past eight years, the only significant changes have been that there are a lot more explosions now, less security, and higher prices," Akbar tells RFE/RL.
Zia ul-Haq Mamozai, who works for a foreign nongovernmental organization in Kabul, says that he is acutely aware of the economic hardships faced by Afghans who are not fortunate enough to earn a salary from a foreign firm.
"The changes we feel is that it was better before than it is now," Mamozai says. "It was better before [the first U.S. air strikes] because prices were lower. Both poor and rich people could afford to buy bread. But now, only those Afghans who work for foreign organizations, or those who have a good business, can afford good food and good homes."
Kabul resident Reza Mohammad says those who view the era of the Taliban regime with fond nostalgia have forgotten how difficult life was in those days. He notes that most Afghans today have access to a mobile telephone, that millions of girls attend school, and that new schools and health clinics have been built all over the country.
He says those are just a few of the many developments that have made life much easier than seven years ago -- when many Afghans had to travel to Pakistan in order to make a telephone call or were hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest doctor or health-care center.Contributors to this report include RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ajmal Torman in Kabul and Sultan Sarwar in Prague